Recording of August 1994: Blues for Thought
PointBlank/Charisma/Virgin 39064 2 (CD only). Ry Cooder, prod.; Mark Ettel, eng. AAD? TT: 49:18
Terry Evans and Bobby King sang backing (and some lead) vocals for Ry Cooder for years in the studio and on the road. Cooder returned the favor a few years back by producing Live and Let Live!, the duo's first album on their own. It was a stunner: punchy, gutbucket blues and R&B with vocals pitched at a level of commitment unrivaled until Mighty Sam McClain came along last year. Did Live and Let Live! sound good? Recorded live in the studio, you could see Jim Keltner's kickdrum inching across the floor in retreat from his relentless foot. Vocals from heaven, great playing, and palpability personified, on LP or CD—a true R2D4, a true audiophile rock/blues album, and a great time—period. (Take all that as a "Yes!")
Evans admits that their self-produced second album, Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves, wasn't as good. He and King fell into most of the pitfalls awaiting fledgling producers: over-processed sound, over-florid arrangements, over-overdubbing, over-production all around. Great singing, and Cooder showed up again to play on almost every track, but RBS&G just didn't click.
Now comes Terry Evans's first solo album, again produced by Cooder, and it's even better than Live and Let Live!. Evans, who grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, is a big guy with a voice to match. He can hoot'n'holler on low and dirty blues like "Natcha Bone Lover," or croon as smooth and sweet as the blackest molasses—with a blackstrap-bitter edge—on ballads like "That's the Way Love Turned Out for Me." Evans sings an impassioned "Too Many Cooks" (Willie Dixon) to Cooder's clacking, dangerously lurching arrangment, and can write effectively in the style of Dixon himself ("Shakespeare Didn't Quote That"). Evans was, by far, the stronger, more prolific writer of the Evans/King duo, and it shows here. He writes like he sings—his songs have the authority of sounding as if they've been around forever.
There's one absolutely astounding performance: After some of the dirtiest, meanest wah-wah Cooder's ever played, Evans stutters in like someone who's seen the bottoms of too many bottles, demanding of his woman: "Get Your Lies Straight." The sheer menace of violence held in restraint here (though there's no restraint at all in Cooder's guitar work) makes this one of the most powerful blues performances I've heard since, well, Mighty Sam. That Evans then expands his demand to be told the truth, first to TV politicians, then to himself, makes the song even more powerful.
Though it's his name and face on the cover, Evans thinks of Blues for Thought as a 50-50 collaboration with Cooder: "We refer to this as our album." So it's fitting that Blues for Thought opens with "Too Many Cooks," which warns of the dangers of too many collaborators. Like any good cook, Cooder knows that half the work is in finding the finest ingredients. He's done that for Evans in booking old cronies Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham, Larry Taylor, and Hutch Hutchinson. It should be no surprise that Cooder's own guitar work—whether chicken-scratchin', or slide in the style of Buddy Emmons or Robert Johnson—is impeccably, rough-edgedly right every time. All he had to do then was make sure everyone played simple and straight, and that he captured it the same way so we could hear every note in all its breadth and depth.
He's done it. The album has a primarily acoustic feel, regardless of the electric instruments played on every track—another Cooder trademark. Cooder also knows when to give a positive, uplifting track a dark edge—like the Paramount Singers' minor-key gospel harmonies on the otherwise sunny "Live, Love and Be Friends." And throughout the entire album, Evans's vocals are well-nigh perfectly recorded: big, smooth, full, and smack dab in the middle of what sounds like a good-sized room cozy with simpatico musicians. It's not only the mark of a great high-end rig that it sounds good at any playback level—it's also the mark of a well-produced recording. This one does that—any volume level is the right one.
I hereby promise to buy not only any record that sports TERRY EVANS in big type, but also any disc whose fine print says Produced by Ry Cooder. Evans is a monster singer. Cooder is a killer producer. Recording of the Month? At least.—Richard Lehnert