Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day Ten: Leon Russell & Marc Benno [The Asylum Choir] - Asylum Choir II


Shelter Records ■  SW-8910

Released November 15, 1971
(Recorded April, 1969, originally intended for release that year)

Produced by Leon Russell and Marc Benno

Side One:Side Two:
  1. Sweet Home Chicago
  2. Down on the Base
  3. Hello Little Friend
  4. Salty Candy
  5. Tryin' to Stay Alive
  1. ...Intro to Rita...
  2. Straight Brother
  3. Learn How to Boogie
  4. Ballad for a Soldier
  5. When You Wish upon a Fag
  6. Lady in Waiting
This is basically cheating, in a sense. While Look Inside the Asylum Choir was originally credited to "The Asylum Choir", though when its cover art changed it was credited to "Leon Russell and Marc Benno" as this album is. Of course, the labels on that release actually still said "Asylum Choir". Anyway, the point is, this might technically belong in the "R" section of my alphabet, but out of respect to the original album, I keep it in the A's--sort of a goofy talisman toward eventually pairing it with its sibling-release. Except in the CDs--there I keep it next to the rest of Russell's solo output. Which is also where I file One for the Road, credited to Leon and Willie Nelson, as well as The Union, his album from two years back with Elton John. Nothing against Elton or Willie, I just like Leon more (most places file them by the other artists, who are more popular).

If you check out that first link I dropped, you'll find me talking about both Asylum Choir albums a while back. This is the first of my "extensive collection of a single artist" examples, of which more can be found later on in the alphabet, and that is a decent part of why I've already talked about it (and Leon on numerous occasions).

The album was actually recorded long before its release and was only tied up for legal reasons that prevented its release at the time. Despite that, it bears far more resemblance to Leon's solo records (such as his self-titled one from 1970) than it does to the extremely psychedelic and almost Mothers-y¹ sound of Look Inside the Asylum Choir, which was recorded in '67 and released in '68. While many groups or acts, particularly those composed of groups of distinct voices often take sophomore releases as cause to expand their session lineups, Benno and Russell continued to just play the entire set with each other and no one else.

"Sweet Home Chicago" and "Down on the Base" are the semi-swampy (odd for an Okie and a Texan!) sound that defines a lot of Leon's solo work, with soul-based touches like backing vocals that sound like Marc's voice pitch-shifted to resemble the backing vocals you might hear in some soul work from the same time frame. Marc's guitar is in fine form on the opener, and is appealingly clear but simple in the followup, finger picked and sliding up and down the neck to the light thump of the bass, as Leon's vocals and piano keys dominate the song. "Hello Little Friend" is one of the handful of songs with a writing credit solely given to Leon, and is one of those most reminiscent (if you will) of his later solo work.

"Salty Candy" brings us back more to Look Inside territory, with Marc taking over vocal duties for the first half of each voice, with fiddle accents and effect-laden guitar echoing in the back. "Tryin' to Stay Alive" has a bit of a false start, which Leon seems to be a fan of doing, and has a nice long instrumental intro. The two of them layer background vocals to give the song another soul twist.

Side Two is significantly longer than Side One, (20:08 versus 13:48) and contains the peculiar bit of "studio chatter" that is Leon asking for the preferred feel of two piano riffs from an unidentified female voice--probably Rita Coolidge, if the tracks's title ("...Intro to Rita...") is any indicator. She identifies one of the riffs as "Straight Brother", which the side launches into immediately thereafter. "Straight Brother" is groove oriented, heavy on the low end and pounding on the rhythmic end. "Learn How to Boogie" is almost exactly what you would expect: boogie piano! It dances along happily, with semi-muffled lead bits from Marc on guitar behind it. "Ballad for a Soldier" is somewhat reminiscent of The Association's "Requiem for the Masses" in its subject matter, but entirely different in all other respects. The song has Leon's trademark upbeat, rollicking piano and is told from the point of view of a soldier, who is puffed up by military movies and the idea of heroics, but finds the reality significantly different, intoning the notion that "we haven't really won/till all the fighting's done/and there are no more ballads for the soldiers". 

"When You Wish upon a Fag," it should relieve many to know, uses the word in the song as follows: "When your bass player's flat and your drummer drags/I bet you wish you had a fag". It seems to balance both the risk--starting the song with "Caution may be harmful to your heart and to your health," and the chorus making it clear that--yeah, man, it's bad for you, but I could sure go for one right now, as it would be a real relief. "Lady in Waiting" closes the album with a waltzing rhythm, and the last of Russell's string of solo writing credits (all three songs ending the album). 

As implied by the fact that I own a lot of Leon Russell, this is a really good album. There's a lot of crossover in feel around this album and Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which was actually released the same year--and not only starts with a song about location ("Stranger in a Strange Land") but actually has "Home Sweet Oklahoma", which is about Leon's actual home and is titled not far away from the opener of this album. If you aren't familiar, Leon does have a distinct (some say grating) voice, and his accent is far from hidden: "heard" becomes "hoid", and "candy" has an exaggerated vowel: "caindy". That appreciation of origin is somewhat unusual, as his sentiments do not reflect those that his home is known for at all, though Leon's been an openly religious man, at least (which is very much in keeping with the state's public face)--his politics are somewhat counter. But then, he was a wild-haired, bearded session musician in the 1960s, so perhaps that's not entirely unexpected.

¹That's the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa's band in the 60s and periodically thereafter.
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