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People tend to like to be pleasantly surprised in life. There’s a special joy when encountering something that exceeds their expectations, so much so that you tend to slightly overrate its value in retrospect because the thing or event “made your day”.

Long held expectations that are simply met, time in and time out, are rarely considered a source of profound joy because they’re no longer providing anything extra.

Yet in the end the value of the two events may be exactly the same, only your perception of their worth has changed due to what you expected going in… which is not necessarily good news for Amos Milburn from whom much is always expected when it comes to his work.


I’ve Cried Before
Though arguably his best records were the sly mid-to-uptempo rockers where Amos Milburn’s delivery seemed to hint at more nefarious deeds happening just under the surface, he may have been at his consistent best with his soulful ballads where his mellow veneer offset the more complex feelings lurking in the shadows.

You could argue these songs provided a lesser risk for him since the formula itself had fewer variables to deal with than the faster paced stuff. While it may have been a little harder to hit quite the same highs as the stomping rockers, it was also easier not to miss altogether because there were just fewer moving parts to contend with. Not surprisingly then Milburn’s sleepy eyed persona on these slower songs were his bread and butter for years.

Yet because of that we more or less knew what we were in for as soon as the needle dropped. There were going to be no shocking musical twists because if one existed it’d be out of place and would break the mood. The stories would likewise have to stick to a few well worn themes – the down on his luck guy in the corner bar, mumbling into his drink about his cursed fate without having the fortitude to do anything about it… or else he might be the brokenhearted lover wearily resigned to his fate (to his credit, Amos rarely humiliated himself trying to get the girl back by any means necessary, unlike some others who took perverse pride in groveling on record).

He played these roles well – too well in a way, since it meant when stuck for ideas he could always go back to mine these same subjects and moods, tweaking the formula by providing different settings, but knowing the methods inside and out meant he’d be sure to pull it off well… as he does with She’s Gone Again, a song that seems to combine those two previously detailed approaches in predictable fashion.

On one hand he’s moaning about a lost love while sounding half in the bag and possibly incapable of even making it to the restroom in time, let alone taking matters into his own hands and being the master of his own destiny in romance. Yet while he’s not in control of his fate within the song, he’s in total control of his delivery throughout the record, providing yet another example of why he was so potent an act.

Hope I Live A Million Years
Right from the start with the way he draws out that first line you know virtually everything you need to know about Milburn’s state of mind.

He’s given up.

He’s not happy about having thrown in the towel mind you, but at least the weight of uncertainty is off his shoulders and he can eventually move forward with his life. But first he still needs to talk through his feelings in the aftermath of this ordeal and present his side of the story. Of course he’s trying to make himself look as good as he can in the process to shift the blame elsewhere, but in playing the victim he’s basically hoping that your sympathy overrides your scorn for his weak response in face of a relationship on the rocks.

What we’re concerned with though is less the particulars of the break up – we didn’t know either one of them personally after all – and more interested in just how he frames it all and how compelling he makes his case, both narratively as well as musically.

In both regards Milburn does quite well on She’s Gone Again and as the title suggests the story is about what you expect. He was a good guy, she was cold and didn’t care about his feelings and they split. He was sad about how it fell apart, soured on love altogether and is feeling sorry for himself.

But man oh man, is he ever making feeling sorry for oneself sound really good in a musical sense with how his voice aches with every word being uttered and with how he pulls and twists and gnaws on the melody with each line, convincing us how deeply felt these sentiments must really be.

No, we’re not taking him off the hook entirely for the things he’s surely not telling us, nor are we going to offer to buy him a drink to lift his spirits (by the sounds of he’s had enough already), but we have no problem listening to his tale of woe as long as he keeps singing it so effectively.

As for the musical backing, they’re on his side even more than we are, not merely observing from a distance but putting the proverbial arm around his shoulder in the way Don Wilkerson’s tenor sax soothes him with its warm languid tones, stretching out the notes so there’s no sudden jarring sounds for him to be startled by. Meanwhile Johnny Brown’s guitar is almost jazz-like in its tone and delicacy, conveying a sense of discreet moral support. Ironically Amos’s own piano is the one instrument that shows a resiliency in its playing, which I suppose bodes well for his breaking out of this funk at some point.

While it lasts though, as voyeuristic as it may be, the results are certainly mesmerizing.


I’ll Leave It There
Knowing the tendency to let previous experiences shape our current perceptions, we have to try and approach each song as its own separate entity the best we can.

That’s often easier said than done though. All animals, even the lower species like humans, are a compendium of lessons learned along the way. We don’t know what’s hot and cold until we find out for ourselves by touching things, but once we do – if it burns or freezes – we understand that will happen again if we encounter the same thing in the future and hopefully we act accordingly.

In music we know that Amos Milburn excels at melancholy songs about the pain of a broken heart and so while we appreciate hearing him at his best, when those songs start piling up using the same basic techniques to pull on our heartstrings we’re apt to be less impressed with the results simply because of that past exposure to him in this vein.

But even without the unexpected thrill of discovery that makes music so much more enjoyable at times, She’s Gone Again is a masterful performance where every note, every vocal inflection and every small touch in the arrangement is expertly crafted… never pushing too hard, never pulling up too soon and leaving us wanting for more.

Yes, we’ve heard it before – in different guises with different situations, lyrics and melodies – so you won’t be surprised by any of it, but then again you also won’t be disappointed when it’s done this well. Because of that we can’t complain too much that he’s not reinventing the wheel when these wheels still get us where we want to go… and where he wants to take us.


(Visit the Artist page of Amos Milburn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)