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MONKEY ISLAND GENERATES SKIN HEAT
by Marc Shapiro
I've got a question for you. Who lays down the most seductive sounds in popular music? I'm sure there are a few purists out there who'll defend Montavanni to the death as the hottest stimulant since salt peter. A Yale grad I know swears Yes' "Tales From Topographic Oceans" will part the treat divide faster than any south-of-the-border aphrodisiac. And there's even a tale circulating about a barely pubescent couple who reached orgasm nine times on strength of the Kiss Live lp and a bottle of Thunderbird.
Well, for my money, the best way to get the old blood boiling is to slip anything by Geils on the turntable. "Impossible," you say? Well I'm willing to wager a healthy sum that more of the old in-and-out goes on to the strains of "Give It To Me" than to the mechanical ecstacy of "Love To Love You Baby".
In a recent coast-to-coast hookup with Geils frontman Peter Wolf, the topic of conversation was the band's latest album Monkey Island. But a sly reference to the band's coitus-inducing prowess brought the tongue-in-cheek reply from Wolf.
"The hound always gets captured by the game."
Libido aside, Wolf went on to describe the album. In place of the band's penchant for grinding it out a yard at a time, Monkey Island is a tantalizing mixture of sounds and styles. According to Wolf, however, the album represents more than just another notch in the Geils record catalogue.
"Around the time we recorded 'Hotline' we were getting the feeling that we were just going over the same ground. It never really got stale but there was a time where we came to the conclusion that we had to take a couple of giant steps to make the music more satisfying to us. that's one of the reasons Monkey Island took so long to record. It was the first album we did that wasn't rush-recorded between road trips. We just stayed in one place and concentrated on turning out a great album."
Total concentration on the album, however, was just one of many firsts that went into Monkey Island's making. Not being able to find the right producer, the band rolled up its collective sleeves and, for the first time, produced themselves. Also, the tried and true "bad boys from Boston" sound was supplemented by the intelligent use of female backup singers and the equally arresting brass strains of The Brecker Brothers. But physical embellishments weren't the only effort put into this Geils production. Peter described the scene as a whole lot of sweaty palms.
"There was definitely a different attitude within the band when we recorded the album. We had it in our heads that this was the most important thing we had to do. It just wasn't as easy as our other albums were. We worked at it real slow. Some of it was painful and some of it didn't come that easy. the fact that we were producing ourselves for the first time was a risk in itself. But we knew the chances we were taking and were willing to stand by the album whether it flopped or not. By the time we had finished the album we knew we had a winner on our hands."
Wolf continued. "You know, a lot of people have been saying that Monkey Island is a complete change of direction for the band. I don't think it's so much a change of direction as it is a progression of what we've been doing all along. It's more the end result of growth within the band. What we've done is take the styles that have always worked for us and taken them a step further.
"Lyrically the songs have become more personal. Who ever thought they'd hear the Geils band doing a ballad of a middle-of-the-road love song? The styles of playing have also progressed a lot; especially the rock elements which show a lot more bite than they did before. This band has always had the chops and so a progression in the music was always there. I guess with Monkey Island the progression was more obvious."
Indeed, Monkey Island is conspicuous by its diversity. "Surrender" opens the album as a highly electric native rocker whose South Seas flavor owes much to the "chukka-chukka" riffing of J. Geils. But the overriding presence of this cut comes from the playoff of lead vocals between Wolf and the sensuous refrains of Cissy Houston. Neither steps on the other, with the result being a haunting vocal outing.
"I Do" has the band looking to its rock and roll roots as a "du-wop" chorus and Wolf's racy vocals provide the emphasis on what had to be this album's fun cut. Instrumental support ranges from drummer Stephen Jo Bladd's fifties backbeat to a monster harmonica break from the mouth of Magic Dick.
Easily the album's rawest moment, "Somebody", shows the Geils band to be a most underrated rock machine. Guitar and harmonica provide the instrumental support to this heavymetal/blues song with vocals showing a muted lead that allows the music to have its head. "You're The Only One" strikes an unexpected MOR vein that highlights Wolf as more than a one-dimensional singer. While it's almost unthinkable to conceive of a Geils ballad in the top-ten, this one most certainly has the potential.
Side two offers back-to-back contrasting styles with Monkey Island and a cover of the 1927 classic "I'm Not Rough". The former augers instrumental and vocal passages into a fairly descriptive picture of what the blues will be like in times to come, while the latter updates one of Louis Armstrong's better songs into a honkytonk good time.
"We put out music that makes people feel important. What we do isn't necessarily a major breakthrough in music each time out. but people have a right to feel that musicians are giving it their best shot on the record they buy and the concert they pay to see. that's the way we are.
"No compromises and no cheap shots."