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Vinyl Cave: Dollar bin diving with the Bee Gees on Life in a Tin Can, Mr. Natural and Main Course

If I had to pick the biggest-selling band of the last five decades that is also the most polarizing, the Bee Gees would definitely be in the running. (Bob Seger would have to win by default due to some ... well, many ... of my friends' opinions.)

The Brothers Gibb are an interesting case, as their long career even polarizes much of their fan base into opposing camps. Most listeners know them from their falsetto-fueled disco hits, omnipresent as a meme for the late '70s era all these years later due in part to the massive success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The backlash from that massive disco success essentially dogged them for years afterward, but their fan base had grown so huge that their post-disco albums still usually sold well worldwide.

Many who grew up in the late '70s loving those disco records were possibly unaware/uninterested in the group's earlier incarnation as a pop-rock hit machine cranking out Beatlesque mope-rock. Though mostly anti-disco even as a tot, I spent a lot of time jumping up and down on the couch screaming "STRAGEDY" at the top of my kiddie lungs along with the Bee Gees Greatest 8-track. But I was also lucky that some of The Bee Gees old Atco '60s 45s were around the house at the same time, so both incarnations were familiar.

Today I can appreciate the Bee Gees’ disco era as being just as well-written pop as their earlier rock days, but I don't necessarily need to hear it. Conversely, I've really come to love just about all of their pre-disco albums. Some months back I had a complete meltdown with 1967's majestically morose Horizontal, and had to listen to it about 15 times one week. Lately I've been listening to a couple of their albums which are generally even ignored by superfans, two discs issued prior to the band's reinvention as funk/disco superstars with 1975's Main Course.

Life in a Tin Can was the start of what was ultimately a short-lived commercial downturn for the brothers. Prior to the album's release in 1973, only one of their U.S. long-players had failed to hit the Billboard album Top 40: Cucumber Castle, a collection sans brother Robin and released around the time of a brief complete band breakup. Tin Can also marked a change in operations, as the album was their first for manager Robert Stigwood's new RSO label.

Perhaps more importantly, the Gibbs took a crack at recording in the U.S. with players such as steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow and drummer Jim Keltner, and longtime Impressions/Curtis Mayfield arranger/conductor Johnny Pate. That somewhat random cast of characters created just what that combination should -- a sort of orchestral, acoustic country-folk -- and built an entire album of seemingly disparate elements which had been popping up on isolated Bee Gees tracks for several years prior.

The lead single "Saw a New Morning" was a microcosm of the album's atypical sound, and stalled on the charts, barely making the Top 100 in March 1973. The song itself is a classic Bee Gees "what the heck are they singing about?" track; the narrative seems to be about someone in jail planning an escape. But judging by lines such as "I hear the sound of the snub nose behind me/I went along for the ride," once over the wall he apparently didn't get too far.

On the indifferent response to the single, Tin Can itself only crept just inside the Top 70. It may be a stylistic sidetrack in their catalog, but I'd also say nobody but the Bee Gees would have created this sort of stylistic mélange. Collectors note: This is one of the last albums Atlantic (RSO's distributor) issued in mono for radio stations. That mix sounds to me as if it's likely a fold-down of the stereo, but if so it was pretty carefully done and is an enjoyable alternate listen.

The band backtracked to the familiar territory of London's IBC Studios to record most of their next album release, Mr. Natural. (Side note: Amazingly, they first recorded another whole album's worth of material -- titled A Kick in the Head Is Worth Eight in the Pants -- which was rejected by their label, one of a number of still-unreleased Bee Gees projects from over the years.) However, a big step toward world domination was taken by hiring producer Arif Mardin, a longtime honcho at Atlantic Records comfortable working in, and across, many musical genres. The brothers and Mardin jettisoned the overt country flavorings of Tin Can and began replacing them with modern R&B leanings.

Mr. Natural ended up being mostly in the Barry-led ballad wheelhouse, but included a couple tracks that lean in the direction that would put them back on the charts. "Down the Road" is a chugging mid-tempo number with funky keyboards and horn charts. Even better is the aggressive "Heavy Breathing," which sounds like the great lost Bee Gees disco single, if harder edged than usual.

The label -- or the public -- apparently wasn't totally sure what to make of Mr. Natural. The title track was released as a single, and barely scraped into the Top 100; that song wasn't even mentioned as a suggested cut on the stickered radio promotional copies, and was instead supplanted by three ballads. Despite being a more recognizable sound for the band, the album sank quickly, this time barely making the Top 200 Billboard chart. While I've come to really like much of this album, it does ultimately come across as a bit unfocused, and is weighed down by a couple undistinguished ballads.

The Bee Gees' stylistic direction became less of an issue with the success of Main Course. That album leads off with the one-two punch of "Nights on Broadway," a straight up modern soul number complete with wah-wah guitar, and the iconic No. 1 hit "Jive Talkin'." If one played those numbers for someone unfamiliar with any of the Bee Gees' music back-to-back with, say, the '60s pop of Horizontal, it probably would be very easy to convince the listener it was a completely different band. When both those songs and "Fanny" were hits, it cemented a blue-eyed soul makeover for the band, along with more use of Barry's distinctive falsetto. But otherwise Main Course is actually the same sort of transitional album as Mr. Natural, the disco numbers alongside more traditional sounding -- if less ballad-heavy -- Bee Gees. It's worth noting, though, that Main Course is lyrically much less weighted to melancholy than much of their earlier work. (RSO SO 870, 1973; RSO SO 4800, 1974; RSO 4807, 1975)

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