Ray Price, The Lonesomest Lonesome
File Between: Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra
Comments: Maybe I’m just getting good at adjusting the levels when I rip these albums, or maybe I’m developing a new appreciation for the art of easy listening countrypolitan in my old age, but this is easily one of the best-sounding records I’ve come across in this series. It’s one of several records Price made in his “For the Good Times”-fueled mid-career renaissance, and producer Cam Mullins goes all out with the pillowy, smooth orchestrations, setting crystalline guitar and piano against cloudy banks of strings and, occasionally, horns, all in service of Price’s mellow, immaculately-phrased baritone. Songs of heartache, devotion, and rumination by Mac Davis, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Fuller, and other lights of the 70s Nashville songwriting world — none of which are overly familiar, so that the contemplative mood is all Price’s, not riding anyone else’s coattails — are excellent settings for him doing what he does best, which is to express tenderness and regret in a voice as homey and durable as polished oak. After ten such reflective, sophisticated cuts, he closes out with a polished, moderately rousing of Don Gibson’s classic “Oh, Lonesome Me,” and sends you off (if you’re anything like me) with a smile.
A Keeper? I was thrilled when I found this record for a couple of bucks in a cutout bin — Price is one of my all-time favorite country singers, all the more special for being so (relatively) uncelebrated. The fact that it’s such a good record only sweetened the deal.
Vinyl Rip: Wake Up Yesterday
Sarah Vaughan, Feelin’ Good
File Between: Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone
Comments: Of all the classic jazz vocalists of the swing era, Sarah Vaughan was perhaps the most purely talented. Billie had her blues, Ella had her sonority, Dinah had her attitude, but Sarah had her voice. But that was, in pop terms, a generation ago. She was only 48 when she cut this record, but she couldn’t take the flights she did in the magical 40s and burning 50s; so she trades her supernatural flexibility for a more restrained subtlety, showing off in the corners, with delicious phrasing. The music mostly doesn’t live up to her, though; nothing even approaches the psychedelia of the cover, of course, but the AM-pop doldrums conjured by the tracklist — Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” the Bee Gees’ “Run To Me,” the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Dusty Springfield’s “Just A Little Lovin'” — is only confirmed by standard easy-listening arrangements which feature a Muzaky flute far too prominently on many cuts. The highlight of the set is a Michel Legrand-produced “Deep In The Night,” which at least lets Sarah get a little bluesy, and I’m guessing was probably an outtake from the other record she cut in 1972, a full-on Legrand collaboration. (I have it; I’ll get to it.) Still, even if the arrangements are a little too straightforward pop, it couldn’t possibly be a bad thing when the primary record it brings to mind is Dusty in Memphis.
A Keeper? It’s Sarah Fucking Vaughan. You should be ashamed of yourself for even asking the question.
Vinyl Rip: Deep In The Night
Boz Scaggs, My Time
File Between: Van Morrison and Aaron Neville
Comments: I hadn’t realized until I checked Wikipedia that Boz had had his solo career going on since 1966 — I was thinking this was his first album, but depending on how you count it’s more like his fourth or fifth. Which sort of explains both how comfortable he sounds and how different from what he was doing concurrently in the Steve Miller Band. Two of the songs on here were written by Allen Toussaint, and there’s a general pillowy New Orleans soul vibe to the record, with impeccably recorded horns, keyboards, and guitars all over the place. Critic Noel Murray points to Boz Scaggs as one of the high points of the “well-made album” of the 70s, along with Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, and I’d be hard-pressed to say this wasn’t one of the best-produced records I’ve heard from 1972. Even a song like “Old Time Lovin’,” whose title made me roll my eyes when I saw it on the back cover (cue the bog-standard choogle, I thought), turns out to be an Al Green cover with a sly wink to gospel; the rock-inflected soul on offer here is far more thought-through and, well, grown-up than I was expecting.
A Keeper? It’s not perfect — not all of the originals are very memorable, and there’s nothing on the bonafide classic level of “Lido Shuffle,” but I’ll be glad to revisit as often as I can get down that way.
Vinyl Rip: We’re Gonna Roll
File Between: War and Manu Dibango
Comments: I knew that Osibisa was one of the first African bands to make any kind of a splash in Western rock and funk circles, but I hadn’t realized just how much they’d internalized Western rock and funk — much of this could have been off an album made by any groovy collective of the period, especially when Robert Bailey, of the nondescript R&B voice, sings his generic lyrics. When they get a head of steam up, they’re excellent, and the middle section of the record, which is devoted to more particularly African and Latin sounds, cooks hard, but the songs in English tend to be embarrassing. I know it’s ridiculous of me to have a grudge against a Ghanian-Caribbean-and-American band for not sounding like Fela Kuti, but not nearly enough in the grooves lives up to the wild outness of the sleeve. (The storming funk of “Ye Tie Wo,” the funky salsa of Willie Colón rewrite “Che Che Kule,” and the dreamy highlife of “Mentumi” excepted.)
A Keeper? Those three songs are essential; and all the rest have their moments, even International Mood Music stuff like “So So Mi La So.” Plus, the sleeve’s a total classic.
Vinyl Rip: Ye Tie Wo
Carol Hall, Beads and Feathers
File Between: Carole King and Bette Midler
Comments: If you know the name Carol Hall at all, it’s most likely as the lyricist and composer for the 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She was both a genuine Texan (born and raised in Abilene) and a genuine composer in the Tin Pan Alley tradition — she wrote songs for Tony Bennett and for the Free to Be You and Me compilation. But here in the early 70s, she scored a deal with Elektra, which pretty much only knew how to market singer/songwriters. So she was a singer/songwriter for a couple of albums, this one being the second and last. And it’s very much the kind of record you might expect a Texan with a bent for musical theater to produce: the lead instrument is piano (played by Hall herself), and the songs tend to be character studies in broad emotional strokes, with a recurring theme being the oppositional pulls of the country and the city. She’s not a great singer (she sounds in places like a less shrewd Bobbie Gentry), and her Texas accent can be so mannered as to sound like a put-on, but on the few midtempo (there’s only one uptempo) songs she manages a passable soft-rock style. As you might expect from a composer, the songs are better than the performances.
A Keeper? If I ever need to raid forgotten songwriters for uncovered gems, I have a starting point.
Vinyl Rip: I Never Thought Anything this Good Could Happen to Me