Upon bursting onto the San Francisco Bay area music scene in the late sixties the Sons of Champlin had started out with one foot planted firmly in psychedelia and the other planted firmly in blue-eyed soul.
After their departure from Capitol Records, starting with 1973's Welcome to the Dance, there was a decided shift away from psychedelic and increasingly closer to blue-eyed soul. 1976's A Circle Filled With Love was just another logical step in that musical evolution. While the album title, many of the lyrics, and cover artwork are still throwbacks to their psychedelic roots. By 1976 their music had taken a noticeably more soulful turn.
Starting with a bang, Hold On, shows vocalist Bill Champlin strutting his soulful
vocal chops, a trend that he would demonstrate throughout the album. The horn arrangement suggesting more Tower of Power than Chicago. The rhythm guitar work shows hints of the country-rock of the Eagles which was quite popular at the time. Regardless, the Sons osmosized the music of the era, and put their own stamp on it and made it all their own.
Here is Where Your Heart Belongs shifts gears, the string arrangement reminiscent of some of the Jeremy Lubbock string arrangements that were showing up on Chicago albums from that same era. The horns are soft accents to a rather soulful groove, and unlike Hold On, the horn arrangement on this track infers more Chicago than Tower of Power.
Follow Your Heart has a good ol' rock and roll groove that wouldn't be out of place at a bluesy roadhouse bar. As always, Champlin's soulful vocals are front and center. The background vocals answering the leads is reminiscent of the soul bands of the late sixties and early seventies. The song is infectious and fun and speaks to the band's more lighthearted nature.
Knickanick is an enjoyable instrumental track that really shows what Geoff Palmer and Terry Haggerty were capable of. The way Haggerty's guitar dances around Palmer's keyboards speaks volumes of the musical chemistry the two of them shared since the band's inception. However at a mere, 2:37, just as you start enjoying that sublime musical chemistry, the song ends far too abruptly.
While there's not a bad song on the album, there are certainly some pieces that stand out more than others. The autobiographical To The Sea is Champlin at his lyrical best. The song is soft and uncharacteristically understated. Champlin reminds listeners that "music's only as fine as the silence it's compared to." While the horns are absent on this track, the song benefits far more from their absence than it ever could from their presence. A shining example of the "less is more" principle.
Another standout track is Slippery When It's Wet. This is the Sons at their soulful funky best. It gets under your skin and grabs hold of you from the inside out and doesn't let go. It's certainly one of the more upbeat and catchy songs about fidelity (the marital kind, not the sonic kind) ever recorded.
All in all, while the album does sound somewhat dated at times, that makes it no less enjoyable, if anything it gives it a rather classic feel-- a musical snapshot of an era that has passed.