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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Chantels: There's Our Song Again


1) I Can't Take It; 2) Never Let Go; 3) Believe Me My Angel; 4) C'Est Si Bon; 5) IFIC; 6) My Darling; 7) I'm The Girl; 8) I; 9) My Memories Of You; 10) I'll Walk Alone; 11) I'm Confessin'; 12) Goodbye To Love.

In between The Chantels' first and second album, a lot of things happened to the band: they re­leased a few more, commercially unsuccessful, singles; they lost Arlene Smith, who embarked upon an even more obscure solo career, and carried on as a harmony-singing trio for a short while; and, finally, re-emerged around 1961 with a new lead singer (Annette Smith) and a bit more com­mercial luck, scoring a decent hit with ʽLook In My Eyesʼ. Not all of these changes are reflected on their second LP, which, I assume, they only got awarded from End Records after having al­ready left the label — predictably, it consists of A- and B-sides and leftovers recorded in 1959-1960, both with Arlene still at the top and after she'd already gone, and also including a couple of tracks marking the arrival of Annette in Arlene's place. At least, this is what I can establish from a brief comparison of conflicting sources (I do so believe, for instance, that the current Wikipedia article on The Chantels confuses their second and third LP, and online discographies are an even bigger mess).

Anyway, what cannot be confused is the quality of the material, and if you liked the girls in their solid doo-wop era, you will almost certainly like them in the transitional period as well, since the songs are predictably more diverse. ʽI Can't Take It (There's Our Song Again)ʼ, with a mighty bomb of high-to-low-range desperation from Arlene, starts things off in very traditional doo-wop fashion; but already ʽNever Let Goʼ shows them coming to terms with the twist movement, and that Arlene could easily belt it out at faster tempos without diluting any of the passion. With ʽI'm Confessin'ʼ, on the other hand, they make a retro move, covering an old standard, but upgrading it to modern soul standards; not that it helps a lot or anything.

Group harmony is king on ʽC'Est Si Bonʼ, an almost inescapable (for most pop outfits of the time) attempt to «frenchify» (or, more correctly, gallicize) the sound, because, you know, there's no­thing sexier than hearing a bunch of African-American girls from the Bronx fight their way through a couple of seductively mispronounced French phrases. (Actually, ʽC'Est Ci Bonʼ was even the title of an EP released by End Records in 1958, with the same cover of the girls in Southern Belle outfits that they used for We Are The Chantels — crass!). Much better is ʽIFICʼ, a jolly fast kiddie R&B romp in the style of ʽJim Dandyʼ or, more accurately, Elvis' ʽTeddy Bearʼ (the song title is actually an abbreviation for "terrific", but don't ask me why).

The new singer, Annette Smith, is introduced with the strictly doo-wop single ʽBelieve Me My Angel / Iʼ, both sides written by Barrett and featuring a sharp turn towards smoother-sappier from the original desperate-powerful: however, Annette does have a great voice for smooth-sappy, with a cooing, buttery falsetto that Arlene was incapable of, and she performs some impressive vocal gymnastics on both songs that should have raised some eyebrows back at the time — I have no idea why the single was not a hit. That said, neither the older material nor the new one are strong enough to call this period in the band's life underrated: most of the time, the songwriting is too formulaic and subpar to rank along with the contemporary masterpieces from the forges of Motown or Atlantic Records. Perfectly listenable and interesting in light of the presence of two widely different lead vocal styles, but not much to make it stand out other than just a few more cases of Arlene Smith's mighty voice.

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