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Monday, November 20, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Motion


1) Night People; 2) Just A Kiss Away; 3) With You In Mind; 4) Lover Of Love; 5) To Be With You; 6) Motion; 7) Viva La Money; 8) Declaration Of Love; 9) Happiness; 10) The Optimism Blues.

If you want a good example of the disastrous direction that mainstream pop music took in the brief interim between 1975 and 1978 — well, no doubt about it, you can find plenty of examples, but somehow the difference between Southern Nights and Motion strikes me as particularly telling. Allen Toussaint has always been a nice man and a very intelligent craftsmanship, but he was never about going against the grain, and even if none of his records were bestsellers, he was still making them for the purposes of entertainment and, well, bringing a ray of simple happiness into the average house of the average American. Yet somehow, in 1975 he was able to do that in a way that did not conflict with artistic expression, inventiveness, and personality. Fast forward a mere three years — right into the middle of the Disco Age — and what we get is an album that, while not proverbially «bad» per se, is probably the most de-personalized record that Toussaint had put out in his entire career.

Granted, its very title does not exactly display a lot of ambition: the idea was clearly to make a record of dance tunes, from fast and raunchy to slow and sensitive, and see if there was any chance for Allen to compete with the disco kings of the era. But it does not take a genius to figure out that the idea was doomed from the start: the only disco music that transcends its formula is music in which you believe, with a religious fervor, and to believe in disco, you have to be young, wild, a bit crazy in the head and willing to throw in that little extra something which will make some people cringe and other people fall in love with you. Meanwhile, the first and last time that we ever saw the humble, friendly, cautious Allen Toussaint let his hair down was in... 1958, right? And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time to place your bets.

The opening number, ʽNight Peopleʼ, probably matches our expectations of «disco Toussaint»: it is not 100% disco, more like light funk-pop, more melodically complex than the average disco number, yet less sweaty and exciting than a disco classic — so stiff, in fact, that it is not even clear if we should perceive the song's lyrics ("night people... hanging out... looking at each other... waiting for something to happen...") as admiring and celebrating nighttime club life or making subtle fun of it. I'd rather have the latter interpretation, because the only thing that can make the song valuable is a splash of puzzled irony — but if there is puzzled irony here, I sure wish he'd make it more noticeable, because you won't really feel it until you sit down with the lyrics and a magnifying glass. As for the music, it does match that "waiting for something to happen" vibe, because nothing much ever happens in the song, that's for sure: just the same soft, repetitive funky groove without any key changes, solos, anything to distinguish its last minute from its first. And, unfortunately, this formula is pretty much put on rinse-and-repeat for the rest of the record.

It gets even worse by the time the third track comes along, initiating a string of generic ballads whose only redeeming factor is Allen's always pleasant singing voice. Further on down the road, it still gets worse when you realize that the title track, ʽMotionʼ, is actually one more of those slow generic ballads — and it goes on for six minutes, twice as long as the average track on here. Throw in such downer titles as ʽLover Of Loveʼ and ʽDeclaration Of Loveʼ, and the picture is more or less complete.

Things may have worked out fine if he threw in some effort to make this a comedy record: there are a few numbers that are more explicitly «funny» than others (ʽLover Of Loveʼ is actually a semi-facetious vaudeville tune, and ʽViva La Moneyʼ continues the eternal subject of "that's what I want" with a Vegas-funky arrangement), and the only track here that I really like is ʽThe Opti­mism Bluesʼ, another music-hall experiment that closes the album on a Randy Newman sort of note. Alas, there was never any intention of this: none of the songs fall under the definition of «pretentious», but few, if any, are written as pure jokes.

In this context, it hardly helps that Bonnie Raitt and Etta James are enlisted as backup vocalists, and it certainly does not help that Toto's drummer Jeff Porcaro is sitting in on percussion, and it almost does not help that notorious session player Larry Carlton is contributing his guitar licks (almost, because there is some exqui­site slide guitar work on ʽTo Be With Youʼ and a few other tracks — all of it nullified because the songs themselves are uninteresting). Ultimately, Motion is just a waste of talent, a certified thumbs down album if there ever was one (not horrendous, just dull), and the best thing that Toussaint could do after it predictably bombed both critically and commercially was to take some time off — in fact, a lot of time off. He didn't have to do it like he did, but he did, and I thank him.

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