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C&W music for people who don't like C&W music?
on 25 October 2011
I may be in a minority of one but I really don't see "Modern Sounds in C&W Music" and its follow-up as Ray Charles best album(s) and/or one of the best albums ever. The style of the album - let's keep to the singular for the sake of simplicity but the same comments apply to both - is classic crooning accompanied by big band or full orchestra with plenty of strings for the slowies. Very much a la Sinatra or Bennett. This was the style which Charles had already unleashed at the tail end of his days at Atlantic and which flourished in the early period with ABC. Although some of his singles - "Sticks and Stones", "Hit the road Jack"are a couple - suggested that he hadn't given up on the hard edged gospel R&B which was the mainstay of his Atlantic period, albums indicated otherwise. "The Genius hits the road", "Dedicated to You" and "Ray Charles and Betty Carter" were packed with standards plus the occasional original and given brass and string arrangements. One got the impression that Charles felt that he had found his niche at last. All those days scuffling with blues and R&B were over, never to return. In the light of this new consistency of style, the decision to go for a light jazz instrumental album as soon as he joined Atlantic makes more sense. He would have seen it as a step in this direction.
"Modern Sounds in C&W Music" isn't really very different than the albums which immediately preceded it other than the fact that the song choices are all from the (pop end of) the country and western field. Other crooners had sung C&W numbers before with big band backing but few would have done it across an entire album, or two as eventually transpired. The simplicity of the tunes may well have connected more with the public than the greater complexity of jazz standards; this was major chords mainly rather diminished minor sevenths or whatever.
What isn't present to a really significant degree in the music is soul or even blues. There are touches in Charles' voice but nothing in the backing to remind one of black gospel choirs and preachers wailing to the heavens. And the country and western originally present in the songs has all but disappeared. There's nothing here in these versions which stacks up against great originals from the likes of Hank Williams. None of it's bad, it's ultra-professional but it's bland compared with the originals and also compared with earlier work that Charles had done. I would rate "Drown in my own tears" more highly than both these albums put together. Don't get me wrong there's plenty of good music here - his cut of "You are my Sunshine" sits well alongside many other good versions of the song - but it's not innovative or ground-breaking unlike much of his Atlantic output.
Although this album is often put forward as the key breakthrough in the sub-genre of country soul, I don't really see it. To me country soul is more churchified and, after early pioneering work from the likes of Ivory Joe Hunter and Chuck Willis, is typically found in the output of Solomon Burke and Arthur Alexander or, from the white side, some of Charlie Rich, and for a brief period, almost all of Delanie and Bonnie`s work. I think that's why this album was such a big disappointment to me at the time. I was expecting country soul and didn't get it.
While we bring very different taste and musical backgrounds to the table I can empathise with the reviewer who referred to this as C&W music for people who don't like C&W music. I do like much of the more earthy C&W music and I also like Ray Charles in his gospel pomp. This isn't either.