2020-04-30 13:59:05 UTC
Cute or cloying? That’s an age-old question any time somebody tries to draw attention to themselves with things that can be taken in two different ways. When looked at in a straightforward manner there may be nothing notable about it, but if you acknowledge the irony involved it will result in either a quick smile or an exasperated roll of the eyes depending on your tolerance for such things.
The Shadows were a vocal group already straddling the line between rock and pop with their tame material and mannered deliveries, and because of that their credibility in the eyes of the more demanding rock fan was always going to be at risk regardless of what other risks they took on.
So maybe feeling they had nothing to lose, they might’ve hoped this record would show they had the utmost confidence in their ability to pull it of, no matter how cloying it actually was.
I Swear I Often Try
It’s not just the vague reference to their own group name in the title which is trying to be clever, but the title itself – and thus the lyrics that expand on this – are essentially attempting to do walk that same fine line between clever and grating.
You’d think that with this title You Are Closer To My Heart (Than My Shadow) would’ve been written in-house, especially as they had Howard Biggs, former pianist and songwriter for the Ravens, who was handling the group and who composed the flip side, but no, this one was written by a member of another group, Ed Snead of the Ben Smith Quartet… and no, it is nowhere NEAR rock ‘n’ roll in instrumentation, vocal style or just general attitude.
Despite Abbey Records issuing it as part of their “Rhythm & Blues Series” theirs is nothing but a pleasant pop rendition that, emblematic for the era, was suitably emasculated so as not to offend the virginal masses. The peppy double-time vocal bridge of Smith’s version contains the most sickening passage delivered by the group, yet oddly enough it also features the best part as well as one of the group – don’t ask me which – takes a few lines solo with a bit of kick to them… relatively speaking of course.
But contrary to what you may think the group didn’t choose the song because of its title, but rather their manager, Ed Levy, chose the group’s name based on the song which was already in their repertoire when they were still known as The Melody Kings.
Levy and his partner Herb Zebley had started Lee Records to record this group and decided they needed a better name. Upon hearing them sing this he thought The Shadows had a nice ring to it and thus The Shadows they became.
When their first release, I’ve Been A Fool, became an unexpected hit their new name was established across the country which makes the subsequent release of this record seem to be nothing more than a shameless attempt to capitalize on the similar moniker.
A Flame Begins To Burn
As always with The Shadows the focal point is Scott King, a truly talented vocalist who seemed to mine the lyrics of all of the songs, no matter how trite they were on the surface, for some deeper underlying truth that he could expound upon in his reading of it.
Though not gospel bred King employed some of the same techniques as the better singers of the time from that background – the quavering tone, the breathy pauses and the tortured emotional issues he brought to forefront to struggle with in full view of the audience. He was a lot like Sonny Til of The Orioles in that regard and like that group it was the dramatic leads positioned against more sedate backing which seemed to be the key to their success, but as we know once the rock vocal idiom starts becoming more earthy and uninhibited, as it already has by now, those groups which adhered to more tame standards of delivery were bound to be left behind.
On You Are Closer To My Heart (Than My Shadow) King puts up a valiant effort to keep the changing ideals at bay, focusing on making the sentiments sound achingly personal in the process. This technique is right in his wheelhouse and it shows from the first notes sung, as King lays on the vulnerability as thick as he dares.
This kind of approach always flirts with being overwrought and that’s often as much of a fatal flaw as treating the story too casually, but King is showing himself to be an exquisite judge of just how much pressure these songs can bear. At times he leans hard on a key word or line to underscore its importance before pulling back and using a more breathy vocal to merely suggest rather than declare something outright.
Far from being up and down, or even schizophrenic in nature, it comes across as someone working through his own emotions in real time, trying at once to tamp down his fears and then giving in to his need to express them and in the process release those feelings before they overwhelm him entirely.
Though he mostly nails the psychological aspects of the song, the same can’t always be said about the stylistic approach as there are a few moments where his pop upbringing seeps into the performance and undercuts all of the hard work he just finished establishing.
Astute rock fans of this era don’t need us to remind you of the ways in which this manifests itself, but for the sake of completeness let’s just say that whenever you appear too deliberate in your singing – making sure to enunciate each letter as if you were teaching the language in a classroom setting – and allowing yourself to “float” out of a line rather than end it with a more bluntly emphatic crescendo, then you’re veering perilously close to the pop kingdom.
Yet King doesn’t give up the ghost entirely here, even when he does go too far in skirting the edge of the border between rock and pop. Rather than trip over that boundary he pulls away at the last second much to our relief, even if we still have to dock him some points for not avoiding those traps altogether.
The others get their chance to shine in the bridge, vastly improving on the Ben Smith Quartet, even if they don’t seem to belong entirely to ANY accepted genre. Too frivolous for pop, not raunchy enough for rock, not demonstrative enough for gospel, not smooth enough for jazz, not raw enough for blues, not corny enough for Polkas or novelty tunes, they sort of bounce around in an energetic but essentially harmless way, not adding too much, aside from the needed tempo change, but also not detracting from what King had laid down.
Overall this is a good vocal performance by all of them, hinting at greatness with King, yet held back just a little by their being unable to see far enough into the future to know what to do in order to make it sound more cutting edge.
When The Sun’s Not In The Sky
Of course the vocals may be the most prominent part of the arrangement, but they’re not the only part because we have to take into consideration the musicians and what they’re being called on to do.
On a lot of emotive songs such as this the backing will be sparse, if not virtually invisible, requiring all of the weight to fall on the shoulders of the lead singer. That can be effective but it has much less margin for error because there’s no place for a vocal misstep to hide.
Other records take the opposite approach and try to saturate the song with as much musical hijinks as possible to mask a vocal weakness and as a result often wind up running counter to the message the singer is trying to impart.
You Are Closer To My Heart (Than My Shadow) finds a middle ground, leaning towards the former by using just discreet accompaniment for most of the performance… deliberate piano chords kept back in the mix, incidental drumming to keep the rhythm, while the most prominent instrument is an alto saxophone which has the duty of responding to each line King delivers and does so in a way that manages to be fairly discreet even when it has the spotlight all to itself.
It’s not a very ear-catching track but it doesn’t have to be as long as it keeps the mood from breaking. When the pace picks up for the bridge the horn shifts into an almost flute-like playing style while the guitar adds a few fluttering lines of its own, but they too don’t leap to the forefront, allowing the voices to handle the majority of the responsibility.
Could it have been made better with a few adjustments? Sure, especially if you wanted to be sure to let the rock community know this was intended for them, upon which you’d let a deeper tenor sax deliver a languid smoky intro and coda and maybe a few restrained honks in the mid-section. Give the guitar a slightly bigger part, one slicing run leading into or out of that bridge, and unleash Howard Biggs’s left hand on the keyboards with just a bit more force when the vocals step up, but for those not quite sure of just how liberally to apply them, those same attributes can upend the entire record if done in too heavy handed a fashion and so we can’t complain that they played it safe.
In the end the record works for what it sets out to do and that’s the most important factor, even if a more ambitious group would’ve tried a little harder to really establish themselves by taking a few calculated risks.
That Glow Was Meant For Others
As impressed as we’ve been with The Shadows through four sides it’s still not hard to see them for what they were – opportunists. Not cynical opportunists, privately looking down on this music while attempting to score with it to further their own careers, but rather opportunists in the sense of being in the right place at the right time with the right lead singer to take advantage of concurrent events in music to get noticed.
In other words The Shadows may succeed at this exact time with this exact approach by drawing legitimate rock interest but unless they change that approach, modernize it just enough to not let themselves fall behind as the new sounds emerge, then they’ll quickly get left behind, unable to meet the growing needs of a community that will move past this more timid rock style in search of something more vibrant.
Though WE know that thanks to the benefit of hindsight, you wonder if THEY knew it at the time, and even if they sensed it then you wonder if they had it in them to take the appropriate steps to ensure they didn’t become an act that was essentially encased in amber, a group too closely aligned with rock to be viable pop stars, yet too pop to remain welcome on the rock stage.
You Are Closer To My Heart (Than A Shadow) may have given the group its name to start with, but as nice as it is songs like this that try and straddle that divide between eras and styles that is growing ever wider, might wind up leading to the group’s end as legitimate rock contributors if they’re not careful.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 6/10