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Oh no. Not you too, Smiley.

You’re coming off a year where you barely entered a recording studio and so you had plenty of time to come up with entirely new songs, why are you rehashing one you already did?

Just because it made some local noise and even inspired a quick cover by another rock act?

Don’t you see what this signals? That everyone else in rock is going forward and you’re stuck going backwards, apparently not confident enough in your creativity to write new songs… wait a minute, what was that?

You didn’t write this one?… Dave Bartholomew did?

Dammit, Dave, why are you of all people stealing someone else’s song, even if you ARE just giving back to the guy you took it from in the first place?

Come on, guys, this is hardly how we want to start a review of one of our favorite artist-producer tandems.


I Just Lay Back All The Time
Considering the involuntary sabbatical Smiley Lewis was forced to take following his initial breakthrough in 1950 when Imperial no longer showed much interest in him after producer Dave Bartholomew briefly parted ways with the record company who’d disrespected him, it’s almost incomprehensible that Smiley wouldn’t have a stockpile of ideas waiting to be put to wax now that he and Bartholomew were back in action together.

So to see them returning to a well Lewis had already drawn water from in 1950 – and gotten a regional hit out of it besides – is very disheartening. They may insist it’s a calculated move, but we’re prone to calling it just plain lazy.

I know, it’s just a B-side and the song they took it from, Tee Nah Nah, was catchy as hell, but its refrains are so instantly familiar that you can hardly disguise its origins just by slapping a new story on it. If someone heard that song once it’s never leaving their memory and so they’re going to be singing those older words when they hear the music that goes with it rather than the ones Smiley is using here on its de facto re-write which is hardly a good way to put across It’s So Peaceful.

Surely Dave, a songwriter with as deep a catalog as you doesn’t have to recycling other people’s tunes. Take inspiration from that record all you want, maybe try and find a similar tempo for a song that will enable Smiley to use the same kind of lullaby quality in his voice, but you don’t have to make the source so glaringly obvious, do you?

If you’re not thinking about Smiley Lewis’s commercial fate, or don’t care about the tolerance of the rock fan who will know right away where they heard this before, then at least give ME a break, because now I have to find some logical way to criticize something that is as intoxicating as almost anything you’ll hear.


Keep Her By Your Side
It’s standard practice around here to have no patience for barely concealed re-inventions under a different name by the same artist, particularly when that first record was very successful.

It’d be one thing to have what you considered a good idea but be disappointed in how it turned out and saw it sank without a trace, to then go back later and re-do it, shoring up its weakness and releasing a much improved record down the line. That’s artistic advancement, which is perfectly legitimate, but what we have here is artistic appropriation and is a definite drawback.

Of course there ARE times when the performance itself maybe modernizes the arrangement slightly, or has a more forceful delivery better suited for the topic, and though the difference in the current musical climate will invariably make the original better for its time in context, we have been known to appreciate the results even if we are let down by the mere fact they attempted such a thing rather than come up with something completely new.

If Dave Bartholomew has one thing going for him in writing It’s So Peaceful it’s the fact that the song on which this is based had lyrics that were more or less placeholders for the scatological lyrics that existed when it was a popular jailhouse song that made it back to civilization when the convicts were released and kept singing it.

To that end the new story is more coherent, giving us a shifting scene which starts off extolling the virtues of quiet country living before taking us to the more rousing weekend activities of drinking and screwing. Now granted in the latter Dave swipes a floating lyric that has been used in a few thousand songs over the years about a woman flagging a streetcar (or train or bus or whatever form of transportation is in vogue) and letting her ride – and in fact more often it’s female singers who are making the same statement in a song. But even so it fits nicely enough in the narrative.

Furthermore, Lewis actually sounds peaceful singing all of this, like it was a hot sunny day but he’s found a cool spot in the shade with a breeze blowing off the river and is just content to lay there and wile away the hours. His voice here is terrific, capturing the nuances of each sentiment perfectly, from serene contentment while drinking wine as the day passes quietly by to the more eager hellraiser when discussing his anticipated weekend activities.

Yet it’s all taken at roughly the same lazy rolling pace which makes it so alluring. Even the sax break takes things slow and easy, almost gently handing out notes and making sure you grab firm hold of one before giving you the next.

Finally just when we think Dave might fail to find a suitable conclusion to the new narrative and simply repeat an earlier stanza after that break, he comes up with a way that wraps up the story in a satisfying fashion by comparing the tranquil life in the country with the non-stop action of the city, stating firmly he – or rather Smiley – prefers the former. After listening to this wash over our senses, making us feel as if we’re slowly rocking in a hammock on a summer afternoon, we can hardly blame him.


I Don’t Want A Soul Around
Now… the hard part.

It’s hardly controversial to state they likely they improved on Tee Nah Nah in some important ways, as Lewis gives an equally good – if not slightly better – vocal performance and the sonic quality of the recording is better too, as you’d expect as Cosimo Matassa upgraded his studio during that time.

Maybe it gives back some of those advances with a different intro, as Tuts Washington’s piano kicked off that one while Ernest McLean’s guitar handles it here, and though the guitar is played well I think the piano works slightly better, though the later solo with that instrument on that first record isn’t quite as good as the sax is here in that role, so maybe it’s a wash.

Both songs are really good though and if you forced me to make a choice between the two with no concessions for the year or the fact one was ripping off the other, I’d take It’s So Peaceful for the improved sound, better story and tighter arrangement… but even so I can’t say it’s a better record in the context we’ve been given and are forced to consider when evaluating these things.

The reasons are obvious… it’s the same song two years later, so the impact of the first dulls the response – and certainly alters the response – to the latter. Secondly, it can’t really advance Lewis’s career, unless you think that Imperial’s improved distribution in the interim gives this a chance to be even more widely heard… clearly that’s what THEY thought, as it was this side they pushed first before Gumbo Blues started getting local spins and they began promoting that side instead.

But while I still find fault with the concept, and sincerely hope that other artists aren’t thinking of revisiting their past glories, in this instance I can’t argue with the results and though we’ll dock it a point for the shamelessness of the act itself, we’re definitely not asking for our money back just because we feel we’ve heard it before.

Sometimes you CAN make improvements after all.


(Visit the Artist page of Smiley Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)