Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1977)

It may seem vaguely comical to label something that amounts to all of six songs totaling just 35 minutes of music "complete," but complete is complete, and the reference here is to an EP released in 1979 with just three of these tracks. This complete set, though recorded in 1977, didn't come along until the end of the '80s, well after Elton John had settled into the calcified glamour he has occupied so well over recent decades and producer Thom Bell had registered his greatest work with the Delfonics, Stylistics, and Spinners (who show up here singing background vocals). Those soul acts rank way high for me among those from the late '60s into the '70s and Elton John of course is a lifelong favorite, so this was a bit of a natural when I fished it out of a slush pile circa 1989. Yet it nevertheless came as a surprise as I had not been particularly aware of the EP and its associations with Bell and the Spinners. The truth is I was about done with Elton John by 1979, though now and then I took a chance on one of his albums, such as 21 at 33 (which usually proved disappointing). The general thrust is apparent just from scanning the titles, where the word "love" appears in four of the six, though not always without something of a bite: "Nice and Slow," "Country Love Song," "Shine on Through" (which showed up in different form on 1978's A Single Man), "Mama Can't Buy You Love," "Are You Ready for Love," and "Three Way Love Affair." Elton gets songwriting credit for three of them, and Bell also for three; the only one they collaborated on was "Nice and Slow," with Bernie Taupin chipping in lyrics. Two songs come in close to or over eight minutes, and the rest are about five minutes each, so there's some stretching out here but not to unruly lengths. To me there's a slightly muffled sound to the recording, as if the seals were fixed too tight and the oxygen depleting, which something could maybe be done about in a remastering, or perhaps that's the way Bell and John intended it. It's not that distracting—the main attraction is the late-disco sound verging on adult contemporary that moves so confidently through everything here. Those are a couple of genres where it's all too easy to go wrong and where so many before and since have wrecked. But there's something sweet and poignant about this set, a feeling that history waited too long but it's good to have at last, a feeling that persists. I still hear these songs as revelation and surprise, with some sadness I can't quite pin down, nonetheless inflected, enlivened, heartened, even redeemed by the joy they bear. It's one '70s set that seems likely to quietly endure a good long time.

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