That Arthur Lee entered such a long creative and personal wilderness phase after the ‘60s maybe shouldn’t be such a surprise. His first significant release, the self-titled debut album by his band Love, was one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and he followed that with the poor-selling-but-influential experiment Da Capo and the immortal psych-rock landmark Forever Changes, the album someone has if they only have one Love album. After that triumphant beginning, the band dissolved in the familiar ‘60s miasma of dope, money issues, and personal tensions, but Lee, perhaps unwisely, kept the name alive with new lineups. Without guitarist Bryan MacLean, it was never the same—the contractual obligation album Four Sail remains justly well-regarded, and Out Here, culled from the same sessions and released within months of Four Sail, is also worth a spin, but Forever Changes was a hard act to follow, and subsequent Love and Arthur Lee solo albums are generally considered marginal.
In particular, the final non-archival LP to bear the Love imprimatur, 1974’s Reel to Real, has gone so neglected that its first pressing was its ONLY pressing. Usually, when an album dies like that, it either becomes a “lost classic” or it’s the sign of an unlistenable dog of a record. But in this case, the lack of a reissue is kind of understandable—there’s nothing about the album that even remotely resembles the music of Love’s enduring reputation. That doesn’t make it a bad album on its own terms, though, and the reissue label High Moon—previously responsible for exhuming Love’s actual lost album Black Beauty—is giving Reel to Real a second airing, 41 years after its release and disappearance.
I had to request a copy to listen to—I wasn’t merely unfamiliar with much of the music on the album, I was at most only vaguely aware that it existed, and I’m not even sure I’ve ever beheld a physical copy. This album wasn’t just lost to the years, it was pretty much goddamn buried under them. But it’s neither an unheralded gem nor a total dud—it’s half of an excellent soul album, with some badass horns and some outstanding vocal performances by Lee. Just one example should suffice—check out “Who Are You,” and see how it compares to “Alone Again Or.”
See? Pretty much all of side one is of that caliber, so it’s almost frustrating that Lee felt like it was a good idea to call this a Love album. Had it been a solo album, perhaps it might have stood a chance at a life of its own, without Forever Changes casting a shadow over its reputation?
Things take an unfortunate downward turn on side two—there’s still some worthy stuff there, in particular a reverent and satisfying cover of William DeVaughn’s signature tune “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got,” but that side also revisits material from Four Sail and Lee’s solo debut Vindicator, in inferior versions that prompt wonder at why he bothered. But like any reissue worth discussing, Reel to Real is loaded with unreleased outtakes, alternate versions, and rehearsal recordings, including a stripped-down take of the non-LP Forever Changes era favorite “Wonder People (I Do Wonder),” a hornless version of “Stop the Music” with a more relaxed vocal take, and the straight-up oddity “Graveyard Hop,” a downright feral travesty of “Jailhouse Rock,” wherein Lee channels the howls of Little Richard. It’s never been released before, and DM is glad to be able to debut it for you today.