Saturday, September 09, 2017

Tell Mama (1968)

I'm open to the idea that Etta James may have done some bandwagon-jumping by traveling to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record her 1968 album, an album I have never been willing to get far from since formal introductions to it some 10 years ago. She had not had a hit in nearly five years, and by 1968 Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, and many others had been churning them out from down that way, with memorable songs, a signature sound with spine-tingling horn charts tight as drums, and a certain mysterious admixture of pain and joy we just call soul. Like many such singers, James always had the pipes to put material over. But she didn't write her own and was thus dependent on others for the good stuff. For this project, she got that first and foremost from the one-two punch of the first two tracks on the first side of the album, which were also the A-side ("Tell Mama") and B-side ("I'd Rather Go Blind") of the first single. It took a total of five credited songwriters to create those two amazing songs, and then some dozen more for the other 10 on the original album (a 2001 CD reissue worth snagging raised the total number of tracks to 22). I'm not sure how to read this—highly discriminating and choosy, on the one hand, or on the other unable to forge a bond with a single songwriter (e.g., Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb). We can read it any way we like, however, and my main takeaway from this album remains those first two songs. In fact, you really have to wonder why "Tell Mama" b/w "I'd Rather Go Blind" is not in the discussion of greatest two-sided singles of all time, with, I don't know, "Don't Be Cruel" b/w "Hound Dog," "Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever," "It's Too Late" b/w "I Feel the Earth Move," "American Woman" b/w "No Sugar Tonight," or "Back on the Chain Gang" b/w "My City Was Gone." (What's more, as with "Come Together" b/w "Something," I'm not sure why the B-side is not the A-side, but leave that aside.)

"Tell Mama" jumps on with a snappy Muscle Shoals attack that launches at 0:01 and really does not give up for all of its 2:21. The singer is a woman set up to catch the rebound on a failing relationship and she's ready with whatever it takes: sympathy, a listening ear, and the comforts only Mama can provide. Whether the poor guy is crying real tears or just busy getting off, his head is bound to rest upon that bosom on the night of this song, and the realities of the prospect are all in Etta James's voice. "I'd Rather Go Blind," then, is almost a response song, a parallel situation but a shift in the point of view. Say that the man Mama wants to comfort is more of a dog setting up a side piece, and say the woman he is cheating on is tender and good. In that case, "I'd Rather Go Blind" is her song, proceeding from darkest sources of jealous anguish (maybe even that's Mama she sees talking to her man). It's so emotionally raw and yet so tenderly in control you almost don't know what hits you. The singer's weaknesses are also her strengths—her love and her inability to let go of it, even as she dramatically rehearses loss. The very figure of speech this song goes by gives away how much pain we're talking about here, even if it fails to clarify how real or imaginary it is. She would rather give up seeing altogether than to see her man tell Mama.

Well, that's cute, as an analysis, but I'm bound to point out it doesn't work. In "Tell Mama," the singer has herself witnessed the kind of trouble the poor guy's woman is up to. She's no good. Some of the images are practically searing: "She had another man throw you outdoors / Now the same man is wearing your clothes." That's a powerful (and objective) image of humiliation, which only makes Mama more endearing and appealing within the song (even as we sense an element of calculation to her too, because after all remember she's got the poor guy in a vulnerable position). But I feel you would have to be deaf not to be able to hear "I'd Rather Go Blind." It's such a smoldering sad ballad, with an organ playing long, long notes, an electric guitar adding small-scale flourishes, and the horns punctuating, as this woman, utterly forlorn in the moment, tells her story. She sees her man talking to another woman and somehow she senses something between them. It could well be just paranoia on her part. She can't stop looking at him talking to her, and she doesn't want to, but she's afraid to see what she might see. It's a tight narrative close-up of a moment of doubt in a relationship. We have no idea where it leads. It might be a random moment come and gone or it could be more significant. It's just an ambiguous moment brilliantly caught. And then the whole rest of the album (actually including the bonus tracks on the CD version) is pretty good too. Two mountains and a bunch of foothills. Do yourself a favor and don't forget this one exists.

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