Little Feat are a band that I have been patient with. Perhaps it’s because the first album I heard by them, the fantastic live offering Waiting for Columbus made such a favourable impression on me, that I’ve been a little disappointed that the studio albums of theirs that I have explored have not had the same effect on me. Both Dixie Chicken and The Last Record Album are good albums, but they’ve not ‘wowed’ me in the way I expected a band of their reputation to. Despite this, I have persevered, searching out the prime-period Little Feat album for me, and with Sailin’ Shoes, I may just have found it.
Their second album, Sailin’ Shoes is seemingly where Little Feat found their feet. While their debut is a solid effort, things just started to fall in place on Sailin’ Shoes. From the eye catching Neon Park artwork (surely up their with Roger Dean as the iconic designer of pre-punk album covers), to band leader Lowell George increasing in confidence both as a performer and band leader, Sailin’ Shoes really does stake its claim as one of the great albums of the era, with the band cooking up a tasty Southern rock stew that was significantly more subtle and interesting than anything their more heads-down guitar boogie contemporaries could muster.
That’s not to say that Little Feat couldn’t rock out when they wanted to. “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” is a great little rocker and one of the album highlights is even called “Tripe Face Boogie”. Thing is, Sailin’ Shoes isn’t just about the good time guitar chooglin’. “Willin'”, perhaps George’s greatest song, and seemingly the reason that he was given his marching orders from The Mothers of Invention, is here in yet another evolution on from the on that had appeared on the band’s eponymous debut, and it’s a stunner (and I’m not even someone who really appreciates weed and wine. Okay, maybe the odd glass of wine), with it’s gorgeously laid-back melody, killer chorus and the blend of George’s guitar slide and Bill Payne’s piano work. It’s up there as one of Little Feat’s finest moments in the studio.
That’s not to say that “Willin'” stands out as a track that overwhelms Sailin’ Shoes. The run of “Tripe Face Boogie”, “Willin'”, “A Apolitical Blues”, the title track and “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” from a solid core of the album, and demonstrate how much range Little Feat had, before they expanded the line up and headed towards jazzier textures. It’s not as if the different styles and tones create a disorientating listening experience either, in fact it’s an album that hangs together as a pleasingly unified listening experience.
While “Got No Shadow” is perhaps expanded a little too far, it’s at least a decent tune, and sets the scene for the final third of Sailin’ Shoes, where the band shifts away from the economic brilliance of a series of relatively brief tracks, and stretches things out with a trio of jam-laden tunes. “Cat Fever” is the album’s weakest track and could have unwound the entire album, but thankfully “Texas Road Cafe” closes Sailin’ Shoes on a high point, even it does have a tendency to wander about a little bit unfocused.
If Sailin’ Shoes has a flaw outside of its dip in quality towards the end, it’s that if it’s the first Little Feat you hear, then you’ll be slightly disappointed that little of the rest of their studio output come within touching distance of it as an album. Sure Waiting for Columbus is a great find once you get to it, but in regards to their studio offerings, Sailin’ Shoes is pretty much the apex of their career.