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DELUXE 3177; JULY, 1948

 
 

 

One unifying feature among artists in the roll call of all-time greats is their musical versatility. It may not be a prerequisite for immortality, but without it you’re going to have a tougher time convincing St. Peter to let you in those heavenly gates and become a musical deity.

Many artists of course are able to perfect one style or sound and get plenty of acclaim for it. The denizens of those rock subgenres, be it punk or funk, speed metal or gangsta rap, will endlessly praise the artists who best embody that style’s primary approach, yet as good as they may be in that realm they’re stymied by their unwillingness, or inability, to branch out very far beyond that.

The upper echelon artists by contrast have no such problems. From uptempo ravers to heartfelt ballads, from songs dripping with braggadocio to those expressing humble desires, they seem to have no limits to what they’ll try or no boundaries as to what they can succeed at. Loud or soft, fast or slow, amplified or acoustic, hard-edged rock to lighter pop confections the ability to score with all of the avenues available to them in music is what sets them apart… unless those efforts to do so, no matter how effective they may be aesthetically, meet with commercial indifference.

That’s when this same inclination for diversity can be a millstone around an artist’s neck… a sign they should stick to what they do best and toss their artistic aspirations in the trash can.
 

 

Not What They Used To Be
No early rock artist faced this dilemma more so than Paul Gayten, for he’d already scored in a pop vein twice, once on his own, once backing Annie Laurie. Then when rock came calling just a few weeks later he headed off in that direction and had no trouble adapting to the different demands of the far more rhythmic and loose-limbed style, something he himself seemed to predict with Your Hands Ain’t Clean, the B-side of his pop-styled hit True.

But hits are hits, whether pop or rock, and commercial demands alone would’ve all but ensured Gayten be encouraged to keep trying to connect with the same audience who had bought that first single in great numbers. When early efforts at duplicating that success fell flat he increasingly turned towards rock ‘n’ roll. This may have been what he hoped for in fact, as rock would be what he devoted the lion’s share of his career to from late 1947 on, but his New Orleans upbringing ensured there was still some jazz traits to be found in a lot of his work, and thanks to his family’s history with blues – famed blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery was his uncle – that also found its way in to some songs as well.

But those dalliances never seemed to be due as much to conscious intent as they were merely passive influences that would crop up from time to time, almost as if he were merely wringing the musical sponge out in the studio.

Throughout his career though it was the occasional foray into pop-slanted material that would find room along side his rock output for years, almost as if Gayten was just flexing those muscles to keep them in shape in case rock ‘n’ roll crashed and burned.

When he managed to combine the two disparate approaches without perverting either one, something that’s never as easy to do as it sounds, such as on Women These Days, he shows why being versatile is always a positive when it comes to his artistic output, even if that same versatility tripped him up commercially by never allowing listeners to be sure of what they were getting when they slapped down their money for his next release.
 

Really Lonesome
It’d be almost impossible to find a song more desolate than this. Though there are other instruments here, bass and guitar, they are so plaintive and distant that they almost combine with Gayten’s piano to sound like an extension of his keyboards rather than accent pieces in the arrangement.

The effect of this is chilling. What they play is plodding in its pacing but hardly dull in the mood they set. Lethargic might be a better term for it, strung-out would be another, though probably not one used in this era. But whatever you call it the purpose is to plunge Gayten deep into the shadowy corners of his own soul so he can wallow in misery and regret over a lost love.

What makes it work, even in the darker themes he’s wrestling with, is his lack of any anger in this recounting of these events. He’s reflective, not bitter, and he’s far more contemplative about the nature of these ordeals in life than most who are dealing with similar circumstances. You get the idea that if it weren’t for the sadness involved because it affects him directly that he’d almost be a little bemused by the actions of women who seem so fickle in their devotion. Though what he’s saying itself isn’t revelatory or altogether deep, his intelligence still shines through because of the measured terms he’s using to purge himself of any rancor.

At this point though you’re surely saying that this leans towards the bluesier side of the ledger with its halting piano and downcast subject matter, and you’re right, that’s definitely the thread being pulled here by the stark arrangement.

But it’s Gayten himself who then pulls this in another direction, subtly maybe, but unmistakably, as his voice, particularly in its higher range, softens the harsher tint the blues would see fit put on this, bringing him back towards the light as it were. Towards a more pop ambiance, something which becomes all the more clear when he spends the instrumental break utilizing primarily his right hand on the keyboard, easing off on the gloomy aura it had been featuring and giving it just a hint of buoyancy to reflect his own resigned contentment.

As his vocals return the transformation is complete, it’s not that the mood itself has lightened appreciably as much as it is he’s disappeared into another spiritual plane almost, as if he wandered so far adrift that he got lost in his own dreamy world where all of life is merely an apparition. His voice is now strangely detached, pleasant and soothing without the burdens of loss he carried with him at the start.
 

Didn’t Even Say Goodbye
Is that pop music in some weird hybrid form? No, not exactly, but it’s not blues either, and it’s far removed from jazz. It’s also not at all comparable to the other material he’s released to date which makes this more of a curiosity than a building block of his style. There are no funky rhythms to be found, no anxious straining vocals to depict an impatience desperately seeking resolution, he’s not even conveying any plot as much as he is meditating on life itself.

I doubt you could rightly call it a ballad, there’s no sentimental perspective whatsoever really, it’s more of a dirge. It’s an aching performance on one hand, yet distant by nature which eases the pain he has in recounting this. Women These Days might best be described as something designed to be elusive, a fleeting dream just before waking wherein the feelings it elicits are more powerful than the details would suggest.

That’s not to say this is a great record by any normal assessment. It IS too sparse to ever make you feel really comfortable listening to it, which means you’ll always be forced to view it through a distorted lens, admiring it from a safe distance rather than immersing yourself in it as the best records seem to do.

Even the attributes that stand out best, such as Gayten’s pensive vocal quality, is something almost too fragile to embrace. As such it takes on the quality of a delicate family heirloom, nice to look at every so often maybe but no longer able to be used in everyday life.

Making it all the more problematic for DeLuxe Records is just how do you tie this in with anything Gayten’s done before and try and convince those who’d been turned on to his earlier work that this is something that’s a continuation of that, a valued addition to his repertoire? In fact, they could go so far as to ask how would they position it alongside anything else by any other artist in rock up to this point? Whoever appreciated any of his other material would be confounded by this if they were anticipating something similar to whatever record of his first caught their attention.

Thus the versatility that can be such a credit to an artist’s creative reputation winds up doing them in. Left without a safe port, the song floats aimlessly in the ether. Doomed to commercial neglect it becomes lost to time, an outlier in a career catalog that – in Gayten’s case anyway – is all but forgotten as it is.

In another time this might be a treasured buried gem on an album, where such offbeat experiments don’t have the weight of selling it the record or connecting with each and every listener. But in 1948 there was less leeway for failed attempts at branching out into something untested. A lack of a positive response wasn’t seen so much as audience indifference, or confusion, as it was outright rejection.

That’s hardly fair to this record, or this artist for that matter. For while it IS hard to envision Women These Days eliciting the widespread interest to vault this into the still skimpy Race charts even in the best of circumstances, its stripped down production and introspective point of view makes this tremendously evocative and completely original in rock up to now.

Rather than be rejected for falling so far outside the accepted parameters of what was making waves however, it really ought to be embraced for it.
 

Gone Away To Stay
Still, Paul Gayten had yet to live up to his potential as a hitmaker, which is of course what probably mattered most to DeLuxe Records if not even Gayten himself. That alone should tell you that his opportunities to continue to explore such commercially stillborn ideas as this were probably going to be met with more resistance, at least until he could prove his worth by churning out a few additional hits.

But looking back on his career from a safe distance, long after Gayten and everyone else involved with these records have long since passed away, what you’re grateful for is that while he had the chance to do something outside the box he took advantage of it and left behind a record like Women These Days a haunting noncommercial song that will stick with you a lot longer than many hits could ever hope to do.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Paul Gayten for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)