First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2007, Volume 14, #3
Written by John Metzger
Creating timeless music isn’t an easy task, especially for those artists who opt to work at the intersection of pop and rock. On the one hand, it is important for these musicians not only to follow but also to embrace current trends; on the other hand, hindsight has the cruel habit of revealing the deficiencies of previously fashionable techniques. Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees serves as a perfect example of this win/lose proposition. Upon its release in 1976, the album was praised highly, and thanks to the heavy support that Lowdown, Lido Shuffle, and We’re All Alone received from mainstream radio, the collection became the commercial breakthrough that he had been seeking.
Granted, there wasn’t anything about Silk Degrees that Scaggs hadn’t attempted before, and despite a change in producers from Detroit’s Johnny Bristol to Philadelphia’s Joe Wissert, the affair essentially built upon the stylistic presentation that had been constructed for its predecessor Slow Dancer. Much like his earlier efforts, Silk Degrees also featured a track (What Do You Want the Girl to Do) that had been penned by Allen Toussaint, who fast was becoming a familiar touchstone for Scaggs. Likewise, the album’s lone outlier — the blues-y, southern rock-imbued Jump Street — was a throwback of sorts to his self-titled endeavor from 1969, which had featured the Muscle Shoals rhythm section as well as a young guitarist named Duane Allman.
While it was true that Scaggs hadn’t altered his approach in order to attract a wider audience, the superficial adjustments that he made resulted in material that was more viable in the commercial marketplace. Instrumental in helping him to construct and polish Silk Degrees were the future members of Toto — bass player David Hungate, drummer Jeff Porcaro, and keyboard player David Paich. Both Porcaro and Paich were veterans of Steely Dan’s recording process, and they brought with them not only their versatility as musicians but also the well-mannered precision of their studio experiences.
Unfortunately, this proves, particularly in retrospect, to be both a blessing and a curse. While a song like Lowdown easily could have succumbed to its disco-influenced groove, it instead climbs out of the ’70s like a Marvin Gaye classic. Likewise, the horn- and string-slathered Georgia takes its cues from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom and Chicago’s Make Me Smile; in the process, its sunny optimism combines the pop sensibilities of Motown with the slick smoothness of Philly soul that was affiliated with producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. By contrast, the careful precision of the approach employed by Scaggs and his collaborators serves only to sap the energy from Lido Shuffle, while We’re All Alone strives for drama but feels inordinately bland. Springing to life in its final moments as it picks up speed and heads off in a jazzier direction, Harbor Lights falls somewhere in between the two extremes. The trio of bonus tracks (What Can I Say, Jump Street, and It’s Over) featured on the newly minted rendition of the album are all taken from an August 1976 performance in Los Angeles. Although each remains faithful to its studio counterpart, the tunes also are suitably recast for a large-scale concert setting. In the end, Silk Degrees might not be the classic it initially was deemed, but it’s also not as much of a dated relic as it currently is viewed. ½
Silk Degrees is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box