“Fire and Water” is quite an apt title for Free’s third and arguably most successful album. Firstly, it is closed by one of the band’s most well known and instantly recognizable tracks, ‘All right Now’, and secondly-and more importantly-it is the only Free album to have ever been reissued in America. Free’s third album was released after a mere two years of being together as a band, and in that time there had been quite a lot of extensive touring and two albums that seemed completely different from one another.
In contrast to the startlingly impressive debut “Tons of Sobs” and the mellower, somewhat quieter self-titled second release, “Fire and Water” almost seems to live up to its name, wherein no track sounds like any other. These 30+ minutes of precise songwriting and even more precise musicianship do indeed work towards an outstandingly good sound on the whole, and one that would finally deem Free as a successful band in the early 70’s. Both the opening title track and ‘Oh I wept’ appear to be mid paced all the way through, but before you shake your head in disappointment as a result of expecting something a little faster and livelier, Kosoff’s well executed guitar picking and Andy Fraser’s driving bass rhythm each give more action to the general sound of each song. It also seems that with each and every song, the musicianship does indeed get gradually faster and more prominent, from the relaxing, laid back nature of the title track and ‘Oh I wept’ to the the eventual, almost out-of-control instrumentation that ends both ‘Mr. Big’ and the band’s defining song, ‘All right now’.
The structure here does appear to be more thought out than ever before, but what is more noticeable is the nature of the lyrical content, which this time round appears a little more personal than usual. In particular Rodgers comes across as a man just taking his sweet time with his own life, harmonizing that “I take my seat on the train and let the sun come melt my pain/Come tomorrow I’ll be far away in the sunshine of another day”, whereas on the lighter, somewhat folkier nature of ‘Remember’, he reminisces that “In the summer days we were lazy/And sometimes the heat would drive us all crazy”. These lyrics alone give off a realistic image of what it is truly like to tour in the summer, and the various enjoyments that can be obtained from it. Free therefore sound like they are having fun as a band on “Fire and Water”, taking their time with each song so as not to be too inconsistent with their sound or indeed not fall prey to too much repetition.
The instrumentation here, as hinted at before with Kosoff and Fraser, is equally as impressive as the general sound itself. The usual drum rhythms and bass lines are prominent, but this time round each instrument appears to shine fully and make itself useful in an appropriately big enough way, as opposed to merely existing in the background. On ‘Heavy Load’ and ‘Mr.Big’ we hear a much louder and arguably heavier guitar sound than on the album’s first three tracks, thus giving the album more of a Hard Rock influence as opposed to the first two Free albums, which largely depended on Blues. The solos themselves are very carefully placed, and never seem to take away from any of the songs’ structures or make the songs go on for longer than they should. The guitar solos are somewhat controlled and clearly played with a lot of technique, and even towards the end of ‘Mr.Big’ Fraser uses the remaining time to his advantage and closes the song in a somewhat funky fashion, the bass almost sounding like a voice itself. Fraser also uses various piano interludes throughout the album, as on free’s other two records, yet it is only on ‘All right now’ when, alongside the other instruments, it features an ecstatic solo that makes the song a much more interesting one than ever before. ‘All right now’ also has one of the very rare moments where each and every instrument collides together, and gives off the impression that the band had recorded this in one, perfect take.
At a mere 36 minutes however, the album feels like it goes much quicker than you thought it would, and even though it is roughly the same time length as Free’s self titled album, it still manages to be quite short and at times even a little too soft. But this is merely something that serves as a disadvantage to some, and an instant highlight to others, for “Fire and Water” really does come across as an album of fun, enjoyment and a collision of four very talented musicians. Unfortunately, the band had only released three more albums after this, and not one of them would reach the quality found on “Tons of Sobs” or this one, and consequently, after a mere five years of being together, Free would finally split up. Nonetheless, these five years would see them sell a total of 20 million records, a stunning live performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and even play over 700 arenas. Sometimes the bands that last for a short term are the ones that truly succeed in the long term.
Wow, how annoying. I’m lucky I have this album paired together with Free on one CD – which means I have the best Free album in the world that money can buy (hey, don’t you notice the contradiction in that last sentence?).
Basically, this record features three songs that are absolutely essential to any Free collection, three of their most renown numbers; so that’s why the album is often hailed as Free’s most artistically successful, and while this point is debatable, there’s no doubt that it was also the peak of Free’s commercial success: the band really hit the big time with it, albeit for not more than one year in total. And yet, as you can see, my overall rating of it is significantly lower. And why? Why, would you ask? Would you suspect me of being able to bash the band’s biggest hits as if they were a damn bunch of fluff? Why, not at all! I’m just giving it a low rating because these three songs (which we’ll discuss below, as some kind of dessert) are immersed in a sea of filler.
Truly, now, these other four songs (and they’re all long as hell) have almost nothing to redeem them. The biggest embarrassment comes on ‘Remember’, a pedestrian rocker that… oh horror… yes, I just realized that it is a complete rip-off of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Remember’ with changed lyrics. Gee, how cute. Considering the fact that I was never thrilled by the original (I still consider it one of the weakest cuts on Are You Experienced?), you can guess how pleased I am to be hearin’ this carbon copy of it. Sue me if you’d like to, but this can’t be no small coincidence.
The other stuff that I prefer to turn my nose away from are three ballads that simply don’t hold a candle to the intricate, delicate material on Free. Like, for instance, ‘Oh I Wept’ has a more tight and a little more fast melody than all those lethargic numbers back there, but it also turns out to be far less memorable – because it has no atmosphere. Come to think of it, it has no melody – Paul is just standing there in the background playing a two-chord riff or something, and the only gulps of refreshment are again provided by some of Fraser’s exciting bass lines.
‘Heavy Load’ is one of their most pretentious songs of the period, and no, ladies and gentlemen, Free had better stay away from pretentiousness no matter how life conditions turn out to be in the end. It’s a gospelish number with huge emphasis on the piano that the band members didn’t actually figure out how to put to good use, and Rodgers sounds anything but convincing – maybe he is trying to pull a Rod Stewart (one of his idols, as far as I know), but he sure ain’t one. To put it short, they over arrange the number so it loses its potential folkie charm, but forget to substitute something for it. Maybe it would have sounded better with an acoustic guitar. And finally, ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ just plain drags, another lethargic ballad, but this time it’s just sappy and generic instead of heartbroken and pessimistic. Blah.
Now that the filler is out of the way, I can describe the three BIG numbers to ya. What’s the biggest, you wonder? Would it be ‘All Right Now’? Nah. The best song here is the title track, built on a fantastic distorted Kossoff riff (some hard rock at long last, right?), catchy, strong, tight, and compact, and it also has one of their best instrumental breaks, with Kossoff showcasing those famous vibratos that Eric Clapton so longed for. And then there’s ‘Mr Big’, a social protest song (at least this is how it sounds to me without the lyrics sheet) that sucks, but it is completely redeemed by the magnificent instrumental passage (yes, also one of their best) which is really all you need to be stunned by the playing power of Mr Andy Fraser. What he does is play a bass solo… wait, no, don’t run away! I hate bass solos as much as the next guy, but this is different.
They play as if it was not him, but Paul, who’s playing the solo. But Paul is actually just standing in the background (again) and playing loads of muffled power chords, like, you know, as if he was holding the rhythm down, while Andy goes all over the fretboard and actually concocts a lovely – and a finger-flashing at that – melody! It’s really undescribable, but I challenge everybody to hear that song and try not to agree with me that this mid-section is quite unlike anything you’ve heard before or since! Andy was a wonderful guy, certainly fit for a much ‘bigger’ band. Gee, what if we paired him with Alvin Lee of Ten Years After? Eh?…
So, that’s about it. Oh! No! How come I’ve been prattling so much about their biggest hit ‘All Right Now’ and haven’t still mentioned its presence on this record? It’s here all right, and it sure is famous, and I sure like it. I must say, though, they did songs far better than that. I’d guess it all stems from the population’s love towards simplistic, easiest-to-access riffs (the same thing accounts for the immense popularity of, say, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’); but I guess I may be wrong here, too. That said, the song has easily the best Paul Rodgers vocal effort on this record, and is certainly the most raunchy, cock-rockin’ anthem that the band did.
If only the refrain were a little cleverer than just the dumb stutter ‘all right now, baby it’s all right now’, it could have been a timeless classic! As it is, it’s just a trademark for Free – symbolizing both its main strengths and its main weaknesses.