CHER: GYPSYS, TRAMPS & THIEVES (1971)
1) The Way Of Love; 2) Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves; 3) He'll Never Know; 4) Fire & Rain; 5) When You Find Out Where You're Goin' Let Me Know; 6) He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother; 7) I Hate To Sleep Alone; 8) I'm In The Middle; 9) Touch And Go; 10) One Honest Man.
The Seventies started on a high note for Cher, what with the popularity of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour — and, most importantly, with the release of Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves, an album very different from the rockier sounds of 3614 Jackson Highway, but, surprisingly, of as high quality as a Vegasy album of show tunes and ballads could possibly get. And it is not a matter of musicianship (fairly ordinary for its times), nor of particularly great songwriting (Sonny's songs are not featured on the original album at all, except for two bonus tracks on the UK release); mostly, it is a matter of getting Cher in good form, so that she can deliver some of these tunes as if her very life depended on it.
I mean the title track first and foremost, of course — written by Bob Stone and originally titled ʽGypsys, Tramps And White Trashʼ before the producer demanded something a little less offensive for the title. It's a nice pop song by itself, but something clicked, and Cher sounds even more powerful and angry here than she did on ʽI Walk On Guilded Splintersʼ: perhaps digging into her real (and quite troubled) childhood for inspiration, she is totally convincing when singing "I was born in the wagon of a traveling show" — then again, the song's chorus ("they'd call us gypsys, tramps and thieves / but every night all the men would come around / and lay their money down") could be said to allegorically describe Sonny & Cher's career up to that point, in a way, so it's not that surprising to witness her getting into the performance with such verve.
The same arrangement style («lush» production, steeped in acoustic guitars, strings, and woodwinds) is employed for almost all the tracks, but emphasis is never taken away from Cher's vocals, which are, as if by magic, liberated — for instance, she transforms James Taylor's quiet (and, honestly, quite plain and boring) ʽFire And Rainʼ into a powerstorm, with an awesome use of overtones that make that voice sound bass-deep and sky-high at the same time. ʽHe Ain't Heavy, He's My Brotherʼ does not work nearly as well as the Hollies' version (possibly because it's really more of a «male song», and Cher makes the mistake of singing it in her lowest register in order to sound more «male», which is a bit embarrassing), but she more than makes up for it with the upbeat-catchy cover of Peggy Clinger's ʽI Hate To Sleep Aloneʼ, and particularly with Ginger Greco's ʽOne Honest Manʼ — that one's almost as much of a keeper as the title track: "But I can't find one honest man / Why can't I find one honest man?" is a killer chorus, no doubt, once again inspired by real life events (curious that Sonny never raised a fuss about the song being on the record — then again, he wasn't that much in control by that point).
The only song that I actively dislike on the album is its second single — ʽThe Way Of Loveʼ, adapted from a 1960 French original (ʽJ'Ai Le Mal De Toiʼ), another one of those puffed-up French torch ballads that you either have a craving for or tend to dismiss because of their corniness. Personally, even despite the powerful singing, I'd throw it in the wastebasket along with all of her previous French material, and concentrate on the other nine songs, all of which are less pompous and do not come across as cheap tear-jerkers. In any case, they're generally faster, tougher, poppier, and snappier than standard Vegas schlock, so even if the arrangements on the album never go beyond orchestrated soft-rock, the album as a whole does not give the impression of being ready made for one of those glitzy Cher galas where she'd be dressed up like an Amazonian princess in heat.
UK listeners actually got an even better deal out of it: the US release was drastically short (just five short songs on each side), but the UK version had a Sonny song appended on each side — ʽClassified 1Aʼ, with a completely different, piano-based arrangement, was a ballad sung from the perspective of a soldier wounded in the Vietnam war (not one of Cher's best vocals, though: too operatic and leaden), and ʽDon't Put It On Meʼ was a percussion-heavy folk-pop song with curious key and time signature changes all over the place — melodically, one of the most experimental numbers ever written by Sonny. On the other hand, though, both of those tunes are totally incompatible with the overall style of Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves — it is clearly seen that they come from a different place and with a different attitude. In any case, either edition gets a very strong thumbs up. If you're up for a bit of soft rock with a hard-sung edge, give this one a try: it does not have the rocking power of its predecessor, but still manages to hit hard in quite a few spots — possibly the most «human» album of Cher's entire career.