In 1966, the Raconteurs were a bar band in Greensburg, PA who happened to be in the right place at the right time when Tommy James needed a new backing band after "Hanky Panky," a single he'd cut in 1963, suddenly became a major hit. Following several successful years with James as the Shondells, Eddie Gray (guitar), Peter Lucia (drums), Ron Rosman (keyboards), and Mike Vale (bass) decided to go back out on their own, adopting the name Hog Heaven and cutting their self-titled debut album in 1971. Given the brand of upbeat, radio-ready pop that had been Tommy James & the Shondells' stock in trade, it's a bit of a surprise that Hog Heaven is for the most part a solid country-rock set with some potent boogie rock thrown in, and that Gray shows off his skills on the pedal steel as often as he does on the six-string. "Wilma Mae" and "Pennsylvania" both cut a potent and funky groove and there's some lively chicken pickin' on "Bumpin' Slapcar Mama," while the band offers a subtle but clear Christian message on "Prayer" and "Theme from a Thought" and drifts amiably on the mildly psychedelic and mostly acoustic "Come Away." Their years as the Shondells had certainly molded Hog Heaven into a tight combo who knew how to play as a unit, and since they had helped James write several of his biggest hits, coming up with solid material wasn't a problem (though the melodies are often better than the lyrics here). Hog Heaven is flawed by the fact the band didn't have an especially compelling frontman or a lead singer as good as James, but this is more than just a curio for Tommy James fans, and it's a shame that this band never had the chance to release another LP. [Hog Heavendid in fact record a second album, but after a falling out with Roulette Records head Morris Levy, the project was shelved and never saw the light of day. Collectors' Choice Music reissued Hog Heaven in 2008, with five songs from the unreleased second album included as bonus tracks. These songs previously appeared on a Hog Heaven compilation released by the band in 2007, and they appear to have been extensively overdubbed with new keyboard and vocal tracks; the sound and the production is decidedly different from the material from the first album, especially the extensive use of synthesizers. However, given the rarity of this music, few fans are likely to complain, and the bonus tunes help give a more complete portrait of a band that deserved wider recognition.] AMG.
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