Johnny Mathis, The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face)
File Between: Perry Como and Art Garfunkel
Comments: ”Easy listening” is often something of a misnomer. Not that any kind of music can’t be treated as muzak, as sonic wallpaper to a cozy if sterile existence — a listener can listen however a listener listens. But there are often immense depths of emotion expressed (if not always conveyed) in the music stereotypically dismissed as Grandpa Music, or maybe, in these days when Grandpa is just as likely to listen to Jimmy Buffett, as Great-Grandpa Music. (What a drag it is, etc.) Johnny Mathis, with his weepy, androgynous falsetto, was as likely to make Uneasy Listening as the inverse, and a handful of songs on this record live up to the spooky solitude he could on occasion master. Perhaps surprisingly, the most memorable song on the record is a vocal version of Nino Rota’s Godfather theme, with a lyric that (thankfully) has nothing to do with the movie but superbly fits the sweeping melody and Mathis’ aching vocal. Lyricized versions of the themes to A Summer Place and Brian’s Song are much less successful, and the album’s closing track, “Life Is What You Make It (Theme from Kotch)” is downright execrable. In between, there are covers of pop-soul tunes — the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” the 5th Dimension’s “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” — and current big ballads —the title track, “Without You” — and one surprising throwback to the swing era where Mathis got his start, Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You.” Its easy-rolling rhythm sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of all the prissily-orchestrated early-70s soft rock, and you understand why the nostalgia circuit has such appeal once a performer’s hit a certain age.
A Keeper? That Godfather theme is certainly something (which isn’t to say it’s good, necessarily), and that alone is worth the price of admission.
Vinyl Rip: Love Theme From ”The Godfather” (Speak Softly Love)
The Kinks, Everybody’s In Show-Biz
File Between: The Pretty Things and Noël Coward
Comments: The Kinks were instrumental in shaping my understanding of rock — and music in general — history. While I adored their early tuff singles, it was the Village Green/Arthur era that deeply imprinted itself on my young Catholic-Anglophile-leaning-Tory sensibility, and they led me as much backwards into history, through music-hall and vaudeville, as much as they pushed me forward into C86 and indie-pop. Despite that, I’ve mostly ignored their 70s output, trusting the conventional wisdom about Ray Davies progressively disappearing up his own ass until Dave Davies pulled the band back into some kind of commercial stasis with unprepossessing hard rock. I’d only heard (and loved!) “Celluloid Heroes” (a fragile ode in conversation with glam) from this record before. The rest of it is, well, the obvious next step after Muswell Hillbillies, vaguely boogie-oriented burbling about Ray’s idiosyncrasies with an air of novelty music-hall hucksterism. Not bad, perhaps, but very much requiring you to already be on board with the Kinks’ specific brand of nostalgic wittering over roughly-competent playing. The trad-jazz combo that sits in on about half the numbers does a lot of the melodic heavy lifting, and it’s not like I don’t love the sound, but there’s nothing here as sharply observed or crisply edited as the great mid-to-late 60s singles. The second LP, a collection of live pieces from their still-slim post-Pye discography, is even more disposable; they only do “Lola” as a minute-and-change audience singalong.
A Keeper? I mean, it’s still the Kinks, which means I’ll still have time for it, no matter how conflicted I may be about that love later in life.
Vinyl Rip: Supersonic Rocket Ship
Earth, & Fire, Last Days and Time
File Between: Sly & the Family Stone and Herbie Hancock
Comments: While it would be stretching a point to call this a great record, it’s pretty clear at this point that Earth, Wind & Fire are a great band, capable of tackling a wide variety of genres with committed sincerity and beguiling musicianship, from the very Slyish funk of opener “Time Is on My Side” (not the Irma Thomas/Rolling Stones classic) to the slick electric jazz of “Power” to the sweet covers of Bread (“Make It With You”) and Pete Seeger/everyone (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”). Closer “Mom” was even a minor hit, if only just less saccharine than you would expect from the title. Their next record would be their breakout hit, and they would increasingly own the 70s from there, but Last Days and Time, though it never reaches the apocalyptic insanity promised by its title and cover, is still well worth getting to know. Maurice White and Philip Bailey are already fully-formed, but it’s good to hear Jessica Cleaves, who would leave the band soon after, get to solo on “I’d Rather Have You.” Ronnie Laws’ soprano sax still takes some getting used to in the post-Kenny G era, but I’m willing to listen to EWF as long and concertedly as it takes to drive the Ringleted One out of my head.
A Keeper? The sleeve art is a classic all its own; and the music’s not too shabby either.
Vinyl Rip: Time Is on My Side
Harvey Mandel, The Snake
File Between: John Lee Hooker and Wes Montgomery
Comments: Mandel is a blues-rock guitarist with a slightly more advanced harmonic sense than the general run of blues-rock guitarists; at his best he approaches the liquid joy of someone like Duane Allman; at his worst he’s a less-textural Jeff Beck. The Snake is one of a handful of solo records he released in between stints in Little Feat, John Mayall’s band, and one- or two-off collaborations with similarly-minded fellow travellers. It’s instrumental except for one cut, “Uno Ino,” on which he united a John Lee Hooker bookie to a high, wispy vocal and sounds like a cut-rate Marc Bolan. The rest is perfectly serviceable instrumental rock, “tasty” if that communicates anything to you, and never too inexcusably noodly if it doesn’t. Nothing revelatory, but if it’s your bag, you’ll dig it.
A Keeper? Instrumental rock is always a tricky proposition; unlike jazz, it can’t really just set a mood or fade into the background: it demands you pay attention to it, and then too often refuses to reward the attention. Mandel does not manage to satisfactorily square the circle.
Vinyl Rip: Pegasus
Jerry Butler, The Spice of Life
File Between: Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes
Comments: There has probably never been a double album about which someone has not said “boil it down to a single record and it would be a great album.” The Spice of Life is no exception; the extravagant running time afforded to sixteen songs over four sides results in a lack of focus and unnecessary elongation of grooves that don’t always benefit from it. The hoarsely passionate Butler, a veteran of the Chicago soul scene — he had been the lead singer of the R&B version of the Impressions before Curtis Mayfield made them over into a sweet soul group — is never less than magnetic, but the heavily-orchestrated songs let him down from time to time, layering on studio instrumentation that, while it always sounds good, doesn’t always contribute much. Still, there’s a lot to love here, and a single-disc summation of the highlights could go up against any soul record of the era and come away with at least a draw. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that it’s never been reissued on CD; even padded out with unnecessary covers of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and (gag) “Baby I’m-A Want You,” there are enough swoon-worthy moments here that any deep soul lover would go justifiably nuts over.
A Keeper? I may end up trying that single-disc distillation at some point; in the meantime, it’s not like it takes up that much room on my shelves.
Vinyl Rip: One Night Affair