Mention the name “Doobie Brothers,” and numerous classics come to mind — ”Black Water,” “China Grove,” “Minute by Minute,” and many more. Fans generally cite two phases of the band: Phase One, known as the Tom Johnston Years; and Phase Two, or the Michael McDonald Era. But the Doobie Brothers had an often glossed-over jazz phase, represented on the 1977 underrated Livin' on the Fault Line.
The original 1969 incarnation of the Doobie Brothers featured a grittier, roots-rock sound, led by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Johnston. But ongoing health problems eventually forced Johnston off the road and out of the studio, leaving the band at a crossroads. Thus 1975 began Doobie Brothers 2.0, led by Steely Dan alum McDonald. In 1976 Taking It to the Streets marked this new version, now dominated by a R&B sound. Spawning hit singles such as the title track and “It Keeps You Runnin,'” the album peaked at number eight on the charts and cemented McDonald's place as the group's driving force. The followup album, however, marked an even greater departure from the Doobie Brothers's signature sound, even incorporating jazz into the mix.
Although a healthier Johnston wrote five songs for Livin' on the Fault Line, none made the final cut. However, he is credited with playing guitar and singing vocals, and appears on the band's album photo. After the album's release, Johnston departed the band he co-founded. The album ended up selling fewer copies than previous outings, reaching number 10 on the charts and spawning no hit singles. Rolling Stone published a lukewarm review of Livin' on the Fault Line, particularly criticizing its smoother sound and slick production: “Where Streets challenged the Doobies's listeners with a new combination and a bright sound, Fault Line seems more concerned with refining the formula,” John Milward wrote in the November 3, 1977 issue. “The Doobie Brothers continue to produce smooth, adult rock (more consistently than before, in fact), but without the threat of at least a little bite, their music slips too easily into the background.”
But is this criticism warranted? Listening to the album 22 years later illustrates the Doobie Brothers's willingness to experiment with fusion, reflecting McDonald's and guitarist Jeff Baxter's tenures with Steely Dan. The title track evolves into an extended jam session, featuring Victor Feldman's tasty vibes solo. McDonald demonstrates his gift for creating pop with soul sense on such cuts as “Nothin' But A Heartache,” and the pretty ballad “There's A Light” serves as a preview of McDonald's 1982 solo debut (think “I Can Let Go Now”). Guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Patrick Simmons steps up to the microphone on “Echoes of Love,” whose refrain sticks in the listener's mind.
Want well-crafted pop? Try “You Belong to Me,” McDonald's songwriting collaboration with Carly Simon (Simon also had a hit with her version of the tune, and McDonald teamed with Chaka Khan to cover the song on her album Funk This). “You Belong to Me” ranks with some of the best of McDonald's work with the Doobies, including a catchy hook and irresistible bass line. Solidifying their new soul-infused sound, the group covers Holland-Dozier-Holland's “Little Darling (I Need You),” a cheerful tune that reached number 48 on the pop charts.
While Rolling Stone criticized Ted Templeman's production, I find that his minimalist approach suits the album quite well. “You Belong to Me” puts the bass-heavy groove front and center, while he lets the jam on “Livin' on the Fault Line” carry the song. The album contains its flaws, however — the last two cuts, “Need A Lady” and “Larry the Logger Two-Step” seem tacked on, not rising to the level of the album's other tracks. Still, the Doobie Brothers should be commended for trying to expand their sound.
Alas, the Doobies's jazz-fusion period ended with Livin on the Fault Line — their subsequent release, Minute by Minute, returned them to the charts and went triple-platinum. While Livin' on the Fault Line may have been less accessible, it still marks an interesting and little-known period in the group's impressive catalog. All Music critic Peter Kurtz states that the album represents a “chapter in the Doobie Brothers's history that deserves a second look.” Indeed, this lesser-known album merits another listen — and perhaps greater appreciation than it received over 20 years ago.
For a sample of Livin' on the Fault Line's sound, check out this live performance of “Echoes of Love” from 1977: