Album Reviews: Chip Taylor, James Hunter, The Choir, A DVD Tribute to Dylan's Gospel Years, and More

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Another Treasure from Chip Taylor

It’s probably inevitable that like this article, virtually every Chip Taylor review until the end of time will begin by citing his work as a composer of numerous 1960s pop hits, most notably “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing.” While very different from each other, those songs had one thing in common: they were both so well-crafted that they sparked multiple hit versions. “Angel” went to number seven in 1968 for Merrilee Rush and to number four in 1981 for Juice Newton; “Wild Thing,” meanwhile, topped the charts for the Troggs in 1966 and was also a Top 20 hit for the group Fancy and, in a parody version, for comedian Bill Minkin (recording as Senator Bobby). Of course, the song also became heavily associated with Jimi Hendrix, though he never released it as a single.

These compositions, and many others that Taylor wrote during the same era, gave him deserved attention and his greatest commercial success. But they are nothing like the music he has produced in his highly productive recent years—and nowhere near as important. Taylor walked away from performing and recording for a time to become a successful professional gambler; he also tried his hand at his brother Jon Voight’s profession, playing a small role in the 1980 file Melvin and Howard. But he returned to music in the mid 90s, and things kicked into high gear about eight years later, when he teamed up with singer and violinist Carrie Rodriguez for a series of charming and downright wonderful homespun recordings, including Let’s Leave This Town and Red Dog Tracks.

Taylor and Rodriguez amicably split around 2007 and, in the years since, his solo (and occasionally collaborative) work has been at least as interesting, albeit arguably just a tad less accessible. On albums like A Song I Can Live With, Little Brothers, I’ll Carry for You, and The Little Prayers Trilogy, there’s not a lot of focus on lilting melodies or upbeat fiddle breaks; instead the music is understated, the lyrics extremely personal.

The first clue that the new Fix Your Words is no exception is a cover photo of the artist and his brothers with their mother, when they were kids. Taylor divides the all-originals, 11-song collection into two batches: the first he describes as “prayerful thoughts,” while the other “starts with my feelings as a little kid and the power of sadness and continues with love/hurt songs inspired by that memory.” Both groups feature Taylor’s quavering, emotive vocals; poetic, confessional lyrics; and gorgeous piano- and acoustic-guitar-based music that also employs everything from vibraphone, harmonica, and organ to fiddle and pedal steel.

In one song, where the lyric is partly spoken, Taylor recalls how much he liked listening to Hank Williams on the family Motorola radio when he was a kid—and explains why he preferred the dark material that Williams recorded under his Luke the Drifter pseudonym. That’s no surprise, given the rest of the tunes on this introspective album. It’s not a CD you’ll want to play at your next party—it’s much too understated and melancholy for that—and it’s not for background listening. But if you’re looking for some wise meditations on life, love, family, and the passage of time, this is a record you ought to own. It comes across like a beautiful whisper, and you’ll lean in to catch every poignant line. 

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A Second Coming for Dylan’s Gospel Years

In 2013, with the release of an expanded Bootleg Series box, Bob Dylan’s much-maligned Self Portrait album got reappraised. Now, it seems, it’s time for a fresh look at his gospel years. Columbia recently issued Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13/1979-1981, and now comes a reissue of Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, a 2006 DVD companion to the Grammy-nominated album of the same name that appeared in 2003.

The film—which offers a 5.1 audio option but is not widescreen—features many of the same performances as the CD. All of them are by gospel singers who, judging by their between-song comments, are devout Christians; and whether or not you share their beliefs, you’ll likely agree that their faith adds passion to these readings. Highlights include the inimitable Aaron Neville’s take on "Saving Grace,” an intense “I Believe in You” by Dottie Peoples, and truly trance-like readings of “Pressing On” by the Chicago Mass Choir and “When He Returns” by Rance Allen. Also here are an animated video for “Gotta Serve Somebody,” plus interviews with critics Alan Light and Paul Williams, producer Jerry Wexler, and many of the performers. The interviews are worth hearing once, but after you’ve done that, you’ll be glad the DVD offers a menu option to play the music only.

I still don’t think Dylan’s gospel music ranked anywhere near his best work. Nevertheless, the performances here make the most of those compositions and suggest that they were probably better than many of us thought when they were new.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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The Choir, Artifact: The Unreleased Album. This Cleveland group existed with various lineups and monikers from 1964 to 1969, at which point a few of its alumni joined with vocalist Eric Carmen to form the Raspberries. (Joe Walsh and other members of the James Gang were also in the Choir at one point.) This 10-track album (which despite its title includes four previously released songs) dates from February 1969, near the end of the Choir’s run. It does not feature Carmen or, for that matter, “It’s Cold Outside,” the group’s best-known track. The music, which sounds very much like a product of its era, would fit right in on the classic Nuggets box (which incidentally does include “It’s Cold Outside”). But the fact that it’s anachronistic doesn’t mean it isn’t good: the vocal and guitar work here makes it easy to see why, as Carmen says in brief liner notes, he “immediately wanted to join” the group when he saw them perform. If you like such obvious Choir influences as the Hollies, Procol Harum, or the Kinks (whose “David Watts” is the only non-original here), check it out. P.S. Add this CD to iTunes and you’ll see that it imports with the genre “Religious.” Ha. I guess somebody didn’t dig any deeper than the band’s name.

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The James Hunter Six, Whatever It Takes. If you have an affinity for 1960s pop-flavored R&B/soul—acts like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Marvelettes, and Mary Wells—you’d be well advised to dive into James Hunter’s discography. Like the earlier People Gonna Talk and Hold On!, this terrific latest outing showcases a program that you’d swear must consist of covers of old classics—until you check the credits and find out Hunter wrote them all. Equally impressive is his variously funky and smooth vocal work, which garners support from a wonderful backup outfit that includes two sax players. Hunter again recorded live in the studio with producer Gabriel Roth, who worked with the similarly styled Amy Winehouse.

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Chris Hillman, The Asylum Years. Before going solo in the mid 70s, Chris Hillman played roles in some of the most important rock and country rock bands of his time. An original member of the Byrds, he also cofounded the not-so-super supergroup Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and the truly super Flying Burrito Brothers; and he worked with Stephen Stills’s Manassas. The guy got around. Nothing on this anthology—which collects everything from Hillman’s 1976 and 1977 solo albums, Slippin’ Away and Clear Sailin’—measures up to the best of what he achieved earlier, particularly with the Byrds and Burritos; Hillman is an amiable but not particularly distinctive vocalist and some of this material sounds like dated outtakes from period LPs by the Eagles (whose Timothy Schmit chimes in on several tracks). However, the backup on Slippin’ Away from A-list musicians—including Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Steve Cropper, and Donald “Duck” Dunn—is impeccable; and there are enough highlights among these 20 tracks  for me to recommend the album to fans of Hillman’s genre. Among them: a sweet cover of Danny O’Keefe’s terrific “Quits” and the lilting “Fallen Favorite,” one of several tracks co-written with one-time Crawdaddy editor Peter Knobler.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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