The name Maria Muldaur conjures up images of a ravishingly beautiful Italian-American whose quirky voice on the suggestive hit "Midnight at the Oasis" defined the discotheque sound of the 70s before it became "disco." After smashing early success, which included four albums in five years, Ms. Muldaur dropped below radar range for most of us. When I first saw her name attached to Telarcs Meet Me Where They Play the Blues, I assumed she had made a comeback album. Little did I know Ms. Muldaur has been a working musician for over three decades, doing guest appearances and back-up vocals on dozens of albums.
In fact, Meet Me Where They Play the Blues, is her third recording for Telarc, and for old-times sake I wish it were better. Song selection is interesting (except for the first two cuts), the studio musicians are top-notch and Muldaur seems to have a grasp of "cool blues," as the albums style of music is characterized. Why then is the recording less than the sum of its parts?
Perhaps, the albums original concept was sabotaged by the untimely death of Charles Brown, a creator of cool blues, to whom the album was dedicated and who was to sing and play piano in his own honor. Browns rapid decline during the production phase required setting up a mini-studio in his nursing home and recording him there. His duet with Muldaur on "Gee, Baby, Aint I Good to You," offers a glimpse of a recording that should have been but wasnt.
Secondly, the album seems overly constrained, even by cool-blues standards. It starts off lifelessly with the soporific songs "Soothe Me" and "I Wanna Be Loved," back to back, leading to a cumulative listlessness which the rest of the album struggles to overcome. Cut three, which dubs in the voice of soon-to-be-deceased Mr. Brown, ups the temperature somewhat, while the next song, "It Aint the Meat, Its the Motion," is a frustrating near-miss. Interestingly, Muldaur recorded the same tune in 1974 before she became a Christian singer. I wish I had the earlier album on hand to compare the two songs for carnality.
Track seven, John Hiatts "It Feels Like Rain," features Muldaur at her current best, with a hint of the smoldering seductress. However, even this cut, which could have been a contender, peters out instead of peaks out. This raises a third speculation why the album seems constricted. Maybe 30 years of singing have taken their toll on Muldaurs larynx. Her voice could be too frail to accompany big dynamics and hot playing. The sidemen tiptoe around her vocals and the arranger avoids the big finish wherever possible. If theres no "belt" left in the well-used voice, maybe Muldaur should consider a less purist approach to recording and reach for a more commercial sound, á la Cher. (Just kidding.) Actually, I think a honkier-tonk piano and a raunchier guitar would have served her grainy vocals better than the super-clean accompaniment on this outing.
Although I have long admired Telarcs classical recordings, this was my first exposure to their popular music efforts. I hope future such releases will adopt a slightly more hang-loose approach. It would be wonderful if Telarcs high production values could coalesce with unrestrained playing and singing to provide a five-square listening experience. As for Muldaurs Blues album, Im sorry to say it feels like rain to me.
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