BOBBY BLAND: HIS CALIFORNIA ALBUM (1973)
1) This Time I'm Gone For Good; 2) Up And Down World; 3) It's Not The Spotlight; 4) (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Right; 5) Goin' Down Slow; 6) The Right Place At The Right Time; 7) Help Me Through The Day; 8) Where My Baby Went; 9) Friday The 13th Child; 10) I've Got To Use My Imagination.
The start of an entirely new life for Bobby — a new label (Dunhill); a new producer (Steve Barri, famous for having produced at least a little something by at least half of the major American hitmakers of the day); and, overall, a thoroughly new style, as we move into yet another decade, Bobby's third one, where he would feel right at home. No wonder he would soon be teaming up with B. B. King in a triumphant swell of pride: they were pretty much the only veterans of the pre-rock'n'roll era astute enough to move with the tide, not against it.
His California Album was not a huge hit, but it sold steadily, and the lead-off single, ʽThis Time I'm Done For Goodʼ, a leftover from his ex-boss «Deadric Malone», even hit the Top 50 on the pop charts for the first time since 1964. For a good reason, too: the production style is distinctly «contemporary», with a thick orchestral layer (piano / organ / strings) and wailing electric guitar and a big fat post-funk-revolution bassline — but Bobby's soul hollering remains on exactly the same wavelength as it was twenty years earlier, and that is the best news of all: after all, we don't want the guy competing with the likes of Barry White, do we?
Actually, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with stereotypical 1970s production when the band shows a good balance between muscle and flex; and although the names of these session musicians do not immediately ring a bell, there are actually a few unsung heroes here — Max Bennett on bass, who had played with everyone from Peggy Lee to Frank Zappa; Larry Carlton on guitar (and a few other people who would eventually become members of The Crusaders); Ernie Watts on sax; and others too numerous to mention, but, for the most part, veterans of the jazz / blues scene, more interested in simply keeping up with the changing times rather than with the dropping tastes. And in terms of taste, California Album is just about perfect: all soul, no sap.
On a couple of the tracks, the band even gets fairly heavy, nowhere more so than on the album closer, a cover of Gladys Knight's ʽI've Got To Use My Imaginationʼ that buries the original — transforming it from a relatively lightweight dance number into a slowed down, fang-baring, grumbly blues-rock stomp. But this is, of course, not very typical: usually, the band is content enough wallowing in light-hearted grooves itself, just not dance-oriented.
And everything works. ʽIt's Not The Spotlightʼ is a Gerry Goffin song that we usually know in soft takes — Rod Stewart's, or Barry Goldberg's, or Beth Orton's, whatever; here, the song is given the royal production treatment, with an almost gospel backing, several guitar and «snowy organ» overdubs, and one of those thunderous «oh Lowwrrrd!» roars from Bobby every now and then for an extra thrill — the end result is uplifting and exciting without losing the subtlety of the original version.
ʽ(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Rightʼ was a major hit for Luther Ingram, spurred on to notability for the controversial lyrics (openly romanticizing and glorifying adultery was a bit over the top even for «The Me Decade») — and although Ingram's performance was quite credible and respectable, the instrumental backing on Bobby's record far surpasses the comparably thin arrangement on his single from 1972. ʽHelp Me Through The Dayʼ is a Leon Russell song, and Leon Russell songs are always done better by somebody who is not Leon Russell, be they black singers, white singers, or little pink blobs from Aldebaran. ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ has been done by just about everybody in the rootsy business, but even here the band is able to find a moderately original, aggressive brass/bass groove and stick to it steadily for five minutes (with some fairly nifty jamming taking up a large chunk of the time).
In short, this is nothing short of a «modest masterpiece» of early 1970's soul — coming from a 1950's survivor, no less — and a thorough must-hear for all lovers of the genre who like their instrumentation to be polyphonic, tasteful, yet somewhat restrained instead of going all the way à la Funkadelic. If anything, the lack of saccharine ballads alone makes this a real gem in its niche, for the standards of 1973. Thumbs up all the way: for some reason, the average reviews of the album generally tend to be lukewarm, but I prefer to ascribe this to historical accidence, or maybe just the general reluctance to highly back-rate any album that has the word California in the title ever since the Eagles set us on the road of no return.
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