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JUBILEE 5026; APRIL 1950



Songwriting is certainly not an easy task that anyone can pick up over the weekend like learning to play Gin Rummy. There’s a lot of technical know-how to absorb in sognwriting and even that doesn’t ensure you’ll ever have the creativity and imagination for coming up with alluring melodies, catchy rhythms and clever lyrics.

But while actually having the ability to write a good song is a hard-earned achievement, the ability to pointedly criticize a poorly written song is a universal trait in us all.

Sometimes it’s done with deliberate cruelty, with harsh-minded critics relishing pointing out couplets that are so so ill-conceived they’re destined to become a eternal punchline, but at other times it’s merely being done to point out why a certain record deserved to be ignored because… in this case anyway… the writer didn’t know which way was up.


Flirting Above With The Clouds
One of things I’ve tried to do with this site is not get too far into the weeds when it comes to musical breakdowns. There’s nothing worse than finding something written about a song or an artist you’ve been searching for only to discover you need to take a year of music classes to be able to understand the analysis. I mean, if you want to read a couple Jules Verne novels you don’t want to have to learn French first, you just hope to find a good translation.

So for better or worse we try and keep things simple and sidestep any technical aspects beyond layman’s terms… but Moonlight demands a little more descriptive analysis to show where it goes wrong.

The songwriter was Albert Rein, which might be someone Jubilee Records Jerry Blaine owed a favor to for all I know because I can’t find other songs he penned, not that I looked very hard for fear of finding more to criticize.

However much experience he had though the song he pens here seemed suited for The Orioles on the surface – ponderously slow with a wistful dreaminess, maybe a little more optimistic than most of their canon but certainly within the basic framework they made their names on the last two years.

Now we can rail against their habit of going back to the same stylistic well time and time again all we want but it’s not the repetitive sonic ambiance we’re complaining about in this case, but rather the basic construction of the song itself, specifically how Rein seems confused about just how to convey the more optimistic mood his lyrics use while working with a template that was usually called upon to emphasize emotional distress and sadness.

Making The Waters Warm
Songs of course are made up of notes… different notes, otherwise you’d be singing the exact same thing for three minutes which has a tendency to get annoying after just three seconds or so. There are high notes and low notes and the variance between them, and which ones get chosen for the specific sequence of the song, are what creates the melody.

All of that is fairly straightforward. Even if you can’t read or write music you can hear it as a song plays and the better songs of any genre “make sense” as they play. In other words, the notes follow a sensible progression. Too big of a jump from one to another doesn’t work… to much movement back and forth with little rhyme or reason results in confusion… and, as in this case, heading in the wrong direction winds up undercutting a song’s effectiveness.

Not that Moonlight was going to wind up being a great song even had they reset their musical compass to point in the right direction, because a lot of this is fairly rote and unimaginative to begin with. It’s another tender ballad that was Sonny Til’s stock in trade, allowing him to use his breathy tenor to create a particular ambiance that we here at least tend to grow tired of each time out.

But it was successful and so they kept at it and kept trying to find new sentiments to voice and – importantly – different melodies to house them in.

As for the former the story finds Til detached from the situation he describes for once, which I suppose qualifies as a good first step in shaking things up just a little. Rather than tell us about his own trials and tribulations in love which usually finds him dumped by another girl he managed to corral into dating, with this song he’s merely commenting on human nature in general, specifically about the magic of being with someone you love on a beautiful night with the moon shining down on you.

The lyrics however are not nearly evocative enough to really create a vibrant scene in your mind as it unfolds, nor are there any individual lines worth remembering to breathe some life into the depiction, but at least it’s not so vague that you can’t figure out what mood they’re trying to create.

The problem comes with the clunky way they try and do it which just so happens to run counter to the general laws of music as we understand them.

Throwing Its Light Down Below
When you listen to a song – a GOOD song that is – you tend to be able to guess what’s coming. It flows naturally. It’s how human beings learn most things in life, from walking (one step follows another) to the alphabet and counting. In music though we can rearrange the notes however we want… a C# can lead to a D or it can lead to a F or back down to an A if you prefer, but what comes before and after those notes will tell us if we’re doing it right because they’ll fit together.

On Moonlight they don’t fit. Oh, they’re not SO far off that it’s incomprehensible, and they’re all following the same concept so at least it’s not schizophrenic by nature, but everything is backwards so you can’t get wrapped up in the melody because it’s constantly crossing you up. Like trying to quickly recite the alphabet using just every third letter or attempting to walk wearing two left shoes, it’s possible to do but hardly comfortable.

The basic problem comes down to the difference between up and down and the meanings they inherently represent. Going up tends to imply euphoria or hope, which is why they use them here, to convey that blissful optimism of the theme, whereas going down is more foreboding in nature.

But they use them the wrong way throughout, as each stanza’s first line goes up at the end requiring the last note of the second line to go down to offset it, except in doing so you’ve betrayed both of your goals, the melodic and the thematic.

They’re expressing hope at the wrong point structurally which means the next line, though it may fit lyrically, doesn’t match the sentiment in a melodic sense… in fact the mood it suggests manages to negate the words they just said! It needs to be the other way around to sell the song properly. You END with the dominant mood because that’s the one that’s going to sink in with the audience and leave you with the proper impression of the song.

But even more damning than that is the shift just sounds unnatural when they do it because the progression of notes tells us to expect them to go down THEN up at the end instead of the other way around. You can’t follow along in your head because you keep getting spun in the opposite direction.

As a result of this misdirection the whole song is chaotic and the usually reliable Sonny Til sounds like he’s utterly lost while the none of The Orioles seem to be in tune with each other or the piano that’s providing the light backing. The whole thing reeks of being a hack job which only draws attention to the lack of specificity in the lyrics and the awkwardness of the arrangement as a whole.


Have Drifted Apart
This was actually more emblematic the larger problem The Orioles were increasingly facing the longer they pursued the same formula. Their growing catalog was dominated by ballads to such a degree that it was forcing them to look for subtle ways to let each song come across as slightly different from the last, but as this shows that was virtually an impossible task.

By never utilizing a full band to let different instruments do the heavy lifting when trying to create a new image, by avoiding uptempo songs which at least would break up the monotony of one ballad after another, they were becoming mind-numbingly repetitious.

Sonny Til has moments on Moonlight that can still astound you – the way his voice swells on ”Oh what a night, what a night for LOVVVVVEEEE!” is exquisite – but for the overwhelming majority of the run time the song itself forces him into a series of moves that would have you doubting his competency if you’d never heard him before.

That the same group could be so so good last time out on At Night and so bad this time out was baffling, but even more inexplicable than that is the fact that audiences still bought this record enough for it to top the charts in Alabama while scoring steadily for the next few months in New York, Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis and their hometown of Baltimore.

When you do something wrong in life and get rewarded as if you’d done something right, what motivation is there to change tactics? Though they may have avoided this particular fate by not recording more misbegotten songs from the same source the fact remains The Orioles were still at risk for falling into similar traps because their bad records sold almost as well as their good records.

Here though rest assured that they’ll get no such reprieve.


(Visit the Artist page of The Orioles for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)