Because Joe Walsh has never been a critic’s darling, we sometimes forget he holds a lofty place in the eyes of fellow musicians. Rock royalty like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, and Eric Clapton have all heaped praise on what they call Walsh’s intelligent, fluid, and melodic guitar style. And there’s no better example of his instrumental eloquence than The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get. From his slide-guitar mastery and early adoption of the Heil Talk Box effect on “Rocky Mountain Way” to the lilting twelve-string figures and soaring solos of “Wolf,” Walsh proves he possesses the chops for fiery flash as well as seductive subtlety. The album’s only notable flaws: Occasional corny and awkward lyrics on tracks like “Dreams” and “Happy Ways.” Yet in spite of Walsh’s legendary on- and off-stage craziness, he retains a discipline in the studio and allows his colleagues plenty of room to shine here. This well-balanced record satisfies from beginning to end.
While advertised by ABC-Dunhill as a Walsh solo effort, The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get remains very much the work of Walsh and his talented band, Barnstorm. His previous outings with the James Gang garnered good notices, but Walsh meshes better with drummer and long-time friend Joe Vitale, bassist Kenny Passarelli, and keyboardist Rocke Grace. On this, the ensemble’s second LP, producer Bill Szymczyk and the band recorded at three locations: Caribou Ranch Studios in Nederland, Colorado, the Record Plant in Los Angeles, and Criteria Studios in Miami. After several months, they netted a sonically outstanding effort. Szymczyk and Walsh provide a stellar example of how to apply just enough spit and polish at the mixing console without sacrificing the live impact of a four-piece rock band. The soundstage seems appropriately big on expansive cuts (“Meadows”) while mellower numbers (“Days Gone By”) harbor a rich midrange that glows with fire-side warmth. Vitale’s drum kicks and Passarelli’s bass runs rattle the walls just like they would in a small club, but the judicious isolation and careful microphone placement ensure Grace’s keyboards and Walsh’s guitar fills never get lost in the mix. The original pressing of The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get was mastered by Sterling Sound’s Lee Hulko. You can still find the audiophile-grade original LP for bargain prices at garage sales.
Naturally, I was skeptical about what more could be done to improve it. After listening extensively to Analogue Productions’ 2016 reissue, I admit remastering engineer Kevin Gray has hit another sonic home run. His “do no harm” restoration approach helps explain why this graveyard-quiet, 200-gram pressing is a gift to Barnstorm fans. Passarelli’s instrument doesn’t produce more bass, but now you can hear how incredibly deep the notes go. And Gray doesn’t make Vitale’s drums sound louder; he just removes the haze of age so that the slap of the skins and full force of the kick drum are more clearly felt. With its high-quality, tip-on gatefold packaging, Analogue Productions’ release is one rock reissue well worth the premium cost.
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