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Rocky Mountain High
John Denver

RCA LSP 4731
Released: August 1972
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 53
Certified Gold: 12/30/72

John DenverThere he is on the screen of your color TV: blond, bespectacled, and peach-faced -- the sight of him makes you want to adjust the hue, because John Denver's flesh tone is just a shade too flesh-tones. He's the balladeer for the masses, sweet-voiced, ingenuous, and completely devoid of human characteristics. He seems sincere enough, but it's hard to sense any character in anything he says or sings. Seeing Denver in his frequent TV appearances over the last couple years suggested this inherent blandness, listening to any of his five previous albums confirmed it. Whenever there was a possibility of something real happening, Denver's nightclub-folky voice and delivery would effectively douse the spark.

John Denver - Rocky Mountain High
Original album advertising art.
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So if all that is true -- and there was little doubt in my mind that it was until just now -- what's going on here? This Rocky Mountain High record must be by some other John Denver, because it's a crisp, muscular album with compelling singing and some of the most powerful acoustic guitar-dominated arrangements I've heard on record. Denver may well have tired of hearing himself on the radio interminably crooning "Take me home, country road," and "When I come back, I'll wear your wedding ring," and decided to cut loose just once in his successful, determinedly modulated career.

The key is those arrangements. More than anything, Denver needed some hard edges -- some arrogance, meanness, smelliness, some unspeakable aberration -- anything that would dirty up his act. Changing his style to include any of these humanizing elements would not only be wrecking a good thing commercial-wise, it would also be extremely hard on the credibility. So instead of overtly toughening himself, Denver has surrounded himself with toughness in the form of biting instrumental tracks. The complement includes the acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums currently fashionable for the recordings of singer-songwriters from Denver to Rod Stewart, but there's a difference here. The sound is echoed, treble-boosted in the manner of a Dave Edmunds-type neoclassicist rock 'n' roll mix, underplaying the mellow middle of the acoustic guitar's sound and exaggerating its jangly top end. The technique is ridiculously simple in theory, but it produces almost miraculous results for Mr. Denver.

"Prisoners" is the key song in terms of Denver's new approach. Two acoustic guitars and electric bass kick it off with strident tones set into a march tempo like something from the first Byrds album: it's immediately compelling. Denver's voice has to battle with these sharp-edged, cutting notes and chords for the dominant sonic position, and the struggle adds some spunk to his voice (that, and a little treble boost on the vocal). He sounds no nastier than usual, but his singing resounds with what could pass for real tension and edginess, and this is without a doubt the strongest thing Denver's ever put on record.

"Prisoners," which, incidentally, has been released as a single under the title, "Hard Life, Hard Times (Prisoners)," is the culmination of a fast-moving, carefully structured side of songs that includes Denver's typical choices of Beatle and John Prine material plus a fake folk sing (Steve Gilette's "Darcy Farrow") and old and new original tunes. The Beatle song, the much-recorded "Mother Nature's Son," is particularly intriguing: instead of going in the expected "isn't it tranquil out here in the woods" direction that the melody and lyrics more than suggest, Denver fills the song with intended or intuitively summoned irony. Again, the guitars jangle edgily; even more surprisingly, they refuse to resolve the melodic progression at the end of the second line of each verse, and their refusal leads to a sudden lurch in the movement of the song rather than the expected smooth transition. Denver has to work to keep the track from tumbling out of control -- it never quite tips over completely, but the struggle produces plenty of anxiety, transmogrifying the song in the process into something sinister, an oblique refutation of the lying-in-the-grass-letting-the-world-go-by mentality intended by the writer.

The second side is taken up mostly with something called "The Season Suite"; surprisingly, even that has enough jangling urgency to keep it mildly interesting. I doubt if I'll ever be inclined to play "Season Suite" again, but that other side will be hard to resist, it all works so well. I went back to the earlier five LPs to see if I could find foreshadowing of this kind of sound or tone or sense of drama on any of them -- after all, they were all produced by the same team of Denver and Milt Okun, and they all contained the same instrumentation -- but there was nary a clue. Maybe it all came to him in a dream, I can't figure it at all, but the guy has finally made an album that's really worth owning.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 10/26/72.

Bonus Reviews!

John Denver acts like the most naïve kid who ever stumbled into a studio. Probably very little of it is acting; he is by no means totally innocent and dreamy, but he does have a self-effacing, ingenuous quality that is as natural as fingernails. Still, if you are taken in by that (as some are) to the extent of superimposing it on his music, you may have trouble listening carefully enough. Denver may say "sir" to cab drivers and night watchmen, but in the studio he is the boss. In his own quiet way, he knows exactly that he wants, and his producer, Milt Okun, knows how to help him get it. Denver's new Rocky Mountain High for RCA flashes a considerable amount of this musical savvy before us. In fact, it's a dead giveaway.

It is Denver's watershed album, the most experimental and sophisticated one he has done. There is almost a "new" sound: the arrangements (by Denver, Mike Taylor, and Dick Kniss) do not allude to the gentle romanticism Denver has been associated with, but are hard-edged and tense. You've never heard acoustic instruments sound so urgent, thanks in part to the way the material was recorded. The bass is not prominent -- the trade-off is beat for bite -- and the crowning sonic touch in one song after another is fey, noodling piano-accent work by Frank Owens.

The arranging falters only once, in John Prine's "Paradise," where the instruments are too many and too headstrong in refusing to be pulled along by the vacuum of the song's own needs. Other problems are minor: "Darcy Farrow" doesn't seem to interest Denver enough, probably because he sings it too slowly, and his work on the twelve-string guitar is generally wasted because he simply doesn't hit the thing hard enough to get that warm, resonant, tubby sound that is its specialty.

The title song is ideal for Denver's voice, its long, receding lines tuned perfectly to the natural echo in his vocals (and the small unnatural one emanating from the control board). "For Baby (For Bobbie)" has been around a lot, going back to Denver's Mitchell Trio days, but it has a melody of elegant, timeless, classic beauty and words that must grab Middle America by the superior vena cava. "Prisoners," the rockingest song, also has the janglingest accompaniment, telling its story quickly and effectively in broad, urgent strokes. "Season Suite," occupying most of side two, has some structural weaknesses, but it features clean Fahey-like picking by Taylor and some dazzling Nilssonesque vocal overdubs by Denver. And the hit, "Goodbye Again" ("the last of the Jet Plane Trilogy," Denver calls it), is full of those subtle little goodies you finally manage to uncover in an M. C. Escher engraving. To name perhaps the best one: the sense of a narrow but definite space between Denver's lead vocal and Martine Habib's harmony vocal -- the voices don't quite merge, don't exactly blend -- and their separation reinforces the theme of the song.

That's the kind of album this is. You won't wear it out easily.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 1/73.

Mr. Good Vibes is back, and the more I hear him the less impressed I am. There is something unreal in Denver's work, a patina of corn-flake soul, a machine-tooled sensitivity that can be as grating as an old-time Doris Day smile. His music professionalism is unquestionably superb. But compassion and sympathy ("Prisoners") seem to pour from him -- on cue -- ecological concern and anger about strip mining ("Paradise") ooze -- on cue -- and an updated version of Rousseau's noble savage ("Season Suite") mopes or rejoices narcissistically -- on cue -- with earth's changes. Now that may not be the way it's supposed to come out as far as Denver is concerned, and it may not be the way it comes out for those who believe in him, but it's the way it comes out for me. I've listened to several of Denver's recordings, and I still haven't the vaguest idea of who he really is or what he truly believes. Perhaps it only goes to prove the folly of an artist's trying to hook a ride on the relevance wagon.

- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 1/73.

Denver grows as a writer and performer with each new package, and he keeps topping himself, as witnessed with this exceptional program. Along with his current chart single, "Goodbye Again," his "Rocky Mountain High," "Mother Nature's Son," and a superb "Season Suite" are highlights. Powerful material and performances.

- Billboard, 1972.

John Denver belongs to that slowly diminishing corps of folk veterans who have succeeded in remaining both active and accessible in their music. Like his peers, Denver continues to work within a strongly melodic and generally restrained style. His vintage is further reflected by the emotional ground of his works, that being a durably positive romantic sense of social awareness: the nascent social idealism of the early '60s lives on in Denver's mercifully sane, compassionate response to emotional and political themes in his music.

Still, Denver's earnest delivery, while gaining no small measure of popular acceptance, may appear, at times, to thwart a more complex detailed contemporary perspective. He can't be faulted for his idealism, for such mellow lyricism will always have power, but that warmth remains somehow distant from the more sobering realities of other, more thoroughly urbanized writers.

With Rocky Mountain High, Denver finds himself working with a variety of old musical hands: Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert return briefly for a new reading of Denver's "For Baby," and there is even a reunion with his partners from the Mitchell Trio ("Prisoners"), while instrumental support includes two veteran folk instrumentalists, Eric Weissberg and Paul Prestopino.

Throughout, production is handled with appropriate restraint. Milt Okun was certainly in the forefront of contemporary folk producers during the early '60s, and his command of acoustic presentation remains exemplary, placing elements with a sure clear sense of balance, which always supports Denver's gentle vocal style without overpowering its restrained emotions. Denver's's chiming 12-string and Mike Taylor's various guitars are again ornamental, rather than dominant, accenting lines but still placing the weight very much on Denver's presentation of lyrics.

The songs themselves raise a few questions, however, ranging from credible, comfortable themes of love and loss to somewhat more ambitious attempts at essentially poetic styles. It is in the latter category that Denver is most obviously taxed, and his "Season Suite" consequently emerges as only partially successful in its familiar treatment of the persistence of change and constancy alike in seasonal metamorphosis. The "Suite" itself is really a loose grouping of variations on two basic themes, with self-affirmation the unifying emotional impulse for the work. If the piece does hang together nicely, its very subtlety may well lead some listeners to question the need for such a large form to present those ideas.

Still, Denver's professionalism makes the journey worthwhile. His covers range from a brisk, rolling interpretation of "Mother Nature's Son," which abandons McCartney's subdued, dreamy pastoral feeling for a down-home country flavor, to a properly tender reading of the Steve Gillette-Tom Campbell gem, "Darcy Farrow," a tune which belies its contemporary source through its authentic sense of detail.

Despite those minor problems, the album does succeed in creating a sure, yet gentle, unity of spirit and technique. And, judging from Denver's progress to date, we can hope to have his warm, positive personality at hand for some time.

- Sam Sutherland, Words & Music, 12/72.

Propelled by the title track, Rocky Mountain High became John Denver's first Top Ten album. Though Denver still couldn't figure out how to fill out an entire album without covering his betters (in this case, old favorites The Beatles and John Prine), he and his steady backup musicians, bassist Dick Kniss and guitarist Mike Taylor, were evolving an exuberant folk-country sound that would prove enormously appealing over the next few years. The album contained one of Denver's finest ballads, "Goodbye Again," as well as one of his better old songs, "For Baby (For Bobbie)."

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Known as a songwriter through Peter, Paul and Mary's hit reading of his "Leaving On A Jet Plane," Denver had begun to find his own voice on the previous year's album Poems, Prayers And Promises.

For this, the follow-up, he reunited with trusted collaborators Richard Kniss and Mike Taylor for a collection that simply consolidated its predecessor's success. While he was still dependent on a few covers -- notably John Prine's "Paradise" and The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son," which was to remain part of his live set up until 1975's in-concert double album An Evening With John Denver, Denver was beginning to show greater confidence in his own material. The album is full of beautifully crafted acoustic songs that celebrate the solitude of Denver's beloved Colorado mountain wilderness.

"Goodbye Again" stands as one of his more popular ballads. The album peaked at Number Four in the US in 1973, picking up a platinum award on the way. But a relatively poor showing in the country charts, where it struggled to Number 40, illustrated Denver's problem appealing to both a country audience and pop music fans -- who could at times revile his wholesome sincerity.

As of 2004, Rocky Mountain High was the #99 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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