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If you’ve been reading these reviews from the start – and why wouldn’t you be? – it stands to reason that along the way you’ve probably acquired some sort of a feel for what I’m interested in when judging these records.

Instruments played in an aggressive fashion, vocals that authentically express emotion, lyrics that tell a vivid and coherent story, a good melodic hook and solid rhythm are all hallmarks of great rock records, no matter the style or era and will be justly rewarded for those attributes.

Conversely you surely know by now that records that are too pop-oriented, no matter how well sung they may be on a technical level, will tend to fall flat around here, as will those containing jazzier touches like excessive trumpets or florid supper club pianos.

In other words, over time the reviewer becomes somewhat predictable.

So let me try and upend expectations today in an effort to keep you on your toes.


I Still Can’t See The Light
When Thomas Edison first looked at his dinner plate and envisioned it rotating around 78 times per minute with sound coming out of it, the rest of the people at the dinner table naturally thought he’d flipped his lid.

Yet it wasn’t long after scraping the mutton and stewed beets off its surface, flattening it out and cutting small grooves in it, that he produced the first phonograph.

Likewise the improvisational nature of early jazz when first put to those records in the 1920’s startled those who were used to the rigid structure of most Western Music that came pouring out of their Victrolas.

A quarter century later the wild sounds of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs in 1947 shocked those who couldn’t fathom the unholy marriage of gospel-like vocals over a decidedly earthy beat singing about subjects that were practically obscene.

In other words, hearing something that nobody else can even envision is not always the worst thing in the world. Oftentimes it leads to revolutionary ideas becoming commonplace… unless of course they call you a heretic and throw you in the booby hatch that is.

Neither of those things are necessarily going to happen with The Storm, even if elements of this are some of the earliest signs of increased studio trickery when it comes to creating a more picturesque record.

But even when those experiments don’t fully come to fruition, the attempts to try something different are almost always worth celebrating.


Fair Weather Seems So Stormy
As much as he detested rock ‘n’ roll and all it stood for, Columbia Records producer Mitch Miller instigated the move towards a more visual recording with the use of sound effects.

His most famous productions to date may have been the cracking whips on Frankie Laine’s 1949 smash Mule Train. But as effective as those were in setting the proper mood, you still got the sense that it was a novelty… something designed to be noticed for its uniqueness as much as for what it actually brought to the ambiance of the song itself.

By contrast the startlingly real sounds of The Storm that have been sewn into this record are at once both more gimmicky by nature (at least the whip could conceivably be said to be housed in the percussion section of the orchestra), and yet are integrated much more subtly despite there being little chance that it was raining outside when Little Esther and Johnny Otis recorded this track and with the windows accidentally left open they just happened to get the sound of thunder cracking on the tape.

What that makes clear is this wasn’t happenstance… a case of them thinking, “Hey, you know what might sound good…” and then digging around to find an appropriate sample to use after the fact. This was clearly written with this idea in mind and who knows how long they searched for the right sound effects and how many passes they made trying to blend it into the final take.

But as admirable as that goal is, it still requires a good song – melody, lyrics, etc. – and a good performance by Little Esther to be more than a dinner plate spinning around aimlessly and luckily the other aspects of this all work pretty well.

The rumbling thunder we spoke about opens this and is followed immediately by water rolling along gutter which never ceases the entire running time, but for the most part it’s a peripheral sound throughout the record.

Pete Lewis’s guitar grabs your attention first, switching from a fierce slashing tone in the intro to a more introspective finger picking that blends in seamlessly with Devonia Williams’ delicate piano in a comparatively muted backing track that is more about creating ambiance than melody or rhythm.

Esther is at her best vocally on The Storm, using a very light touch to convey the confusion and sadness of her predicament and if the lyrics – referencing Noah’s Ark 40 Days and 40 Nights nonsense – is a little heavy handed at the start, the rest of the story hits its mark when it comes to relating how an aching heart is always under grey skies and your outlook remains shrouded in gloom until you break free of that pain.

With a few better than expected allegories, some oh-so-faint crying horns and Lewis’s beautifully deliberate guitar solo in the break, the mood of this is despondent as can be, but instead of pushing you away in the process, it manages to draw you in. By never going too far into abject misery Esther maintains her believability, underplaying her emotions in a deliberate attempt to hold things together, until she is eventually enveloped by haunting despair as her voice trails off into the mist.


They Tell Me The Skies Are Sunny
We all respond to records in different ways, that’s what makes any kind of subjective score so precarious. One person’s feelings may be diametrically opposed to somebody else’s and yet both of them are completely valid.

One of the things that seems to be reasonably true for most people however is how when something catches you completely off guard hearing it for the first time you tend to respond better to it.

The unexpected, even if it’s a little odd on the surface like The Storm, is going to make you sit up and take notice if nothing else and if you’re in the right frame of mind when hearing it, then maybe it’ll get the benefit of the doubt more than it would in other circumstances.

There’s no way this had any chance to be a hit. Too weird, too gimmicky, too maudlin, too discreet… but that’s too bad, because it really is one of Little Esther’s better vocal performances and with an ambitious production it’d seem almost unfair to penalize it for being a record that requires a specific state of mind to appreciate fully.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, let me say that if you ARE open for something a little different then you’re in for a treat. It may not be something you’re likely to return to very often, for who really wants to be caught outside in a thunderstorm, but like the rain itself, every once in awhile you need it to come down just keep nature in balance.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Esther for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)