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Monday, August 12, 2013

Brenda Lee: Brenda Lee


1) Dynamite; 2) Weep No More My Baby; 3) Jambalaya (On The Bayou); 4) (If I'm Dreaming) Just Let Me Dream; 5) Be My Love Again; 6) My Baby Likes Western Guys; 7) Sweet Nothin's; 8) I'm Sorry; 9) That's All You Gotta Do; 10) Heading Home; 11) Wee Wee Willies; 12) Let's Jump The Broomstick.

Unlike later albums, this self-titled release was actually recorded over several different sessions that took place between 1958 and 1960 — which is a good thing, since rock'n'roll was still a hot thing on the charts and in people's minds when the sessions began, and, consequently, Brenda Lee is the rockiest, liveliest set of songs in the lady's career. Hard as it is to believe for those who have some idea of a faint outline of Brenda's career, only one of these twelve songs is a sentimen­tal ballad — and it happens to be her signature tune at that. The rest is either rockabilly or dance-oriented country-western, with a little bit of twisting and New Orleans for extra diversity.

Several of the tracks had been earlier released as singles, and are presented here in remade ver­sions: ʽJambalayaʼ, for instance, which was Brenda's first nationwide success at the age of 11, is slightly sped up and nourished with some King Curtis-style sax, while ʽDynamiteʼ, the single that got her the famous nickname, is embellished with extra strings and backing vocals. Needless to say, the originals are a bit rougher and tougher, but these versions are still quite wholesome, and hold up well on their own: Brenda's pirate snarl on the "jambalaya, crawfish pie and filet gumbo" line used to literally send shivers down my spine, and still does — it probably does take a 13-year old to produce that kind of effect.

But it is really ʽDynamiteʼ that exemplifies early Brenda Lee — way down in history, way before there ever was a ʽBaby Hit Me One More Timeʼ, there was this little girl, much younger than Britney, who bellowed "If I might do all the things / I'd love to do tonight / Then I would love you dear / With all my might... I just explode like dynamite!" and you were almost ready to com­mit a capital crime by actually believing what she sang. Of course, the arrangement is very inno­cent, done in gentle Nashville style, and the kid-rock melody is vaudeville-turned-rockabilly, but the song is still a significant milestone — no other white girl, not even Wanda Jackson, who was Brenda's chief (and only?) competitor at the time, could afford to let herself that loose back in the late Fifties. And there is nothing in the song that would diminish its freshness and excitement today — this is not simply some sort of «American Idol» thing, it is a daring, bravura per­for­mance that could not have been the result of merely memorizing a set formula.

Unfortunately, ʽDynamiteʼ did not do as well on the charts as ʽI'm Sorryʼ, which first gained po­pularity as a B-side, then rose to #1 as an A-side, and eventually became the song to be forever associated with Brenda. It is a decent ballad that she honestly pushes towards greatness — where her earliest songs, for understandable reasons of age, valued adrenaline over depth and subtlety, this lost love confession prompted her to add dynamics and flexibility, and I guess it does mark the transition from child phenomenon to mature artist. But the fact that ʽI'm Sorryʼ became the first song to make her a household name also resulted in the inevitable — a tendency to drift far­ther and farther into syrupy ballad territory, and away from the rockabilly turf that gave her birth and nurtured her to this maturity.

But we are running ahead here, because, like I said, most of Brenda Lee is still deep in kick-ass territory, or, adjusting to the circumstances, in «pat-ass» territory. Most of the songs are contribu­ted by outside songwriters and are derivative to the core, but that does not matter as long as the source inspiration was fun in the first place, and it was: ʽLet's Jump The Broomstickʼ clearly owes a lot to Little Richard's ʽSlippin' And Slidin'ʼ, and it is nice to hear Brenda pay this kind of tribute, even if the cumulative effect is (predictably) a little less overwhelming. (The song was covered a decade later by Sandy Denny, who managed to make it bluesy and ominous instead of whirlygig-funny — a curious feat).

Other highlights include ʽMy Baby Likes Western Guysʼ, where the protagonist complains about her lover's Western TV show obsession impeding the lovemaking process (it is a funny song, be­lieve me, though not quite on the Coasters level); ʽSweet Nothin'sʼ, credited to Ronnie Self, the author of ʽI'm Sorryʼ, and giving Brenda the opportunity to sound a little foxy; and ʽThat's All You Gotta Doʼ, the former A-side of ʽI'm Sorryʼ, which is just a sweet fast pop-rocker — sort of Motown-lite that the early Beatles would have loved. As for lowlights... well, some of the tunes are less memorable than others — that is to be expected — but there is hardly a single song on here that wouldn't be fun at all, or would have Ms. Lee try and perform something way beyond her reach or understanding.

I would go as far as suggest that, for 1960, Brenda Lee constitutes an essential listen. Even if we want to believe that the teen phenomenon was completely «manufactured», there is nothing on the record itself to suggest that. The music is nowhere near groundbreaking, but it is consistently fun, and to have an underage female rocker shake your world in an age when most of the male «veteran» rockers were giving up their positions must have been awesome: yes, the arrangements are wimpy, but they are not completely smooth and sterile — and that voice is anything but wimpy. Thumbs up without further questions: for those who prefer to deal in original LPs rather than compilations, Brenda Lee is the real deal about this girl.

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  1. "Weep No More My Baby" and "That's All You Gotta Do Are My Favourites".
    The latter because it's the only instance on the album where the instruments and backing vocals really gel into something that adds rather than detracts from Brenda's performance.
    And the former because I think it showcases Brenda's best singing. I'm not sure how many times she repeats that chorus, but she never does it the same way twice, always making up some new little trick (maybe just to keep herself entertained, the song itself isn't much fun).

  2. Well, Wanda Jackson's 'Funnel of Love' is from 1961. So it does not qualify as a late 50s output, but as much as I personally like the early Brenda Lee I also think that 'Funnel...' is superior to any of her doings. The combination of the guitar and the oriental touch is so very unique, she never had anything like that (if I remember correctly).
    For those not knowing whereof I speak:

  3. Agree that this is a great set of songs! For those who care deeply about food references, I think the line is actually "jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo."

    1. You beat me to it.

    2. To be really correct: it has to be 'filé'.