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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Betty Davis: Is It Love Or Desire?

BETTY DAVIS: IS IT LOVE OR DESIRE? (1976; 2009)

1) Is It Love Or Desire; 2) It's So Good; 3) Whorey Angel; 4) Crashin' From Passion; 5) When Romance Says Good­bye; 6) Bottom Of The Barrel; 7) Stars Starve, You Know; 8) Let's Get Personal; 9) Bar Hoppin'; 10) For My Man.

Recorded in 1976, not released until 2009, when the small «Light In The Attic» label somehow managed to got hold of Betty's entire stock and reintroduce it to the small segment of knowledge-seeking public. This is not a bootleg, though, or some obscure rag-tag collection of demos — this is a bona fide Betty Davis LP that Island Records were supposed to release, but canceled for un­known reasons, possibly over some creative falling out with the artist or simply being way too disappointed by the low sales of Nasty Gal. In any case, from a commercial standpoint their de­cision may have been right: I seriously doubt that Is It Love Or Desire could have sold more copies than its predecessor.

For one thing, the record not only clashed with the times, it made a point out of clashing with the times — ʽBottom Of The Barrelʼ is a fierce anti-disco stand, recorded at an age when disco had not yet completely pushed «classic funk» out of the limelight, but was already invading its terri­tory with a vengeance, being still relatively fresh, hip, and, in the eyes of some people, «progres­sive», so any type of battle cry like "take off that disco, dance to what you're hearing", not to men­tion "remember how it used to be in the Sixties", might have easily been interpreted as a self-pitying retrograde rant. But, for that matter, it is probably the first rant, chronologically, that con­sciously opposes the cool sounds of the Sixties to the down-in-the-dumps musical state of today, which makes it somewhat historically important, I'd say.

Yet on the whole, Betty's fourth album itself is a little «dumpy»: one additional reason why the people at Island decided to condemn it to a quarter century of shelf life is simply that it does not stand competition with Nasty Gal on any level — songwriting, performance, production. The music is not bad at all, but it seems that throughout her short career Betty worked in sine function mode: one «red-hot» record followed by a «tempered» one, and, following that principle, Is It Love Or Desire? had in its mind to explore some new sound combinations, throw in a few subtle and not-so-subtle new messages, and also lend more space to Betty's backers than Betty herself. That last point is probably the most important: this is the only album in Davis' catalog where the primary emphasis, due mainly to production reasons, frequently shifts from Betty to the instru­mentalists and additional vocalists, so that the «nasty gal» feels more like part of a band than the out-of-her-mind band leader.

And, even though it was never in Betty's character to forget all about the music and just concen­trate on her personality in the first place, this shift of balance is still unpleasant — I mean, who the heck would want to listen to a Betty Davis album on which she feels like a bit player in her own band? Yet this is exactly the kind of thing that greets us on the title track, where the lady seems altogether lost in a thick mesh of clavinets, guitars, and back vocalists who are mixed al­most as high as the front vocalist herself. The basic clavinet groove, as usual, is funky, tough, and ideally suited to her style, but the vocal presence leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it is just a fault of the mix, I am not denying that — but then it's a fault that permeates the entire album.

The hideously titled ʽWhorey Angelʼ is the album's centerpiece, and it is as deeply flawed as it is great — the introductory riff alone makes life worth living, but then most of the tune is given over to Fred Mills (the band's keyboard player) to sing, and there is something about his duet with Betty that just doesn't seem right; maybe a lack of distinct personality — technically, he is a bet­ter singer, but hardly a more interesting one. Still, it's a good exercise in tension-pumping: their dynamic build-up towards the "I spread my wings" bridge rocks just fine with me.

Oddly enough, it is the more quiet, suspense-oriented tracks here, with fewer overdubs and more Betty presence, that seem to crawl under the skin on a more consistent basis. The minimalistic R&B ballad ʽWhen Romance Says Goodbyeʼ and particularly the album closer ʽFor My Manʼ (unfortunately, an all-too short quasi-snippet) are really dialogs between two thrilling, subcon­science-undermining bass lines and Betty in «dark sentimental mode», and both of them point to a very interesting, unpredictable line of future development — it is hard, after all, to retain the same «nasty gal flame» for years on end, but it is also a shame to lose the flame, and stuff like ʽFor My Manʼ shows how the flame can be very successfully internalized.

Still, despite this uncomfortable muffling of personality, the actual music on the album does rule throughout, no matter if the band is playing it soft or loud, and there is little doubt that a character as strong as Betty's would be agreeing to compromise quality — thus, faced between the choice of compromising or disappearing, it is no wonder that she preferred to disappear. After her break­up with Island Records, she resurfaced only once: in 1979, a recording session was held where she redid some of the songs from Is It Love and threw in a few new ones, later bootlegged under the name of Hangin' Out In Hollywood without the artist's consent and not generally held in high esteem by the connoisseurs. Upon that, she retired completely from the music scene, and who could blame her? Most of the sweaty funk outfits of the 1970s did not survive the transition to the new decade either, crashing down in flames or, even worse, evolving into trashy, anti-mu­sical automatons; most people never had the luck of a Michael Jackson, or the enhanced-for-the-Eighties genius of a Prince...

...but that is really digressing way beyond the point, and the point is: strike my criticism off the record and, if you have already heard Betty's first three albums, get this one as well. Everybody needs an honest-to-God disco-bashing funk song in their collection, everybody needs to learn that "stars starve, you know" as narrated by a too-hot-for-stardom artist, everybody needs some catchy reggae-pop à la ʽBar Hoppin'ʼ, and on the whole, of course, this is a certified thumbs up.

Check "Is It Love Or Desire?" (MP3) on Amazon

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