Sea Level

On the Edge

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AllMusic Review by

The times were starting to catch up with Sea Level on the band's third Capricorn album, On the Edge, released in 1978. The preceding year's sophomore release, Cats on the Coast, featured a seven-member band with Sea Level's original foursome of keyboardist Chuck Leavell, percussionist Jaimoe, bassist Lamar Williams, and guitarist Jimmy Nalls supplemented by newcomers singer/songwriter and saxophonist Randall Bramblett, guitarist Davis Causey, and drummer George Weaver. Jaimoe left prior to the recording of On the Edge (he would return to the Allman Brothers), and George Weaver also departed, replaced by Paul McCartney & Wings drummer Joe English. Precise, forward-mixed rhythms intrude upon On the Edge, although blaming English would be unfair as Sea Level were apparently attempting to recalibrate for a disco-fied era when the airwaves preferred stayin'-alive street strutters to midnight riders. Just listen to the thumping beat on the Nalls-penned opening track, "Fifty-Four"; it's a fun, funky number but Leavell's sparkling piano can't truly soar when bound by such a rigid rhythm. Thankfully, the album includes several of Bramblett's finest songs to date, including "King Grand," "Living in a Dream," and "This Could Be the Worst" from his 1976 sophomore Polydor album, Light of the Night. And yet, these tracks are comparatively slick, the beats prominent in the mix, whereas the arrangements in the original Bramblett versions -- although full and multi-layered -- better served the songs and lyrics.

"King Grand" fares best because it was a funked-up number to begin with, and the On the Edge arrangement remains perfect for Bramblett's witty wordplay that abruptly escalates nickel'n'dime hustling into something a bit larger. Music and lyrics pull in rather different directions on "Living in a Dream" and "This Could Be the Worst," however, the clean precision somewhat incongruous with Bramblett's sometimes dark-hued lyrics. He begins the former with "In the dreary world that we're living in...," and a crisp, insistent rhythm pops along beneath "The asylums are overflowing with those who can't face what they see" on the latter -- less than ideally suited to get toes tappin' or feet movin' on the dancefloor. "Living in a Dream" even suggests an ironic interpretation, the arrangement seeming to invite listeners to join the dance even as the lyrics use dancers as a device in a song about escapism and, ultimately, detachment from reality. Sea Level still cook instrumentally over more propulsive rhythms, though, as "A Lotta Colada" and particularly the album-closing fusion highlight "On the Wing" prove (also revealing that Joe English was a fine drummer when given the chance). But the best had now passed for Sea Level. The group's next album, Long Walk on a Short Pier, would be unreleased in the U.S. for nearly two decades, and the 1980 Arista album Ball Room would be the group's last. Both albums found the band seeming to chase listeners fragmented among Southern rock, fusion, R&B, and the dance club, conforming to the times rather than charting a singular path.

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