A friend once offered me the thought that music, as with all art, could and should offer the listener the opportunity to experience the depths as well as the heights of feeling. He suggested two examples, ‘Berlin’, by Lou Reed, and, ‘Laid Back’, by Gregg Allman. I’m not intending to review, ‘Berlin’. The thing about perceived emotional content is that one man’s meat is almost bound to be another’s poison. Often it seems to relate to nothing more than the faces that are pulled or the amount of sweat generated. But then why do we swear that A is all soulful connection and intent whilst B is lightweight and lacking any emotional depth, based solely on the sound that comes out of their mouths? Why are we seduced into thinking that guitarists that play at one end of the neck are more ‘emotional’ and ‘heartfelt’ than someone at the other? Any answers are very welcome.
And what about those who subvert all expectations – Leonard Cohen, apparently a gloomy writer, with an almost deadpan presentation, but great lyrical depth and a terrific sense of humour who seemed to leave every lover happy to retain the friendship of the most charming of men.
‘Laid Back,’ certainly has all the ingredients, the voice, the subject matter and the arrangements achieving, as Allman desired, an overall feeling of melancholy. The Allman Brothers might have suffered a deal of personal tragedy and sung about, ‘Statesboro Blues,’ but that tune and many others were more likely to lift up than cast down, due in great part to Duane Allman’s exhilarating guitar.
So Gregg Allman intended to create something different. He later toured with an orchestra of sorts to showcase this aspect of his music, which again may reflect a desire for something new. Be that as it may, it does not guarantee a great album.
Arguably the heart of this offering is, ‘These Days’, written by Allman’s friend Jackson Browne at the age of 16. This has become a classic song of regret and was recorded by artists as diverse as Nico and Glen Campbell. Allman’s version was regarded by Browne as much superior to his own; for all his talents he could never, ever, produce a vocal like that. A voice is an interesting thing and of course, it could be seen as no more than an affected device or a special effect. Robert Christagau was of the view that Allman, “proves that drawling slowly isn’t the same as singing soulfully.” A view I believe he later changed, but he may have a point. Perhaps as an indication as to how much the song meant to him, Allman changed the lyric from,
“Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them,” to, “Please don’t confront me with my failures / I’m aware of them”.
Proceedings start with, ‘Midnight Rider’, and as with the rest of the album, lyrically comes nowhere near matching, ‘These Days’. The road may go on forever but we have heard that once or twice before. In fact, it doesn’t. What does shine is the repetitive guitar figure, courtesy of Buzzy Feiten, that anchors the track. The intention was to create a,
“Swamp” (like atmosphere) “with the images of moss hanging off the trees, alligators and fog, darkness … witches”
Well, mission accomplished.
As well as Allman’s musical abilities there are plenty of other notable musicians including most of Cowboy, the two percussionists from the Allman Brothers and newly recruited keyboard player Chuck Leavell. Musically this album hits the high spots again and again, whether it’s David Newman’s Saxophone breaks or Leavell’s lovely piano. The more you listen the more impressed you will be with his apposite and tasteful playing. His piano is the key sound, followed closely by acoustic guitar there being only one notable electric solo on the album. There is great use made of female backup singers, most noticeably on, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken,’ which acquires a gospel feel. Horns and strings are used so ubiquitously that you have to listen carefully to catch them – though they certainly add greatly to the overall effect.
What is not apparent is the up-tempo relentlessness of much of the Allman Brother’s group itself, particularly on the live albums. The desire was that this album would be more melodic, and it is. Musically this is a fully realised album and whatever your view of Allman’s vocal prowess this might be as good as anything he ever did.
Lyrically the album ranges from the sublime, nothing to do with Allman’s writing, to the banal. ‘Queen of Hearts,’ contains the following gem, “And although things were slow / Never seemed to have no dough”. It does though contain the slightly more worthy thought, “And most all your would-be friends / Turn out so phoney”. ‘Please Call Home,’ hardly ups the ante, “Oh, I know, you’re used to running / Oh You’re lost and I ain’t funnin’ / Oh when you call to me baby I’ll come runnin,”
‘Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,’ was written by Oliver Tain and I have seen various versions of the lyrics but I will settle for, “Well I might have cheated a little bit baby / Nobody knows like you / When I get my paycheck darling / I rush it on home to you”. Clearly, Oliver was a good egg despite all that philandering. I can only assume that it’s an insightful third person character exploration in the style of Randy Newman. Or embarrassing juvenalia?
Only when we get to, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken,’ does some lyrical sense get restored with a simple and dignified traditional song about the death of a loved one.
So why recommend this as a classic album? Well, it’s not for the lyrics. Perhaps the best we can say is that bar two notable exceptions they were of their time and genre. Nonetheless, the overall effect transcends the words Allman’s vocals exceed the quality of the writing and create a mood that is both memorable and haunting. The quality of the musicianship and the arrangements is outstanding and these two factors manage to overcome the lyrical deficiencies.
Think, if you will, of Richard Burton, acting like a mannered ham, but speaking so beautifully that you could bear to watch him just so you could listen.
Whether or not you think Allman’s voice is the epitome of soulful introspection or merely an unconvincing artifice (a la Mr Christagau) is entirely personal. However, when a certain mood takes you this album can be perfect listening