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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Hollies: Evolution

THE HOLLIES: EVOLUTION (1967)

1) Then The Heartaches Begin; 2) Stop Right There; 3) Water On The Brain; 4) Lullaby To Tim; 5) Have You Ever Loved Somebody; 6) You Need Love; 7) Rain On The Window; 8) Heading For A Fall; 9) Ye Olde Toffee Shoppe; 10) When Your Light's Turned On; 11) Leave Me; 12) The Games We Play; 13*) Carrie Ann; 14*) Signs That Will Never Change.

The Hollies did not manage to either properly adapt to the psychedelic revolution, or even to sur­vive it. They endorsed some of the formal trappings — just look at the album cover, designed by «The Fool», who were also the regular providers of psychedelic visual gimmicks for The Beatles; but nobody in the band ever had the gumption to plunge into the proper spirit. Clarke was a pop­ster, Nash was a folkie, Hicks was the portrait of Dorian Gray, and the rhythm section never developed any ambitions of their own; thus, even if the sessions for Evolution were literally taking place a few doors away from those for Sgt. Pepper, what the band did on this album was altogether not very different from what they'd been doing in 1966.

The problem is that they were still a bit confused about it, and the final results, though definitely not bad, were a step down from the smash quality of For Certain Because. Not so much because the band was derailed by psychedelia — this resulted in only one small specific disaster, to which we will return in a moment — but rather because, not being ready to fully embrace it, they hesi­tatingly fell back on the old formula, and produced too many tunes that sounded like inferior variations on what they'd done previously. The album's title is really misleading: Evolution does not feature the band evolving at all, other than adding a few superficial touches that actually show The Hollies being notably afraid of evolution.

A good example would be the song ʽRain On The Windowʼ, a rather pathetic attempt to write another ʽBus Stopʼ — the tune borrows not just the gray melancholic mood of the original, but even some of its vocal phrasing, rhythmics, and arrangement details. It is still kinda cute, and the French horn solo is a nice touch, but the vocals are so limp in comparison that there can be abso­lutely no competition. On the more anthemic songs, the old build-up trick — start out soulful and slow, gradually rise to a bombastic chorus — is no longer as effective on new songs such as ʽYou Need Loveʼ as it used to be on, say, ʽPay You Back With Interestʼ. And some of Nash's folkie stuff is beginning to get too cloying and cutesy for its own good (ʽStop Right Thereʼ), as if he'd already forgotten that his potential audience could consist of somebody other than small toddlers ready to be tucked into bed.

The record is still eminently listenable, because The Hollies are still playing energetic pop-rock rather than submitting to easy listening standards — and at least a small handful of the tunes should be eligible for classic status. ʽThen The Heartaches Beginʼ is an excellent album opener, for instance, and one of the few songs here that did benefit from psychedelic innovations — Tony Hicks has an excellent raga-influenced distorted guitar part here, and it forms a dizzying combi­nation with the band's falsetto harmonies. ʽLeave Meʼ is an outstanding angry rant of the kind that Clarke is really good at, except that he was doing fewer and fewer of those as time went by. And I'm pretty sure that any of the other songs could become a personal favorite for anybody: hardly any of them, however, could hope for well-earned collective popularity — because, really, there's a superior song from the 1965-66 period for each of them, and this is where it becomes obvious that The Hollies have not simply lost the race to The Beatles (something they did way back in 1963), but that they fell out of the race altogether.

Still, they carry on, and the only song here that could make me reconsider the thumbs up rating is the above-mentioned disaster — ʽLullaby To Timʼ (yes, more toddler stuff: allegedly written by Clarke for his son, but still given over to Nash, because, you know, it's his game). Not because it is a bad song, but because of the horrendous distorted effect that they put on Graham's vocals to make them sound «psychedelic». Hit up the explanation of the concept of «datedness» in any textbook on art, and chances are you'll get a soundbite of this — what might have sounded super­ficially curious in the early days of recording technologies is impossible to perceive these days as anything but an accidental penetration of «chewed tape» onto the studio master. Honestly, if I were in charge, I'd spit on respect for artistic legacy, recover the original tapes, and delete that effect from all remasters of the album; but I guess they lost the original tape anyway, because that is the only humane explanation of why this travesty has not been remedied. Of course, this is only one song, but it is fairly symbolic — as if for this band, «going psychedelic» simply meant «pick out a random song and put some shitty effects on it».

At least the CD edition is kind enough to throw on ʽCarrie Anneʼ as a bonus (a song that should have been ʽMarianneʼ, since Nash planned to dedicate it to Marianne Faithfull but chickened out at the last moment) — the single from May '67 that is better than almost all of Evolution com­bined, a song that combines catchiness, kiddie innocence, marimbas, and the bitter irony of what would be condemned these days as «slut-shaming» (yes indeed!) in one excellent little package, and temporarily restores the band's reputation as providers of intelligent British pop-rock that could at least compete with the catchy sarcasm of the Stones and the Kinks, if not necessarily with the mind-blowing progressions of ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ. And, if anything, the next LP would show that the band was handling the Era of Change better than most of their B-grade com­petitors from the early days of Merseybeat. But the Golden Age of the Hollies was irretrievably over with this album, even if, commerce-wise, it surprisingly managed to chart higher than For Certain Because. Perhaps The Fool made a difference, after all.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Blondie: Pollinator

BLONDIE: POLLINATOR (2017)

1) Doom Or Destiny; 2) Long Time; 3) Already Naked; 4) Fun; 5) My Monster; 6) Best Day Ever; 7) Gravity; 8) When I Gave Up On You; 9) Love Level; 10) Too Much; 11) Fragments.

Okay, I am going to assume that the album title is a simple reference to Debbie Harry's interest in beekeeping (something that was also reflected in the accompanying tour)... because if it is not, some very disturbing implications are on the way. Then again, we certainly live in a world when the ripe age of 72 is by no means a rigid impediment on the way of, um, some good old pollina­tion, or is it? Anyway, let us not forget that, for all of Debbie's legendary sexuality, the songs were always much more about emotional than physical proximity, and Pollinator is no exception. The important question is not how Debbie handles her sexuality at this time — it is whether, after two disappointing albums in a row, there is any reason at all to be concerned about yet another album from a band that almost ridiculously refuses to die.

Of one thing I am totally sure: Pollinator is a surprising improvement over its two predecessors. Surprising, yes, but perhaps not unpredictable: one could have guessed that after a long period of trying to «adapt» to current fashions, the band would eventually just fuck it and return to their roots — good old pop-rock with steady Seventies' beats. For the first time since No Exit, they seem fully content to simply sound like themselves, with one questionable exception: their new keyboard player, Matt Katz-Bohen, who still seems bent on not only privatizing the band's sound, but also on turning them into as much of a 21st century synth-pop ensemble as possible. Perhaps if he had a knack for extracting simple, but emotionally effective patterns from those keyboards (something like Arcade Fire's ʽSprawl IIʼ, for instance), it would have been okay, but too many of these synth barriers just sound like formulaic techno-pop, and end up robotizing Harry's presence as well. But yes, it is also true that his keyboards are the only thing that put the music squarely into the modern age — that, and the singer's aging voice.

Once again, very few songs are written by Blondie members themselves. The Harry/Stein duet is represented on only two tracks, the first of which, ʽDoom Or Destinyʼ, opens the album on a par­ticularly retro note — they even feature Joan Jett on backing vocals! — with big Clem Burke drums, fast chugging guitar, and Debbie's vocals ever so slightly cosmetized to get her back that sardonic, spitfire flavor of youth. It does not really work, of course: the chorus hook is just an endless repeat of the question "is it doom or destiny?", and there is no way that the enthusiasm of youth could be properly rekindled now, but already the fact that they are able to run through it without falling flat on their faces speaks for something. The second one, ʽLove Levelʼ, is also a stand out due to its heavy dependence on brass fanfare, which still has to clash with Katz-Bohen's bubbling electro-pop synth brew, but is fun nevertheless.

On the other end of the spectrum is the album's most, if not only, modern-sounding number: ʽFunʼ, provided for Blondie by a bunch of corporate songwriters and the producer of TV On The Radio, sounds like a 2010s take on Modern Talking and could be done by just about any dance-pop outfit in the world. Forty years ago that vibe, though it always sounded silly, was at least novel; these days, it no longer has the benefit of starry-eyed innocence. But I can understand, somebody told them that they still had to grind out a hit single and they obliged — in fact, they did make it into a hit single, their highest charting one since ʽMariaʼ, making the idea of Hot Dance Rhythms For Young People all the more ironic. Can't help admiring the achievement, though: even Cher was only 52 when she recorded ʽBelieveʼ.

Personally, I am much more a fan of the B-side, ʽMy Monsterʼ, written by none other than Johnny Marr himself, who also contributes his trademark guitar to the recording (unfortunately, it is once again all but swallowed up by the synthesizers). This is a much more Blondie-like song, from the steady 4/4 beat to the opening "human beings are stupid things when we're young" to the oh-so-well-known Blondie ability to go from bitter irony to gentle romanticism and back at a moment's notice. There are several more songs like that here — ʽBest Day Everʼ, co-written with Nick Valensi of The Strokes; ʽWhen I Gave Up On Youʼ, written by YouTube resident musical comedians The Gregory Brothers specially for Blondie in Blondie style (but also featuring their trademark Autotune tricks on Debbie's voice); ʽLong Timeʼ, co-written by Debbie with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange with obvious echoes of ʽHeart Of Glassʼ embedded in the rhythmic patterns and in the keyboard melody. None of this is great, but all of it is more fun than ʽFunʼ, and the textural diversity is quite refreshing.

Above and beyond everything, I am very happy about how Debbie sounds throughout this, even when they are torturing her voice with unnecessary autotuning. Unless you concentrate very hard upon comparison with classic Blondie songs, complaining about how much of her former range she has lost, there are really very few indications of how old that voice is — there are, however, plenty of indications that the fire of life is still very, very bright within the old girl. Those catfight dramas, those emotional turmoils, those fits of ecstasy or ire that made the original records so much more than just a collection of empty hooks — they are all here, even if the hooks them­selves are far less stronger than they used to.

It all comes together on the final track, ʽFragmentsʼ, taken by Blondie from an unknown song­writer, Adam Johnston: ironically, the songwriter was 17 years old when he wrote the song, yet its message — "you can't create more time, you just make it" — agrees more than perfectly with the mindset of the aged diva, and the frantic chorus-question, "do you love me now? do you love me now?", sounds as if it is really addressed to all of us rather than some imaginary lover figure. Don't worry, Ms. Harry: you could have done a lot worse than this, we do love you still, and here's a thumbs up to "fucking prove it". (But could you please bring back Jimmy Destri for your next album? This Katz-Bohen guy is just untenable).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Mistake In Parting

CHELSEA WOLFE: MISTAKE IN PARTING (2006)

1) Inside A Girl; 2) Nothing, Noone; 3) Sleeping; 4) Mistake In Parting; 5) Your Name; 6) Hallelujah; 7) No Luck; 8) Lay Me Down; 9) Winter; 10) Dreamer.

Ever since achieving dark-stardom, Chelsea Wolfe has been trying to erase the memories of her first album from public conscience — deriding it as a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" made by a 21-year old, the sooner forgotten, the better. Then again, you know, Adele made a "shitty singer-songwriter breakup album" and actually called it 21, and God saw that it was good (so good that he made her do a really shitty one four years later, to compensate), so why couldn't Chelsea Wolfe's? Moreover, she does admit that the songs she wrote for the album were quite personal — too personal, in fact, for her own tastes — and this inevitably means that any fan of the lady should lay hands on it sooner or later, if only in order to understand where this particular idol is coming from.

In all honesty, this is not nearly as bad as Chelsea herself makes it out to be — though, probably, I'd be angrier at these songs if I did not hear the artist in person get angry about them. Much of the record is just harmless (and usually boring) acoustic folk, the kind that aspiring young ladies and gentlemen like to film themselves playing in their bedroom and then hanging out on YouTube for their five minutes of glory — «sincerity» probably being the most, if not the only, interesting part about it. From time to time, she goes electric, and then it is like your average alt-rock crunch, though, fortunately, not drowning in Nickelbackish distortion. The lyrics and vocal intonations suggest a heavy Radiohead influence — which, unfortunately, never translates to compositional complexity or catchiness: most of the songs are atmospheric poetic rants that very rarely have any dynamics, usually just going round and round until the tape runs out.

In this context, the somewhat colorless voice hovering above the arrangements is a good thing, because, despite my confessed bias against "singer-songwriter breakup albums", somehow the record still manages not to cross the line from «boring» to «irritating», even when the artist's Big Ego is placed square in the center of everything, as it is on the opening number — ʽInside A Girlʼ, a fairly provocative title in its own right. She just uses a few impressionist keyboard lines and some strings here to tell her own story of seduction and betrayal, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that: everybody has a right to that story if it's the truth, or, hell, even if it's not the truth. I cannot remember anything about that song once it's gone, but while it was playing, it did not make me want to go, «who are you to be manipulating me with your bullshit». It sounded fairly natural — as does everything else here.

The downside is that there is really nothing to write about, as most of the songs are strictly neither good nor bad. The arrangements are okay (she would later complain about the album being over­produced, but I don't really hear it — I mean, pianos? strings? chimes? alt-rock guitars? what exactly is the source of complaints?), the voice is okay, the melodies offer no surprises, the lyrics show that she can come up with a pretty decent analysis of both her own and her ex-boyfriend's problems... end of story. Only one track, ʽWinterʼ, shows brief hints at the future developments of her sound, with a slightly doomier guitar tone than usual and lyrics like "lay in my grave with me my love / we'll die side by side, hand in hand" foreshadowing the morbid veils of her mature career (and no, these lines are not among the album's finest, but if you're young and you have your whole life ahead of you, hell, why not include them anyway?), yet even that is just a solitary foreshadowing. But now at least we know why Chelsea «Joy» Wolfe has such a grim vision of the universe at large: her boyfriend dumped her, and things would never be the same. This is, you know, where Batman begins and stuff.

One technical reason why this record could be wiped from discographies is that it never had a real label, being self-released in CDr format with only a few hundred copies or so. But then, 2006 is not like the underground Eighties: she had herself the luxury of a properly equipped Californian studio, a professional backing band, there's, like, album art and all — and it is very cleanly pro­duced, so that the songs never give the impression of raw demos. And I do not think this record is something that she'd need to be particularly ashamed of: at least this way, her fans have this nice little opportunity to get a quick peek inside her real soul, rather than always have to deal with her «alien» artistic persona. Not that you'd find anything particularly outstanding there, but... well, anyway, I do not want to create the impression that Chelsea Wolfe is a genius, let alone that Mistake In Parting is some sort of underappreciated, heart-wrenching spiritual masterpiece. In fact, it might have been more fun if it turned out to be some campy embarrassment, like the early dance-pop records of Alanis Morissette, or Y Kant Tori Read. As it is, it's largely just a blank.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Chameleons: John Peel Sessions

THE CHAMELEONS: JOHN PEEL SESSIONS (1990)

1) The Fan And The Bellows; 2) Here Today; 3) Looking Inwardly; 4) Things I Wish I'd Said; 5) Don't Fall; 6) Nostalgia; 7) Second Skin; 8) Perfumed Garden; 9) Dust To Dust / Return Of The Rednecks; 10) One Flesh; 11) Intrigue In Tangiers; 12) P. S. Goodbye.

As befits every second-rate band, The Chameleons have a huge number of live albums out, most of them released in semi-official status on various tiny labels, and trying to trace them all down and discuss each one separately would be taking this completism thing way too far. But this reasonably concise and high-quality package from the ubiquitous John Peel is worth mentioning, especially because it came before everything else and could be regarded as a comprehensive summary of the band's legacy — put out at a time when there was no talk of a Chameleons come­back, and the fans could hardly hope for anything better.

In brief, there are two things about this compilation that make it particularly attractive for me. First, the setlist: these tracks are taken from three separate sessions — four songs from 1981, way before they got around to recording their first album; four from 1983, promoting Script Of The Bridge; and four more from 1984, promoting What Does Anything Mean. At this point, the sessions stop, meaning that there is nothing from Strange Times, which is quite a relief. But it also gives you a couple of early songwriting attempts that cannot be found elsewhere (well, they can now, but not back then): ʽThe Fan And The Bellowsʼ, a good punk-pop romp with a healthy dosage of youthful protest energy, before it began mutating into acid depression already on their first LP; and ʽThings I Wish I'd Saidʼ, which sounds, well, like any other fast early Chameleons song, but at least it's better than any slow late Chameleons song.

Second and maybe even more important, the fact that these takes were recorded live for radio broadcast means — yes, you guessed it right: a relative liberation from the confines of glossy Eighties production. The biggest beneficiary of this is drummer John Lever (and his predecessor Brian Schofield, captured on the first four tracks), who is here able to fully and openly participate in the ritual, now that his fills are less robotic and you actually get to feel the effort he puts into every bit of his pummeling. The performances themselves are not at all different from the studio versions, so, for future reference, I'd simply take these versions of ʽHere Todayʼ, ʽDon't Fallʼ, etc., over their regular studio equivalents.

Other than these two points, there is little that could be added to this brief evaluation. Given the spotty record of The Chameleons, it is nice to see a package that managed to concentrate on all their good sides and largely avoid the bad ones — it is nice, in fact, to be able to say anything good about a live album by a band whose live shows were seemingly not all that different from the way they played in the studio.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Carpenters: As Time Goes By

CARPENTERS: AS TIME GOES BY (2001)

1) Without A Song; 2) Superstar / Rainy Days And Mondays; 3) Nowhere Man; 4) I Got Rhythm Medley; 5) Dancing In The Street; 6) Dizzy Fingers; 7) You're Just In Love; 8) Karen / Ella Medley; 9) Close Encounters / Star Wars; 10) Leave Yesterday Behind; 11) Carpenters / Como Medley; 12) California Dreamin'; 13) The Rainbow Con­nection; 14) Hits Medley '76; 15) And When He Smiles.

Still another decade goes by, and just so that the world could be reminded, at the start of a brand new millennium, that Carpenter rule is not quite over yet, Richard is scraping together some more odds and ends from all over the place — going as far back as 1967, with a 17-year old Karen singing on a piano-and-harmonica demo version of ʽNowhere Manʼ and showing how much of a penchant they had for turning Beatlish pop-rock into easy listening material from the very start. Actually, it is one of the more endearing numbers on this collection.

In a way, this is far more listenable than Lovelines in general, because very few of the songs are truly «new»: for the most part, these are alternate takes, demos, and TV show versions of the siblings' big hits, and that is far more enjoyable than listening to subpar material they recorded in the late Seventies. So there are at least three medleys from the Carpenters' TV Special and the Perry Como Christmas Show, and as sickening as the concept of a medley can be, I'd rather listen to a brief snippet of ʽSuperstarʼ trickling into a brief snippet of ʽRainy Days And Mondaysʼ than... then again, the obvious question is what exactly these new versions bring to the table, and the obvious answer is — a desire to go on YouTube and browse for old videos of the Carpenters' TV Special, because the sight of Karen singing these versions is the only reason why anybody should bother with them in the first place.

Anyway, here is a brief rundown of the most curious stuff on this release. First, a few tunes off Music, Music, Music, the duo's 1980 program for ABC TV: there's a Gershwin medley (Karen is not at all bad on ʽI Got Rhythmʼ), a highly impressive, quasi-virtuoso performance of ʽDizzy Fingersʼ by Richard (who actually had great playing technique — but preferred to keep it low-key on studio recordings), and another medley of oldies where Karen alternates with none other than Ella Fitzgerald herself — Ella is already way past her prime, but holds her own ground very well, plus, well, it is Karen who was really dying at the time, not Ella. Second, the old demos — be­sides ʽNowhere Manʼ, there's also ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ, both of them sung with great under­standing (unfortunately, Richard just felt he had to tamper with the old demos and load them with extra string arrangements and whatnot). Third, just a couple of previously unavailable numbers, such as Kermit the Frog's ʽRainbow Connectionʼ — not sure if Karen is much of an improvement over Kermit, but she is at least an improvement on Debbie Harry...

Anyway, despite Richard's useless overdubs, and despite the totally unnecessary inclusion of a ʽClose Encounters / Star Warsʼ medley from their Space Encounters special, this rag-taggy collection remains listenable; however, I do believe that casual listeners have absolutely no use for it, while dedicated fans will probably despise it for all the tampering — indeed, why not re­lease something a more systematic instead, like a proper collection of untampered demos, or at least a proper soundtrack from one or more of the TV shows, preferably in correct chronological order? As it is, the result is simply a mess, and if this happens to be the last archival issue released in Richard's lifetime, it would be fairly ignominious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Now!

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: NOW! (1966)

1) Introduction To; 2) High Heel Sneakers; 3) Baby Please Don't Go; 4) What'd I Say; 5) Long Tall Sally; 6) Bony Maronie; 7) It's Groovin' Time; 8) You Don't Have To Go; 9) C. C. Rider; 10) So Fine.

All right, this one is eminently skippable. Maybe the decision to stick to live recordings can be qualified as a gesture of toughness and determination, and I have nothing against this in theory, but in practice, this is pretty disappointing. Seemingly recorded at the same venues in Boston and L.A. as last time, Now! would sound as just a bunch of outtakes that did not make it onto the first album — except I think that these are different dates, because the recording quality is much worse: there is an ugly echo marring all the performances, creating the illusion of a deep well, rather than an intimate club, and also completely obscuring any musicianship that may or may not have been concealed behind the singing.

Another problem is the setlist: less diverse and original than last time, it consists mainly of covers of well-known standards, ranging from the early rock'n'roll of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽHigh Heel Sneakersʼ to Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles. As much as I respect the vocal prowess of The Cham­bers Brothers, I really do not need another (and poor quality at that) version of ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ in my collection; nor do I need an extended, monotonous, slowed down version of the pop song ʽSo Fineʼ which, for several minutes, they try to transform into an ecstatic soulful groove without much success.

The only «new» tune is ʽIt's Groovin' Timeʼ, which, judging by its title, should be a fast, exciting rave-up, but in reality it is a slow, harmonica-driven piece of Chicago blues, as generic and for­gettable as they come; next to its drabness, the covers of ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ and ʽBony Maronieʼ are true salvation in the flesh... if only I could hear those guitar solos on the latter, though — the guitarist almost seems to intentionally wish to remain unheard.

Technically, you can dance to this, and I can even imagine the album having some use in college parties around that time — especially the ones where nobody needs anything but a good beat, anyway — yet in career terms, especially considering that this is frickin' 1966 we're talking about, with Hendrix on the horizon and shit, they pretty much shot themselves in their brotherly feet. It is highly likely, though, that Vault Records simply released this crap without the artists' explicit permission: I cannot imagine why they'd want to have this out on their own. Regardless, this is as proverbial a thumbs down as they ever come (for some reason, Bruce Eder gave it a positive review in the All-Music Guide — but the man has a passion for praising obscurities just because they are obscure and ever so slightly out-of-field; I also like to engage in musical archaeology from time to time, but have no interest in overstating its delights).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Toussaint

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: TOUSSAINT (1971)

1) From A Whisper To A Scream; 2) Chokin' Kind; 3) Sweet Touch Of Love; 4) What Is Success; 5) Working In A Coalmine; 6) Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky; 7) Either; 8) Louie; 9) Cast Your Fate To The Wind; 10) Number Nine; 11) Pickles.

Throughout the Sixties, Toussaint was too busy writing and producing hit songs for a host of artists to ever focus on a solo career, releasing only a tiny handful of singles under his own name (the most famous of which was probably ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ in 1968, and even that one was first made into a hit by Lee Dorsey two years before). However, as the Seventies came along and established a pattern of formerly behind-the-scenes songwriters coming out to lay claims to full-fledged artistry (Carole King probably being the most famous examples), Toussaint apparently decided that it wouldn't hurt to try. Backed by his good friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, on guitar and organ (all piano duties are understandably handled by Allen himself), as well as a dozen seasoned, but little-known session players (Merry Clayton of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame is here on backing vocals, as a matter of fact), Toussaint makes his first big move as a solo artist — and immediately falls flat on his face!

Well, no, not quite. True, the record sold poorly, was barely noted in its own time and even today remains more or less a collector's item, to the extent that even the basic discographic information on it tends to vary from source to source (from what I can reconstruct, the original title was simply Toussaint, the recording sessions took place in 1970, and the LP was released in 1971;  more than a decade later, it was re-released as From A Whisper To A Scream, with one extra track on Side B, and this is the version I have). It is also true that the record is quite low-key, and does not have even a third part of the exuberance and youthful aggression of The Wild Sound: this new sound of Allen's is anything but wild, particularly when you compare it to his funky competitors such as James Brown or Funkadelic; in the dizzy, explosive context of 1971, when «thunder gods» still ruled the world of pop, rock, and R&B, it could hardly be hoped that a lot of people would pay attention to anything this humble.

But apart from these historic considerations, Toussaint is a pretty decent album. Allen's motto for it is established with the last number on Side A — ʽEverything I Do Gonna Be Funkyʼ — yet he establishes it in such a quiet, unpretentious, and calm manner that I am automatically reminded of J. J. Cale: had old J. J. decided that he, too, wanted to be funky from now on, he would probably have recorded something precisely like this. The song is not even properly «funky» by itself, just a regular 4/4 groove with minimal bass, quiet interplay between a distorted rhythm guitar and lead slide licks, and brief, punctuating touches of brass. Absolutely nothing special — but, some­how, still burning with a quiet, steady, and very determined fire that really makes you want to believe the man.

Everything else on the first side is done according to the same approach: quiet, relying on short and sweet melodic guitar phrases — but, unfortunately, also downplaying Toussaint's talents as a piano player; his biggest break comes on Harlan Howard's ʽChokin' Kindʼ, but even there Dr. John quickly overshadows him on the organ. All in all, the songs do not even sound much like the product of a singer-songwriter, because Toussaint's singing voice, while pleasant, friendly, and versatile, is strictly defined as one out of many sonic ingredients: Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on backing vocals are just as loud as the frontman, and Toussaint never resorts to ad-lib­bing, never jumps out of his seat to attract attention — which is, admittedly, very cool and noble of him, but also depersonalizes him to a large degree. And although his ʽWorking In The Coal­mineʼ is a catchy and poignant song, his version here hardly improves on Lee Dorsey's original, although the arrangement is oddly more carnivalesque, with brass fanfare and slick funky guitar framing Allen's so naturally optimistic and friendly voice that the whole thing becomes ironic: surely Lee Dorsey did not sing about the sufferings of a coalmine worker that cheerfully.

The entire second side of the album is left for instrumental compositions, and this is where we could hope, perhaps, for some let-your-hair-down wildness: but no dice — these funky instru­mentals are quite restrained, too, and focused on band interplay rather than showcasing individual skills, with the lone exception of Vince Guaraldi's ʽCast Your Fate To The Windʼ, where Allen finally takes center stage and lets his piano do most of the talking, with some cool key changes and a beautifully fluent and expressive solo in the middle. Everything else is just groove after groove, tasteful and pleasant, but not much to write about: no flash (except at the end of ʽPicklesʼ, where Toussaint wraps things up with a few Chopin-esque flourishes), just business.

All in all, this is an inauspicious, but respectable start to a true solo career; I would only recom­mend it, though, to those who like their funky grooves very low-key and restrained, speaking through subtlety and ellipse, rather than loud, sweaty, and punchy. Oh, and with a brassy New Orleanian flavor, of course — the kind of atmosphere that teaches you to always look on the bright side of things, no matter how much they suck.