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MACY’S 5004; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Versatility or indecision?

That’s a question that a lot of people grapple with when trying to figure out their path in life. It’s why there are electives in high school in addition to the required classes, it’s why college doesn’t require you to choose a major right away and it’s why most people’s first job after graduation won’t be their last.

Human beings are naturally curious, when something catches their eye they want to explore it, sometimes for only a few minutes yet other times immersing themselves in it for months or years on end until they’ve wrung out of it all they feel they can before moving on to something else.

But eventually – or so they feeling goes – you have to pick ONE thing and focus on that and that alone if only because most worthwhile endeavors take too much time and effort to moonlight in another field. The neurosurgeon who is an electrician on Tuesdays and Thursdays or the cement truck driver who doubles as a stockbroker the third Friday of every month probably is going to see their work suffer in one of those areas because they don’t devote enough time to it.

If the same is true in music then Lester Williams is shaping up to be somebody whose versatility might be admirable, but whose indecision on which style to choose to try and solidify his standing in the music world means his road to stardom will have a lot more twists and turns than most acts.
 

 

Got Somethin’
Forsaking the blues altogether on both sides of this release, something I’m sure the fans of Wintertime Blues probably were dismayed to discover considering they’d just made that side of his debut from a month ago quite a regional hit around the South, Williams instead chooses to pursue more rock ‘n’ roll here on the intriguingly titled I Know That Chick, a record which shows he picked up a distinct flair for arranging while studying at The New England Conservatory Of Music awhile back.
 


 
 

Kicking off with a guitar that gets echoed hauntingly by a piano as if the sound got shifted and distorted along the way, the mood seems ominous at first before suddenly and without warning the pace picks up with Williams’ arrival as horns join in as the primary responding instrument as he launches into the song proper.

His vocals are further back in the mix, swimming in echo, something which – considering the era in which this was cut when such things were hardly common – might seem as if it were an unintended mistake, especially since Macy’s Recordings were a new company without much experience at placing microphones and adjusting levels on the board.

But if so it’s a happy accident because it gives I Know That Chick a distinctive character that helps to set it apart. If it was intentional it gives some indication as to a growing experimental urge that some intrepid souls were determined to take. Either way there’s more here to catch your ear than the usual run of the mill stock arrangement for basic rock songs.

When the song swings into gear it follows a fairly standard boogie progression, instruments working in tandem to keep things jumping with the piano and horns handling the primary responsibility. But the horns end up taking on multiple roles as the majority of them are playing the rhythm that goes underneath while the tenor sax holds out so it can reply with more inventive lines of its own after each vocal line.

The result is a vibrant sound that never lets up, each part fitting seamlessly with the adjoining ones, all providing different textures to keep it fresh. When Williams’ guitar takes the solo it brings another element into play that adds tension and a sense of heightened drama as his tone and choices of notes seem to be balancing on the edge of the the page, something resolved by the sax which takes over next and brings it back to firmer ground.

It may have basic components at its core, but each part is used to its maximum effectiveness and ensures that you’re always leaning forward to hear where they take it next.
 


 

Hold Me, Baby
That multi-layered approach takes on far more importance on this record however because unfortunately the song it’s framing is pretty shallow and one-dimensional when it comes to telling a story.

I Know That Chick takes a fairly promising idea and lets it die on the vine as Williams offers no sunlight, water or nutrients in the way of clever lines or plot twists to allow it to blossom.

He starts off informing us that the girl on the corner is someone he knows, a situation which – though innocuous on the surface – could lead to all sorts of alluring possibilities. Maybe she’s someone he had a torrid fling with months earlier who he’s been avoiding – or she’s been avoiding him – and now their unexpected meeting has the potential for fireworks.

Or perhaps she’s the wife of his best friend… except it’s not his best friend she’s holding hands with, nuzzling her head into his shoulder as they wait for the bus to take them to Atlantic City or… considering this is Texas, maybe across the border to get a quickie Mexican divorce as was the popular means for extracting yourself from the bonds of holy matrimony back in the day.

It could be even that he saw her dancing a hootchy-coo act on stage, peeling off garments with each honk of the saxophone and kick of the drum, but now she’s on her way to work at the bank, setting up all sorts of questions about the double life she apparently is leading.

But we get nothing so interesting as any of that. Instead after first rhetorically asking us who that chick is, he “realizes” it’s his own woman and that he’d know her anywhere… except apparently from across the street when he first lays eyes on her!

Now he DOES come up with a great line next, “She’s got something that makes me know her in the dark”, but rather than expand on that, getting even racier and more suggestive with the follow up lines, he clams up altogether, letting the instrumental solos do the heavy lifting.

Okay, as we said earlier, those work well so we can’t complain too much, but we’re now waiting anxiously for him to come back and finish the story with as many lurid details as the laws of the era will allow. When he returns though he merely repeats the previous line and then his buddies join in on a group chant of the title line and… that’s it?!?

Finito!

You feel as though you walked into a movie and the end credits appeared as the first act came to a close. It’s a story treatment rather than a full length screenplay which cripples its chances for greatness.
 

Every Time We Part
So what do you DO with a record like this… critically speaking that is?

On one hand it sounds pretty good, the tune is catchy, the instrumental formation is really tight and their parts are well-executed and if you’re using the record as background music for dancing or screwing or partying then it’s not going to have anyone reaching for the off button even if it’s not quite dynamic enough to have everyone seeking it out for another spin.

But if you’re looking to be entertained on more than one level as is the expectation any time a record includes lyrics along with the music then this can’t help but let you down. There’s no plot, just an introduction to a pair of one dimensional characters, the narrator himself and the object of his desire who we never get to know anything about – how’d they get together in the first place, are they still having a fling, did she stop seeing him or did he stop seeing her, or did someone else stop them from seeing each other?

We never find out and as a result I Know That Chick winds up promising far more than it actually delivers and while what ELSE it delivers in the way of music is certainly better than average the total package seems underwhelming thanks to it selling the story – and thus the listener – short.
 

 
In the past few weeks we’ve seen a few records around here that were sitting in between two grades and we gave them the benefit of the doubt and bumped them up a point because the artist in question was making a sincere effort to go the extra mile in their performance.

Here, despite containing a lot of elements to admire, we’ll even things out by going with the lower of the two scores we were considering because Williams fails to grasp the most simple of requirements we ask of all artists – don’t leave us hanging.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Lester Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)