Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Everly Brothers (1958)



It's no Here's Little Richard or The "Chirping" Crickets, but Phil and Don Everly's debut album may come closest of them all amongst the grand '50s rockers to craft something that we'd now think of as a modern rock LP. Varied but cohesive in mood, carefully paced with peaks scattered, and nearly absent of filler, the album is a strong and consistent listen that goes far beyond the typical structure of hit followed by filler. Of course, the hits do put everything in their shadow, but what's surprising is how few of them are here. Of the Everlys' ten Cadence singles, only the first two A and B-sides were ever included on an LP. That says something, something vaguely prophetic, about the sheer volume of strong material they had at their disposal.

"Bye Bye Love" enters with its earthshaking, heartstopping intro three tracks in, the entire song's hopping, grandiose desperation jutting out from its surroundings on the first half. The first of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's extraordinary contributions to the Everlys, it remains one of the most striking, spirited songs about heartbreak in the entire rock idiom. The bigger miracle about it, of course, is the same fusion of ideas that carries over to the record as a whole: flavored with country but inescapably something else, clearly and unreservedly influenced and driven by rhythm & blues but not speaking in its vernacular, it's the definition of music that can be defined exclusively as rock & roll. The same goes for the Bryants' followup, "Wake Up Little Susie," a thinly veiled, mortified virginity loss anthem about what the young couple will do when their folks find out.

The Bryants surprisingly provide only one other composition here, the mournfully sung "Brand New Heartache," marked most strongly by its sweetly chiming guitar lines. The couple's interludes here are evenly matched by three of the Everlys' own songs, all three of them more impressive than cultural memory has allowed. "Maybe Tomorrow" displays an emotional maturity and confidence far beyond what one would expect for their second Cadence 45, a stirring ballad lifted by a vocal and melody as shattering as anything on the two hits. "Should We Tell Him," in the meantime, is full-on country with excellent lead guitar work, its radicalism defined by its seating on the same slab of vinyl with non-neutered Ray Charles and Little Richard songs.

It is "I Wonder If I Care as Much," though, that makes the sheer incongruity of the Everly Brothers' entrance into the marketplace seem most pronounced. Not merely a folk song but an unrestrained (and beautifully written) Appalachian ballad, and far beyond the fashionably rustic hits of the time, this is raw, unkempt Carter Family stuff (with a bit of Leadbelly), graceful and audacious within the context of supposed teenage music. The duo's Kentucky hearts and their rock & roll persuasions are powerful because they are both irreducible. When they hit the chorus and sing "wonder if I keer as much," it is to lose one's breath at the capability of early rock & roll to transfer so much that is disparate into a seamless whole.

The six covers that occupy the other half of The Everly Brothers give a closer idea of the group's evolutionary track. "Hey Doll Baby" is a bright enough performance that is firmly in the conventional folk camp, and Gene Vincent's "Be Bop a Lula" comes off rote and generic in their rendering, so we disregard those and end up with two songs each by Little Richard and Ray Charles. The former's songs seem to make the Everlys slightly nervous, a tension they ultimately would learn to use to their advantage (especially on "Lucille," not included here), but as of "Rip It Up," they're still changing "and ball tonight" to "have a ball tonight" and thus losing much of the song's crucial debauchery. "Keep a Knockin'" points the way forward in an appropriately pensive revision that works well in context with "Wake Up Little Susie." Charles' songs, though, are the unlikely perfect match for the Brothers' sensibilities -- opener "This Little Girl of Mine" is convincingly exuberant, and by "Leave My Woman Alone" they have learned to give a song a full enough stylistic transition that a Ray Charles classic sounds like one of their own tunes.

This debut LP made merely a fraction of the impact that the Everlys' Cadence singles did, but there's a sense in which the lack of fanfare afforded these songs allows them to feel new again. In recent years, this record has found a large audience and become a minor classic, a just conclusion for it -- the fan of the Brothers' more famous sides who hears this gains the wonderful position of feeling stopped in time and hearing what amount to new songs from this storied first decade of these two masters, and of rock & roll at its peak.

Cadence Classics: Their 20 Greatest Hits (1957-60)
Walk Right Back (Warner Years) (1960-69)

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