Bobby Womack, Understanding
File Between: Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave
Comments: The more I listen to, the less definitive any statements I can make seem, but 1972 certainly seems to have been a high tide for a certain kind of funky, cinematic soul. Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, of course, is the standard by which all others must be judged, but though Womack isn’t much interested in Mayfield’s sweet aching falsetto, preferring a gritty Southern shout (this record was recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals), there’s a similar gorgeous texture to the hard-driving, snaky rhythms he keeps returning to. Even standard covers like the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” are souped-up into epics of soulful pleading and extemporaneous gospelly patter. “Woman’s Gotta Have It” was the record’s hit, but it’s almost the least interesting song on the album, washed-out and mellow where the rest are hard-charging and high-contrast. Womack was pretty busy around this time (the other album he released in 1972 was the soundtrack to Across 110th Street), but he sounds at the peak of his powers here, screaming and shouting like a Sixties soulman over beds of sweet, funky rhythm that are pure Seventies. The record closes with the requisite early-70s social-commentary number, “Harry Hippie”, and it’s pretty bad, but up to there it’s one of the best soul albums I’ve heard for this project — which makes it one of the best albums period.
A Keeper? I only wish everything else I listened to for this project was this rewarding.
Vinyl Rip: Thing Called Love
Cashman & West, A Song or Two
File Between: James Taylor and America
Comments: Terry Cashman and Tommy West were a couple of New York-based bubblegum-pop entrepreneurs in the late 60s, writing hits for Spanky & Our Gang and scoring minor hits in Canada. This record is most notable for the ten-minute opus which opens side two, “American City Suite” (which, the back of the record informs me, is composed of the songs “Sweet City Song,” “Hello Jack,” “All Around the Town,” and “A Friend Is Dying”), which apparently made it to #27 in the US and #25 in Canada. A glance at the credits suggests this album is part of the great session-man soft-rock tradition of the 1970s — Jim Gordon’s on drums, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter plays steel guitar — and it’s exactly as pretty, as mellow, and as non-insightful as that suggests. It’s professionally made, with massed strings woozing behind sensitive guitar and piano figures, and both Cashman and West sing well (not that I can tell the difference between them), but none of the songs are particularly memorable. Perfect background music, but you’d never put it on a mixtape.
A Keeper? Sure, why not? If only to remind myself of how desperate record labels were to find another Simon & Garfunkel.
Vinyl Rip: American City Suite
Alan Parker, Alan Parker
File Between: Bobby Whitlock and Joe Walsh
Comments: That File Between may give you the wrong impression, and lead you to believe that this record is interesting. It isn’t. I mean, it’s perfectly fine — solid roots rock with a polished LA sheen — and Parker can both sing and play guitar. He just has no songs. There isn’t a single line in any of the eight songs with lyrics on the album that catches the ear or makes an impression; it’s all rock-by-numbers, and might as well have been the result of a Oulipo game of constructing new songs out of old verses, except without any of the creativity or sense of play. Even worse, there aren’t any hooks; this is as arrogant as workmanlike rock, ground out with a lot of passion but no ingenuity and very little care given to whether the listener’s having a good time. It assumes our attention, then neglects to repay it. Parker and his band work through a bunch of half-hearted genre riffs — bluesy stomps, country shuffles, cosmic meanderings, and one stretched-out Latin-ish instrumental that sounds like a third tier attempt to imitate Santana. Everything is terribly competent, and for the space of a verse or so you can fool yourself into thinking hey, this is pretty good. But it only stays on the same plateau, never lifts off into anything beyond mediocrity.
A Keeper? There are a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be too bad thrown in a mix with more fully-developed work, and like I say, Parker’s competent. Just too bad about the songs.
Vinyl Rip: Clear Light
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, The Ballad of Calico
File Between: The Free Design and Marty Robbins
Comments: When I say that The Ballad of Calico sounds far more like 1969 than 1972, I don’t want that to sound like a bad thing. But it’s a double-album concept record about the history of a California mining town (see Wikipedia for particulars), with light psychedelic flourishes, the breeziest sunshine-pop/Laurel Canyon production imaginable, and a couple of the kind of goofy genre exercises that should never have made it out of the 60s alive. (“Dorsey the Paper-Carrying Dog” is a slack-jawed “Winchester Cathedral,” while “Vachel Carling’s Rubilator” takes on the world of faddish technology at only a slightly more sophisticated level than Allan Sherman’s “Automation.”) The only thing that even sounds slightly 70s about it is the vague country-pop air that hangs about and occasionally settles down on a song or two, turning it into actual country (as with the dobro-heavy “Trigger Happy Kid,” excerpted below), moving Kenny Rogers, by now far more famous than the First Edition, away from the sundazed psych-pop of his youth and into the mellow country-pop of his adult years. But though Rogers gets top billing, he’s far from the only voice here; the whole band sings various songs, as each of the nineteen songs tells one slice of Calico’s story, tall tales and nostalgic history lessons alike, largely in character, including a couple of very bad soul imitations that sound even more Sixties (reminding me of the guys who sang in Janis Joplin’s bands). It’s charming, but slight, and the fact that it was written as a concept album for the group, by Michael “Wildfire” Murphey and Larry Cansler, makes me think of Frank Sinatra’s equally ungainly and oddly fascinating concept album “Watertown.” Like “Watertown,” I bet this could be someone’s favorite record ever if they spent long enough with it at the right impressionable age; but for me, it’s more curio than talisman.
A Keeper? That said, I’m something of a collector of curios; and starry-eyed Americana is nothing to sneeze at, however underwritten or overlong.
Vinyl Rip: Trigger Happy Kid