You may or may not be familiar with J.D. Souther, whose biggest claims to fame as a performer were 1979’s “You’re Only Lonely” and membership in the ill-fated Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. You surely know his compositions, though. Souther wrote or cowrote some of the biggest hits of the 1970s, including the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Best of My Love.”
Now there’s a fresh opportunity to scrutinize his work, as the Omnivore label is releasing expanded, remastered editions of his first two albums, 1972’s John David Souther and 1973’s Black Rose, as well as 1984’s Home by Dawn. (Missing from the reissue series is 1979’s You’re Only Lonely, which spawned the aforementioned top ten single of the same name and became Souther’s most commercially successful LP by far.) All three albums feature new liner notes and bonus tracks, including demos and live recordings.
The first disc stands out mostly for the quality of its compositions. It’s easy to see why other artists started covering Souther’s material, which was characterized by deftly written lyrics and strong hooks. But many of the performances seem relatively listless; they sound like mere blueprints for hits.
The Peter Asher-produced Black Rose—where many of the tracks could be mistaken for Eagles ballads—is a bit of a step up. Souther seems more self-assured and the songs include such fully conceived gems as “Simple Man, Simple Dreams” and the often-covered “Faithless Love.” (A live rendition of the latter is one of the bonus tracks.) Still, many of the numbers never quite take off, despite assists from a backup crew that features some of the then biggest names in Southern California rock, among them Little Feat’s Lowell George, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, and David Crosby.
Home by Dawn is another story. By the time he made this LP, Souther—aided by producer David Malloy—knew how to craft records as well as he crafted songs. He’d also found his niche: while the first two albums often recalled the country-rock of Poco and the early Eagles, he now had one foot planted in the same pop-rock territory occupied by latter-day Fleetwood Mac; you can hear Roy Orbison’s influence as well.
Souther’s voice seems more commanding, and he makes better use of his backup instrumentalists and vocalists, who again include many big names: the Eagles’ Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt are here, as are guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Linda Ronstadt, who duets with Souther on “Say You Will” and one of the bonus tracks (“Heart Like a Wheel,” from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack). Highlights like “Go Ahead and Rain,” “All for You,” “Don’t Know What I’m Gonna Do,” and “Night” deliver pure ear candy, with irresistible hooks and production redolent of Lindsey Buckingham at his peak. None of them charted, which I find rather difficult to believe.