Allen Toussaint

Life, Love and Faith(Reprise/Warner Bros. 1972)

Allen Toussaint is one of those musicians who never quite got his due even though he is responsible for an impeccable quartet of early 70s albums beginning with 1970s From a Whisper to a Scream and ending with 1975’s Southern Nights. What makes his relative anonymity even more surprising is that he also was responsible for producing and writing for such New Orleans icons as Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey as well as legends like Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and the Yardbirds, albeit in the form of a B-side. Hell, he even arranged the horn sections for The Band’s 70s output culminating with his work on The Last Waltz. In short, that is too glamorous a resume to be relegated to second string status and Toussaint deserves a reexamination by anyone with even a passing fancy for stoned r&b, the rich musical history of New Orleans  and the footloose and fancy free side of 70s funk. There isn’t any room for navel gazing, meandering jams or pity parties here, Life, Love and Faith conjures the vibe of those nights where the company you keep is close-knit, the nights blur into dawn and everyone involved wrings every ounce of enjoyment from these precious moments where all is good in our collective world. I just don’t want to live in a world where Touissaint doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as the masterpieces created by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Al Green during the same era. Life is unfair and I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I was the old man yelling at the clouds about how my favorite albums are beloved by too few souls.

Just take one listen to “Soul Sister” and all of my hyperbole becomes quite literal as Toussaint’s gently hypnotic and irresistibly playful arrangements meld perfectly with a too cool for school refrain of “Hey you with the curly bush on your head baby. You know you are looking, looking looking good, soul sister” that gives way to the choppy seas of a minimal, yet perfect riff that melts into the call and response of a female voice that confidently replies “Thank you brother, thank you baby” as if it completes an equation for the secret to the perfect pickup line in an alternate universe. It grooves and glides in all the right places as if a bacchanalian New Orleans funk session were taking place on an air hockey table as each note elevates it higher and higher in my personal pantheon of songs that epitomize the season of summer.

His expertise in arranging a horn section is evident throughout Life, Love and Faith as the opener “Victims of the Darkness” deals with the darker subject material of the oppressed choosing a violent or non-violent path of protest as a means of achieving their aims. It’s a dire political anthem if taken word for word, but his arrangements make it an almost celebratory moment where the downtrodden are empowered by the divergent paths trailblazed during the civil rights movements. The people can shout out loud or take to the streets and forcefully create a world in their own image and Toussant doesn’t care which way your wind blows as long as your purpose is righteous. Those horns are simultaneously a call to arms and a celebration of free will that drive the message straight into your subconscious.

“Out of the Country(Into the City)” is a stroke of genius that somehow imagines a world where mellow boogie rock riffs mate with New Orleans musical DNA as the incessant guitar hook rises and falls like a day-glo wave as Toussaint shares a simple tale of escaping the hustle and bustle of city living for the country. It’s quite the hippie sentiment as he champions the simple virtues of a crisp gust of wind, the smell of grass and the simplicity of life far from the grit and gasoline fumes. It’s quite the badass ode to country living and beats any longhaired paean to communal living to accompaniment of a mere acoustic guitar. I love that Toussaint’s whole musical career celebrates the city of New Orleans, but takes the time to insert a back to nature anthem. However, that’s the kind of musician, arranger and songwriter Allen Toussaint was during this period of his career. He was a complex artist who wanted nothing more than a good time to be had by all who listened and subtly inserted his political worldview, deceptively challenging arrangements and surprising twists in subject material into each of the four albums that marked him as a profound soul whose music had a depth of soul lacking in most of those who sold far more albums than he.

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James and Bobby Purify

Shake a Tail Feather! (Sundazed 2002)

On one hand, cousins James and Bobby Purify were quite indebted to the feel good, soulful pop of Sam and Dave, but their performances were more complex and conflicted to the lovely, but one-dimensional music of their more famous influence. Yes, the Purify’s mined the Stax sound while recording at Muscle Shoals and many of their best tunes are toe-tappers that rival any other southern soul act of the 60s, but their melancholy moments are what set them apart from their peers.

Their most popular tune is by far their most moving. “I’m Your Puppet” is a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham number that epitomizes the joys of total surrender to love. Obviously, there is fairly obvious metaphor at work here as they compare themselves to simple puppets at the behest of a mystery lover, but there is something sort of romantic and sad about this tune. Their depiction of infatuation can be interpreted as a puppy dog ode to the lengths a man will go to be loved, but the lyrics also celebrate the fact that this love can “make you do right or make you do wrong” as well. I always felt their was an undercurrent of masochism that would endear this to any r&b fans in the throes of a BDSM fetish. As usual, it is probably a better example of my dumb ass looking too deeply into the lyrics, but I like to view it as a parable about the double-edged nature of passion.

I’m also a big fan of “You Left the Water Running” which is another Penn/Oldham number that buries a wallow in misery in catchy instrumentation. Basically, it is about a woman who cheats on her man and turns on a spigot that unleashes a neverending torrent of tears. The tears flow until waves of anger overtake him and he issues a warning that she will regret her infidelity and there will be hell to pay when the bill for these wasted tears arrive. I’m always such a sucker for morbid, self-destructive messages wrapped in frilly pop confections, so this one is simply perfect. Overall, this collection of singles and b-sides should appeal to Stax junkies and patrons of the church of James Carr and Solomon Burke. It is such a joyous collection, but one that invites you to dig a bit deeper and see the tears that lurk beneath our grins.

On a completely unrelated note, I love that James eventually replaced his cousin with another Bobby and went on his merry way. I knew there was something cutthroat lying underneath it all.

Darrell Banks-Is Here!

August 19, 2008

Darrell Banks

Is here! (Atco 1967)

This is an album of pleading. Darrell Banks may venture into upbeat territory and belt a few over a bed of Stax horns and rhythm guitar, but his specialty is emoting to his heart’s content. He belongs in the esteemed company of contemporaries like James Carr, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding, but his life was cut short when he was shot by an off-duty Detroit police officer who was cuckolding Banks. He only released two albums and seven singles, but his limited output is so heartsick and yearning for love that it makes his untimely death even more tragic.

Darrell Banks Is Here! may be his debut album, but his weathered and weary voice sounds as if he has recorded dozens more and been wronged more times than he can bear. The highlight and most painful track is “I’m Gonna Hang My Head and Cry” which captures the feeling one has when they fuck up a relationship and finally realize that you only get to screw up once and it will never be the same again. Innocence has been lost and he knows he can never regain it.

“Here Come the Tears” is another plea for a return to the status quo. I view it as a sequel to the aforementioned song as Banks becomes obsessed with the memories of this woman he lost long ago. His love is still strong, but there is no way to bridge the gap to when this love was mutual. He reads old letters and bawls like a baby and prays for a way to fix the cracks and make it right. However, there is a resignation in his voice that signals a realization that he is forever doomed to only have mere letters to remind him of better days. He pleads in vain, but cannot help doing so because he cannot reconcile the fact that he ruined a good thing.

There was an abundance of classic r&b albums released during this time, but none were as desperate and full of remorse as Darrell Banks Is Here.