1.  Box Of Frogs (2011 Remaster)
Tracklist: Back Where I Started (3:57), Harder (3:41), Another Wasted Day (4:19), Love Inside You (2:49), The Edge (4:02), Two Steps Ahead (4:34), Into The Dark (4:09), Just A Boy Again (5:40), Poor Boy (4:23) Bonus Tracks: Nine Lives (4:07), X-Tracks (5:03)
Box Of Frogs was the unusual name given to the mid 80s reunion for three-fifths of the legendary 1960s blues-rockers The Yardbirds. Guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty originally reunited to play at the 25th anniversary of the infamous Marquee Club in June of 1983 which turned out to be a lot of fun so they decided to start writing and see what they could come up with musically. However, as vocalist Keith Relf had passed away back in 1976 and none of the famous guitarists (for those who need reminding, a trio of six string slingers, Clapton, Beck and Page, who went on to achieve a modicum of fame in their own rights!) associated with the band was part of the process the band took on a new moniker. The name came from an executive at Island Records whose favourite saying was that such-and-such a person had a face like a box of frogs. Amused by the saying the group adopted it as their own. To complete the line-up a vocalist was adopted into the ranks, namely John Fiddler, the ex-singer of Medicine Head and British Lions, who had sang a couple of numbers with the group at the Marquee anniversary concert. Initial sessions for a planned debut EP were so productive that sufficient material was accumulated for a full album. Epic Records were sufficiently impressed to hastily sign the band.
One of the factors that undoubtedly attracted Epic Records was the number of high profile guest musicians that were lending their talents to the recordings. With the Yardbirds' pedigree and Samwell-Smith's contacts as an in-demand producer, it was no problem in attracting such friends and musical luminaries as Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Mark Feltham, Max Middleton and Peter-John Vitesse to contribute. The results were as good as expected with the almost autobiographical Back Where I Started providing a more modern approach on the blues rock that the Yardbirds were associated with. Feltham's authentic blues harmonica and Beck providing a restrained yet exemplary lead line set the album off to a cracking start. The song was released as the debut single and managed to crack the lower regions of the UK charts and going top 10 in the US where college radio stations practically adopted it as the theme tune for the summer of 1984. Harder continues along similar lines with ex-Mott The Hoople guitarist Ray Majors laying down a fierce lead line while Another Wasted Day has Beck back on lead contributing to a slower number featuring some excellently phrased singing from Fiddler. The relatively short Love Inside You is another great song with a strong chorus featuring some sympathetic, and uncredited, female backing vocals. Slide guitar is provided by additional Frog Dzal Martin founder member of the late 70s band No Dice and subsequent session musician. Rory Gallagher makes his first appearance on The Edge (no not a tribute to U2's guitarist!) and as with all of the songs on the album, the soloist is not allowed to dominate, just supplement the strong song writing with their individual talents. This is a testament to the production skills of Samwell-Smith and, one would presume, the high regard that the Yardbirds are held by fellow musicians.
Beck once again performs on Two Steps Ahead with a contribution that is more akin to his usual soaring and flowing lines. A rather poor percussion break midway through is the only detraction and puts a definite 80s stamp on the song but this is a minor distraction to an otherwise fine number with probably the best of the guitar contributions, particularly from Beck. A reggae rhythm is applied to Into The Dark which features two guest guitarists, Martin on lead and Gallagher on slide and a lovely electric sitar. The change in style is not that dramatic largely due to Fiddler, a strong chorus, and some understated playing by the whole ensemble. Just A Boy Again is another song that initially steps away from the blues influences having a greater slow boogie influence primarily due to the piano part played by Vetesse, although Martin does wrap things up nicely providing a neat intro to the original last number of the album, Poor Boy. An excellent closer to the album combining lyrical humour ("I'm broke I lost all my cash, I'm in deeper than the Wall Street crash, I'm sinking faster than a drowning man, Oh Shit! I gotta get my arse out of the can") and superb musicianship, the interplay between Beck and Geraint Watkins on piano is superb! With customary Esoteric thoroughness (but uncharacteristic lapse in that the song titles are printed the wrong way round on the CD artwork), this CD reissue is accompanied by the b-sides from the two singles released from the album. Nine Lives, from the Into The Dark 45 rpm is not up to the standard of the album numbers, possibly because it was the only song not written by members of the band, instead deriving from the pen of Mark Radice who has written for and played with numerous performers including Aerosmith, Dave Edmunds, Barbara Streisand, Barry Mannilow and The Muppets (!). It does sound like there is a different singer on this track but the final guitar solo is worthy and it is an overall nice addition to the set. X Tracks is really just for completeness being snippets of each of the album songs included as a taster for the LP on the Back Where I Started single.
Although I have concentrated on the guest musicians on the album, this shouldn't detract from the fine performances put in by the core Frogs. Dreja and Fiddler make significant rhythm guitar contributions, Samwell-Smith's bass playing is as fine and smooth as ever, all add various percussive elements and the synthesiser contributions from the bassist and vocalist are, thankfully, minimal and not at all characteristic of the prevailing musical atmosphere of the time. Largely overlooked since release, this album is a solid, if not earth shattering, album and one that I have frequently dug out my vinyl copy of over the years when feeling the need for something different to get lost in. Having a re-mastered and pristine digital copy is a very welcome addition to my collection. MARK HUGHES
2.  Strange Land (2011 Remaster)
Tracklist: Get It While You Can (3:53), You Mix Me Up (3:22), Average (4:20), House On Fire (4:22), Hanging From The Wreckage (3:40), Heart Full Of Soul (3:52), Asylum (4:51), Strange Land (4:52), Trouble (5:45) Bonus Track: I Keep Calling (3:08)
The second Box Of Frogs album was released two years after the strong debut album, although failure to tour, particularly in the US where the album had reached the top 50 in the album charts based on the strong performance of the Back Where I Started, had somewhat stifled the progress of the band. Although Jim McCarty (drums) and John Fiddler (vocals/rhythm guitar) were keen to hit the road, and Jeff Beck had indicated that he would have been more than happy to join them, Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) was busy as an in-demand producer and was not looking to become part of a band while Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) had a flourishing career as a professional photographer he was reluctant to turn aside. Had the band undertaken a successful tour, the second album may have turned out a lot different to what was released as Strange Lands. Although Fiddler had a hand in writing the majority of the material, he only sings on four of the tracks. Hence, additional Frogs on this album also included a host of illustrious vocalists to accompany the guest guitarists and keyboard players, many who were happy to reprise their roles on the first album. One player missing from the second album was Jeff Beck whose contributions to the debut were some of the highlights. Instead, another ex-Yardbird, Jimmy Page, was called in to play on a couple of numbers. One interesting aspect of the reissue of the two Box Of Frogs albums is the different reminiscences of McCarthy (in the first CD booklet) and Dreja (in this booklet). For instance, although both agree that it was never considered to ask Eric Clapton to play on either album, Dreja reports that Clapton never figured in any of the plans of the unit while McCarty states he was asked to play at the Marquee anniversary concert but was unable as he was on tour in the US at the time. Additionally, Dreja says that the group were already writing for an album prior to the Marquee invitation as opposed to having reunited specially for the occasion. Of course, this is all by-the-by and what matters is the music.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the four numbers featuring Fiddler on vocals are the most familiar to the sound of the material on the debut album. You Mix Me Up has potential but is over produced with some of the female backing vocals (by Carroll Thompson and Julie Roberts) sounding as if they have been stolen from a Kid Creole & The Coconuts song. Shame as some of the elements are very good. House On Fire could easily have been included on that album with Rory Gallagher and Dzal Martin teaming up once again to provide lead guitar work and Geraint Watkins pounding out the ivories and Peter-John Vetesse adding sympathetic synth lines. Truly impressive stuff. Hanging From The Wreckage features electric sitar, again played by Gallagher, in a more prominent role on a more down beat number that is slow to get anywhere and is somewhat too rudimentary to really create much excitement. Page makes his first appearance (and only appearance on the original album) on Asylum although from the sleeve notes it appears that Dreja at least was not all that impressed: "..he came in, did a mysterious solo with lots of wah wah and then disappeared. I'm not sure what he was doing, but he returned and then did this imaginative guitar part and left us to piece it together. That was, erm, interesting." It has to be said that it is not Page's finest hour, nor the Frogs best song, taking on more of the eighties style of music and leaving the blues rock way behind them. It does feel as if it has been pieced together in the control room rather than come together as a complete song. Page's other performance, on the b-side I Keep Calling, also features Fiddler on vocals and is much more superior to Asylum in both writing and performing that it is a wonder that it was left off the album. More succinct, more structured, better all round. Perhaps the idea was to have an exclusive track featuring Page to help sales of the Average single, although if that was the case it would have been better, in my opinion, to have Asylum as the b-side! Besides, the single, more of which later, was hardly likely to have attracted the attention of the mainstream Led Zep fan. Final track featuring the vocals of Fiddler is the last track on the original album, Trouble with a new Frog guitarist, Steve Hackett, laying down the lead. Again the eighties style of music seems to pervade through this track with a very basic drum pattern, and all sorts of superfluous synth noises added by Vetesse and David Clayton. Hackett does a fine job though and despite its flaws is an interesting enough song.
The remaining tracks feature a guest vocalist. The inimitable Roger Chapman contributes two characteristic performances, the first of which is the somewhat pointless re-working of Heart Full Of Soul. Although the sleeve notes state that the group wanted to take a radically different approach to the classic Yardbirds number it is not too far removed from the original (or perhaps it is more accurate to state that it bears quite a lot of similarity to the version released by Ghost Dance a couple of years earlier). Gallagher is the featured guitarist and he does a fine job, even adding in more electric sitar to give it a nostalgic sixties psychedelic feel. The song's composer, Graham Gouldman, is even drafted in to add rhythm guitar. Chappo also lends his larynx to the title track, one of the better songs although again the synth additions of Vetesse do tend to date the song. Opening tack, Get It While You Can was touted by the record label as being a potential hit single (it wasn't) and I wonder if because of this it was foisted on the band as it is the only other track not composed by the group. Having said that, it is a strong opening number and Graham Parker adds an impressive lead vocal to give the song a more contemporary twist. And finally to the song Average. The most unusual of the songs on the album, and in the whole Box Of Frogs career, yet probably one of their most enjoyable. This is down to the performance of the undeniably brilliant Ian Dury, who I am sure must have written the lyrics to this number although they are not credited to him. The song is not only amusing lyrically it is also great musically. McCarty lays down the best drum rhythms of the album, Hackett plays a blinder and even Vetesse doesn't manage to mess it up with his synth noodlings.
More eclectic and more experimental, Strange Land is really too diverse and too far removed from Box Of Frogs to maintain any momentum gained from the initial success of the band. The lack of touring and the two-year gap between releases also must have had an impact on sales, with neither album nor single cracking the top 100 in either the US or the UK. However, as both McCarty and Dreja comment in the sleeve notes of the albums, the original intention was for some friends to get together and have some fun making music. Both attest that the two albums were a lot of fun to record which suggests the objective was achieved. Strange Land has its moments but is not as an accomplished an effort as the debut and is definitely of its time. MARK HUGHES