SENSATION 29; FEBRUARY 1950

 
 

 

Completist (n) – a person who is extremely interested in a particular subject and who wants to collect or experience as many things as possible connected with it

Sometimes being a completist around here is much of a curse as it a virtue as Todd Rhodes so thoughtfully shows us with a record that is straining the definition of rock ‘n’ roll to its breaking point.

Yet in order to make sure that Rhodes’ own story – which is among the more vital and interesting ones of early rock as a whole – doesn’t leave out key developments along the way, this is obviously being included.

…Included, yes, but that doesn’t mean we have to like doing it, completists or not.
 

 

Not Found On A Map
We’ve already gone over – and over again – the circumstances surrounding Todd Rhodes as he’s stuck in contractual limbo with Sensation, for whom he was obligated to record, while waiting to be free to sign with King Records.

We’ve speculated that he took this “opportunity” to explore other less commercial avenues of music that he was generally interested in but which had little chance of breaking out and becoming hits in a rock universe that he himself had helped to create over the past few years. His thinking being that Sensation wasn’t able to promote his records wide enough to want to waste his more commercial ideas on them, especially when he’d need to conserve his best prospective sides for when he landed at King a few months down the road.

He was too good – and too proud – a musician to release utter crap no matter his souring opinion on Sensation Records, who’d of course revived his career after a long layoff from recording, so the company was at least ensured of getting quality records (though he basically ceased cutting his own original material), but as to whom they’d be able to sell it to after establishing him as a rock act is another matter entirely.

This dilemma had reached its nadir with his two part Rhapsody In Blue, one of the more acclaimed compositions of the Twentieth Century that nevertheless was like Greek to the rock community who if they couldn’t shimmy seductively to it wanted nothing to do with it.

So when compared to George Gershwin’s classically themed jazz piece, this record, Coming Home probably seemed like a much stronger candidate for satisfying Rhodes’s established base of fans. Yet when weighed against his earlier non-compromised hits this too comes up woefully short.
 


 
 

Homecoming
The best way to analyze a song like this – since it IS competently played, tastefully arranged and melodically pleasant in its own way – is by judging it in the context of the records Rhodes had made before and those which currently were reigning supreme in the rock marketplace that he was ostensibly trying to reach.

Or to put it more succinctly, what works in one setting doesn’t work in another.

Comin’ Home is a pop-jazz composition hinting at rock in the barest of ways, whereas much of his earlier stuff was rock-oriented material that merely hinted at pop or jazz concepts. When the proper balance is maintained the audience becomes accustomed to the compromise, tolerating that which falls slightly outside their sensibilities because the rest satisfies their needs.

This record however completely upends that approach and basically returns us to a world three years prior when jazz was still the dominant language in black music circles and rock merely the seed growing under the surface that hadn’t yet sprung from the ground.

In many ways this represents the alternative career course that Rhodes might’ve traveled had that seed never been watered and fertilized by so many others, as he arranges a fairly tight and economical big-band derived jazz cut featuring the full arsenal of horns at his disposal, working in tandem on the intro before each one in turn gets a solo of their own, all while the drummer rides the cymbals and traps with a light touch, bass plucking away steadily and Rhodes topping it off with some faintly heard piano work.

Yet even in jazz circles this is merely background music – lively at times, but not anything to grab you unless you’re awkwardly standing around a crowded club waiting for a late arrival to meet you at the bar. Then you’ll get into it more if only to make yourself appear less self-conscious standing there like a dope while those around you talk, laugh and have a good time with their friends.

But now let’s give you a lift to another part of town and let Rhodes and company play this same song in a seedier environment, one where the music is not designed to be merely part of the wallpaper but where instead it’s responsible for providing the bulk of the atmosphere for people who came to lose themselves and their inhibitions in a far different world than the scene we just left.
 


 

Wrong Address
In this hole in the wall club the music needs to be loud to be heard over the din of the crowd, the crude come-ons of those on the prowl and the snarky put-downs of those being propositioned. Most of all the songs here have to keep the peace without ever being peaceful… it needs to get you moving, burning off your energy and frustrations, giving an outlet for libido without dulling those senses in case you hook up for a quickie with somebody ten minutes later.

Comin’ Home fails to do that by never finding a groove, never emphasizing the rhythm, never building – or releasing – the tension with a series of raucous or raunchy sax interludes.

Instead the song’s intro makes you stand back, not move forward, the first brief tenor solo has you wanting to give yourself over to it, its slightly grimy tone whispering in your ear that it’s okay to shake free of your reservations, but as soon as you take a step in that direction the other horns cut you off, pushing the tenor back into the shadows while they take their turns in the spotlight, putting you back on your heels again.

To its credit the music never lets up, never allows any one sound to dominate for too long, but when the majority of the sounds are alien to rockers, with the trumpets and altos swaying and braying then you’re left praying for the return of the tenor to lend some much needed gravity to the proceedings.

Even if they took the focus off the reeds and brass entirely it might do some good if the drummer remembered to grab his sticks and batter away on the skins while his leg muscles spasmed uncontrollably to let the bass drum get a workout.

And what of Rhodes himself, where is he during all of this? He’s certainly capable of a more emphatic show than he’s giving here as his left hand is all but immobile while his right only chips in with a few incidental notes. Of course in a jazz band this discretion is allowable, admirable even, but if you’re trying to get the asses on the floor gyrating then you need to put out more than he’s willing to here.

Which brings us back to the context of any song… where different expectations in different settings lead to different responses to hearing the same music played. In a classier jazz club nobody would feel let down by this and while it wouldn’t draw much notice it wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand either. But in the more degenerate places we frequent you’d get a lot of grumbling before people headed out the door for some air… or for a taxi to hightail it to an even more low-down club where the music pulses with crackling energy and a dangerous vibe that its inhabitants won’t let you shortchange for loftier pursuits.
 


 

Lock The Door
That Todd Rhodes was capable of reasonably satisfying both of those constituencies individually speaks well to he and his band’s musicianship, professionalism and versatility, but ultimately you can only serve one master with each record. A choice has to be made.

Truthfully with Comin’ Home, maybe a prophetic title when considering his past pursuits, he chooses one that falls just outside our sphere and if graded using the standards of that field this record wouldn’t be shown the door even if it wasn’t quite good enough to be widely praised as a jazz cut either.

But Todd Rhodes got to where he is on the virtue of appealing to us, not the jazz crowd, and therefore it’s us he still needs to satisfy. If he occasionally wants to venture entirely outside our world to try his hand in something else we’ll be happy to wish him well even if we hope he meets with dismal failure so he returns to where he’s most needed.

Yet when he doesn’t quite make a clean break of it stylistically, such as with this record, and thus gives the impression he’s trying to appease us while appealing to someone else entirely, that’s when he’ll get no breaks.

Maybe if we weren’t such completists we’d let this one slip unnoticed past our gaze and pretend it didn’t matter that he was wavering in his commitment, but as long as Todd Rhodes was hoping we’d buy his records then he’s got no choice but to listen to us tell him that this had better just be a temporary diversion.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Todd Rhodes for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)