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ATLANTIC 888; NOVEMBER 1949

 
 

 

The prevailing image of rock is often that of one endless party… where it always seems to be the weekend, the drinks never stop flowing, the guys are all good-looking and confident and the girls are all shapely and lacking inhibition.

As such there’s a certain type of rock song – aggressive and unrelenting – that endures as the prototypical sound of the entire genre. The specific instruments might change over time, from the honking saxophones of the first decade to the electric guitars of the next few generations before the bass-heavy sample-laden sounds of the last quarter century took over, but essentially it serves the same purpose, namely to act as the appropriate backdrop to fit that decedent image.

But there comes a point at every party when the keg runs dry, the stamina wanes and even the most boisterous revelers go home… or at least pass out.

What do you do then? Keep cranking up the volume to one relentless dance number after another, all pounding 4/4 beats until your head explodes? Or do you instead look for something a little different, something more appropriate for the same setting after the festivities start to die down?

That was the plan for one of the purveyors of the rowdiest styles of rock to date, a startling change of pace that attempted to broaden his sound while giving a rare glimpse into the hazy hours before dawn.
 

 
Building A Good Looking Résumé
One of the things we keep reiterating around here is the need for artists to show stylistic diversity. It’s one of those elemental facts of life in music that will never change: Branch out, try new things, don’t simply build a catalog over time that merely sounds like one song being played endlessly on repeat.

For sax players at the dawn of rock who’ve scored with one honking gyration after another there had to be a feeling that such non-stop noise was a creative and commercial dead-end in the long run and so it’d be smart to try and use your popularity gained by those sweaty workouts to show off some other aspect of your playing to a still-receptive audience. Maybe fans of the more salacious sides wouldn’t respond with quite the same fervor to something relatively tame but if you could hook them with a good melody and moody atmosphere while retaining the underlying tension that was at the heart of most rock instrumentals you could conceivably have two different personas to capitalize on from that point forward.

Granted this is hardly revelatory insight we’re offering here but it’s still nice when somebody actually goes ahead and tries to put that theory into practice, especially at risk of costing themselves a little popularity if their efforts fall short.

But how well you pull this shift off still comes down to two things most of all, musical instinct and talent. The first has to be present to allow the second to blossom. Of course we’re back to the rather obvious statements… Gee thanks, an artist with skill was more likely to be successful at their job. Whaddaya know? Thanks a lot, I suppose you’ll say next that being good looking will help me get dates!

Ahh, sorry, I know these things may be glaringly obvious but it doesn’t hurt to say them every once in awhile, if only to remind people that forging a solid career (or getting dates for that matter) isn’t something based on just hitting the jackpot when it comes to natural attributes.

That’s why the other factors, in this case musical instinct (or in the dating world confidence, charm and personality), make such a difference. Lots of guys in rock had skill but knowing what to do with it to connect with an audience was always going to be the deciding factor in the long run.

Frank Culley was reasonably talented – no word on how good looking he was, there doesn’t seem to be many pictures of him and in the most common shot he’s got a saxophone growing out of his face – and now he was banking on his musical instinct to navigate the tricky balance between continuing to indulge in the low down funky styles that gave us Floorshow and at the same time maybe get us to relax at an After Hour Session.

As a career move it wasn’t the worst bet to make.
 

Bottom Of The Hour
This record marks the second time that Culley will employ a rather convoluted gimmick of having a spoken vocal aside tossed into the mix.

It’s nowhere near as prevalent as it had been on The Snap, where it was one of the defining features of the record, but it fares no better here than it did on that song. The thinking was probably that it’d convey a sense of eavesdropping on the musicians as they lazily jammed after the crowds dispersed for the night, thereby tying it in with the After Hour Session theme. But is somebody moaning with evident delight, “Ooh, Mr. Van, play them blues all night!” actually BELIEVABLE?

No, not at all, unless you have a fetish for some weird type of musical pornography. Luckily for us – and the censors – it doesn’t last long before they start to play in earnest.

The Van referred to by the way is Harry “Piano Man” Van Walls, an oddly charismatic character and new arrival at Atlantic through his association with Culley who would go on to be one of the anchors of the studio band over the next half dozen years or so.

Few pianists in rock at the time were better than he and right away he’s showing off his chops as what he’s playing here is very alluring, a slow, halting progression full of feints and hesitations to tease you, almost stringing you along in a way before resolving the line after all of the intoxicating delay tactics.

Van Walls plays with nuance and a remarkable amount of self-assurance, his performance builds naturally as it unfolds, never rushing, never trying to impress by delivering something that clashes with the low-key aura they’re establishing.

Nothing musical that is, for they DO return with another unwanted intrusion in the supposedly ad-libbed encouragement that appears out of the blue, as if they needed to further convince you that this was actually being played in the late night dark club setting it evokes, but which comes across as so artificial… so calculatingly phony… that it mars the very atmosphere they’re trying to create.

This is classic overreach on the part of the producers. Rather than make points subtly and trust the public to pick up on them, they instead clobber you over the head with it and then ask, “Didja see what we did there? Huh, Didja?”

More than even that however this raises the question of why they would even bother to try and pander to the (mostly) false image of musicians being – as we said last time he tried this – “hep cats” rather than simply present them as uniquely gifted human beings? Doing so turns them into caricatures and no one but the most simplistic and gullible of listeners would take this silly interjection as being anything other than a scripted performance designed to conform to a tired stereotype. It may not completely upend the larger performance but it puts it on shaky ground all the same simply because it causes you to question their motives, their sincerity and their authenticity in other ways.

When the voice returns – presumably Culley himself, but who knows – saying ”Send me, Jack, send me, send me” you wish somebody involved had the good sense to send them all to sit in the corner until they learned their lesson and kept their mouths shut.

Luckily his mouth DOES get shut… around the mouthpiece of his saxophone which allows us to focus again on the music instead of the unintended comedy of their woeful script and amateur theatrics.
 

Time Enough At Last
The first we hear of Frank Culley – at least his saxophone – comes at the one minute and thirty second mark of the record, a remarkable display of patience for the musician whose name adorns the label and whose reputation – and thus career – stands to benefit, or to be harmed, by the response to the song.

When he does come in it’s not by blowing up a storm and drawing immediate attention to himself, riding in like the cavalry and creating a clamor to remind you he’s the star. Instead he sort of slips in, his tone mellow, his pace sleepy if not lethargic and his sense of dynamics first rate. He gradually ramps it up, yet never does so in a way that changes the overall mood much. Even when he squeals to the heavens it only comes after he’s led us to that point by taking us up the stairway one step at a time.

Of course someone else is now shouting senseless encouragement to him which again casts this as a put-on done for someone’s indulgent amusement, undercutting the song’s effectiveness just as he’s winning us over from the earlier displays of theatrical farce.

When these guys are simply playing music, not acting as a repertory company in summer stock – they’re incredibly cohesive, disciplined and the entire arrangement is very well conceived. Some of Culley’s earlier lines are not without a few minor flaws, slipping slightly out of key at times, but it’s hardly noticeable and doesn’t detract from the overall feel. But since the same can’t be said of the unnecessary verbal intrusions that keep popping up then After Hour Session, which otherwise would rate really highly, winds up suffering from entirely self-inflicted wounds.

Not enough to render it unlistenable by any means, but enough to annoy you which is certainly not the way you want to promote your record – evocative, well-played and mildly annoying!
 

 

Hourly Wages
Because it’s easier to overlook missteps in execution than in planning we can’t be completely forgiving in our assessment. If this was the band’s concept then it was up to Atlantic Records to step in and show them the error in their thinking.

Recording technology back then was pretty basic, though certainly Atlantic with Tommy Dowd manning the controls were far ahead of most companies even at this early stage when it came to their technical ability to manipulate tape, but if they couldn’t offer up the band two versions of After Hour Session to listen to, one with the voices left in and the other with them dropped from the mix, or at least mixed much lower, to make up their mind as to which works best, then you could simply cut them playing the same track twice – sans voices the second time through – and simply present them with the contrasting results. If they chose the one with the spoken interludes tell them their next recording session will be held in Bellvue.

I don’t think there’s any reasonable case to be made for the maddening verbal arrangement they chose. Unless Culley started coughing up a lung while playing sax or Harry Van Walls passed out on the keyboard the better performance would almost certainly be the one without the extraneous chatter that distracts you from their actual playing. It’s a record producer’s job to point this out after all. They need to diplomatically insist that the better approach is the simpler one, the more authentic rendition, not the “school play” version.

If not done on the studio floor, then the decision would rest with Atlantic’s head honchos, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson – one of whom probably WAS producing – but now acting in their executive capacity with an eye on the marketplace. Rock fans had proven themselves much more astute than whatever their age and inexperience might suggest and they were surely not going to buy this act with its unintentionally comical faux hipster lingo sprinkled into the finished product.

It’s a shame really, because without it After Hour Session would be an above average change of pace, something that would perfectly offset the more rambunctious sides Culley had shown prior to this.

Instead we’re left watching a Broadway show by acclaimed playwright with a skilled cast and big name director… with scenery done by Mrs. Throckmorton’s second grade art class and costumes sewn by your 87 year old Aunt Tillie and her friends.

The only consolation is if this IS taking place after hours maybe everyone will be too sleepy to notice what a great chance they blew by falling short with their musical instinct.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)