Bobbie Gentry – Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)

touch_27em_with_loveBy Michael Strait

She cedes the spotlight mostly to other songwriters on this one. Good thing she’s got great taste.

So, most of my reviews dealing with cover songs tend to compare and contrast ’em with the originals and/or other versions. That’d take me too long here, though, so I’m not gonna bother. Exactly 50% of this album is covers, and of the rest, only two are self-penned. That disappoints me a little, because Bobbie is one of my personal favourite songwriters, but I needn’t have worried too much – she’s not sung a bad song yet, and she’s not about to start now.

For the most part, this is a straightforward exploration of the soul end of Bobbie’s influences. The folk and blues stuff is mostly left by the wayside, though the fingerpicked “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – one of the aforementioned self-penned ones – isn’t too dissimilar from her earlier lush folk songs. Still, it doesn’t take long for all the smooth soul elements to come in and remind you that Bobbie, on this album at least, really didn’t want to be mistaken for a country singer anymore. The song is lovely, if not particularly memorable; the second of her songs on the album is far more likely to stick with you. “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” has one of her characteristically smart verse melodies and some of her most vividly visual lyrics, as well as brief, loud hook that stays memorable mostly on account of cleverly-built contrast with the verses. It always leaves me momentarily a little sad that she didn’t write more tunes on this thing, but truth be told it isn’t the best song on it anyway.

That honor, honestly, probably goes to the most obvious choice. “Son of a Preacher Man” was always one of my favourite songs in the endlessly-syndicated classic pop pantheon, and Bobbie’s take on it is stupendously excellent. That cool, badass riff that opens it sets the mood for the rest of the song, and the rhythm section maintains a strong, self-assured presence the whole way through as she sings those unforgettable melodies with her characteristic complete confidence. There’s no simpering dependence here, nor much weepy nostalgia; there’s just a woman proudly expressing her justly-earned love for a man who deserves it. I’m not a fan of the fadeout at the end, but other than that I’ve no complaints at all – it’s short, sure, but so is the original, so what can you do? The other super short track on the record, the title track, is similarly excellent and opens the album on a suitably arresting note. Bobbie didn’t write it, but I can see why she chose it – the hook comes swooping in out of nowhere in an incredibly memorable fashion in just the sort of clever way I can tell she really appreciated, and the lyrics, while a little nonsensical, are rife with the sort of intrinsically Southern religious imagery she loves. I also like how the guitar and organ take turns, on the first and second verse respectively, to do their little flourishes over the solid base that is the piano. The sonic variety on this album is a real treat.

There’s one more non-cover left on the first side, and it’s excellent. “Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere” manages to perfectly capture the strange mysticality of America’s vastness and the allure of losing one’s troubles in it. It strikes a difficult tone to hit – it’s regretful, especially the mournful, harmonica-assisted conclusion to the chorus, but it’s also full of undeniably yearning and not a little relief. That’s partly due to the excellent pacing – the way the hook is built up to and then segmented, cut apart by little instrumental moments – but also due to Bobbie’s excellent vocals, which manage to sound wistful in two ways at once, as if she simultaneously wants to be better at holding stable relationships together and wants to be going off somewhere and exploring. The first side is completed by “Natural To Be Gone”, which has possibly my favourite verse melody on the album and manages to throw in a softly cantering banjo in a way that doesn’t feel remotely out of place in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward smooth, string-based soul song. Bobbie was just as inventive an interpreter as a writer.

The only non-cover on side two is “I Wouldn’t Be Surprised”, which has a very nice choir and some passionately-banged drums but otherwise is probably one of the less essential tracks on here. It’s still good, of course, but it’s good in a kind of unsurprising way, which makes it a lesser effort as far as Bobbie goes. “Where’s The Playground, Johnny” does the same sort of things, but it does ’em better, with its smooth strings backing up a hook so melodramatic that it should by all rights sound kind of silly. It doesn’t, though – it sounds very pretty indeed, even if it clashes slightly with the worriedly metaphoric lyrics. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, meanwhile, is her shimmeringly pretty take on a song from a musical, and she delivers the simple, slightly kitschy lyrics with such conviction that it’s difficult not to be at least a little moved by them. Finally, we come to the closer, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, which has possibly the prettiest strings and most tasteful rhythm work on the album, not to mention that beautiful moment when the hook sort of holds off on attaining climax for a second, repeating the same string motif a couple of times in anticipation before it blossoms into a full-blown chorus. She really belts in this one, too, showing off the singing skills she’s usually been content to let play second fiddle to her songwriting and lyricism. It’s another display of her outstandingly well-rounded talent, in other words, which is basically the story of this whole album and, really, her entire career.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’d still rather be listening to an album of Bobbie originals, so for the most part I tend to play individual highlights from this record (especially “Son of a Preacher Man”) rather than throwing on the whole thing. But whenever I do, I certainly enjoy it, and that’s ‘cos there’s nothing to really not enjoy here. On its own merits, this album is lovely indeed, and it’s only twenty-six minutes long anyway so it’s not like it ever gets tiresome. I’d have more problems with Bobbie spending this section of her career singing other people’s songs if those songs weren’t all so good. I’m not entirely sure what she’s wearing on the cover, but whatever, man. When you’re Bobbie Gentry, you can dress how you like.

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