Joe Tex – Live and Lively

Joe Tex – Live and Lively

Released February, 1968

He’s revered by fans and admired by colleagues, but Joe Tex remains a strangely unsung figure in the larger understanding of the classic soul era. This is despite fifteen years of hits on both R&B and Pop charts, and despite a stylistic range that stretched from gospel to funk to disco and traced a path from Nashville to Muscle Shoals to Memphis and back. Part of this erasure is likely due to his death in 1982, since he missed the waves of revivalism that boosted contemporaries like Solomon Burke and established the mythology that’s influenced generations of retro-soul acolytes. Part of it is probably because of the very stylistic rootlessness that defined his career, since he never anchored in a single signature “sound” even as he sparked the development of soul hotspots. And part of it might be that Tex’s LPs failed to gain lasting acclaim as canonical pieces of the album era.

But that’s not because he didn’t make great albums, and one of his best offers a potent recreation of his famed live performances and encapsulation of his singular talents. The album’s not a concert document, but was instead cut in the studio and includes the canned reactions of a small audience whose spattered applause and laughter tries (and fails) to stand in in for the organic call-and-response energy of an actual soul performance. This contrivance is much more effective in spotlighting the tight relationship between Tex and his band of  club-trained studio musicians who surround him, as well as showcasing the star’s remarkable talents.

While a vocal tour de force, the album also spotlights Tex’s gifts as a songwriter. Live and Lively is framed by two of his signature hits, the rave-up invitation of “Show Me” and the joyous signifying of “Skinny Legs and All,” and contains several other Tex-penned songs that fit squarely in the “country preacher” format that became his primary mode across his stylistic changes. From early on, Tex specialized in mini-sermons that mixed evocative personal stories with direct instructions for how to lead a better life. The best examples here are his lyrical and musical meditations on Black pride and working-class perseverance, like the stabbing blues of “Wooden Spoon,” the percussive proto-funk of “Papa Was Too,” or the gospel of “Don’t Give Up,” where Tex invokes the sweet rasp and sweeping assurance of Sam Cooke as he calls on his listeners to stay the course when the way is unsure.

Tex is on less admirable ground when he’s tackling relationships between men and women. While Tex was one of many artists (across genres and eras) who articulated such notions, it’s impossible to ignore that both “A Woman’s Hands” or “You’re Gonna Thank Me, Woman” tell women that their proper role is serve her man while encouraging those men to enforce these boundaries through both cruelty and kindness. Tex takes it further on a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which was written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Although Tex delivers the graceful melody faithfully (and effectively), he alters several lyrics to reinforce the notion that a woman is either to credit or to blame for her husband’s potential indiscretions. (Referencing the call for “respect” in the song, and perhaps also Franklin’s hit of the same name, Tex claims that “if you want the respect you’re askin’ for, baby, [then] show some respect for me.”). Tex acknowledges in the bridge that he knows this is a “man’s version” of how things should be and – as elsewhere – he sings with a warm tenderness that suggests he’s not as confident as he seems. But he still shifts Franklin’s call for equal domestic commitment to a focus on male desires and expectations.

Maybe that’s why the album-closing “Skinny Legs and All” is so welcome. Here, over a bustling nightclub groove, Tex affectionately scolds men and women who shame or ignore potential lovers because of their skinny bodies (a great flip on white beauty standards in the era of Twiggy) or their lackluster attire (what Tex calls “Mr. Raggedy Clothes,” a direct callback to the proud men of “Wooden Spoon” or “Papa Was Too”). By the end, Tex brings everyone into the joke while sincerely encouraging his listeners to “just keep on looking” until love comes along. An inclusive joy, “Skinny Legs and All” brings together Tex’s unique mix of brash humor and emotional vulnerability, his blend of country grit and uptown smoothness, and his deep expertise as a songwriter and bandleader. The song thus captures the unique power that marks Live & Lively and defines his great and still-underappreciated career.

Best tracks: “Wooden Spoon,” “Don’t Give Up

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Single-Minded: January/February

Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the first installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.

 

John Fred and his Playboy Band “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” 

(#1 Pop)

Given how much huff-and-puff we hear about how much the more the “music mattered, man” back in 1968, it’s rather amusing to realize that the year began with this glorious goof knocking The Beatles off the top of the pop charts. Then again, it’s not hard to imagine the Fab Four – with their smirking irreverence and love of wordplay – getting a kick out of this playful undercutting of psychedelic profundity. In fact, with its strutting bassline and sexy bridge, it’s not hard to imagine them rocking this out in a rehearsal when no one was paying attention.

 

The Lemon Pipers“Green Tambourine”

(#1 Pop)

In one way, this track is pure cliché, blatantly ripping off “Mr. Tambourine Man” and more largely trading on the hippie pop fad that bookended the Summer of Love. But there’s a surprising note of menace in this tale of a poor street musician desperately hustling for coins, particularly in the echoing distortion of Ivan Browne’s lead vocal on the hook. Like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” the Lemon Pipers give us a perhaps unintentional glimpse of the rude awakening that would soon come to end the hippie dream. (In fact, it’s not hard to imagine this, rather than “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” as the theme to David Fincher’s great film Zodiac.) More than just a trifle, “Green Tambourine” is a strange little Pied Piper trip into the shadows.

 

Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart – “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight”

(#8 Pop)

There’s also a touch of menace in this bit of bubblegum dynamite from songwriting pros Boyce and Hart, who step out from behind their wall of Monkees royalty money to deliver this great big blast of bang-shang-a-lang. With its furiously-strummed acoustic guitars, nervous close harmonies, and emotional dread, it could’ve been a killer Everly Brothers single. And its horny angst would’ve made it a great cover for a power-pop or early punk band. It’s as tightly-wound as a sugar rush, and just as likely to lead to an emotional crash.

 

Paul Mauriat – “Love Is Blue

(#1 Pop)

I should know better, but I’ll admit that I was surprised to learn that one of the biggest hits of 1968 (when “the music mattered, man”) was this easy-listening instrumental by a French orchestra leader. It topped the charts for 5 weeks, as did the album it came from, a testament to the larger popularity of smooth adult-contemporary sounds, and to the specific pleasures of Mauriat’s smooth version of a former Eurovision entry. There’s a subtly hypnotic power to Mauriat’s restrained arrangement (more mood than melody), as well as a certain sonic congruity with the fuller orchestration and blissed-out mellowness that marked all manner of pop, rock, country and R&B in this period. It’s a minor pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

 

The Letterman – “Going Out of My Head”/ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”

(#7 Pop)

In another of the year’s more surprising successes, veteran vocal trio The Lettermen returned to the Pop Top 10 with a medley recorded in front of a live audience. The Letterman riff on two of pop’s best falsetto crooners – Little Anthony and Frankie Valli – by jamming their hits together in a medley that befits the “thank you, thank you” setting of the revue-style album the single was taken from, but also emphasizes each song’s evocative focus on the obsessive mysteries of love. Neither would replace the original by a long shot, of course, but the stylistic jam-cut works. In its smoky alchemy, and its mash-up construction, it evokes the work of the Lettermen’s primary pop acolyte, Brian Wilson, then absent from the charts and exploring a quiet faraway place.

 

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles“I Second That Emotion”

(#1 R&B/#4 Pop)

Smokey Robinson’s songwriting genius, which helped remake the language of popular music through the hits he wrote for others and himself, covered the emotional waterfront from worried heartbreak to escapist fun. But he never sounded more playful than on this track, which marries one of his signature brilliant lyrics to the rising swell of peak-period Motown sound. The verses express doubt before opening into the hope of the chorus, where Robinson allows himself a moment of hope and excitement at the possibility of finally finding a love that’s true. Joined in harmony with the Miracles (who leave him to wonder alone in the verses), Robinson’s trademark falsetto carries an air of sweet release as it affirms the sweetness of this possibility. Leave it to Smokey Robinson to base a glorious love song on a mechanism of parliamentary procedure.

 

The Delfonics – “La-La Means I Love You”

(#2 R&B/#4 Pop)

Smokey Robinson didn’t write this hit from the early days of Philadelphia soul, but – between the aching falsetto and the lyric that uses alone-in-the-crowd imagery to explore deep emotional subtext – his influence is all over this beautiful track. The Delfonics and co-conspirator Thom Bell create a definitive early statement of the Philly sound and a graceful encapsulation of the pop dream. Even as the singer can’t find the correct words to express his love, he finds a purer articulation through an elemental musical phrase. From the first “la la,” you know that no smooth-talking Romeo ever had a chance.

 

Sam & Dave – “I Thank You”

(#4 R&B/#9 Pop)

 From its soul claps to its praise shouting, “I Thank You” is maybe the purest example of Sam & Dave’s secular gospel to make the charts. Backed by their trusted MGs and Memphis Horns (with Booker T. Jones’ organ offering particularly supple support), Sam Moore and Dave Prater give praises to a lover who found them, turned their whole world around, and saved them in the process. The object of their affection isn’t an idol on the wall, though, but a living, breathing human being with a mind and body of their own. There may be no better (or sexier) tribute to his beloved than when Prater sings that “you’ve got me trying new things too, just so that I can keep up with you.” Redemption comes in many varieties.

 

The Temptations – “I Wish It Would Rain”

(#1 R&B/#4 Pop)

Listening to this song, like so many entries in the seemingly-bottomless canon of Motor City masterpieces, it’s astonishing to think that anyone ever bought into that “Motown isn’t real soul music” nonsense. This track from the Temptations – just on the cusp of their “Cloud Nine” makeover – not only gives the lie to that notion, but creates a musical world that blends the swoon of the early Motown sound with its growing interest in sonic experimentation. Between deep gospel vocals from David Ruffin, an arrangement driven by stabbing guitar and church piano, and the cascading vocals of the other Temptations (who keep the rain and tears “fallin’, fallin’, fallin’”), this song is a brilliant manifestation of how effectively Motown mixed the high shine of pop aspiration with R&B’s commitment to emotional realism. By the time the thunderclaps come in at the end, you believe that Ruffin got his wish, although you’re not sure if anyone else can feel the rain as it pours out of his heart.

 

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”

(#2 R&B/#10 Pop)

In 1968, when new and better worlds seemed not only possible but just around the corner, one of soul’s great duos map out an affirming world of love and protection for each other. Gaye and Terrell’s voices interlock and interweave, calling out their joyful wishes for each other and then joining together in harmony over the track’s swaying sunshine. “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” sounds the hope of an expansive political moment and the joyous possibilities of new personal beginnings. But it also sounds the caution of that same expansive moment, and – particularly given Terrell’s death in 1970 – it becomes a heartbreaking tribute to how quickly and tragically those worlds can fall apart. I hope the two of them are singing together in a new and better world somewhere.

 

Gladys Knight & The Pips – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

(#1 R&B/#2 Pop)

Marvin Gaye’s musical conversation with great R&B women extended to his blockbuster version of this cut that was first popularized by label-mate Gladys Knight. While Gaye’s version sometimes (unfairly) overshadows Knight’s take, her performance offers an powerful complement and counterpoint that centers her refusal to ignore her lover’s duplicity and her desperate attempts to either save the relationship or end it with an honest reckoning. Knight wrangles these internal and external conflicts inside a singularly powerful vocal, backed brilliantly by the Pips’s insistent background singing and a thunderous Funk Brothers track. Knight has no doubt of the outcome of the confrontation, but she knows it’s necessary nonetheless. And she’ll handle the consequences.

 

Lynn Anderson – “Promises, Promises”

(#4 Country)

Lynn Anderson gets exactly where Gladys Knight is coming from. In her 1970 anthem, she made clear that she never promised you a rose garden, but her breakthrough hit from two years earlier makes clear from the get-go that you promised her a helluva lot and didn’t come up with a single thing. Now she’s thoroughly tired of your shit, but she’s not denying that she’s got some of her own. After all, despite her lover’s failings and his ending claim that he’s gone for good, Anderson knows that he’ll be back and she’ll accept him. The worst broken promises are the ones we’ve made to ourselves, and the piercing guitar and Anderson’s weary vocals emphasize their awareness of these existential blues.

 

Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner – “The Last Thing On My Mind”

(#7 Country)

Those same existential blues anchor this transformative version of Tom Paxton’s well-known folk ballad. Dolly and Porter turn a solo lament of lost love into a final conversation between two partners who mourn the loss of a love that was so strong but also acknowledge their shared culpability in its failure. There’s a catharsis here alongside the grief, with the bopping arrangement suggesting that the end of this relationship will mean a weight eventually lifted from both sets of shoulders. The shifting focus between the two singers illustrates this mutual understanding, but also shows how good intentions and great chemistry can still lead to a dead end. The final verse – when Dolly sings “I’ve got plenty of reasons for going,” Porter admits “this I know” and later cries “please don’t go” – makes clear that the feelings will remain even after this necessary moment of closure.

 

Glen Campbell – “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”

(#2 Country)

Sometimes there’s even less closure. The tragedy of this song – plainly expressed in Jimmy Webb’s lyric and melody, and given such aching expression in Campbell’s vocal – is not so much that he’s left his love behind. It’s in the lack of that final conversation that Dolly and Porter got to have, the recognition that they failed to build a world around each other in the hopeful manner of Marvin and Tammi. Literally and figuratively looking backward, Campbell understands that his partner will experience the slow build of heartbreak as the full finality of his departure sets in. But part of his concern might be projection, since his teardrop tenor lets us know that he’ll be doing his share of crying too.

Love really is blue.

 

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

Released January 30, 1968

About halfway through the hurtling bash of “I Heard Her Call My Name,” the opener of the second side of the Velvet Underground’s second album, lead singer and primary lyricist Lou Reed howls that – under his lover’s control – “my mind split open.” Almost before he can get the final word out, a blare of electric feedback rushes in and sets off a noisy guitar solo that signals both the excitement and danger of his love-struck obsession. This brief moment encapsulates the larger approach of White Light/White Heat, which offers both thematic and musical extension of their legendary debut. Where The Velvet Underground and Nico contained several moments of sweetness and intimacy, though, White Light/White Heat is loud, confrontational and joyously excessive. Through its noisy juxtaposition of ’60s pop cliches and avant abrasions, it offers a rock ‘n’ roll language of intermingled pain and pleasure that celebrates the rush and acknowledges the comedown.

As the great Ellen Willis wrote in her essay on the band, the Velvet Underground’s best songs alternated between those that “redefined how rock-and-roll was supposed to sound” through experimentation and those that “used basic rock-and-roll patterns to redefine how the music was supposed to feel.” Willis specifically mentions this album’s glorious title track in the latter category, and the rest of White Light/White Heat walks a similar tightrope between pop legibility and dissonant weirdness. The group mixes pop’s musical markers – the bubblegum hooks and ooh-ahh background vocals – with scuzzed-out drone and mind-splitting noise that somehow both undercuts and emphasizes the simmering doubt of “Here She Comes Now” or the feverish excitement of “I Heard Her Call My Name.” And the lyrics riff on recognizable tropes that are jarred by strange interjections or seemingly “wrong” notes.

These dissonant touches have the additional effect of subtly emphasizing the album’s embrace of the queer and non-normative. In fact, the most classically tragic character here is the one who most embodies “traditional” hetero manhood, Waldo Jeffers of “The Gift.” As related in multi-instrumentalist John Cale’s droll recitation, Jeffers’ fear of his girlfriend’s infidelity causes him to make a grand romantic gesture – mailing himself to her, thus literally boxing himself into a performance of masculinity – that ultimately leads to him learning that she hates him before she accidentally stabs him to death. Even as Jeffers meets this fate, though, a much sadder story unfolds in “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” sung by Cale with a restrained clarity that recalls the departed Nico. Here, the title character – implied to be transgender or genderqueer – undergoes surgery that goes wrong when she wakes up and starts screaming as the doctor hurriedly cuts into her brain. It’s not clear whether this lobotomy is voluntary, but – either way – the treatment of the beautiful title character recalls real attempts to use medical procedures to “cure” queer individuals and larger societal projects of controlling deviant behavior.

If “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is containment, “Sister Ray” is its explosive antithesis. In this 18-minute epic that encompasses most of the second side, the band pushes its rave-up skronk to its seeming limit with an epic portrait of queer sex and a drug-fueled party that keeps rockin’ even when the police show up. The track’s relentless drive  is centered and propelled by Maureen Tucker, whose drumming – here, as throughout the album – finds flexibility and dynamism within the unending throb. In conversation with the twinned guitars of Reed and Sterling Morrison, as well as Cale’s swirling organ, Tucker inverts, accelerates, pulls back, and swerves the beat towards a real and figurative climax. “Sister Ray” demonstrates that, as much as any element of the band’s sound, it’s Tucker’s drums that negotiate the balance between pop formalism and freaked-out experimentation.

Jonathan Richman famously copped the riff and melody of “Sister Ray” for “Roadrunner,” and the influence of White Light/White Heat and the Velvets’ career on the coming generations of glam and punk rockers has been documented to the point of cliché. It’s not hard to hear why Bowie, the Buzzcocks and others took such inspiration from the band and this record. (On this listen, I was struck by parallels to the great synth-punk duo Suicide, who worked a similar mixture of love and danger through a droning meta-commentary on pop music and rock mythology.) But, as much as the Velvet Underground established a template, they haven’t lost their unique power in the wake of so many brilliant acolytes. Few bands have so effectively explored the way that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll provoke a similar rush in the moment and leave the same kind of ache once they’re gone.

Best tracks: “White Light/White Heat,” “Sister Ray

Dr. John – Gris-Gris

Dr. John – Gris-Gris

Released January 27th, 1968

At a time when many musicians blended psychedelic experimentation with an embrace of the musical roots, few imbued those roots with as much incantatory power as Dr. John. The altered ego of veteran New Orleans musician Mac Rebennack, the good Doctor here uses these roots as primary ingredients (or maybe “in-gris-gris-dients”) for a potion that transports listeners to a Crescent City at the real and mythological crossroads of Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Native North America. With trickster magic and funk fire, Dr. John and his collaborators summon the spirits of this alternate hemisphere to compelling and sometimes unsettling effects.

Gris-Gris is the soundtrack of colonial collisions, an album-length meditation on what Ned Sublette called “the world that made New Orleans.” Throughout the album, the many elements of the transcontinental mixture that shaped the city’s music swirl around like swamp-water and stand in for the city’s larger history, whether the triumphs of resistance and rebirth or the terrors of enslavement and genocide. Instruments from banjo to conga to flute take their turn at the center of the songs, played by a crack crew of collaborators that includes luminaries like multi-instrumentalist Harold Battiste (who co-wrote several song with Rebennack) and drummer John Boudreaux. Vocally, Rebennack and a large group of other singers employ multiple languages and traditions as they ride atop these thick  arrangements. The whole thing is bathed in a layer of distortion that makes it sound like a message from the distant past (or maybe the distant future). Thus,  while the album contains lyrical references to diasporic histories and local practices, the primary method of this historical conjuring is in the music itself.

One of the most remarkable elements of this approach is that Dr. John’s singing disappears almost entirely on several tracks. On “Danse Kalinda ba Doom” and “Danse Lambeaux,” for example, Rebennack cedes the floor to the instrumental conversation (which includes his expert keyboard work) and a cast of supporting singers, including New Orleans hit-makers like Shirley Goodman, Jessie Hill and Tami Lynn, whose voices rise up like reminders of a forgotten past and marginalized present. A similar effect animates “Croker Courtbullion,” the whirling dance that becomes the album’s strange centerpiece. Here, short snippets of melody – alternately provided by flute, electric guitar, and the chanting ring-shouts of the backup singers – rest atop a haunting, polyrhythmic maelstrom. Evoking the restless insistence of Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song,” the song rises and falls several times before returning to the original, Rebennack-less  circle of rhythms and voices. This gesture doesn’t erase the fact that – then, as now – the music business reiterated the same imperialist mindset and thieving practices as the rest of the country and the world. Nor does it change the fact that the album was framed around the introduction of Dr. John as a singularly powerful character, or the way that Mac Rebennack reaped the benefits when Dr. John’s real-life career paralleled this origin story. Even the most talented and well-intentioned white male artists still benefit from various kinds of privilege. But these realities only accentuate how striking it is that the music on Gris-Gris so frequently destabilizes the seeming centrality of its white male protagonist.

This is even true on the album’s final song – “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” – which is its most enduring moment of “Night Tripper” myth-making, as well as a perfect blend of the slippery weirdness of the longer experiments with the punchy folktale funk of tracks like “Mama Roux” and “Jump Sturdy.” It’s thus the definitive moment on the album, and – thanks to superlative performances from Rebennack and the rest – it’s also the best. “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” finds Dr. John slyly and spookily bragging on his hoodoo gifts while his piano walks restlessly alongside pounding congas, Battiste’s mournful clarinet, and the ever-present insistence of the background vocalists. At the end, as the voices and instruments slowly fade into silence, the song never quite resolves. The end of the album doesn’t mean that Dr. John lifted us out of the spell he cast at the beginning. Instead, we might be lost in it forever.

As great as “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and other individual tracks are, though, Gris-Gris is best experienced from start to finish. Listening this way not only emphasizes its success as a evocative character portrait or resonant historical text. It also emphasizes the album’s dreamlike quality – how it evokes the wavy impressionism of the subconscious and the vivid remnants that flash into your waking hours – and the connected sense that the listener is experiencing the effects of hypnotic suggestion. It is a fitting beginning to Dr. John’s justly celebrated career, and a uniquely powerful chapter within it. From the very beginning, this gris gris man cast a hell of a spell.

Best tracks: “Croker Courtbullion,” “I Walk on Gilded Splinters

Tammy Wynette – Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House

Tammy Wynette – Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House

Released January 24th, 1968

Tammy Wynette’s voice is a barely-suppressed sob. It makes sense, then, that – on her second album – she covers “Cry,” most famously recorded by Johnnie Ray. It also makes sense that, where Ray’s legendary hit is passionate and jagged, Wynette offers a more contained reading that seems aware of the gendered consequences of emotional turmoil. Wynette welcomes listeners into her world of glistening eyes and fluttering hearts, but she isn’t willing to fully expose her vulnerability to a world that would easily dismiss her as hysterical. Ray found freedom by letting it go, but Wynette finds it by holding it together.

On a record named for its two #1 hits, she uses this sophisticated vocal approach to map the emotional terrain from the yearning romance of “Take Me To Your World” to the weary disappointment of “I Don’t Wanna Play House.” Her voice alternately murmurs and soars as she relates poignant stories of men who are absent, children who are hurting, and women who deserve better. With lush pop accompaniment from “Nashville Sound” musicians and producer Billy Sherrill, Wynette forces the listener to look her heart straight in the eye.

Wynette often gets deployed as a symbol of country music’s late-1960s torn toward conservatism, a kind of Merle Haggard of the domestic sphere. This is not unfair, since – as Beverly Keel notes – Wynette’s songs “cemented the general consensus that female country singers embraced traditional, if not backward-thinking, ideals” by suggesting that “a woman’s identity was defined through her husband.” To be sure, many of her protagonists implicitly or explicitly blame themselves for their fractured relationships and lonely hearts. Most notable is the mother in “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” whose infidelity caused her husband to leave and her daughter to reject the idea of married life.

But there are also moments where Wynette casts the blame on individual men and the larger structure that gives them greater license to “define” themselves and the women around them. The mother causes inter-generational pain in “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” but she offers inter-generational support in “The Phone Call” as her daughter explains the mistreatment that led her to leave her man and find a new home. “Broadminded” has harsh words for the “narrow-minded man” who chases after women in the bar but doesn’t respect the woman who waits at home. And she sharply reminds the no-good dude in “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” that – even though “you had it in your mind that I was the kind of girl who’d do anything you wanted me to” – he needs to remember that “baby, I’ve got an ego too.”

Even when Wynette is willing to subsume that ego for the sake of love, her voice still expresses a secret transcript of possible regret. “Take Me To Your World” finds a supplicant Wynette begging forgiveness from a man who she’s done wrong. Or maybe she’s done him wrong – the only details as to her supposed sins are that she used to work in a bar. (There’s no evidence that she’s participating of either the wandering eye of “Broadminded” or the big drunk talk of “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego.”) Wynette is also slinging drinks in “Good,” while hoping that “a girl from the wrong side of town” can be made “good” in the eyes of her new lover.  There’s nothing to indicate that Wynette is insincere about her desire for middle-class respectability and an escape from the wild side of life. But her remarkable singing suggests that she also understands this as a performance designed to please a man who understands her only within some version of the infamous angel-whore binary.

The album’s only real misstep is the closing version of “Ode To Billie Joe.” Bobbie Gentry’s classic became a de rigeur cover for country-affiliated artists in this period, and Wynette’s take sounds just that obligatory. The faithful arrangement and competent vocal share none of the resonant evocativeness of Gentry’s masterpiece or Wynette’s signature sublimation. Ultimately, it may be that Wynette is simply not suited to explore the song’s spooky gothic mystery. The mysteries in which she specializes, the ones she carries inside her buttoned-up heart, are the ones implied in the uncertainty, ambivalence, and questioning parenthetical of “(Or) Is It Love?”

Regardless of how sad the answer might be, she’ll do her best to keep it together. But we shouldn’t be afraid to cry with her a little along the way.

Best tracks: “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” “Cry

Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

Released January 22nd, 1968

By 1968, Aretha Franklin’s ascendance was so complete that her album titles became declarations of dominance. Lady Soul, her third Atlantic Records release and first album of the year, acknowledges her primacy in the musical genre that wed the multifarious sounds of Black pop to the joyous assertions of the Civil Rights and Black Power era. The album became another blockbuster, an instant greatest-hits package that included three Top 10 hits and another that made the Top 20. On this brief and brilliant masterpiece, Franklin lays out the thematic and musical terrain that defined soul music and placed her at its center.

Throughout Lady Soul, Franklin explores soul music’s core demand for personal commitment in the face of temptation. From the first troubled tremolo of “Chain of Fools” through the last mournful fade of “Ain’t No Way,” she insists that her songs’ subjects “be as good to me as I am to you” and that listeners reckon with the consequences of absent or unequal partnerships. Even at her most heartbroken, Franklin never sounds defeated. Instead, in the best tradition of the blueswomen whose work infuses the album’s sound and spirit, she offers survival strategies for an unfair and unfriendly world. Sometimes it’s about getting by. Sometimes it’s about getting out.

And sometimes it’s about finding someone who’ll be as good to you as you are to them. Her blissful take on The Young Rascals’ “Groovin” celebrates equal partnership – a hopeful vision of “you and me, endlessly” – as an antidote to facing the world alone or (even worse) being trapped in a chain of fools. The album’s swooning centerpiece “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” written for Franklin by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, celebrates a partner who “makes me feel so alive” by offering her respect and satisfaction. She wants to please and praise her lover, but not at the expense of her body, mind and spirit.

The songs about personal fulfillment that fill Lady Soul were and are impossible to separate from their larger resonance in the rapidly-shifting political terrain of 1968. This is neither surprising nor accidental. Franklin understood the racial masking and gendered dissemblance employed by Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and other Black pop stars. She practiced the gospel politics of Civil Rights activists (including her father Rev. C.L. Franklin) and musical mentors like Mahalia Jackson. And, of course, her 1967 breakthrough had been propelled by her galvanizing calls for “Respect.” Franklin thus recognized the utility, and perhaps necessity, of songs that spoke equally to private concerns and the public sphere at a moment when the interlocked swells of Black Feminism and Black Power led to the questioning of old alliances and the embrace of new identities. In the desperation of “Good As I Been To You,” the awakening of “Natural Woman,” or the well-earned cynicism of “Chain of Fools” (which, as Craig Werner describes, also became a soundtrack for soldiers in Vietnam), Lady Soul finds the fate of the community as uncertain as that of any romantic relationship. In this context, the album’s one obviously political and explicitly gospel song – her stately take on Curtis Mayfield’s anthem “People Get Ready” – is both thematic outlier and crucial parallel.

The presence of “People Get Ready” also signals the strength and joy that Franklin finds in musical call-and-response. Commanding a fearsome unit of musicians, Franklin centers her astonishing singing within a deep instrumental conversation – including lead guitar from Joe South and Bobby Womack, and Franklin’s own remarkable piano work – and sympathetic background vocals from The Sweet Inspirations and Franklin’s sisters Carolyn and Erma. This ensemble helps Franklin survey a diverse musical landscape that belies the narrowest conceptions of “soul music” and its artists. She stomps through Memphis grooves like the slam-bang “Sweet Sweet Baby (Since You’ve Been Gone),” but also calls back to the uptown jazz-pop she recorded during her oft-maligned tenure at Columbia Records. She covers fellow soul royalty Mayfield and James Brown, and signifies on esteemed predecessors like Sam Cooke. (His “You Send Me” gets a brief shout-out at the end of “Groovin’,” a sly and loving commentary on how The Young Rascals’ great “blue-eyed soul” records took inspiration from artists like Cooke.) Calling together musicians across space and time, Franklin musically enacts a powerful vision of communal strength and individual genius.

And she is a genius. This seems obvious, of course, but it’s worth mentioning as some narratives continue to diminish Franklin’s own role in her late-1960s emergence. This dynamic is deconstructed by Emily Lordi in a review of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. Lordi notes that, although Franklin is “an expert musician” who “laid the instrumental foundation for her own recordings with Atlantic,” she is too often framed as a “a young ingénue just drifting, waiting for white men like [Atlantic] producer Jerry Wexler” to save her from the limitations of her Columbia work and turn her into the “Queen of Soul.” Wexler’s involvement was crucial, of course, but this still-common narrative is both inaccurate and a reflection of the kinds of historical horseshit that Franklin pushes against on Lady Soul. Like so many Black women in the music industry, or the whole wide world, Aretha Franklin here gets reduced to a conduit for white fantasies and patriarchal desires.

The music tells a different story. The songs on Lady Soul warn us against believing this lie, and they remind us of the consequences for those who do. On this remarkable album, Franklin assures us that – someday, someway – the chain’s gonna break.

Best tracks: “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

PS – Cited above, both Emily Lordi and Craig Werner have been crucial to my thinking about Aretha Franklin and soul music. Their words and inspiration will surely appear again in future entries. Go get their books.

The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Released January 15, 1968

The Notorious Byrd Brothers is the sound of a group at the height of its powers and the end of the road. It offers perhaps the fullest demonstration of The Byrds’ influential blend of folk and rock (with accompanying dollops of country and jazz), as well as the most detailed exploration of their space-age pastoralism that mixed the we-are-stardust excitement of the Apollo era with the back-to-the-garden anxiety of the atomic age. But it was also the last music recorded by the original lineup, save for a disappointing 1973 reunion album, and the tumultuous recording sessions saw three founding members depart and one leave soon after.

The ambivalence is reflected in the music itself. Even as they hold to the early-1960s idealism they expressed in jingle-jangle anthems like “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” now refracted through the Aquarian optimism of the counterculture, they address a world then proving that cultural, political and personal transformations may not lead to the expected or desired outcome. On “Change Is Now,” for example, the lyrics are seemingly composed of countercultural affirmations but the quivering voices and quavering guitars remind us to be cautious in a moment when “things that seem to be solid are not.”

At its best, The Notorious Byrd Brothers reckons with this complexity. Particularly effective is the dreamlike sequence that begins with the album’s second track.  Shimmering like a mirage, “Goin’ Back” finds Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman layering harmonies inside the ringing Rickenbackers like ghosts, or maybe angels. Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, “Goin’ Back” uses the hazy memories of youth to nurture a personal restoration of spirit that’s drawn outward in “Natural Harmony.” Here, with post-Summer of Love mysticism, McGuinn envisions a future of people filling the streets and bringing the world back into balance. The unspoken reason for this fracture is laid bare in “Draft Morning,” an evocative portrait of a Vietnam draftee that envelops its sadness and fear in high-strung guitars and falsetto harmonies from McGuinn and David Crosby before literally exploding in an instrumental section with the sounds of guns blazing and bombs falling on the peaceful soundscape. As the young soldier questions the future, the guitars trail off into the album’s second Goffin/King song, “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” Positioned here, one could assume this to be a tribute to draft resisters or happy drop-out wanderers. But there’s also a touch of regret in McGuinn’s vocal as he leaves his love behind and a sense of indecision in the fuzzed-out guitars that disrupt the song’s Bakersfield gallop. On the sweet waltz “Get To You,” the only song co-written by the barely-present Gene Clark, our tired traveler is finding his way back to his beloved. (No wanderin’ bootheels here: he’s eight miles high in a jet airplane.) After the troubled journey of the past few songs, “Get To You” touches down with quiet assurances of “that’s a little better.” And, at least for the moment, you believe it to be true. A rich call-and-response between songs, voices and instruments, these tracks on Notorious Byrd Brothers are as good a stretch of music as The Byrds ever produced.

But remember that “things that seem to be solid are not.” After the invocatory “Change Is Now,” the second side of The Notorious Byrd Brothers finds each group songwriter (save Gene Clark) exploring their own pathways. If the first side is a great coming together of the Byrds’ collective voice, then this mixed bag is the sound of the group falling apart. Most successful is Chris Hillman’s “Old John Robertson,” a devastating character portrait wrapped in a hot-burrito country shuffle. David Crosby offers two pieces of hippie-dip – “Tribal Gathering” and “Dolphin’s Smile” – that reflect both the jazzy beauty and clumsy lyrics that marked his subsequent work. The album ends with its worst track, McGuinn’s “Space Odyssey,” which – with its ponderous storytelling and Ed Wood sound effects – makes exploring the galaxy sound like a total drag. The band sounds great throughout, but the album runs out of steam well before the final fade-out.

It may be that The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a really great EP inside a pretty good LP. Still, the album’s best stuff – particularly the run from “Goin’ Back” through “Get To You” – is a breathtaking mixture of unified album concept and the bite-size power of great singles. As the original Byrds, who helped craft a central strain of 1960s white pop-rock, fade into the past, they leave us with a work that seizes the future and commemorates what’s been left behind. “Change Is Now” becomes both prayer and eulogy, and their advice that we “dance to the day when fear, it is gone” offers a reassurance that – in this context – seems neither unearned nor utopian.

Best tracks: “Goin’ Back,” “Draft Morning