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COLEMAN 105; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

The term middle-of-the-road has a subtly negative connotation to it at times. While its general meaning simply infers something that’s not leaning towards extremes there’s also the more commonly held belief that it means “intentionally bland”.

Musically this is especially the case as MOR radio – which took its letters from the term itself – seems to accentuate that mindset as they target the helpless captives of dentist offices and those trapped in the stuffy homes of elderly aunts who beckon you to stay for another hour so you’ll drift off to sleep allowing them to loot your pockets of valuables.

In those instances Middle Of The Road doesn’t just refer to music but also to where you’re dreaming of running into in order to be run over by a bus to Topeka that will put you out of your misery.

But for the purposes of this review Middle Of The Road reverts to the original definition of being something that avoids extremes. The fact that by doing so The Ray-O-Vacs sound blander than our first meeting with them months ago may just be an ironic coincidence indicative of nothing…

Or it could mean the two definitions are in fact interchangeable – by avoiding extremes you invariably take on a bland appearance, something The Ray-O-Vacs were often at risk for succumbing to if they weren’t careful.
 

 
I’m Just A Guy That’s Happy
The Ray-O-Vacs had burst onto the scene with their debut release I’ll Always Be In Love With You, a revival of a song from the 1920’s which was done in a more modern arrangement and became a legitimate hit earlier in 1949. Their status as rock artists though probably had as much to do with timing and circumstance as it did with their intent.

They were a club act, something that was a very viable career in the 1940’s for those without benefit of recording contracts and as such they had to appeal to a broad base covering styles of music which were reliably popular for more mainstream clientele. That meant pop tinged songs with some jazz and – increasingly of late – adding something a little more vibrant with earthier sensibilities that were making waves in the upstart field of rock.

Because the music world as a whole was seeing a gradual shift from the more traditional mannered pop that had dominated the scene for years to what would become a full-fledged rock vocal style that excelled over the next decade meant that those coming into their own during the period we’re in now were sort of stuck between the two disparate approaches.

They weren’t alone in this stylistic limbo which seemed to disproportionately effect vocal groups. We’ve seen it frequently with The Ravens and The Orioles who vacillated between rock songs that featured the loosening of emotional restraint which proved to be their strongest approach commercially, and the pop material they also recorded which tended to stifle their vocal urgency to make concessions to the interests of a different audience who more often than not ignored them anyway.

Maybe without being even consciously aware of the growing rift at hand, or perhaps being subtly pushed in the direction that was making the most recent impact, when they stepped into the studio for the first time The Ray-O-Vacs leaned slightly towards a delivery that allowed them to connect with the rock audience. It worked too, cracking the Top Ten on the charts and now that they’d done so the expectations of those listeners going forward would require them to continue in that vein in order to build upon their early success.

But maybe because that success was so unexpected, certainly nothing that they’d been working on trying to come up with a way to reach that specific audience all along, it’s hardly surprising that when they DID reach them the first time out they weren’t quite sure of how to pull that feat off again.
 


 

Walking Down Lover’s Lane
When analyzing records there are two broad things to keep in mind, the first of course is the results themselves. How does the record sound? The answer each person comes up with may be different based on tastes but the approach in finding that answer should be based on strict musical judgment.

The other thing you need to consider however is based more on conjecture and that is what was their intent? The artist, the songwriter, the musicians, the producers, the record company? What did they think this particular record was going to do, who was it supposed to appeal to, how was it made to be noticed or stand out?

If the answer to the first question is that Happy Am I sounds like a typically middle of the road song for the era, and thus nothing to get too excited about, well that’s one thing. But if the second question regarding their intentions results in a listener saying that it seems they were aiming at the middle of the road all along, that’s another thing entirely. A much more damning criticism.

Once you find yourself placed in the rock kingdom – by luck or by circumstance – what’s the point of trying to invalidate that status and betray your earlier success in the process by intentionally sticking to the safest route to ensure you don’t ruffle any feathers?

Obviously The Ray-O-Vacs do just that here. Their aspirations are limited and seem more concerned with simply not alienating those who liked their first release rather than doing something bolder to try and forge a deeper more meaningful connection while also trying to attract the holdouts who weren’t swayed by their debut.

In other words on Happy Am I they play it exceedingly safe, which in rock ‘n’ roll as we know already and will see proven time and time again over the rest of eternity is never the smartest bet. We can always excuse somebody more easily for coming up short in execution than for coming up short in ambition.

But aiming at the middle of the road DOES have its advantage I suppose in that you never run the risk of going off the road entirely which is what makes this record easier to swallow.

There are no risky maneuvers to watch out for, no daring feats of arranging or vocal leaps to cringe at if they fail to stick the landing. Everything about this keeps well within their comfort zone giving them the confidence to handle it with a certain effortless panache.

This starts with the lyrical content, the mere theme of which seems almost indicative of their mindsets following their breakthrough last winter. Happy Am I surely described all of them at this point in time, having gone from the hardscrabble life of playing clubs and hoping your reliability, versatility and professionalism will get you in each door, to now having a hit record serve as your calling card, to open those doors for you and attract enough of an audience to make your stay at those clubs profitable enough for the owners to invite you back.

As such it goes down easy. As generic odes to the blissfulness of being in love it’s hardly challenging or very deep. It assumes that you are familiar with the feeling itself and so the platitudes Lester Harris sings about will connect. But at the same time if you’re studying HIS feelings by the way he delivers these words you might not be as convinced he’s burning with desire for this nameless girl.

He sings with a breezy nonchalance, someone you can envision with a far-away vacant stare on his face, maybe a lopsided grin at the fact he’s got a girl to call his own. He sounds blissfully naïve about the whole affair, like someone who didn’t get laid until he was thirty years old. Listening to how pussy-whipped he is you have question the long term chances of this relationship lasting.

Yet it works well enough because they’re believable character traits he’s embodying which suit the lyrics and the delivery. They may not necessarily be appealing traits, but they fit well enough even if the story is lacking any details which would explain and therefore justify his head-over-heels perspective. It’s greeting card sentiments shoehorned into a fairly pleasant melody.
 

Folks May Think I’m Crazy
Which brings us the sound of the song itself, a sparse lurching tempo showcasing intermittent horn honks that are modestly bouncy but which really lead nowhere. You can argue that it’s catchy in the sense that it sticks in your memory, but not so catchy that you actually want it to remain there after the record ends.

The melody is carried almost entirely by Harris’s voice, a little raspy as always, yet modestly warm and comforting. Judging by the group’s timeline Harris couldn’t have been more than in his early to mid-30’s yet he sounds far older than that. It’s not just that his style owes a debt to earlier singers but his vocal tone has a wizened tint to it. The delivery is hardly spry, not the way you’d envision someone who was gaga over a girl and anxious to take her out and probably get her in the sack. Instead he sounds as if he’s content, the scene he conjures up is of someone who had long since turned the corner on love and yet found himself with one final chance at it.

Again, it FITS the song and in that sense we really have to commend them for delivering what they set out to do. But because they aimed so low – a song about a happy, and seemingly platonic, love affair consisting of sharing an ice cream sundae before he takes her home while it’s still light out and receives a peck on the cheek for his consideration – there’s nothing for us to get excited about, no reason for us to hang on every word, or tell our friends about it so they too can hear the record to see for themselves what makes it so… delightfully inoffensive?

So the two questions have both been answered, albeit without much enthusiasm. The record itself sounds alright, there’s nothing that sticks out as being badly played or out of place, it’s just somewhat lethargic for a rock record coming on the heels of a month which saw the most vibrant and exciting string of records we’ve yet encountered. By comparison to those this is a return to a more restrained and unpretentious approach that was largely what rock was threatening to violently overthrow. A genteel afternoon rather than a raucous late night.

The answer to the other question though explains it all. The record never intended to go for broke. The Ray-O-Vacs were indeed happy with their recent good fortune and not willing to rock the boat trying for something more. Surprisingly it seemed to work well enough for them too. Happy Am I charted for three weeks in Cash Box topping out at #5 in the Harlem listings, and that magazine also had it as the 53rd most played Jukebox Race Record for all of 1949. I guess that might’ve been due in part to listeners curiosity to hear the follow-up record to their hit, but that would only explain one spin per listener, hardly enough to make it close to the Top 50 for the entire year. Since there were only about twenty songs by rock artists on that list above them and many of them were either ballads or mid-tempo songs like this, you can’t very well say The Ray-O-Vacs were wrong in their more modest aims.


Here on Spontaneous Lunacy – and in most histories of rock in general – the most intense focus is usually on the edgier records and more flamboyant artists who draw immediate attention with their over-the-top antics and wilder styles, but while that makes for more sensationalistic stories it doesn’t always represent the more cautious progression that makes up the steady traffic flow.

Never seeking to lead the pack in the rock race groups like The Ray-O-Vacs put their car in second gear and stick to the middle of the road. If you’re in a hurry to get someplace more exciting and are stuck behind them you’ll be leaning on your horn, impatiently peering around the left hand side looking for a break in the oncoming traffic to pull out and roar past them. If you’re already in front of them you’ll lose them in the rearview mirror by the next turn, as they won’t put the gas to the floor in order to keep pace.

They won’t be at risk for causing accidents, they won’t frighten pedestrians looking to cross the street and they sure as hell won’t be getting any traffic tickets for reckless driving. But they also won’t be getting to the desired destination any time soon.

The middle of the road is okay for Sunday drivers but most Sundays the rest of the rock crowd are sleeping off the effects of Saturday night and likely won’t even notice The Ray-O-Vacs gliding along, slowly and quietly, taking in the sights.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Ray-O-Vacs for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)