Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town


Jerry Lawson used to be the lead singer of the Persuasions. In a perfect world, I would not have to explain further. The Persuasions were an a cappella singing group, who astonished with their ability to sound like a full band when their only instrument was the human voice. With their roots in doo-wop, the Persuasions were together for 40 years, and the ventured into many different musical genres, but the only fitting description of the result was Persuasions music.

When the group finally called it quits, Jerry Lawson left the life of a musician behind, and decided to try leading a “normal” life. But the music called him back. Talk of the Town was an a cappella group who had been together for many years themselves, doing it purely for pleasure, with no recordings to their credit, and no thoughts of making any. One of Talk of the Town’s musical models was the Persuasions. By chance, Lawson heard them doing a live performance at a radio station one day, and went in and introduced himself. To make a long story short, the end result was this album.

The Persuasions’ sound had the bass line, the harmonies, and (usually) Jerry Lawson on lead vocals. The harmony singers would each have his own part, which could be picked out with careful listening. And the bass line was sung by a human voice, that sounded like it. Nevertheless, it often sounded like there were instruments in the mix, but there never were.

Talk of the Town was clearly influenced by this sound. But the harmony voices here blend more smoothly; it is far more difficult to pick out the individual parts. And the bass, Ray Ragler, really sounds more like a stand up bass than a human being; his sound is amazing. This is a group that can take songs from many genres, and make them their own. Lawson challenges himself, by learning jazz phrasing for Ray’s Rock House, and by dropping what he calls his “power voice” for some more subtle leads. The jazz influence is something that Talk of the Town brings into the mix; they sing their arrangement of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy without Lawson, in an arrangement that has long been in their repertoire.

Talk of the Town are adept at providing musical textures which perfectly fit the mood of the song. Lawson’s voice on top has a little grit to it, and the mix works beautifully. Talk of the Town can change the texture of a song while it is going on, to create shifts in mood. This technique is beautifully on display in Slow Hand. But most of these songs call for a consistent mood, and fewer textural shifts; Talk of the Town’s performance, and Lawson’s arrangements, deliver throughout.

There are some songs here with additional guest singers. This thickens the sound and creates additional depth and color. On God’s Gift to the World, these extra voices sing parts that form a gentle response to the other singers, and the remarkable effect is like a gentle tide of sound, ebbing and flowing. There also two notable guest lead vocals: Lawson’s daughter Yvette makes her recording debut on For the Love of You, and Lawson’s wife Julie duets with Jerry on the album’s closer, Side By Side. These are not simply vanity selections. The female Lawsons do not try to steal the show. Instead, each performs her song as a member of the group.

A full album of a cappella music can be hard to listen to all at once. The songs can all begin to sound the same, and the listener can get bored. So proper sequencing is essential. Lawson and company do a good job of mixing tempos and moods. And most of the song choices either make sense, or come as pleasant surprises when you hear the results. But no one will ever get me to like Islands in the Stream; this is probably the closest anyone will ever come.

I would have loved to hear what Lawson and Talk Of the Town would have come up with next; sadly, Ray Ragler, who Lawson calls, “the most talented bass man I’ve ever worked with”, passed on after the album was completed.

I don’t usually comment on this in my reviews, but I recommend buying this CD, rather than getting the tracks as downloads. That’s because the album comes with a 20 page booklet, filled with wonderful stories about how the album came to be. These stories are well worth the extra money you will pay for them. Having read how Lawson almost gave up a cappella music, and having heard the results of him changing his mind, I hope there is more a cappella music in Lawson’s future. And I hope he will let me know if there is.

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town: Ray‘s Rock House

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town: Slow Hand


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!