The band Sea Level, er, rose and fell within a comparatively brief period during the mid- to late ’70s, issuing a handful of albums beginning in 1977 with the finest jazz-rock — seasoned with R&B, Southern soul, and funk — to emerge from Macon, Georgia in the wake of the Allman Brothers Band but moving toward shorter songs and comparatively stiff disco-tinged beats as the ’70s drew to a close. With the release of debut album Sea Level and sophomore outing Cats on the Coast, both in 1977, the band seemed to be on a rapid ascent. The following year’s On the Edge also had its moments, but signaled that the band’s peak may already have been reached, and indeed 1979’s Long Walk on a Short Pier, the band’s weakest album in its Capricorn Records catalog, went unreleased in the United States until 1998. Tracks from these four albums were selected for the 1990 Polydor single-disc collection Best of Sea Level, and given the band’s range (for good and ill), the compilers had their work cut out for them. They did an admirable job, but as is often the case on compilations like this, the compulsion to represent all four Capricorn albums and their stylistic predilections resulted in some questionable inclusions and exclusions.
The debut disc’s instrumentals “Rain in Spain” and “Tidal Wave” from the Chuck Leavell–Lamar Williams–Jimmy Nalls–Jaimoe quartet are first-rate, as are “Storm Warning” and “Midnight Pass” from Cats on the Coast. As for the vocal tracks, the swampy Leavell feature “Nothing Matters But the Fever” from the debut is an essential inclusion, as is singer/saxophonist Randall Bramblett‘s “That’s Your Secret” from the sophomore, which manages to fit the term “agonizing reappraisal” and a reference to wrestler Dusty Rhodes into a winding yet catchy tune that was the closest thing to a Sea Level “hit.” The collection also features three Bramblett songs from On the Edge, “King Grand,” “Living in a Dream,” and “This Could Be the Worst”; all three first appeared in arguably superior versions on Bramblett‘s 1976 sophomore Polydor album Light of the Night, but it’s good to have them here. However, any of the remaining tracks on this best-of could have been shelved to make room for the stunning two-part instrumental “Cats on the Coast,” with Nalls‘ slide approaching Duane Allman territory and Bramblett‘s soprano sax, in a thrilling call and response, answering him at an even higher level, before the entire band crashes in and the Jaimoe–George Weaver percussion tandem takes it all out under a flurry of simulated seagull cries. And on Cats on the Coast, the penultimate title track was followed by the lovely coda “Song for Amy,” featuring Leavell on piano accompanied by a string quartet. These tracks were among Sea Level‘s most noteworthy, and should have made the cut somehow.