Monday, August 15, 2005

Allen Toussaint - From a Whisper to a Scream

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Allen Toussaint
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I have to admit that the first time I heard the ‘Toussaint’ LP, I was underwhelmed. Allen Toussaint’s first solo LP since the ‘Wild Sound of New Orleans in 1958’ was a departure from the kind of records he was producing/arranging for others in the same time frame. Recorded in LA (though with a largely Nawlins-centric band that included Dr. John as well as Earl Turbinton of the Gaturs) for the Scepter label, the LP was a decidedly laid back effort. Previous to picking up ‘Toussaint’ my experience with his solo work was limited to the ‘Wild Sounds..’ LP, and a number of 45’s from the mid-to-late 60’s with the Stokes and as a solo performer. He certainly left his mark on dozens of amazing 45s for other artists, as composer, producer and arranger, but never really broke out as a performer. I have to be honest and say that for me it was his work as an “auteur” of sorts that overshadowed his solo work. Ultimately this kind of comparison is unfair because it discounts both the contribution of the vocalists to these records as well as the unique discipline that a composer/producer/arranger brings to the table. In the end, Allen Toussaint’s work as a performer has to be considered separately. That said, given several listens, and making the distinctions I mention above, the ‘Toussaint’ LP has definitely grown on me. First and foremost is the singing voice of the maestro. Toussaint has a reedy tenor with more than a little New Orleans flavor in the delivery that was well suited to the material on ‘Toussaint’ (and vice versa). It seems likely that Toussaint recognized that his voice – while pleasant – was not suited to heavy, overly orchestrated backing. I also can’t help but wonder about the overall sound of the LP. Despite occasional successes, Toussaint saw countless brilliant records flounder on the national charts. The ‘Toussaint’ LP is relatively free of idiosyncratic New Orleans-isms (one of the reasons it didn’t grab me right away), and may very well have been a pragmatic reach for popular acceptance. That’s not to say that it is in any way crass or ordinary, but that it seems to me that when Toussaint was putting it together (and perhaps this was the motivation/benefit behind recording in LA) he had his ear turned away from New Orleans and toward the pop charts. The title track (and today’s selection) was a slice of smooth soul with a wide dynamic range. Opening with a high-hat tick and repeated electric piano chord, Toussaint comes in, followed by the backing vocals (Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields who had done similar duty for Leon Russell among others). There are also small touches that will be missed unless you check this tune out on headphones. Toussaint keeps making a “whoosh” sound into the mike, and at one point says ‘For heavens sake girl, don’t do this to me’ at an almost imperceptible volume. The arrangement is cool (in all senses of the word) and a model of subtlety, with a tasteful horn chart and bits and pieces of brilliant guitar, piano adding accents. Toussaint’s vocals convey the heartbreak of the song perfectly, and at a few points in the song, there’s a bit where the back-up singers are almost taunting him with whispers of ‘You lost her...she’s gone’, making the sadness all the more palpable. In the end, ‘From a Whisper To a Scream’ is truly amazing, opening a new chapter (at least for me) in the Allen Toussaint story. I can’t say that the rest of the LP hits me as hard. There are a couple of less than inspired remakes (‘Working In The Coal Mine’, ‘Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky’), some funky instrumentals (‘Either’, ‘Louie’) and a couple of cool originals (‘What Is Success’, ‘Sweet Touch of Love’). It’s a cool listening experience – especially when taken in context with the rest of his discography – and certainly worth picking up the CD reissue. Interestingly enough, a year after his own recording, Esther Phillips covered both sides of this 45 on her LP ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’ to much success. Phillips was nominated for a Grammy, and when she lost to Aretha Franklin, Franklin reportedly gave her the award, saying that she deserved it. A year after that Robert Palmer recorded another cover of the tune.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Olivier said...

I think Minnie Riperton sung this song (same lyrics? same tune) under the "Inside My Love" title, appearing on the Jackie Brown BO. Is it true?

8/15/2005 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Olivier
It's a completely different tune ('Inside My Love' was composed by Ripperton). There's a similar feel, but the song is different.
Larry

8/15/2005 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Denis said...

Lovely tune - many thanks

8/16/2005 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Your comments are very perceptive, as ususal; and your needing time to warm up to this cool album is typical, I think. Toussaint's subtlety here makes the song all the stronger. I don't think, though, that he was ever comfortable as the front man and had a hard time producing his own records (which he mostly did) - that's difficult for any artist. But all his albums are worth having, even for their flaws.

You can find numerous examples in the songs he wrote for others and performed himself that "he had his ear turned away from New Orleans and toward the pop charts." Of course, you, I and many others prefer it when his homeotwn roots show; but Toussaint paid attention to the markets and you can often hear him coping a sound (for example, the Curtis Mayfield touch on "Hercules", as done by Aaron Neville).
Peace

8/16/2005 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Dan
You're right about his looking beyond NOLA with other artists. Listen to a record like 'Emperor Jones' by Eldridge Holmes (for another Curtis inspired vibe), or 'What Are You trying To Do' by Irma Thomas (for some faux Motown). Unfortunately these records weren't very successful either. I think we're all lucky that he had the successes he did, otherwise he might have soured on the business entirely (I would have..).
Larry

8/16/2005 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous bob keller said...

SUCH a cool album... (I love the dr. john guitar!) and still my all time fave Toussaint song. It just creates this mood thing... way ahead of his time, as usual. I believe that if you listen this song (and 'Hercules' as well) in context with the evolution of soul that was happening elsewhere at the same time (like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder), it just CRANKS!

9/26/2005 08:27:00 AM  

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