Paper Money


Warner Brothers Records, 1974

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


How do you follow an album that exceeds all expectations -- the record label's, the management's, even the artist's?

For a lot of acts over the years, the answer has been, clone it. Milk the formula that got you there the first time, and meet perhaps the most important expectations of all - your audience's. Of course, none of those acts were led by Ronnie Montrose.

Montrose the musician has always been about pushing the envelope and exploring the unexplored. If there's one statement you can make that covers all of his work, from hard rock with Montrose and Gamma, to jazz-fusion and a variety of experiments with texture and tone as a solo artist, it's this: he's never made the same album twice. That fact has won him all sorts of praise from fellow artists, and unending difficulty building momentum and/or sustaining commercial success. People who like milk chocolate M&Ms generally aren't all that happy if you hand them a whole-wheat granola bar the next time around. They want more M&Ms.

As a follow-up to the band's landmark 1973 debut, the self-titled Montrose album, Paper Money is a firm statement of artistic independence -- defiance, even. Where Montrose remains rightly famous for its unrelenting eight-song hard rock assault, Paper Money is all over the map, delving into quirky, melodic pop, a pair of ballads and an instrumental. And while individual moments of brilliance do emerge, the overall impact of the album is diluted by its very diversity.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A significant part of the problem lies in the sequencing. Having created a certain set of expectations with the first album, Montrose proceeded to dash them immediately by opening their sophomore effort with "Underground," a blatantly poppy outside composition whose vaguely macabre lyric seems to puzzle even lead vocalist Sammy Hagar. The second song is even more perplexing from the perspective of a Montrose fan, a reverent cover of the largely acoustic Rolling Stones ballad "Connection." It's well-executed musically, offering nimble guitar work by Montrose, a nice guest shot on piano by Mark Jordan, and the debut of new bass player Alan Fitzgerald on synthesizer - but it also effectively kills whatever momentum the new album might have had.

Next up are another mismatched pair. "The Dreamer" is a heavy, mid-tempo Hagar-Montrose piece that features strong electric riffage from Montrose on the verses and chorus, but inexplicably drops into an almost pastoral synthesizer solo on the bridge. Sometimes contrast works; not here. Closing out side one of the vinyl LP, the instrumental excursion "Starliner" is an enjoyable piece carrying echoes of both Ronnie Montrose's past (the influence of the Edgar Winter's Group's "Frankenstein" is apparent) and his future as a solo artist. Nonetheless, it feels distinctly out of place on a band album.

Just when you think maybe the band has entirely abandoned the sound that made their first album so memorable, though, along comes "I Got The Fire," quite possibly the best song anyone involved ever recorded. Three minutes of surging, propulsive electric guitar built around a complex, brilliant central riff culminate in a force ten hurricane of a solo, an aural ass-kicking that has inspired legions of air guitarists ever since. The lyric is also among Ronnie Montrose's best, an unequivocal statement of personal independence and passion.

The album closes out strong, going heavy with the steady-building "Spaceage Sacrifice," then soft with the gentle, introspective ballad "We're Going Home" (featuring another excellent Montrose solo and his only recorded lead vocal performance), then hard again with the tribal beat of the thundering title track, driven by the relentless drumming of Denny Carmassi.

Paper Money was destined to be the last hurrah for the Hagar-Montrose partnership; they parted ways at the end of the ensuing tour. As a closing statement, it's a reasonably strong one, more diverse and challenging lyrically than the party-soundtrack first album, and filled with the kind of restless musical experimentation that would characterize the next 25 years of Ronnie Montrose's band and solo career. However difficult that exploratory urge (and the dashed expectations left in its wake) was to make Ronnie Montrose's career path over the decades to follow, it proved right here at the start that the journey would never be less than interesting.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.