Sunday, November 28, 2010

Syl Johnson “Complete Mythology”

Both the title and voluminous liner notes to “Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology” reflect upon the Chicago soul veteran’s penchants for boasts and fanciful autobiography. However, recently Mr. Johnson has been pushing two points of pride at the expense of others.  Johnson is right to brag that he’s been sampled ad nauseum by rappers, deejays and Michael Jackson, and that he sired R. Kelly muse Syleena Johnson. But those achievements put on the back burner what should be the first fact concerning Syl Johnson: he’s one of the greatest artists in soul music history.
This hefty set makes that argument for him. The 81 tracks here, culled mostly from singles he did before his seventies stint at Memphis’ Hi Records, show that as a 50s bluesman, 60s R&B crooner, and bonafide 60s/70s soul master, Johnson had a profoundly distinctive voice. Floating between Southern rawness and Motown slickness, what really stands out is the way his tone and phrasing make notes seem to start down deep and pass through a mysterious filter before we get to hear them.  Thus, Johnson’s voice never bares his soul naked, but coyly hints he’s holding secret knowledge back, that mystery making every lyric more intriguing.
However much “Complete Mythology” redeems the soulful Syl, it would be disingenuous to say people will buy this just for the music. Following last year’s “Light on the Southside” multimedia set, Numero continues to establish the Coffeetable Record genre with this gorgeous set. A hefty slipcase contains a photo-packed book, a gatefold-LP style CD case holding 4 discs, and six LPs, two being reproductions of real records, the others being ridiculously real-looking imaginary LPs, with period design, vintage fonts, and fabricated liner notes from Chicago soul stalwarts like E. Rodney Jones and Clint Ghent. Between the stellar singing and the ridiculous excess of design, this boxset is far more hit than myth.
Which, if you’ll pardon my shitting on a colleague, made me kind of shocked to see it get a tepid review on Pitchfork, a mere 6.8 out of 10 for one of the best archival releases in years. While almost nothing writer Douglas Wolk says is technically inaccurate – Johnson could certainly be considered an “also ran,” some of the ultra-obscure low budget tracks included don’t feature stellar bands, and obviously Johnson, and no one else, is as good as James Brown (the subject of one of Wolk’s books). Yet to conclude that scores of inventive, funky tracks, dozens of amazing photos, an aesthetic orgasm of product design, and pages and pages of text celebrating a gloriously mad musical juggernaut deserves a mediocre mark falls somewhere between misguided and insane.
Disclosure time: I am a lifelong Chicago southsider, which in addition to loyalty to the White Sox, an aversion to gas grills, and an inborn sense of alternate traffic routes on Southside Irish and Bud Billiken parade days, means that Chicago soul is an intimate, almost familial, part of my world. I’ve been in the bank teller line behind Pops Staples, sat next to Jerry Butler at a restaurant, and saw Otis Clay, in sandals, walking his dog (sadly not the same dog from the “Trying to Live My Life Without You” record cover).
          I’m not making this list to boast (I honestly wish I could un-see Mr. Clay’s feet), but rather as an admission that I likely overinflate the magnitude and magic of Chicago soul stars, certainly feel more loyal to them than musicians from other regions, and realize that I have probably always seen Mr. Johnson as more of a superstar than he probably is. But even putting aside Chicago chauvinism, there are dozens of tracks here that completely confirm Mr. Johnson’s awesomeness. Certainly “Sorry ‘Bout That,” “Try Me,” “Dresses Too Short,” “Different Strokes,” “That Is Why,” “Come On Sock It Too Me,” “Half A Love,” “Don’t Give it Away,” and the other strongest tunes here can constitute 69 minutes of equal or better music than the 68:42 of Kanye West’s new album, which got a perfect Pitchfork 10. Perhaps points are docked for some of the less than thrilling early blues tracks, or for including instrumentals or alternate takes, but it’s a box set! Maybe they docked points because the vinyl and CDs repeated the same material, but taking exception there seems to ignore the joy and loving reverence that went into sequencing a bunch of weird, obscure singles into reasonable recreations of period albums, with enough intricate visual details to justify the collection’s high price.
            Wolk makes clear is that he really sees the weak material as too weak, and also that he feels Johnson was a “hit-chaser” and “trendspotter” rather than an innovator. As far as former stands, I really prefer the big picture one gets when compilations mine the ore and find both unjustly and justly obscure obscurities – especially when all tracks feature with an instrument as fine as Johnson’s voice.
            But as for the latter charge, here is where I think proximity genuinely helps. It’s easy to see how all these dance tunes, namechecks (of James Brown, Johnny Taylor, and others), answer songs, period-mandated protest songs, and musical exploitations of the latest slang seem like trendspotting and hit-chasing, and of, course, that’s totally true. However anyone who has seen Syl Johnson live a few times, had the confounding pleasure of having a circular, disjointed conversation with him, or heard an array of Syl stories (only hinted at in the fine liner notes) would know that Mr. Johnson is the incredibly rare artist that can go through the motions of pandering without ever actually pandering. Even in his full-on, tourist blues club, make-the-white-folks-laugh, audience participation mode Johnson never gives any ground or loses any dignity.  His force of personality, sense of self, and what some might call craziness, never concedes anything, and it’s not really pandering if you don’t care what the audience thinks of you. To my ears, on 45 rpm vinyl Johnson pulls off the same trick, infusing what could come off as hackwork into something weirdly special.
            I’m surprised Wolk (whose James Brown book I like) doesn’t hear this, but so it goes. I don’t own Numero stock, and don’t have any professional stake in the success of the release, so I can only assume my defensiveness here is just my hometown pride being bruised a little. Fortunately I have a couple hundred minutes of magical music at the fingertips to soothe my bruise. 

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