I’m still not entirely sure how I discovered Hiss Golden Messenger, though I strongly suspect it had something to do with the fantastic music blog, Aquarium Drunkard . In 2013 Haw made its way into my music library, and I went down the rabbit hole to explore the rest of their discography.
It wasn’t too long ago when Alabama Shakes crashed onto the scene with their Stax Records sound that was perfectly pressed onto their EP like a diamond in the rough lost amongst some O.V. Wright 45s. It was perfect timing, as the whole retro-rock movement was at its peak, running the gamut from acts like Mumford & Suns to Dr. Dog.
But, and thankfully so, that was never meant to be the full picture. Brittany Howard and company weren’t a band that could be considered a trope, they never wanted to be pigeonholed into the revivalist scene. In that sense, Sound and Color is less of a jump forward, and more of a realization of what this band is capable of.
That isn’t to say there aren’t touches of the retro sound that brought them to the fore, first single “Don’t Want To Fight” is chock full of reference, but this time the 60s soul has been traded in for an updated take on James Brown and Bee Gees falsetto hooks.
But, by and large, the production is the greatest difference here full of, well, sound and color. There’s a lot to love here, but one of my favorite tracks of the moment is “Shoegaze” which bolsters the back end of the album.
Blake Mills helmed the production mantle on this record and the nooks on this song are full of nifty dynamic changes and deft instrumentation. Ben Tanner’s organ gets so much out of just a one note hook in this arrangement, enough to provide a highlight in a song that boasts some great guitar work. Elsewhere Steve Johnson’s drumming weaves in and out of Howard’s vocal, going from classic soul snare build-up to CCR’s “Suzie Q”-esque tom fills with aplomb.
It’s often that The Beatles are given the label of saving rock and roll, and usually that’s for overblown reasons. Yes, they were incredibly creative, fully embraced technical advancements and managed to propel popular music into a more advanced form. However, it’s perhaps most important that they always had their own particular identity.
Early rock and roll was largely “race music”– gritty and visceral–often only a few steps removed from blues numbers that had traveled up the Delta. While The Beatles were influenced by Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran, they were just as much, if not more appreciative, of black artists like Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, and Barrett Strong.
McCartney may have covered “That’s Alright Momma,” but The Beatles covered far more songs from black groups. In fact, all of the covers from Please Please Me (“Chains, "Boys”, “Baby It’s You”, “A Taste of Honey”, “Twist and Shout”, and “Anna (Go To Him)”) were done originally by black artists, and only “Til’ There Was You” a number from the Broadway play The Music Man was an exception to the rule on With The Beatles. Lennon would later recall, “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough – the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could.”
Of particular note is “Anna (Go To Him)” which stands as perhaps my favorite Lennon cover outside of “Twist and Shout”.
Originally written and recorded by Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go To Him)” was released on September 17, 1962.
Alexander’s version is maudlin, even slightly off-kilter, given the knee-jerk rhythm and the placid nature of Alexander’s vocal. Though Lennon insisted “it was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could – i always wished we could have done them even closer to the original,” The Beatles rendition of “Anna (Go To Him) has two distinct differences.
Perhaps most obvious is the piano’s melodic hook being shifted to a very clean guitar hook, and more importantly, they shifted the key up a step to D major.
It was February 11th, 1963, and Lennon was battling a rather nasty case of pneumonia, but this was a time of 4-track tapes and no sure road to stardom. What remains from this day’s session of recording is probably some of the most passionate singing Lennon has on record.
It should be noted here that most contemporaries who were doing what The Beatles were doing, e.g. The Rolling Stones, typically tried to emulate the exact vocal performance of the original. "Mercy, Mercy” is a fine example (and originally recorded by the criminally unknown Don Covay).
Already starting around the top of his vocal range, the emotional heft of the song and the strain on his vocal chords bring an additional resonance to Lennon’s delivery–it crackles and wails, pleads and begs. And it’s his own.
“Twist and Shout” would be the last song Lennon sang that day after chugging a glass of milk to soothe his throat, but that’s a story for another day.
Particularly great vocal harmony work on “Anna (Go To Him)” from the hauntingly sultry “Aaanna” call and response in the beginning to the more traditional backing vocals that try to steady Lennon’s emotional waver in the refrain.
Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” would be one of the earliest appearances Jimi Hendrix ever made on a record (though uncredited)
Covay would also be responsible for this great hit
Most of Lennon’s quotes here come from a quickly scribbled letter he had written on a plane in 1971 in response to a New York Times article titled ‘So in the End, the Beatles Have Proved False Prophets’. While Lennon’s memories were famously suspect, his “P.S. What about the ‘B’ side of Money?” line manages to both reference something he held dear and be relevant to the discussion at hand. The ‘B’ side in question? “Oh I Apologize”.
I’ve been going through a bit of an Aretha Franklin phase lately, so it seemed serendipitous when she popped up in social media for her latest album ‘Aretha Sings The Great Diva Classics’. It’s both a remarkable testament to her talent, as well as a saddening realization, that this iteration of Aretha Franklin is by far her weakest. Her voice- though still far better than most- is a shell of what it once was, and it seems shameless that she should have to stoop to cover “Rolling In The Deep”.
Her career followed a remarkable path from child gospel piano prodigy, to Sam Cooke protege, Columbia Records cast-off, and then her tremendous run with Atlantic Records before trailing off in the seventies with a period rivaling the decades’ own in a search for a new identity.
That is not to say that Aretha isn’t a masterful interpreter. “Respect” was an Otis Redding song, “Chain of Fools” was written by Don Covey, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was a Carol King number, “I Say A Little Prayer” was Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Still, “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” was an outlier in her catalogue.
It was originally a Stevie Wonder song, though he hadn’t released a recording of it (and wouldn’t until his 1977 ‘Anthology’) before he showed it to Franklin. Listening to his original now only demonstrates just how much Franklin improves the bones of the original composition.
The chord progression is pure Stevie Wonder, though he buried the melodic motif that becomes the centerpiece of Franklin’s version. The rhythm section is also mostly straightforward, and Stevie’s singing conveys the material as almost naive heartbreak.
Truly, Aretha’s version is superior, thanks in part due to her magnificent backing band. Franklin plays the piano, Donny Hathaway fills in on the bouncing (and almost hidden) Fender Rhodes, Hugh McCracken plays the only guitar, while Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) fill out the rhythm section.
It’s Rainey and Purdie who hold the key, playing with a hitched gait that elongates Franklin’s vocal phrases and Franklin herself, who conveys that desperation as hopeful despair. The flute solo, in vogue at the time, is truly the only flaw.
Morris Broadnax, Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder
Aretha Franklin: Piano, Vocals Margaret Branch: Backing vocals Pat Smith: Backing vocals Donny Hathaway: Electric Piano (Rhodes) Richard Tee: Organ Kenneth Bichel: Synthesizer Hugh McCracken: Guitar Chuck Rainey: Bass Bernard Purdie: Drums
Bonnie Raitt’s album ‘Nick of Time’. Similar vocal phrasing and dynamics.