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Island 9217
Released: January 1973
Chart Peak: #47
Weeks Charted: 16

Free is an English quartet that toured with Blind Faith, had a big hit single, was hailed by the British press as the new Rolling Stones, and disbanded all before its members had left their teens. That's not the end of the story: Free reunited after a year's time, made a comeback album, then lost two of its four members all over again. Now a half-old, half-new Free has made an album, Heartbreaker, and is currently embarked on an American tour to get American audiences as interested in them as the English ones are.

The only reason this story is worth mentioning is because right from the start Free has been a remarkably unorthodox rock & roll band. The group's lone hit, "All Right Now," is like "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Proud Mary," a classic study in stark simplicity; this track sets the tone for the bulk of the work on the group's first five albums. Free used the most basic of ingredients -- rhythm guitar, bass, drums, a touch of piano, and a single vocal -- often in the most basic way, and still managed to create music with structure, drive and tension. The group's work was not only skeletal, it was also generally rather solemn in an almost sinister way. The titles and lyrics of "Sunny Day," "Lying in the Sunshine" and "Be My Friend" give little idea of the dark, minor-key moods of those tracks as recorded. Drummer Simon Kirke always favored a martial cadence, as if he were playing for some formal procession; on the first five LPs, Kirke's playing doomily underscored Paul Rodger's vocals, as well as the guitar of Paul Kossoff and the bass of Andy Fraser (those two now departed), all of which tended to be really tense and jumpy. Free's music was offbeat -- something like Gene Vincent on downs -- but it worked. While the material on those early LPs wasn't consistent, the performances were, distinguishing a band that is still young enough (after seven albums) to be called promising.

Heartbreaker differs from its predecessors in its full, textured sound. The texture and fullness are added by newcomer John "Rabbit" Bundrick, an inventive keyboard man whose playing and writing graced Johnny Nash's fine "I Can See Clearly Now." Bundrick's elaborate organ and piano playing give Paul Rodgers, whose singing has always been the centerpiece of the group's sound, a much altered but just as effective surrounding. Bundrick plays in a busy but refined way reminiscent in both style and virtuosity of Nicky Hopkins. So the sound is a far cry from the primitive, nervous style of the original group, but Bundrick knows how to add texture without greatly lessening the tension. The richness of texture also adds a note of optimism to Free's music, an element previously notable by its absence.

And Rodgers has a tremendously expressive voice; on the softest track here, Bundrick's "Muddy Water," Rodgers could easily be mistaken for Jackson Browne, while on his own "Heartbreaker," the album's cruncher, his singing has all the scarred intensity of Rod Stewart's. If Rodgers doesn't sound quite as twisted in anguish as he has in the past, that's probably just as well. But one thing hasn't changed: As in the past, Free sounds best when doing slower tempoed, personal songs. "Muddy Water," "Come Together in the Morning," and the loping "Travelin' in Style" are by far the best of the album's eight songs.

Although he's technically no longer a member of the group, Paul Kossoff is present through much of the album, and the pseudonymous "Snuffy" takes care of the guitar work on the rest. It remains to bee seen what they'll do about the missing guitar on stage. But the addition of Bundrick, both as a musician and songwriter, is a certain plus. While Heartbreaker is neither the most original nor the most intense of the seven Free albums, it's without a doubt the most polished one, and it may prove to be the most durable. Rodgers is getting better all the time -- he's always worth listening to -- and Bundrick has star quality of his own. If they can only find somebody to play guitar, maybe Free will fulfill the promise they've been showing for so long.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 3/1/73.

Bonus Reviews!

Despite constant break-ups and countless head hassles, Free's music has progressed at an admirable rate. This is a supremely consistent album that both extends and modifies their prior directions. They're currently on tour with Traffic, a fact that should do much in spurring them to greater acceptance. Paul Rodgers' vocals fairly bleed upon the churning multidimensional backlogs. Best cuts are "Wishing Well," "Easy On My Soul" and "Heartbreaker."

- Billboard, 1973.

Heartbreaker has an ace in "Wishing Well" but mostly makes you wonder why the group got back together to make this diminished work. * *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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