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Monday, October 16, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Toussaint


1) From A Whisper To A Scream; 2) Chokin' Kind; 3) Sweet Touch Of Love; 4) What Is Success; 5) Working In A Coalmine; 6) Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky; 7) Either; 8) Louie; 9) Cast Your Fate To The Wind; 10) Number Nine; 11) Pickles.

Throughout the Sixties, Toussaint was too busy writing and producing hit songs for a host of artists to ever focus on a solo career, releasing only a tiny handful of singles under his own name (the most famous of which was probably ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ in 1968, and even that one was first made into a hit by Lee Dorsey two years before). However, as the Seventies came along and established a pattern of formerly behind-the-scenes songwriters coming out to lay claims to full-fledged artistry (Carole King probably being the most famous examples), Toussaint apparently decided that it wouldn't hurt to try. Backed by his good friend Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, on guitar and organ (all piano duties are understandably handled by Allen himself), as well as a dozen seasoned, but little-known session players (Merry Clayton of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame is here on backing vocals, as a matter of fact), Toussaint makes his first big move as a solo artist — and immediately falls flat on his face!

Well, no, not quite. True, the record sold poorly, was barely noted in its own time and even today remains more or less a collector's item, to the extent that even the basic discographic information on it tends to vary from source to source (from what I can reconstruct, the original title was simply Toussaint, the recording sessions took place in 1970, and the LP was released in 1971;  more than a decade later, it was re-released as From A Whisper To A Scream, with one extra track on Side B, and this is the version I have). It is also true that the record is quite low-key, and does not have even a third part of the exuberance and youthful aggression of The Wild Sound: this new sound of Allen's is anything but wild, particularly when you compare it to his funky competitors such as James Brown or Funkadelic; in the dizzy, explosive context of 1971, when «thunder gods» still ruled the world of pop, rock, and R&B, it could hardly be hoped that a lot of people would pay attention to anything this humble.

But apart from these historic considerations, Toussaint is a pretty decent album. Allen's motto for it is established with the last number on Side A — ʽEverything I Do Gonna Be Funkyʼ — yet he establishes it in such a quiet, unpretentious, and calm manner that I am automatically reminded of J. J. Cale: had old J. J. decided that he, too, wanted to be funky from now on, he would probably have recorded something precisely like this. The song is not even properly «funky» by itself, just a regular 4/4 groove with minimal bass, quiet interplay between a distorted rhythm guitar and lead slide licks, and brief, punctuating touches of brass. Absolutely nothing special — but, some­how, still burning with a quiet, steady, and very determined fire that really makes you want to believe the man.

Everything else on the first side is done according to the same approach: quiet, relying on short and sweet melodic guitar phrases — but, unfortunately, also downplaying Toussaint's talents as a piano player; his biggest break comes on Harlan Howard's ʽChokin' Kindʼ, but even there Dr. John quickly overshadows him on the organ. All in all, the songs do not even sound much like the product of a singer-songwriter, because Toussaint's singing voice, while pleasant, friendly, and versatile, is strictly defined as one out of many sonic ingredients: Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on backing vocals are just as loud as the frontman, and Toussaint never resorts to ad-lib­bing, never jumps out of his seat to attract attention — which is, admittedly, very cool and noble of him, but also depersonalizes him to a large degree. And although his ʽWorking In The Coal­mineʼ is a catchy and poignant song, his version here hardly improves on Lee Dorsey's original, although the arrangement is oddly more carnivalesque, with brass fanfare and slick funky guitar framing Allen's so naturally optimistic and friendly voice that the whole thing becomes ironic: surely Lee Dorsey did not sing about the sufferings of a coalmine worker that cheerfully.

The entire second side of the album is left for instrumental compositions, and this is where we could hope, perhaps, for some let-your-hair-down wildness: but no dice — these funky instru­mentals are quite restrained, too, and focused on band interplay rather than showcasing individual skills, with the lone exception of Vince Guaraldi's ʽCast Your Fate To The Windʼ, where Allen finally takes center stage and lets his piano do most of the talking, with some cool key changes and a beautifully fluent and expressive solo in the middle. Everything else is just groove after groove, tasteful and pleasant, but not much to write about: no flash (except at the end of ʽPicklesʼ, where Toussaint wraps things up with a few Chopin-esque flourishes), just business.

All in all, this is an inauspicious, but respectable start to a true solo career; I would only recom­mend it, though, to those who like their funky grooves very low-key and restrained, speaking through subtlety and ellipse, rather than loud, sweaty, and punchy. Oh, and with a brassy New Orleanian flavor, of course — the kind of atmosphere that teaches you to always look on the bright side of things, no matter how much they suck.

1 comment:

  1. Still surprised this is not a thumbs up. Probably one might get bored of the tracks he's heard before in other versions but being all put together they make a really nice collection of touching songs. I love 'Sweet Touch Of Love' the best — it's a great Elvis track never recorded by Elvis from Memphis era.