Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music - Ray Charles

  Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
  Ray Charles

  Volume 1- 3.5 out of 5 stars
  Volume 2- 2 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Brother Ray doing Country and Western? It begs the question, was Ray deaf as well as blind? When he was asked if he wanted to do a Country and Western album, did he think he was being asked if he wanted to stay at the Best Western Inn?

In reality, Ray listened to The Grand Ole Opry as a child and played with the Florida Playboys, a hillbilly band, so the idea of doing a Country Western album seemed natural to him  -- and maybe only to him.

But instead of the nasal noodlings of Slim Whitman or the fiddle flapping of Homer and Jethro, when Charles went into the studio, he laid on high-stepping rhythms, simmering strings, and bold brass, creating "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." his most enduring musical triumph.

Concord has retooled and remastered Brother Ray's breakthrough album, repackaging it with its aptly named followed up "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music - Volume 2." That's 24 cuts - double the Ray - on one CD, and at least half of it is finger lickin' good.

A Country Classic...Volume One

The first volume kicks off with a raucous rendition of The Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" This is Country Western? Well, not really. It's got more soul than anything else. Ray howls like a horny wolf when The Raelettes come swinging in, and he does a peppy piano roll solo supported by pounding horns. Try to keep still, I dare you.

If your personal life has been experiencing a booty call recession, then the hushed, angelic choir and soft weeping strings of "You Don't Know Me" will speak to your inner heartache. Martin Paich's strings adorn Ray's aching phrases with grace, style and dignity. Despite the seeming incongruity between Ray's pained singing style and that of the Wonder Bread chorus, Ray's vocal resurrects the memory of the one that got away, and the back up singers do a superb job closing things out with haunting precision.

The horn charts for "Half as Much," "It Makes No Difference" and "Careless Love" all spring from the same languid yet punchy rhythmic stew. Ray appropriates the cool swing style that Nelson Riddle devised for Frank Sinatra on Ole Blue Eyes' defining records and makes it his own. Hip phrasing and a beaming horn chart highlighted by Don Wilkerson's suave sax solo make "Half as Much" twice as enjoyable. Ray sounds wounded, and he's liable to get hurt again, but we'll be the ones who benefit from his pain.

You may not love "I Love You So Much it Hurts" very much, even though Ray puts a countryside of cornpone in his voice. "I Love You So Much it Hurts" is the closest (thus far) to true country, a creeping, blubbering ballad. It leaves the impression that Ray's trying too hard to cater to country music's most confounding by-law - sing it with a whimper in your voice. This is Slim Whitman, my uncle used to love me but she died territory. You can picture the chorus trying to tap into the moment, swaying in time, the men in Brooks Brothers suits and the ladies in full length dresses with their hair swept up into bouffants. The vocalizing is much like that of the King Family, pure, middle-America and it dominates, rather than compliments Ray's woe is me lead. It's one of the few instances on Vol. 1 where the chemistry between Ray and what's happening behind him is out of sync.

The country seeps through on "Born to Lose," courtesy of Paich's swirling strings that soar and dip during the song's midsection. The wholesome back up singers are back and in fine form, taking their own winning verse. Ray's vocal pays homage to the sobby sodbuster style of Hank Williams: "Born to lose...and now I'm losing you."

One of Volume One's many highlights is "It Makes No Difference," an underrated gem with slow-burning, muted horns that go bum-bum-bum-bum-da-dum. The horns course through the background like blood in the veins until the arrangement explodes with bold blows in the third verse. There's some great phrasing by Ray as he raises and lowers his voice with sly innuendo.

Hank Williams would have said "hallelujah" to Ray's emotive vocal for "You Win Again." "This heart of mine could never see what everybody knew but me. Trusting you was my greatest sin, what can I do, you win again."  "You Win Again" demonstrates that you really can infuse the Grand Ole Opry with a shot of The Apollo Theater - that in the right hands R&B and Country can cook together.

Ray gets a rare writing credit for "Careless Love," which flows like a slower "It Makes No Difference," but still swings. Ray's involved, pulling out the stops with a crafty vocal that crests and falls like an alley cat mewing for its mate. There's a defining moment only Ray could pull off when he coos, "If I could mmmmm like a morning dove...If I could moan, like a morning dove, you know I'd moan for everyone in love."

"I Can't Stop Loving You" was one of the big hits off the album, the perfect collaboration between Ray, the chorus, and Paich's shivering strings. Ray's soaring blues vocal blends seamlessly with the chorus. "...Sing the song, children..." "I Can't Stop Lovin' You" was thought to be one of the album's weaker tunes (!) Producer Sid Feller got word that teen idol Tab Hunter had recorded a version of the song, so he released Ray's version first, never thinking it would become one of his most successful songs.

"Hey Good Lookin'" is Volume 1's closer and the only outright dud. There's a nifty karate chop beat, but the rest of the arrangement is a series of night club clichés (even for 1962). Ray tries to pretty up this dog with a swinging solo, but there's nothin' cookin'. I guess I'm too used to Hank's "aw shucks" version to appreciate Ray's radical re-tooling.

Volume 2...Who Put the Corn in My Country...Or Twice to the Well and You Drown In Your Own Tears...

Ray returned to the studio at the end of '62 to record the sequel to "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." It won't take you very long to realize Volume 2 is comprised of material rejected from the first album. What made Volume 2 the ugly step sister of part one was the lack of a career defining hit along the lines of "I Can't Stop Loving You" or "You Don't Know Me," or strong cuts like "Careless Love" or "It Make No Difference." The emphasis on giving the arrangements more of a genuine Country Western feel instead of blending in generous portions of R&B turned part two into listless love that made no difference.

The album opens in fine form though, with "You Are My Sunshine," a gut bucket version of the standard written by former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis. It's almost unrecognizable from the tame hayseed harangues of the past. The instrumental section wobbles a bit when it slides into predictable big band swing, but the groove returns when Raelette Margie Hendrix lets loose with her own bellowing turn at the mike.

"No Letter Today" is suspiciously close to the previous album's "You Win Again." It's a bit more drowsy, despite the novelty of Ray's double-tracked vocal. The only letters it deserves are B-A-D.

"Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" is competent but limp; It's built more for the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle cocktail crowd. And you can't help but notice a new wrinkle...Ray's histrionics sound forced.

As I was wading through Volume 2, drowning in dross, one of the song titles, "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles," stoked a distant memory. Didn't this song appear in the Dustin Hoffman movie "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" Yes, it did. I remember the song because it was featured in the only memorable scene in a movie I said terrible things about when it was finally over. The scene involved Jack Warden, who played Hoffman's psychiatrist. If memory serves me right, at one point Hoffman imagined Warden was a judge, and as Jack was pronouncing a sentence for some slight Hoffman's character had perpetrated, he sudden launched into song, lip syncing "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles." It's a hurried, wordy affair, reminiscent of "Jubilation T Cornpone" (from the musical "Lil' Abner"), and watching Warden turn into Ray was as surreal as Cory Feldman impersonating Michael Jackson. Even without the Warden visual, Ray sounds like he's rushing to bury the acetate for "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles" before it can be released.

Ray's reworking of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" gets the "Tonight Show" big band treatment. It's normally a good song (even the nasal noduled Neil Young did a killer version on "After the Goldrush"), so when Ray puts it on a freight train pace it still entertains, but it quickly becomes apparent that revving it up isn't the best approach. It works best as a ballad. Maybe it's another case of my being too familiar with a certain version to accept this jazzy off the rails take.

The chorus was finally rehired for "Take These Chains From My Heart," but it was too late to save Volume Two. Ray's piano solo rolls nicely off of the melody, but instead of embellishing the arrangement, the strings barge in, enslaving it.

There's a big build up by Paich's strings, which tells you something noteworthy is about to happen. Then they jump out of the speakers like a busted gigolo jumping from a second story love nest as Ray mozies in with "Your Cheating Heart." It's also a strange marriage of soul and easy listening that doesn't work because the piece drags too much. There's also some bad sequencing here - "Take These Chains From My Heart" and "Your Cheating Heart" make it two songs in a row with a piano solo followed by a turn from the string section.

"I'll Never Stand in Your Way" is an example of what's missing in Volume 2 - Ray's expressive phrasing. "Make Believe" makes it two songs in a row (again) that employ the same tactics. It's set up exactly the same way as "I'll Never Stand in Your Way," with the whitebread chorus opening the action for Ray. The chorus, Ray, the strings all wash over you in predictable fashion. You can try and make believe it's an exciting song, but it isn't.

Ray tried a high-pitched register for "Teardrops in My Heart" that must've brought water to the eyes of the guys in the control booth. His voice pierces instead of pleasures. As for "Hang Your Head in Shame, Volume 2's closer -- the title speaks for itself.

So what makes Volume 2 sink faster than a Confederate dollar on the open market? Volume 2 was purposely sequenced with the big band material arranged by Gerald Wilson on side one, and the slow stuff arranged by Martin Paich on side two. The decision to put the up-tempo songs on the first side and the quieter tunes on side two seemed like a stroke of marketing genius when this was a long playing record, but its death as a CD; what energy there is slowly drains out of Ray's music as the punchless ballads stack up like pigs slurping suet. Ah, but there's still Volume One, as much a landmark disc as The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" or their "White" album, or Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" or Spirit's "Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus."

Most artists experience one or two defining moments. Ray Charles made an album full of them. The songs assembled for "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 1" may not sound all that modern anymore, but they never sounded so soulfully good. Yee haw, Brother Ray.



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