CHER: 3614 JACKSON HIGHWAY (1969)
1) For What It's Worth; 2) (Just Enough To Keep Me) Hangin' On; 3) (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay; 4) Tonight I'll Be Staying With You; 5) I Threw It All Away; 6) I Walk On Guilded Splinters; 7) Lay Baby Lay; 8) Please Don't Tell Me; 9) Cry Like A Baby; 10) Do Right Woman, Do Right Man; 11) Save The Children.
Common wisdom often rates this as the finest record in Cher's career, and that might not be far from the truth. According to Cher herself, she did not have any objections to hardening up her sound at the time — Sonny did, though, and as long as he at least compensated for that by writing good songs for her to sing, it was okay; but when he did not, the results were embarrassing, as on Backstage. So sometime in 1969, as their contracts expired, Cher finally took a break from Sonny's guidance, got herself a solo contract with Atlantic, and went to the Muscle Shoals Studio to make a brand new record with a brand new sound.
The result — a combination of the Muscle Shoals session band, easily the hottest R&B combo in 1969, and of Cher's iron-lady voice — may not be particularly stellar, but it did somehow bring out the best in Cher, as her singing suddenly becomes more self-confident, full of purpose, versatile, and, most importantly, well attuned to the music. As I already said several times, she is never at her best when playing vulnerable or sentimental, but she can really hit it off with aggression and power, and that definitely combines better with funky riffage and cocky brass blasts than gallant baroque-pop arrangements. So, even if it may be a rather banal choice to cover ʽFor What It's Worthʼ, right from the opening bars of syncopated acoustic guitar you get the feeling that "there's something happening here"; and when she sings "there's a man with a gun over there, telling me I've got to beware...", it's like "...telling ME I've got to beware? Does he have any idea who he's messing with in the first place?", and that's when you get The Click and the rest of the album rolls on smoothly.
Of course, not everything is perfect, and there'll always be some sentimental balladry to spoil the day, but the album will be remembered not for the sentimental balladry, but for really tough stuff like the cover of Dr. John's ʽI Walk On Guilded Splintersʼ, where the combination of the threatening hard rock riff with Cher's tough-guy delivery is honestly ravaging — I mean, she has absolutely zero of that voodoo angle of Dr. John's, and it's impossible to take her "Je suis le grand zombie!" literally, but as a general allegory of her toughness, well... "I wanna see my enemies on the end of my rope" hardly sounds like an empty threat. Too bad they did not include more tracks like this — it's totally the kind of swaggery stuff that the woman was born for, and one song she could really steal away from the originator.
Still, there's plenty of ballsy stuff on the rest of the record, and, amazingly, some of the best numbers are three Dylan covers, all of them from the recently released Nashville Skyline: solid rhythm section, tasty slide guitar licks, pompous brass fanfare, and powerhouse vocals transform ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ, ʽI Threw It All Awayʼ, and ʽLay Lady Layʼ (the latter appropriately — semantically, if not phonetically — converted to ʽLay Baby Layʼ) into brazen anthems instead of quiet country ditties that they used to be, and they're all excellent, as Cher gets into all three tracks with verve, not to mention aggressive femininity. Even more curiously, she gets in credible renditions of Otis Redding (ʽDock Of The Bayʼ) and Aretha (ʽDo Right Womanʼ) that you'd probably never think her capable of in the early days — although one must always remember to give proper credit to the musicians, providing the ideal bedrock for her to rise to the challenge and pump out some extra voltage on those vocals.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that the last and most explicitly soulful track, Eddie Hinton's ʽSave The Childrenʼ, generates a genuine emotional response despite an aura of soapiness around it (no, it's not about Ethiopia, it's about putting off a divorce so as not to leave the kids without a daddy), even though Cher can still sound a bit wooden in places, and "pleading Cher" is nowhere near as convincing by definition as "threatening Cher". Still, they help her out with a turbulent string arrangement and the closest thing they can find to a grand finale on the whole, and besides, considering how much Sonny was (reportedly) cheating on his wife at the time (while she was pregnant with Chaz — oh look, we're going all tabloid here), you can understand how she might have easily identified with the song's sentiment.
Overall, it does not really matter how much control she had during the recording of 3614 Jackson Highway — even if Jerry Wexler had all of it, that would only be for the better, since the man found her the right band and the right songs to cover. Reportedly, Sonny, despite standing there together with everybody and grinning at us on the front cover, felt himself shut out and never liked the record all that much, but hey, serves you right, man — (a) don't cheat on your wife and (b) don't make her cover Miriam Makeba and Black Orpheus. Isn't this what "a little respect when you come home" was all about in the first place? Thumbs up.