Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ray Charles - Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Just perusing over the Wikipedia entry for this album before listening to it, one gets a sense that there simply isn't a more influential album in the history of music than Modern Sounds. This is the album where Ray Charles, a black man, sang country, white man's music. In doing so, this album also elevated country music to levels of popularity, amongst both blacks and whites, that it had never achieved. So there's two groundbreaking impacts, but we're not done yet; not only did Charles bring black people (and more white people) to country music, he also brought white people to his (soul) music. Then besides the racial impact, there's also the musical impact; Charles reinterpreted country standards into his soulful style. Perhaps the entire genre cross-breeding bonanza of the late '60s that forever changed popular music as we know it owes a huge debt to Modern Sounds, too. Still, there's more. This brave album is a result of Ray Charles' assuming complete creative control over his material, reaching an individual liberty no popular musician had ever assumed before. And part of that complete control was this format: a thematically constructed album at a time when albums existed to collect singles and b-sides and re-sell them. While not the first cohesive album in this way, it certainly was the most popular to that time and, as the decade continued, the album slowly would supplant the single as the dominant musical art form. So Modern Sounds broke barriers in race relations, music business, and the artistry of pop music as well. How many other single albums can claim that kind of impact?

After all that mythologizing, it's almost easy to forget to actually listen to the songs that make up the album. Doing so, however, doesn't disappoint. This album isn't just influential; it's also pretty darn good, too.

Opening with a kick, "Bye Bye Love" introduces us to an album that may be constructed of country standards but doesn't sound like it. With horns blaring, Ray gets off to a jumping start. There's a reason its one of the better known songs from this set; it's a quick burst of musical glory that grabs the listeners' attention. Settling down from there into the warm groove of the album, "You Don't Know Me" is the next standard. Soulful, breezy, and yet draped with an aching sadness, it switches gears for the rest of the album as Charles tells us his big jazz band can saunter as well as it can hop.

From there, the album is pretty invincible to criticism. Charles' interpretive skill really shows no bounds as even the saddest, most string-laden schmaltz like "I Love You So Much it Hurts" still rings true. Going back-and-forth between Sinatra-esque orchestral balladry ("Worried Mind") and his own upbeat soulful swing ("Just a Little Lovin'"), nothing misses its mark. As each song comes and goes, the subtle infusions of genre experimentation elevate even the more average number into worthy listens. "It Makes No Difference Now" and "Careless Love", two down-tempo jazzy numbers, move like New Orleans brass band marches. Some of the ballads, including the hit single "I Can't Stop Loving You," feature an angelic-yet-ghostly choir singing under and opposite Charles' solo, providing effective counterpoint and variety.

Bringing it all to a close is the second Hank Williams cover, the rollicking standard, "Hey, Good Lookin'." As a fun, upbeat soul stomp, it pairs with "Bye Bye Love" to bookend the album. Compared to the other Williams cover (the lonesome-cowboy ballad of submission, "You Win Again") it's a handy synopsis of Modern Sounds as a whole: two disparate threads of music connected by a singular talent. Ray Charles was nicknamed the Genius for a pretty good reason, and for all the influence this album has had on the music of the last 50 years it's a testament to that nickname that it still sounds good on a first listen after all this time.

(Note: The Lala widget combines the album with it's sequel, Modern Sounds, Vol. 2. I haven't listened to it, save for the almost unrecognizable yet still cool cover of "You Are My Sunshine." The sequel starts with that one, as "Hey, Good Lookin'" is the last song on Vol. 1 proper.)


Anonymous said...

Hey man, We have this cranking through the THX surrround sound over at 53 Sears. Be well my friend

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