CARLA THOMAS: LOVE MEANS... (1971)
1) Didn't We; 2) Are You Sure; 3) What Is Love; 4) Daughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Child; 5) Love Means You Never Have To Say You're Sorry; 6) You've Got A Cushion To Fall On; 7) Il Est Plus Doux Que; 8) Cherish; 9) I Wake Up Wanting You.
Well, it's nice to know that Carla Thomas was a major fan of Love Story, though in the grand scheme of things it is probably not a very significant detail. It is less nice to know that her first and only album in the Seventies pretty much gave up on harsh funky grooves altogether, as she decided to comfortably settle in the green fields of lush, orchestrated, sentimental pop music — not too surprising, though, considering she'd started out in that vein anyway, and always felt more comfortable with sweet lyrical tenderness than with the get-up-and-fight vibe. The problem is, she was still on Stax, and it is a bit strange to see the muscular talents of the MG's and other Stax session musicians go to waste on this kind of material.
Surprisingly, the title track, despite its title, is exactly the one song on here that still gets by on groove power — nothing particularly unusual about the groove, a simple blues bassline, but it sets a gritty tone for all the subsequent brass and orchestral interludes and adds a nice touch of ambiguity to the message. Apparently, something about love and its nature was bugging Carla at the time — this is one of only two songs that she herself (co-)wrote for the album, the other one being ʽWhat Is Love?ʼ, a much less interesting pop tune, but with a decent vocal build-up to the chorus at least. However, she does get solid songwriting help from her brother Marvell, who also contributes the album's lengthiest, quasi-epic number — the conventionally heartbreaking family relation tale ʽDaughter, You're Still Your Daddy's Childʼ, culminating in a two-minute ecstatic coda where Carla is trying to steer the entire band into ripping it up; unfortunately, this is also precisely where you remember that Carla Thomas is no Aretha Franklin, and I find it hard to get caught up in the excitement for that reason.
This is all sweet and at least tolerable, but the album also offers some inexcusable crassness: Tony Hester's ʽIl Est Plus Doux Queʼ, with quasi-French sentimentality and poorly pronounced French phrasing sprinkled all over the tune, is unbearable, and so is the awful B-side ʽYou've Got A Cushion To Fall Onʼ (you thought ʽStand By Your Manʼ was, um, questionable? Here's a sample of the lyrics to this one: "Good evening, dear, do you feel okay? / How are things on the job today? / Sit right down and kick off your shoes / Supper will be ready in a minute or two / I can tell your promotion didn't go through / And I can see it got you feeling sad and blue... / ...you've got a cushion to fall on / you've got me, I'm in your corner". From the We Three songwriting team, welcome to the progressive Seventies). In an era when Afro-American music, male and female, generally strove to expand, break out, and assert its individuality, this kind of style was clearly regressive, if not straightahead reactionary.
In any case, be it the lack of chart success or a personal feeling of «not belonging» to this new age of music-making, Love Means... turned out to be the last full-fledged musical effort from «The Queen of Soul»: by 1972, Carla had pretty much retired from music (although she continued to give occasional performances and even mini-tours well into the 2000s). As such, it remains the last testament to a pleasant, but mediocre talent that was, unfortunately, never provided with the proper conditions to mature into anything above mediocre. Essentially, I would conclude that the Carla / Stax match was a mismatch from the very beginning — she might have thrived as a pop star, perhaps even an art-pop one if things had gone right, but trying to place her some place in between lush pop star and fiery R&B diva just made her fall through the cracks altogether.