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MGM 10761; AUGUST 1950

 
 

 

Truths and lies are usually pretty clear cut. Either something is factual or it’s not, end of story. But there’s a pesky detail called grey areas that often blurs the line between the two.

When assessing where something falls within that span a lot comes down to what you’re willing to omit. Something may not be the whole truth, but it’s not quite a lie either… it all comes down to perspective.

With Ivory Joe Hunter’s output the truth is that he covered a lot of stylistic ground and not every record fit neatly into ready-made categories for easy reference and so in many cases there was a lot of grey area to consider.

All of which leads to this disclaimer…. While it might not be technically true to call this an honest-to-goodness rock song, it might not be a lie to say it’s being called one simply for the sake of inclusion.
 

 

I’ll Tell You Why
With so much ambiguity to be found in Ivory Joe Hunter’s musical DNA, which of his songs to include here leaves far more decisions to personal choice than you’d think possible on a site where the stated purpose is “The History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”… and nothing BUT rock ‘n’ roll.

In the past we’ve omitted a number of sides from Hunter’s commercial heyday and haven’t had too many second thoughts about them after moving on, but that doesn’t mean the internal wrestling match over whether or not to write about them wasn’t a struggle at the time.

You never want to risk leaving something out of the story, especially an artist as vital to rock’s evolution as Hunter was, but at the same time you don’t want to simply rubber stamp everything they put out when some of it clearly stepped outside of rock’s established borders.

Since Living A Lie made the cut after prolonged deliberation one of the primary themes of this review has to be justifying that decision since much of the contents of this record would seem to place it comfortably outside the parameters we’ve spent a thousand previous reviews explaining, defending and championing.

But the guy we have on our side to help make our case this time is actually Ivory Joe Hunter himself whose vocal grit and urgency, so often lacking in even his best material and thus the very things that threaten to keep him forever in limbo as to his consistent participation around here, is what ensures this entry today.
 


 

Try To Pretend
As usual with Hunter in spite of the overall professionalism the band displays on the record there’s an equal, if not greater, amount to quibble with, most pointedly the musical arrangement which after a really clever, dramatic opening with chimes to create palpable suspense quickly allows that feeling to dissipate as soon as the horns come in.

Right away that decision takes this back to a wartime mindset that’s far removed from the advances rock has made over the past few years… which only makes sense considering that he tended to work with established jazz musicians whose default setting was the sounds of the past rather than young upstarts seeking to create the sounds of tomorrow. Therefore unless he enticed them into contradicting their instincts the backing tracks were always going to be out of sync with the modern bent he desperately needed to keep ahead of the game.

On Living A Lie this reluctance to forcibly alter their approach virtually dooms the record, giving it a bland pop feeling that not only has no chance to connect to the younger audience, but even more crucially comes close to undercutting his own effectiveness in telling the story.

While Hunter moans about his inability to admit his feelings for the love of his life, the band seems blissfully unaware of his heartbreak. Instead of sympathizing with him and adding to the gravitas of his admission with mournful saxes, they’re oblivious to his feelings, acting as if he and the girl are going to stroll arm in arm onto the dance floor together at any moment.

Though it’s not a cheery sound they’re offering, their playing is so devoid of emotion that it’s actually jarring to hear Hunter pour his heart out while they remain invested in a form of aural nostalgia that couldn’t be any more out of place for the content than if they suddenly started tootling on kazoos or morphed into a thrash metal outfit or bluegrass band.

Because of this it’s all up to Ivory Joe himself to pull this record out of the discard pile where non-rock arrangements like this are bound to end up.
 

Deep Down Inside
Though never a fire-breathing shouter or a gospel-bred wailer like so many of his peers, Ivory Joe Hunter wasn’t quite as one dimensional a singer as sometimes he’s made out to be.

While his trademark vocal approach may have been in expressing the sort of passive sadness that comes from a lifetime of not being more assertive when it came to matters of romance, there were many different ways of getting those feelings across and on Living A Lie – maybe because he’s receiving no help from the band in that regard – he’s tweaking his typical mellow delivery and adding a noticeable amount of soulful yearning at times.

Now granted, it’s a long way off from the kind of stuff Amos Milburn could’ve given us, but it’s still pretty effective all things considered, allowing us to get some idea of the emotional turmoil his reticence to speak up has created for him.

The lyrics of the song aren’t anything special unto themselves but they give us a pretty relatable scenario to set the scene for his despair. He and this unnamed girl were dating, broke up over his jealous behavior and to mask his hurt he pretends he’s unaffected by her departure. The fact he still runs into her and therefore he has to keep up this façade only makes his pain that much harder to get over.

Hunter gradually wins our sympathy in how subtly he reveals the strain of dealing with this in silence for so long as his voice starts off in its comfort zone, reining in his hurt before the pain of reliving it all starts to wear him down. As he goes up to test to limits of his range he can barely keep his voice from cracking and from there he struggles to keep it together as he’s now looking inward, no longer even aware of us.

When in the final line he snaps out of it and realizes he’s not alone he tries to distance himself from what he’s just exposed by making light of things, but his self-aware grimace as he curses his own mistakes gives him away, delivering one last twinge of pain for him to endure.

Considering everything he was battling on this one his ability to emerge from it still standing is a minor victory.
 

Stray Away From Me
So then if we’re modestly praising Hunter for exhibiting some genuine anguish amidst a docile arrangement it’s fair to ask why we aren’t crediting the record a little bit more than we are.

Moreover, if Hunter is the only modestly redeeming component of this otherwise futile effort, why hurt his own aggregate score by including Living A Lie when it could’ve just as easily been left out altogether without anyone noting its absence?

Well, because frankly if you DO sidestep too many of the stylistic detours you risk masking an artist’s problems in connecting more consistently with the dominant audience. Besides, we bent over backwards to give him the benefit of every doubt on the flip side, so maybe it’s only fair to even things out here.

A harsh price for him to pay maybe but ultimately this record does a good job of framing his ongoing difficulties at remaining relevant in rock circles in spite of his successes along the way.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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