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Monday, October 30, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Southern Nights


1) Last Train; 2) Worldwide; 3) Back In Baby's Arms; 4) Country John; 5) Basic Lady; 6) Southern Nights; 7) You Will Not Lose; 8) What Do You Want The Girl To Do?; 9) When The Party's Over; 10) Cruel Way To Go Down.

Third time's the charm: reading whatever you may find of the brief, scant accounts of Toussaint's Seventies output might give the impression of a fairly even career, but listen to these records just a wee bit closer, and it is difficult not to perceive a little something «extra» on Southern Nights, an album that tries to make a difference where its two predecessors sounded more like technical attempts to accommodate the artist's presence in a musical decade so different from those in which he'd originally emerged and thrived as «Creative Assistant» to everybody.

Well, it's a subtle difference, actually: all Southern Nights does is explore a slightly larger num­ber of musical styles and employ a few extra production techniques — yet, somehow, what emerges in the process is an album that also feels deeper, more serious, even more soulful than it used to be. If anything, Toussaint here seems, if not directly influenced, then at least indirectly inspired by Stevie Wonder and his brilliant successes in transcending the conventional formula of R&B with his technical innovations and individualistic approach; although the music is still largely groove-based, the melodies on the whole are much more elaborate, and everything is marked with special touches — a piano or organ flourish, an odd cross-fade, a weird sound effect, a particularly melancholic brass riff, whatever gets your goat — that suggest treating the album as an actual art piece, rather than just thirty more minutes of modest entertainment.

The record's central piece is, of course, the title track, which most people probably know from Glen Campbell's 1977 hit version — distilled into a rather one-dimensional, near-disco romp that is far more danceable and perhaps even catchier than the original, but completely devoid of the odd magical flavor that Toussaint gets from slapping a few simple effects onto the piano track and, most importantly, his vocals which he runs through a Leslie speaker, so that the question of "have you ever felt a southern night?" sounds sort of vaporized, as if coming from some friendly water demon. Eulogizing the beauties of the South is nothing new per se, but this here is an entirely different approach, putting more emphasis on the dreamy atmosphere than on the more usual «earthiness» and «soulfulness» in doing so — and then, as Toussaint throws the line "wish I could stop the world from fighting" into the mix, it turns out that admiring the attraction of South­ern nights is actually just a pretext for something decidedly bigger.

I cannot say that any of the other tracks go for a similarly ambitious goal, but they all have some­thing to offer. ʽLast Trainʼ is Toussaint's ʽLocomotive Breathʼ — not as tense or apocalyptic, but still comparing the mad life of today's world to a choo choo train, suitably backed by huffing and puffing percussion and steam-blowing backing vocals. ʽBack In Baby's Armsʼ features one of his weightiest arrangements — slow, solemn, with a full gospel choir to stress the importance of said baby's arms — and while the track may have needed a Phil Spector to fully realize its potential, it is still more memorable, or, rather, more noticeable than the ballads on his earlier albums. ʽCountry Johnʼ, while not having the snarly syncopated snazz of a ʽSuperstitionʼ, still has plenty of power to entrance you with its rhythm section, particularly when the brass section and the looped backing vocals start spiralling, dizzy-dizzy, around Toussaint's chorus.

And so it goes all the way to ʽCruel Way To Go Downʼ, which, surprisingly, sounds not unlike one of those semi-depressed Dylan tunes circa Planet Waves — slow, brooding, melancholic roots-rock with a surprising lyrical and vocal twist, as the singer-songwriter whom we'd generally known as a strong, wilful, sarcastic character, suddenly plunges into darkness and vulnerability: "Lost and found in a sea of love and tossed around / Loneliness must be a cruel way to go down". After nine songs in a row that had their share of irony, bitterness, social critique and personal troubles, but still showed a largely optimistic and fun-loving spirit, this last song is a shocker, as Toussaint employs every trick in his book to weave an aura of inescapable grief. Guess those baby's arms ultimately did not help — yet, in any case, this is a final crowning touch that, along with the title track, really gives the record its individuality.

All in all, Southern Nights is clearly Toussaint's peak as a solo artist: the closest he has ever come to becoming an «accomplished» singer-songwriter, with lots of personal, confessional touches that could easily be missed on his other records due to all the extra humility, and that were certainly absent from the catchy, but alienated material that he penned for other people. If you only need one record from the guy, this is clearly the one to get; if you only have time for one song from the guy, ʽSouthern Nightsʼ is the one to cherish. In any case, the final verdict is an irreversible thumbs up; too bad that the times hindered him from capitalizing on its strengths, as the disco age forced its own rules on the man.

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