CHER: ALL I REALLY WANT TO DO (1965)
1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) I Go To Sleep; 3) Needles And Pins; 4) Don't Think Twice; 5) She Thinks I Still Care; 6) Dream Baby; 7) The Bells Of Rhymney; 8) Girl Don't Come; 9) See See Rider; 10) Come And Stay With Me; 11) Cry Myself To Sleep; 12) Blowin' In The Wind.
It's too bad, I think, that the debut album of Cher as a solo artist does not include ʽRingo, I Love Youʼ — her first single, issued in 1964 under the rather hideous name of Bonnie Jo Mason and allegedly co-written by Phil Spector in person. It is such a silly Beatlesque pastiche (one out of hundreds, of course) that the only point of interest there are Cher's vocals, so unusually low for the time that, rumor has it, some radio stations refused to play it because they thought they were being duped. And although she probably had no say whatsoever in these early decisions at the time, the song still set a career pattern that would be rigorously adhered to for the next fifty years: if it ain't trendy, the dark-haired lady can't be bothered.
Fast forward a bit to October 1965, by which time the dark-haired lady had teamed up with Sonny Bono and became an international celebrity by means of ʽI Got You Babeʼ. No sooner had the duo released their first LP that Sonny put forward the idea of crafting a parallel solo career for the wife — a golden throne for her and a grave for himself, as it would later turn out, but seeing as how he, at the moment, was the only one of the two with songwriting talent, the poor guy obviously could not see it coming. And thus, with the release of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ as a single and the same-titled LP quickly following it up, the green light was given to one of the most, umm, let's say «predatory» careers in show-business, ever. A career as historically instructive as it is almost delightfully tasteless, and one well worth studying in detail, if only because it pretty much reflects the entire history of pop/rock music in its crooked mirror.
Anyway, it's October 1965, and the Byrds are one of the hottest things on that side of the American market that tries to be friendly to «mainstream» and «alternative» audiences at the same time, so, naturally, at this time Cher is a folk-rocker, singing pretty arrangements of Dylan (three songs), Pete Seeger and The Byrds themselves (ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ), Jackie DeShannon, and a bit of British Invasion to round out the picture (a cover of The Kinks' ʽI Go To Sleepʼ which they never released officially at the time anyway). No expense was spared during the recordings, as a large part of The Wrecking Crew was recruited for the sessions, and Sonny's production, though not as masterful as Phil Spector's, still managed to come close to capturing the wall-of-sound effect — actually, considering that most folk-rock at the time was produced by young bands without much experience or simply with no desire to go beyond minimalistic arrangements, Sonny had the advantage of merging the «innocence» of the folk sound with Spectorian bombast, and at least in purely technical terms, he did it well.
Of course, Cher's voice at this time is both an asset and a problem. Asset, because if you care for low-timbred female vocals at all, there's just no way that at least some Cher songs could not appeal to you — when she's really on, she's a powerhouse, and as calculated as the whole thing (and the whole Cher career) is, I struggle to think of a 1965 album by a female artist (white, at least) that would better convey the idea of «woman empowerment». Problem, because one thing Cher has never had is subtlety — she rips through all this material, diverse as it is, as if she had boxer gloves on throughout the sessions, and while this is perfectly all right for some songs, it is definitely not all right (and, in fact, embarrassing) for others.
First, the highlights, though. ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, set to the predictable, but tasteful jangle guitar and chime keyboard, is a stunner — definitely a song more suitable for Cher than even The Byrds, taking Bob's tongue-in-cheek joking chauvinist jab at over-intellectualized females and turning it inside out in favor of the other sex. It is actually the only song on the album where the lady sounds like she's having fun — playing around with her limited range and sometimes arching out that "all I really wanna doooooo..." as if teasingly mocking the song's addressee — and it's kind of a pity that the other two Dylan covers here are ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ (a tune that is not intended to be screamed out, whatever the cost!) and ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, done in a manner as grand as any national anthem and just about equally stultifying. Of course, it would have been too much to expect her to go ahead with ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ (although she'd probably do a great job with it), and there'd be gender problems with ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, but... uh... ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, perhaps?
Other tunes where she is vocally spot on include ʽShe Thinks I Still Careʼ, a bitter-mocking rendition of Dickey Lee's ʽHe Thinks I Still Careʼ; and a rousing ʽSee See Riderʼ which manages to pack just enough brawn and arrogance to stand up to all the sprawling competition. Some others are just bizarre — for instance, a reading of Jackie DeShannon's ʽCome And Stay With Meʼ that should have honestly been retitled ʽCome And Stay With Me, Bitchʼ: where Marianne Faithful, who originally performed the song, sings the lines "I'll send away all my false pride and I'll forsake all of my life" as if she really means it, tender and on the verge of breaking, Cher's natural, never-shifting timbre makes it sound as if she's totally mocking the guy — probably giving him the finger behind the back, too. I do not doubt that the irony was unintended, and that, like so many other titles here, it was simply a matter of poor song choice, but the effect is still hilarious all the same, especially considering that this is one of her best-sung tunes here.
Specific downers, on the other hand, would include ʽNeedles And Pinsʼ — Sonny wrote it, yes, but not for her, and she just ploughs through the subtle hills and valleys of that song with a vocal bulldozer — and ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ, where she seems to just lack the technique and even ends up singing awfully off-key in spots. And although the dreamy baroque arrangement of ʽI Go To Sleepʼ is a very nice alternative to the minimalistic piano demo accompaniment of Ray Davies, one thing Ms. Cherilyn Sarkisian will always have a very hard time to simulate is that feeling of late night loneliness without a loved one. (Oh, I mean, it might just be a matter of her voice, it's not as if I'm implying she never ever felt lonely without a loved one herself.)
Overall, this is just like it will always be from now on — there's material that lends itself to the Cher treatment, and then we're in for a hell of a treat, and then there's material that fights back, and then we're either in for a hilarious oddity, or, more often, for a corny embarrassment. But this is precisely what makes the exploration of her backlog such a fun thing — you find yourself in the position of an involved historiographer, describing the never-ending shift of balance between treats, oddities, and embarrassments, and isn't that what life's all about in the end?