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JUBILEE 5016; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Yesterday in the review for the top side of this release we offered a very public hand-wringing over our slightly premature criticism for The Orioles stylistic repetitiveness that comprised a prominent part of the original version of that essay.

That unpublished screed went into great detail about their shamelessly attempting to capture the exact same mood as their breakthrough hit with a series of songs that featured similar sentiments of heartfelt yearning over ponderously slow tempos, all using the same bare-bones arrangements with absolutely no change in their vocal approach. But this struck us as unfair because on that record all of those recycled components worked to great effect, giving them not only a huge hit but a record which justified their popularity.

We clearly jumped the gun and so realizing this we attempted to do right by them by re-writing the review before it was published on these pages. In that new piece however we did say that we’d cover the topic of their commercial and creative downturn at a later time.

This is now that time.

 

 

Surrender Gladly
Since it was just a day ago when that review was published – and since we just spent the first part of this review bringing it up again – we don’t expect you to forget what we said yesterday about allowing them to enjoy their success while it lasted, but we are asking that you forgive us for not letting them celebrate more than twenty-four hours before we start to pick apart the root cause of their looming downfall.

For those thinking we’re still jumping the gun let us just mention that Forgive And Forget would mark their final hit with new, non-holiday material until 1952 – on the national charts at least – which puts the fall out from the aforementioned stylistic monotony into better perspective.

This is all the more alarming when you know that The Orioles had notched six national hits over their first seven releases (one record was released twice with a different flip-side). In fact their NEXT release was also re-release of their Christmas hit from a year earlier, which – spoiler alert – charted again, coupled with a new holiday themed release which scored as well, giving them seven hits in eight releases (some singles failing to chart while others were two-sided hits).

But following that their next THIRTY-SEVEN single releases on Jubilee, taking them through 1955, would result in just three hits. In other words, as rock ‘n’ roll itself was becoming ever more popular, wracking up hits at an astounding rate as the 1950’s dawned, The Orioles who’d led that charge up the charts over the past year, were now falling behind and in danger of never catching up. Since early detection is the key to any serious medical issue we applied the same theory here to try and attack the root of this problem before it grows out of control.
 

Sad When You’re Sad
The highs and lows of a music fan can essentially be boiled down to this: When discovering an artist and falling in love with them it’s not just their skill level you admire, it’s the unexpected thrill of hearing what they have to offer for the first time.

Being startled by something new is a feeling than all rock fans share, even if the artists which elicit that response are different in each listener.

The Orioles had provided the rock world with just such a moment of joyous discovery in the summer of 1948 with It’s Too Soon To Know, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of young love with all of its hope and doubt mixed together, a record which seemed to speak directly to the audience coming age alongside them.

They then spent the next decade trying to get that exact same response… by giving audiences the exact same sonic experience.

Amazingly to this point it had basically worked showing just how powerful a connection that initial prototype had made on listeners, but all of their hits came when that style had yet to descend into formula. The songs themselves were fragile compositions, something not easily replicated when manager Deborah Chessler, who’d contributed their best sides, basically stopped writing new material after this, thus leaving it to others to try and match her unique insight and live up to those wildly successful early efforts.

Because of the stylistic nature of that type of song, each had to be perfect – melodically and lyrically as well as vocally – for them to hold up. When any aspect of them came up the least bit short the entire thing could collapse like a house of cards. There was never an inventive new arrangement to distract you from a weak line. No exciting instrumental break to keep you hooked even if the story line was not quite as gripping. Aside from the stellar Deacon Jones back in April there wasn’t even a difference in tempo to throw your senses off and get you to appreciate a new aspect of them that hadn’t been featured before.

In other words it was a pretty precarious tightrope they were walking each time out.

So Much is emblematic of this. It’s a new song in title and lyrics only, another ponderously slow ballad of polite romantic longing with an aching delivery by Sonny Til featuring light supper club piano, discreet wordless harmonies by the others and a George Nelson sung bridge. All of their stylistic trademarks are present and accounted for once again.

It’s a song with the same pacing, same sentiments, same breathy delivery, same mood, same everything as the top side… not to mention almost every other side they’d done from the start. Variation, the key to sustaining interest over the long term, was non-existent with this group and this was by design. At a time when their track record of hits gave them all the leeway they needed to be able to try anything they wanted without risking much, certainly on the B-sides if nothing else, the fact they were choosing instead to double down on what they made their name on originally and make both sides of every release carbon copies of one another is an ominous sign.

In doing so The Orioles were becoming increasingly like a car stuck in mud, spinning their wheels trying to get out by doing the very thing which was sinking them deeper and ensuring they’d be walking home.
 


 
 

That’s How I’ll Always Be
Maybe it was the surface appeal of Sonny Til’s vocal delivery which convinced them the songs were stronger than they really were. For while So Much wasn’t nearly up to par with their best compositions which certainly hurts its chances of making an impression, at least Sonny’s commitment never wavers as he relishes delivering some of the lines in his inimitable halting tentative style.

I’ll always love you too much
Without you I can’t do much
So won’t you love me so much

The words themselves are simple but with his voice alternately pausing for reflection, bearing down for emphasis and seeming all the time to be actively thinking of what he’ll say next, as if they weren’t written lines he was reading but rather him exploring his own thoughts, all makes it seem far deeper than it really is. In fact that may even be enough to convince the group’s faithful followers that this is hardly a big drop off in quality.

But therein lies the problem. They’re becoming SO reliant on having Sonny Til pull rabbits out of hats with subpar material that eventually they’re simply left with a pile of discarded headware.

All of this would be far more tolerable, even more reliably enjoyable, if they simply surrounded Sonny with the proper help. I don’t mean finding a flock of new Orioles either. The other singers are fine, but they’re not being asked to actually sing much which for a vocal GROUP is a bit of a red flag. For the most part their role has been set in stone from the start, a stone which was then dipped in concrete before being swaddled in some futuristic titanium alloy.

It. Never. Changes.

The group breathlessly offers up nondescript backing, careful not to impede on Til’s melodic territory, then like clockwork along comes baritone George Nelson to sing the exact same line that had just been delivered while Sonny takes a sip of water and checks his messages before coming back to close things out while the others coast to the finish line without breaking a sweat.

It’s sad to question their effort, but they’re simply going through the motions when it comes to vocal arrangements now. Every song follows the same pattern to the letter, which is particularly galling when there are so many alternatives you could use on So Much to give it its own personality. You could do something radical, such as toss out Nelson’s warbling bridge entirely and replace it with a double-time group vocal replete with hand-clapping to totally change the mood. Or you could do something relatively basic such as just hand over the final line to one of the others to sing, be it bass Johnny Reed or tenor Alex Sharpe, if not ol’ reliable Nelson, just to alter your impression a little more. Because it’s such a stark song the arrangement cries out for something o shake it up a little, but they seem incapable of doing anything but playing it as close to the vest as possible.

Listening to The Orioles releases was a bit like reading shampoo directions, it’s wash, rinse, repeat.
 


 

I Swear That It’s True
Finally though we come to the last remaining elephant in what is turning out to be a very crowded room, namely the musical accompaniment that is the aural equivalent of watching grass grow and paint dry.

To be fair their blueprint set down by their first records were cut during the musician’s strike in mid-1948 and while they didn’t adhere to the recording ban to the letter they were as discreet about showcasing their limited accompaniment as possible so that minimalist sound had been understandable at the time. Group member Tommy Gaither strummed his guitar almost inaudibly as bassist Reed plucked away well removed from the microphone leaving only an unnamed (surely for his own protection against a rampaging James Petrillo) pianist to tie everything together with a dainty right hand modestly flickering the treble keys.

It worked back then because that first song itself was so good, but since that time they’ve rarely deviated from that approach even though the recording ban ended in December 1948 giving them plenty of additional possibilities to choose from. They instead choose to keep the same barren approach come hell or high water.

Making this decision not to mess with success stand out even more is the fact that the refined musical arrangement they’re stubbornly sticking with has proven powerless to supplement the unchanging vocal arrangements that are in desperate need of assistance to inject a little life into these songs.

It’s not as if they don’t have plenty of options here as well. Gaither was drawing a paycheck for doing less than a tailor in a nudist colony for the most part. He was a good guitarist by all accounts so why not let him prove it once in awhile by giving him a solo or some more prominent fills at least. Reed meanwhile was pulling double duty singing AND playing bass, yet in both roles he was often more of a rumor than a substantiated presence, his voice was only faintly heard and his playing never was featured. While admittedly stand-up bassists rarely took solos they could at least move him closer to the microphone and let him provide something resembling a bottom to the arrangements so his family would have some evidence to prove to their friends that he was indeed part of the group.

As underutilized as those two remain it’s the absence of two key instruments that show you the reason why The Orioles, for all of their talent, all of their audience appeal and all of their commercial momentum, were probably destined to be passed by in time.

We’re talking about drums and sax, the twin pillars of the rock musician’s handbook.
 

Without You I Can’t Do Much
With no drummer to provide a backbeat the songs were never going to shift out of first gear. Had they employed one, even just in the studio if not on the road, I’m sure they could’ve found something for him to do while he was there and that would’ve done wonders for the songs. Just some crisp snare work every so often, maybe – dare I say it – a few kicks of the bass drum to give things a little jolt. Really anything he contributed, short of just lightly riding the cymbals, would’ve been much appreciated.

But since in this review we’re stuck analyzing So Much, not tasked with reinventing their entire sound, let’s end by focusing on the one thing you could’ve easily added to this song while keeping every single other aspect of it completely intact and transformed the entire record in the process.

A tenor sax solo.

Not a raunchy balls to the wall honk-fest. No squealing to the heavens and sending Deborah Chessler scurrying under a desk in fear. Nope, just a languid smoky tenor in a mid-song break, maintaining the despondent mood but doing so by adding a texture that no Orioles record had offered.

Considering how prevalent the saxophone was in rock, the fact they totally avoided it at every turn was incomprehensible. Maybe they convinced themselves it’d help them to stand out, but instead of standing out they were falling down and the sax was the one instrument that could be utilized in a myriad of different ways – fast, slow, loud, soft, high, low – to instantly change the aura of any song.

Had they done so here then So Much might have something more substantial to recommend about it. Without anything to provide a new wrinkle from them this can’t help but fall flat, if only because it blends in with everything else they did and for that matter most everything they would do in the future as well.

There are still elements about this to be satisfied with – Til’s vocals are fine as usual, the melody is decent and the story, while simplistic, is at least acceptable for what they’re after. But instead of being a full production with a plethora of little touches to capture your interest it’s an uncomfortably naked song left standing alone unsheltered in an empty field, and so the reaction to seeing it is one of pity, not arousal.

It may not have hurt them yet, but that time was at hand and listening to this it was hard not to see it coming.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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