2020-05-13 15:20:22 UTC
If you were to pick a dozen people at random off the street and ask each one to undertake a specific task that might be somewhat specialized but not too complex, chances are those you selected initially would be a little unsure of their ability to get the job done even if they wound managing it alright in the end.
In life everybody likes to stick to “comfort zones” when it comes to showcasing their abilities. A landscaper might be able to cook you an edible dinner but they’d probably be more at ease planting your flower bed, especially if they were being graded on their skills.
Likewise musical artists might be perfectly capable of singing and playing in a wide variety of styles, no matter how disparate they were on paper, but if you gave them a song that was right in their wheelhouse their confidence would soar and they’d have much less concern about pulling it off.
This could be both a benefit and a detriment to their careers however, for on one hand the more comfortable they were with the material the more likely they were to do a good job, yet on the other hand the fewer creative decisions they were asked to make the more they tended to veer towards formula.
Chalk it up to yet another of the many tricky balancing acts all artists had to navigate as they attempted to keep their music fresh enough to draw new interest and yet reliable enough not to drive old fans away.
Don’t You Hear Me, Baby?
The comfort zone that Billy Wright resided in was any song that enabled him to show off his dramatic emotional vocal style, one that was dynamic without quite being flamboyant or over-the-top. Though he was the primary influence on Little Richard, who was both flamboyant AND over-the-top, Wright by contrast was more controlled in his delivery, in large part because he specialized in ballads.
Within those ballads however he constantly pushed the envelope when it came to giving his emotions full-reign, often straining at the mere idea of holding anything back. His supple voice, biting tone and natural resonance made him an distinctive singer in rock’s first half dozen years, someone who gave the impression of being a tightly wound spring ready to be sprung at the slightest prodding.
This technique worked wonderfully for him when you heard his best records especially when they were scattered amidst the honking sax instrumentalists, the harmonious vocal groups, the lusty raucous shouters, the sultry groove makers and humorous tricksters that made up the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll party of 1950.
However, as with almost anything, repetition leads to diminishing returns in the response department and two sides of the same single each trying to make the same impression on listeners, not to mention leaning on our accumulated knowledge his past glories in a similar vein, means that if the basic approach is going to remain the same Wright will have to offer more variety in the content department than the rather a fairly by-the-numbers rendition of the concept that Thinkin’ Blues gives us.
To be fair we can grant them something of a pardon for their stylistic repetition on this, his third single, as the session for this took place way back in September in just his second studio date after being signed to the label and before he’d seen his initial record peak on the charts. It’s obvious that he was sticking with his “comfort zone” at that point until he’d acquired the confidence to explore other ideas and know that one failure wouldn’t wind up with him back on the drudgery of the medicine show circuit on which he began his career.
A Thousand Things On Your Mind
In spite of its familiarity there are some attributes to admire as this kicks off with a vaguely strip-tease act horn intro, not quite accentuated as much as it would be with a racier story to follow, but it’s at least giving you something to stir your imagination as it gets underway.
Even at this stage Wright never seems to have a problem coming up with interesting stories featuring some fairly deep psychological quandaries to ponder. Thinkin’ Blues falls into that category as it asks an existential question about the nature of love, trust and desire and how those three things are often in conflict with each other in too many relationships, starting it seems with his own.
The concept is pretty strong, but not much will likely be resolved in a quick session on the shrink’s couch where all he can do is set up the dilemma, present the opposing points of view and plead for a resolution to the problem via some physical reassurance… if you get my drift.
That it manages to give some depth to these concerns is almost entirely due to Wright’s remarkably succinct phrasing that cuts to the chase without much superfluous patter, aided greatly by his emotional commitment which is his stock in trade. His vocal performance can’t be criticized at all, he’s true to both the overt story and the underlying subtext, rising and falling, swelling and deflating when the mood calls for it.
Likewise the lyrics do a decent job for the task at hand with the space he has to work with, especially in how he zooms in on just one aspect of a scene he’s describing rather than trying to capture the entire panorama. But even so, listening to it gives the distinct impression that you’re only getting the headlines, not the full character analysis which is what you really want because you can tell there’s a lot of juicy details residing under the surface.
The thing is, there’s nothing much Wright could do to fix this issue given the time constraints he’s faced with in a three minute single. It’s the difference between seeing a brief story on the nightly news and watching a documentary on the same subject. In the former you’ll get only the basics: Who, what, where, when and how, told with efficiency and as much clarity as allowable for the format, but the larger theme can only be properly told with the kind of depth that isn’t available in this limited setting.
So the question becomes do we dock Wright for failing to craft an epic that in the future might fill an entire concept album, or do we simply acknowledge the restrictions he’s working with and cut him the appropriate slack for doing a halfway decent job to work around those limitations?
Well luckily we don’t have to make that choice because we have the musicians to focus our criticisms on and take the brunt of the blame for this not being as good of a record as we’re hoping for.
Please Try Me One More Time
You might argue there’s not much the band can do here to elevate this enough to make the record really stand out. The pace is of course determined by Wright’s needs and they meet those requirements as expected. The mood of the piece is heavy on the angst and uncertainty that Wright himself is expressing and so there’s also no room for any wild displays of technical virtuosity. Even the style of this kind of song sort of locks them into the instrument line-up they feature and so you’d be barking at the moon to expect some radically different sounds to pop up along the way.
But that being said there’s nothing to be found on Thinkin’ Blues outside that opening, which itself is more intriguing than invigorating, that really makes you stand up and take notice.
It’s a bland, predictable, unremarkable music track, one modestly appropriate maybe, but without any memorable identifying features to recall later and prompt a casual listener into requesting the song again.
If there’s a reason why the word “generic” – an innocuous noun meaning simply “normal” or “common” – takes on the dint of criticism when used to describe music then this song serves as a pretty good explanation of that negative inference.
Everything about this, from the languid tenor sax blowing inoffensively behind Wright’s vocals, to the teardrop piano flourishes that try and spice things up in the breaks between lines, has the feel of “going through the motions”… of choosing the most basic and predictable attributes of an arrangement to fill in the blanks, thereby putting all of the weight back on the shoulders of Wright while the band takes no responsibility for the record’s relative shortcomings.
That Wright does all he can with this and STILL finds the end results to be somewhat lacking shows just how unambitious they were when laying this down. Rather than ask themselves how they could shake things up, even just a little, to get you to focus on one or two elements aside from what Billy is moaning about, they simply do what’s expected and nothing more.
I’m sure they’d claim they didn’t have many options unless they wanted to overturn the entire track but that’s selling themselves and the record short. Because the song is about the tenuous and often agonizing state of relationships you have a few deeper emotions you can draw out without needing Billy himself to articulate them.
The first is the impending confrontation wherein he’s going to spill his guts to this girl in the hopes of coming to some sort of an agreement and to suggest that you need only to use a “tick-tick-ticking” on the drum’s rim. It can represent the ticking of the clock as that moment approaches, or the nervous anticipation within him as he goes to talk to her, or if you wanted to cap it off with a brief – very brief – explosion of sounds on the sax and snare drums, then it could even come across like a time bomb as he lays his cards on the table.
A second, equally obvious but still clever wrinkle, would simply be to have an electric guitar highlight how on edge the narrator feels as he unloads his problems. Quick biting lines, distant and shrouded with faint echo and played high on the instruments range, just enough to impart the sensation of being tense and fraught with nerves.
But as it is the main accompaniment finds horns playing largely in unison, giving Wright too much support in a way, yet also not the proper support. They’re moaning, which implies sympathy which surely is what they felt was needed, but what they really should have been doing instead is distancing themselves from him via more sparse intermittent playing to highlight his discomfort as he faces this challenge alone.
There’s nothing about this record that was likely to draw interest on its own, yet there’s nothing much that would have you strenuously avoid hearing it either, so in that regard it’s merely a neutral outcome for all involved. Since it was a B-side there’s no harm being done because it’s not being asked to advance his standing in any way.
But when it also fails to distance itself from the top side of the record, the slightly better conceived Back Biting Woman, it’s probably inevitable that it’ll have some people questioning whether Wright has another trick up his sleeve to use in the future. The audience that had found his first sides so appealing wouldn’t know the circumstances of when this was recorded and would only be judging it against the standards those earlier, and much better, records set.
Thinkin’ Blues is by no means a bad record but it’s also not a very notable one, if only because we get the feeling we’ve heard it all before. Different title, different lyrics, but the same overall sentiment delivered in a routine fashion that we’ve already come to expect.
As B-sides go it’ll certainly suffice and you can find more than enough within to be worth your time, but when trying to vault your way up the creative ladder in rock that’s when it’s time to step outside that comfort zone and offer up something decidedly different, especially when it’s only a B-side and doesn’t have the weight of the world riding on its outcome.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 5/10