Razor & Tie's 2013 two-fer compilation Cats on the Coast/On the Edge catches the peak and beginning fade of a band representing the best of what Capricorn Records offered to the listening public circa 1977-1978. Sea Level keyboardist Chuck Leavell, drummer Jaimoe, and bassist Lamar Williams were all Allman Brothers alumni -- but they, along with original Sea Level quartet guitarist Jimmy Nalls, had histories that went deeper: Jaimoe and Williams in a Mississippi soul group; session and road work by Leavell, Jaimoe, and Nalls for other Capricorn artists. The plot thickened further after Sea Level's 1977 eponymous debut, when singer/songwriter and Capricorn multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett, guitarist Davis Causey, and drummer George Weaver joined the band for sophomore album Cats on the Coast (also 1977), the first album in this two-fer. Bramblett brought a keen songwriting talent and soulful sax chops; Causey was well-matched with Nalls for kicking out fiery solos or spinning out Allmans-style twin-guitar harmonies; and Weaver brought both drive and nuance as a former road drummer for Otis Redding and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Cats on the Coast caught this lineup at its brief peak (with Jaimoe featured playing congas on only three tracks), spinning out advanced yet still earthy fusion instrumentals ("Storm Warning," "Midnight Pass," and the title track), R&B/soul/funk melded with Southern rock guitar fireworks ("That's Your Secret"), and even a contemporary instrumental piano piece featuring Leavell accompanied by a string quartet ("Song for Amy," written for his young daughter).
The following year's On the Edge found new drummer Joe English (Paul McCartney & Wings) taking over the drum chair for Weaver and the band beginning to adopt a slicker sound, seemingly attempting to chart a course through the thicket of disco-informed dance rhythms taking over the era's popular music scene. Leavell's piano sparkles on the Nalls instrumental "Fifty-Four" but the beat thumps mechanically; however, Leavell's "A Lotta Colada" and the Leavell-Williams co-written fusion conclusion "On the Wing" groove and soar. Several of Bramblett's best songs -- "King Grand," "Living in a Dream," "This Could Be the Worst," all from his underappreciated 1976 sophomore Polydor album, Light of the Night -- are here as well, although the original renditions are arguably somewhat stronger. Seven out of the 16 tracks on this two-fer are also included in the 1990 Polydor collection Best of Sea Level, but that comp is missing key instrumentals like "On the Wing," "Song for Amy," and particularly "Cats on the Coast," with its incendiary slide guitar-soprano sax call and response between Nalls and Bramblett, a sublime moment of Southern jazz-rock fusion. Since Best of Sea Level also misses some quite good instrumental tracks from Sea Level ("Grand Larceny," "Scarborough Fair"), a case can be made for popping for the debut album and this Razor & Tie comp, particularly if you're into Sea Level's instrumental side and also want to hear the best of the group's Randall Bramblett years.