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MGM 10733; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

The commercial pros and cons of an artist like Ivory Joe Hunter were plainly obvious from the start.

Because he was so versatile he conceivably had more avenues to success than had he remained fixated on just one type of music. Furthermore because he tended to skew towards more accessible pop-oriented styles, even within his primary rock-based approach, it meant that he could pull in more mainstream audiences that were presumably larger and more affluent than the degenerates on the other side of the tracks who were addicted to the narcotic rush of pure unfiltered rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet the drawback to that approach should’ve been just as evident… once you alienate your primary fan base, the ones who elevated you to stardom with your more soulful output, there’s often not enough truly devoted interest from those other fields to sustain you for very long, something the biggest selling act in rock over the past year or so was about to find out.
 

 

Whisper Things I Long To Hear
Even at his best, Ivory Joe Hunter’s work hardly flowed through the main artery of rock ‘n’ roll. He was a mellow balladeer in a genre that valued unbridled excitement and while he was at times an unmatched wordsmith that wasn’t always such a valued trait on songs where saxophones were blaring, drums were crashing, guitars were slashing and singers were screaming, bellowing or crying at full volume.

By taking a different tact though he’d managed to stand out and proved there was room enough for his best records on the jukebox alongside his more energetic peers, but the more popular rock as a whole became, and the more new artists moved into the field, the greater chance there was that Hunter might be squeezed out… or drowned out as it were.

Especially when he recorded for a record label that had previously looked its nose down on rock in all of its forms.

MGM was the off-shoot of a movie studio and they went into popular music – as opposed to merely releasing soundtracks and movie scores – simply to diversify their corporate portfolio at first. But along the way they’d lucked into the biggest star in country music in Hank Williams and they started making some headway in the business so presumably they had the wherewithal to let talented artists pursue their own muse, but throughout it all they clearly wanted to be taken seriously, promoting their mainstream acts at the expense of ones who actually sold more.

All of which raises the question as to whether or not the company was trying to push Hunter into a broader pop market to succeed in an area they longed to dominate, or whether Ivory Joe himself was hoping to move into that realm on his own which may have been what prompted him to sign with MGM in the first place. Either way the ballads he excelled at meant he was a prime candidate for such a transition with just a little tweaking of his formula.

With Let Me Dream his ballad fare began to get more emotionally detached, the deep-seated yearning that had connected his earlier work with the rock fan was toned down and the sentiments became more generically classy than his anguished cries for love had been in the past.

He was still a good enough artist to make it modestly appealing, but considering how thin a line he’d walked for years between soulful and treacly, any shift towards the latter risked sending this unlikely rock star’s career sprawling.
 

We Kiss The Same Ol’ Way
This is a song that you want to like a lot more than you’re able to as a devout rock fanatic. It’s got a really nice melody, Hunter’s breathy vocals are very well-judged and if the lyrics are a little TOO blandly nondescript, the overall mood is at least somewhat relatable.

But whereas those elements worked so well in the past on the chart toppers I Almost Lost My Mind and I Need You So, what’s missing for this effort is the potential heartbreak which grounded those earlier records and gave much needed gravity to these lovelorn tales.

Hunter’s point of view hasn’t really changed much, he’s always been a romantic dreamer at heart and he expresses those thoughts with a precision that makes them come alive. Most people don’t want to admit to having these feelings very often, the general belief being it’s better to guard your heart than to expose it for ridicule, but Hunter’s fearlessness in revealing his inner most desires was part of his charm… precisely because we always knew what he risked by doing so.

You could sense this in all of his best work, that fear of being rejected, the bitter tears he tasted when the one he loved chose someone else. It’s one thing to lose a secret love, hiding the ache behind a stoic shell or false bravado, but it’s something else entirely to profess your love openly without shame and have it be met with scorn or derision.

That gamble he was willing to take by putting his heart on the line made the stakes that much higher and so when he failed to win over the girl of his dreams you felt his pain, just as when his love was reciprocated you quietly celebrated his victory along with him.

But the silent pleas that form the basis of Let Me Dream removes those stakes entirely and because of that decision to keep these feelings to himself and avoid rejection he also removes the deeper pull such a song could have on listeners.
 


 

Someday We’ll Meet Face To Face
The arrangement is pop-like, but really kind of beautiful, at least at the start with its plucked string bass and chimes before the more typical strings and crying horns take over.

They’re not really pertinent to the melody though because Hunter’s vocals carry the load in that regard and his voice remains tender without being mawkish about it, the rising and falling of his lines have a nice lullaby quality to them which is quite enchanting.

Unfortunately the more he goes on the more we are forced to focus on the lyrics of Let Me Dream which drives home just how much is missing from this ode to a faceless girl as Hunter makes it explicitly clear that this is all a remote wish, not a real-life possibility. When he tells us he hopes that someday she’ll “whisper things I long to hear” we scoff at him because if she did speak to him it’s doubtful he’d even recognize her voice if his eyes were closed because they haven’t even met each other!

All of his hopes, dreams and fantasies are nothing BUT that… idle thoughts left to die on the vine because he doesn’t have the guts to open his mouth when he sees her.

With that revelation we lose all interest in his misery. Cupid helps those who help themselves, or something like that, and if you don’t take your shot in life you’ll never score. By confining his desire to the realm of dreams, a method so many pop songs steadfastly employed so as to not run afoul of the guardians of morality, Ivory Joe renders his own happiness to be something not worth fighting for… and subsequently makes his music something not worth caring for.
 

No One Can Take Your Place
The sad thing about this isn’t that Hunter will spend the rest of his life alone – if he wants to hide away behind closed doors, crying in his pillow, that’s his business – but rather the song itself is crafted far too well to be wasted on such ineffectual pap as this.

When comparing it to past misfires in Hunter’s catalog it’s easy to see that Let Me Dream is a step above them all when it comes to its structure and technical execution. He really was reaching an artistic plateau with MGM that should be rewarded and so – begrudgingly maybe – we’ll keep it from falling completely into the lower strata of scores because it does sound really nice.

But it’s impossible to overlook the fact that this passive – almost fearful – attitude he’s embodying is coming on the heels of his greatest triumphs and runs counter to what rock ‘n’ roll stands for. Even rock’s most heart rendering ballads have SOME emotional consequence to their stories, but by embodying the pop mindset of platonic fantasies and taking away any chance for winning this girl he only guarantees that he loses us in the process.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ivory Joe Hunter for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)