College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 12


12. Sea Level, On the Edge

The Allman Brothers Band was one of those groups that felt like they were fractiously apart more than they were together, practicing a brand of precarious camaraderie befitting their familial nature. When the band experienced their first formal break-up in the mid-nineteeen-seventies, several members were already poised to do their own thing. Sea Level was a clear, supported offshoot of the Allman Brothers Band, opening shows for the southern rock icons in 1975 and 1976. In the latter year, it became the main thing going as the tension between Gregg Allman and his bandmates let to the dissolution of the Allman Brothers Band. Originally a trio comprised of bassist Lamar Williams, drummer Jaimoe, and vocalist-keyboardist Chuck Leavell (who gave the band its moniker with a homonymic reading of his first initial and last name) recruited a couple more band members ahead of the release of their 1977 self-titled debut. The slippery roster eventually grew to seven members, perfect for plenty of indulgent musical meandering.

While the Allmans were southern rock through and through, Sea Level trafficked in that most trying of seventies sub-genres: jazz-rock. They played soft, drifting music, a little soulful or bluesy at times, but mostly informed by the blandest jazz imaginable. Listening to this music could make anyone doubt that either jazz or rock was ever considered invigorating, much less dangerous. On the Edge, the band’s third album, is a seventies relic drenched in mellow saxophone. The line-up had developed an apparent policy of interchangeability. Among other shifts, Jaimoe left the band, necessitating the recruitment of another drummer, in this case former Wings percussionist Joe English. None of the blandness of the record seems attributable to those alterations in personnel, however. The snoozy sound is utterly by design.

Some of this is surely attributable to the era. Rock ‘n’ roll was still fairly young and, for all its popularity, still considered fairly low culture. Playing around with jazz sounds was a way to claim some extra respectability, some perception of greater musicianship. The track “Living in a Dream” suggests Sea Level’s aspirations. It tries to appropriate some of Steely Dan’s quiet slinkiness and generally strikes out in the direction of polished elegance. Leavell and his cohorts didn’t have the same sense of tight control, though, and the song shows signs of creative drift. Further softening the focus, the jammy southern rock that provides the band’s origins comes through often: both “King Grand” and “Electron Cold” sound a little like Little Feat auditioning for a one-off album on Blue Note Records. Then again, there are those instances when any rock edge drops away altogether, as with “A Lotta Colada,” which is what Vince Guaraldi might have cooked up in between Peanuts specials, if he were in a particularly peppy mood. If none of the music is all that memorable, at least Sea Level keep their meandering fairly lean, with only two tracks extending past the five minute mark. In the time of prog rock and jazz-rock, that’s a victory.

There were two more albums for Sea Level. First came Long Walk on a Short Pier, recorded in 1979 but unreleased in the United States for two decades, and then 1980’s Ball Room, which was the band’s sole outing for Arista Records. Shortly after that, Leavell came into the orbit of the Rolling Stones, becoming one of the group’s unofficial members, serving as their touring keyboardist (and occasional studio musician) since 1982. Beyond his tasks behind the keys, Leavell collaborates with Mick Jagger to devise the nightly set list when the Stones are touring, specifically charged with making sure all the other band members are content with the song selections.

An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare

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