Monday, September 20, 2010

"Tell it Like it Is" (1966)

65. Aaron Neville, "Tell it Like it Is" (Dec. 17, 1966, #2)

You might know Aaron Neville and his various brothers as masters of a wide palette of New Orleans funk styles, and you're right about that, but listen up. The guy is possessed of one of the most beautiful, startling, and moving soul voices you're likely to hear, and it's all on display here in a song that's not even three minutes long. And what a song it is, sinuous and alluring and overflowing with barely suppressed emotion. The backing may be soft and tentative but Neville's idiosyncratic and always sultry warble never is, reaching for and bending the aching, strange notes of the melody here as the music behind him moves from softly tentative to sure-footed, backfilling the tension with all kinds of tasty flourishes: piano, guitar, horns, and rock-solid rhythm section, everything locked in good and tight. It's hard for me to put my finger on what makes this so special, which makes me think it must be something technical musically, a certain key or chord changes. The overall effect was unforgettable and affecting even the first time I heard it. As for the story, well, that works too. The guy just wants to know where he stands. It's not asking so much. "If you want something to play with / Go and find yourself a toy," he starts. "Baby, my time is too expensive / And I'm not a little boy." The chorus, basically the title, takes it home. This was going to be Aaron Neville's only hit for decades so it's as if he already knew he had to make it count, and does he ever. His best by far.

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