Sunday, September 26, 2010
Tony Joe White - The Train I'm On (Warner Brothers, 1972; Sepia Tone, 2002)
While Tony Joe White's Monument recordings remain his most consistently excellent group of albums, he stands out among musicians from the 1960s who dealt with the changes of the 1970s on his own terms in a mostly successful manner. Well, until that self-titled abomination for 20th Century-Fox, that is. Be that as it may, we can forgive the Swamp Fox for that lapse in judgment because most of his records from the Me Decade are very good, especially the trio of LPs he did for Warner Brothers.
The Train I'm On is White's sophomore effort for that label and considerably more subdued than its predecessor, Tony Joe White. Some people might be disappointed by the almost complete lack of whomper stomper blasts and punchy horn charts on this album, especially considering the fact that it was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with production by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. But for those who enjoy the musician's more downhome acoustic material, this album is enthusiastically recommended. Andria Lisle's insightful booklet notes for the CD reissue state, "The Train I'm On addresses 'being at home and being a stranger.' These twelve songs explore the concept from all sides." I suppose there is a certain restless quality in several of these performances, and such a feeling predominates in many of the song's the lyrics that also feature White's distinctive cast of Southern characters. A friend of mine who has to be one of the singer's biggest fans once told me that this isn't the Tony Joe record you put on the turntable during a party, but instead is the one you play after it's over when the sun is just starting to come up.
The tender "I've Got a Thing About You Baby" might incorrectly lead you to believe that this affair is primarily going to be an exercise in swamp sensitivity. It's not, although the opening cut will definitely make a welcome addition to a playlist or old school mix tape for that special lady in your life. "The Family" is a poignant slice of life about a hard-luck Southern family like only Tony Joe can sing 'em, although writing credits go to John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins on this one. White's world-weary vocals contrast somewhat with the upbeat arrangements of the 1950s-rock-styled "If I Ever Saw a Good Thing," and those with a hankering for his bayou country-themed pieces should enjoy the atmospheric "Beouf River Road," in which the narrator graphically describes the loss of his farm to a flood. The yearning title track - with its lonely harmonica, whining pedal steel, and uplifting string section - finds the musician comfortably occupying sophisticated country territory, as does the similarly-arranged performance "The Migrant." The appealingly ridiculous "Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll" is the only number on which White really gets down. You can hear the whomper stomper, and this piece comes close to being outright funk, even if it still has a bit of an ominous vibe to it. There's that aforementioned restless quality apparent on the exquisite acoustically-picked "As the Crow Flies," whereas "Take Time to Love" simply veers too close to the dreaded "singer-songwriter sound" for this writer's ears. As restrained as it may be, the whomper stomper makes a welcome return on the engaging "300 Pounds of Hongry," an amusing tribute to a plus-sized woman that settles into a real nice goove. On the other side of the coin, "Sidewalk Hobo" may very well be the bleakest thing that Tony Joe ever recorded. Although not normally his bag, this is an extremely affecting performance. The joyous-sounding vocal arrangements that grace "The Gospel Singer" belie the fact that this is not a song of redemption. Rather, it's one of comeuppance, in which the main character gets what he deserves for religious hypocrisy.
1. I've Got a Thing About You Baby
2. The Family
3. If I Ever Saw a Good Thing
4. Beouf River Road
5. The Train I'm On
6. Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll
7. As the Crow Flies
8. Take Time to Love
9. 300 Pounds of Hongry
10. The Migrant
11. Sidewalk Hobo
12. The Gospel Singer