Friday, July 11, 2014

Down in the Boondocks - Billy Joe Royal

Down in the Boondocks
Billy Joe Royal
Columbia CL 2403

I was disappointed by this when I first picked it up.  Given that the album was produced by Joe South and largely written by him I was hoping it would be country-rock or blue-eyed soul with swampy overtones but what I heard instead sounded sappy to me.  Only the title tune (which was a top ten single) impressed me much.  After a few spins I appreciated the album better although I still wish it had a rawer sound without the strings and background singers.  Joe South wrote six of the twelve songs on the record and they are among the most worthwhile cuts.  The title track is a hugely catchy tune that offers a classic tale of class conflict and romance.  The second best song is "I Knew You When" which has an expressive vocal from Royal and it is bolstered by a powerful, soaring arrangement with a rhythm and blues feel to it.  "I've Got to Be Somebody" is almost as good.  It is about a guy who finds ambition when he falls in love.  The song has a terrific urgency to it, particularly in the chorus.  In this case the background singers and strings give the song extra oomph instead of dragging it down.  It is a real winner.  South's other three songs are not nearly as good.  "Pollyanna" is poppy but sounds old-fashioned with its heavy strings and choir, it reminds me of the Four Seasons.  "Leaning on You" is also heavily arranged and dramatic, it sounds like Burt Bacharach.  "My Fondest Memories" is pure mush.  This is also the case with Marty Cooper and Ray Whitley's "Heartaches and Teardrops" which is one of the songs that irked me the most when I first played this record.  However it is well-crafted and effectively sung by Royal and if you have a taste for sentimental pop, you will probably like it more than I do.  Freddy Weller's "Those Railroad Tracks in Between" shamelessly rehashes the title tune, but it is one of the stronger tunes on the record.  Weller played guitar on the album and went on to join Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1967.  Tommy Roe's "King of Fools" wallows in self-pity and is the sappiest song on the record.  The three covers are all duds.  Royal is not the right guy for Willie Nelson's classic "Funny How Time Slips Away."  It sounds weak and trite in his version.  He is a skilled singer but the song needs more bite.  This is equally true of Royal's high quavery vocal on Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away" which pales in comparison to Hughes' soulful original performance.  He delivers the Dells' "Oh What a Night" in an uptempo version that is the most propulsive song on the record, but robs the song of the drama and atmosphere of the original version.  For me, the three first rate Joe South songs make this album worth having, but more discerning record buyers might want to just stick with the 45 of the title track unless you have a thing for the pre-British Invasion pop music of the early 1960s.  Recommended to fans of Gene Pitney.  

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