Fresh taste of the '70s is sweet, sour

SOUNDS ADVICE

October 10, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

At one point early on in the novel "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator describes how the taste of a madeleine -- a small, sweet cake -- soaked in tea so suffused him with pleasure that all the petty annoyances of everyday life seemed to melt away before him. It was as if he'd been whisked away to the Sunday mornings of his youth, sipping lime tea in his aunt's house in

Combray.

But only for a moment; by his third mouthful, the potion began to lose its power. Soon, the magical madeleine was just a sweet cake to be eaten with tea, and Proust's narrator was once again mired in the present. That's typical of the way the mind works. Go back to some of the albums you swooned over in your youth, and often as not you'll find (as Proust's narrator did) that the thing itself is nowhere near as special as the memories that swirl in its wake. It isn't that we've necessarily grown wiser; it's just that tastes change, fads pass, and not all pleasures endure.

What brings all this to mind is the heap of reissues that turned up in the mail recently. Unlike the first wave of CD reissues, which emphasized historical recordings (vintage jazz, pre-war blues and the like) or classics from the '50s and '60s, this current crop focuses on a more recent period in pop music history: the '70s.

For instance, there's the Warner Archives series, which has resurrected old albums by the Faces, Tower of Power and Maria Muldaur. Or CEMA's The Right Stuff program, which sifts through the Hi Records catalog to reclaim old albums by Al Green and Ann Peebles. Even the tiny Razor & Tie label has been at work, quietly converting old punk and new wave albums to the CD format.

At first, this flood of half-forgotten albums was exhilarating. Opening the packages and seeing these titles -- many of which hadn't crossed my mind in years -- left me awash in memories. It was like running into friends who hadn't been seen in years yet somehow all looked the same.

Where to start? Choosing almost at random, Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" (Hi 27121) was pulled from the stack and slipped into the CD player. And then: bliss.

Unlike Proust's madeleine, the pleasures of "Let's Stay Together" didn't fade with repetition. Granted, some of this had to do with the fact that digital remastering has significantly improved the album's sound, lending the music a depth and transparency the LP never had.

But that wouldn't have mattered if the music itself didn't hold up, and hold up it does. The performances producer Willie Mitchell pulls from the Hi Rhythm section, from the churning, tom-tom pulse of the title tune to the terse throb of "So You're Leaving," are enough to make Booker T. & the MG's seem like Memphis' second-best groove band.

As for Green, it's hard to find sufficient superlatives. There are times, as on "What Is This Feeling," when his voice almost slips sideways into the blues, flatting the notes until they seem as otherworldly as a muezzin's wail; there are also moments, like in the chorus to "I've Never Found a Girl," when his singing takes on a exuberance that almost surpasses the ecstatic release found in his gospel singing. And when he gets to "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," his singing reveals emotions the BeeGees never dreamed were there.

Nor did the other Green albums disappoint. "Green Is Blues" (Hi 67102) may not be one of his greatest efforts, but it has its share of pleasures, including a wonderfully slow and sensual version of the Box Tops hits "The Letter." And though his slow-simmering rendition of the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You" is easily the best moment on "Al Green Gets Next to You" (Hi 66709), his near-total rethink of the Doors' "Light My Fire" is a treat in itself.

Maybe it was just the Hi Records approach that did it. An album like Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain" (Hi 66712), for instance, would hardly seem the likeliest of classics. Yet hearing it again, I was stunned at the reach of its emotions and the depth of its groove.

Peebles was by no means a soul powerhouse -- with a tart, rubbery voice that sounds like a cross between Al Green and Leslie Uggams, she made her point more through understatement than any show of vocal force. Yet the emotional power she brings to these songs is astonishing. Whether it's the soul-weary ache conveyed in the title tune or the dark determination expressed in "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," Peebles' singing has the kind of power and immediacy that doesn't diminish with time.

It would have been great if every album in the pile had aged as well as those, but I knew that wouldn't be the case. What I didn't expect, though, was which albums would bear up, and which wouldn't.

Back in 1977, for example, most punk fans would have laughed at the notion that the Tom Robinson Band would turn out to be one of the era's more enduring acts. Indeed, the group barely lasted three albums, with Robinson going solo in 1981.

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