With hits like, “American Woman,” “No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature,” and “No Time,” The Guess Who are staples of classic rock radio. At first they might seem like a band where one can just stick with a generic “Best of” compilation, but thanks to my hometown library’s stellar AV collection, I knew The Guess Who were capable of solid albums like 1969’s Canned Wheat (which includes minor hits like “Undun” and “Laughing”). Wanting to dive deeper, I decided to check out 1968’s Wheatfield Soul.
The Guess Who got their start in the early ‘60s, imitating British Invasion bands and scoring some minor hits before settling into the lineup that would make Wheatfield Soul. The record leads off with their first big hit, “These Eyes.” The song is a perfect blue-eyed soul: the electric piano, bass, and guitar fit together like puzzle pieces, with tender orchestration furthering the atmosphere, and Burton Cumming’s voice hitting incredible heights on the extended coda.
“These Eyes” is an unimpeachable classic — and sounds completely unlike anything else on the album. Things immediately take a strong left turn with the proto-prog “Pink Wine Sparkles in the Glass.” Opening with a heavy riff and an angular melody, the song features some very… we’ll say idiosyncratic lyrics. I’ve never been one to care about lyrics too much, but this album has a lot of odd, attention-grabbing lines, especially this song: “How small can the world be as seen through Cleveland. Different patterns that’s tall, I like them all.” Huh? Cleveland is mentioned multiple times throughout the record, but The Guess Who were from Winnipeg — maybe they just felt a kinship?
“Pink Wine Sparkles in the Glass” has another element which is representative of the rest of the album: some really cool jazz-rock. I love the sound of this record. The tight, punchy drums were the first thing to grab my attention, but everything is nailed. Cummings has a great voice, and it’s fun to hear him sing smoother on this album compared to The Guess Who’s later, rockier hits. Randy Bachman — future member of Bachman-Turner Overdrive — brings some killer fuzz guitar to “I Found Her in a Star.”
“Friends of Mine,” 10 minutes long and probably the strangest song on the record, alternates between moments of incredible groove and parts that approach self-parody. Ultimately I’d call it dated, with certain aspects holding up really well — the jam one minute in, for instance — and other parts really not, like the odd lyrics and the song being several minutes too long.
That wraps it up for side one. The rest of the record is fairly mixed, with a few nice but forgettable rockers. I absolutely love “A Wednesday in Your Garden,” which has a really pretty retrain. And “Lightfoot” is a fittingly mellow tribute to fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot.
At the end of the day, Wheatfield Soul is a singular record. The good parts are really good, and the not-so-good parts are oddly compelling in a way that I haven’t heard before. While The Guess Who would go on to make more consistent albums, Wheatfield Soul remains a detour well worth taking.
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