Friday, December 18, 2009

"Tell It Like It Is" / Aaron Neville

I finally got to see Pirate Radio the other day -- went by myself to an afternoon showing down in the East Village, only two other people in the theater -- this movie seems doomed for obscurity. I loved it, though. How could I not love a movie with "All Day and All Of the Night" blasting over the opening credits?

Along with all the British Invasion classics on the soundtrack -- the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield, the Hollies, the Troggs, the Tremeloes, the Easybeats -- there was loads of American music of the era as well. I came straight home from the movie intent on downloading Otis Redding's super-soulful "These Arms of Mine." But then I got lost wandering around the archives of early 60s soul; when I woke up, this Aaron Neville song was glued to my brain instead.

Not that I'm complaining. Forget the Neville Brothers; I love Aaron's small-label stuff from the early 60s. Everybody covered this song eventually -- Percy Sledge, George Benson, Etta James, even Otis himself -- but Aaron's original 1966 recording is still the definitive version. Note how the low-fi production values muted Neville's distinctive vocal stutter, so it was just texture instead of an annoying tic.

Aaron's tenor vocal coats this song in caramel, skimming lightly over unstressed words, hitting the main verbs and nouns like a hammered dulcimer. That langorous beat is the ultimate slow dance tempo, yet the lyrics follow the rhythms of conversation (it's only one step from here to Barry White's bedroom murmur). He's speaking intimately to his lover, chiding her: "If you want / Something to play with / Go and find yourself a toy / Baby my time / Is too expensive / And I'm not a little boy." That last line dives right into sexiness; sure, his voice is high as a boy's, but that trembling quaver tells you he's got a man's passion, and he will not be denied.

The saying "Tell it like it is" got picked up as the Sixties wore on, becoming a political catch-phrase, but in this song, it seems like the singer's speaking out not from courage but from desperation. He oscillates back and forth between accusing ("If you are serious / Don't play with my heart / It makes me furious") and cajoling ("But if you want me to love you / Then a baby I will, / Girl you know that I will"). This girl is driving him crazy. He may be playing the lord and master, but she's the one who holds the cards.

In the bridge, he falls back on the tried-and-true carpe diem argument that men have used for centuries to lure a woman into bed: "Life is too short to have sorrow / You may be here today and gone tomorrow / You might as well get what you want / So go on and live, baby go on and live." Horns moan in the background, cranking up the temperature.

So what is it that makes this song so sexy? Sure, there's the emotive tremor of Aaron Neville's vocal, but don't overlook that lagging stroll tempo, the shuffling drums, or those repeated unresolved chords, holding off chord resolution time and again, while desire builds underneath. He's quivering on the threshold, like a time bomb set to go off. Speed the thing up and you lose it; get too raw and raunchy and you've lost it again. Listening to this song, I am reminded that soul music first got its name from the deep emotion it expressed. I grew up on the slick products of Motown -- and I'll never stop loving them -- but man, this is the real thing: A guy, a girl, and raging hormones. That's telling it like it is.


wwolfe said...

The whole "Tell It Like It Is" album is terrific, with "Over You" and the truly goofy "Sapceman" being standouts. One of the best features of the title track is the simple, single strum of electric guitar that starts each measure. The way it hangs in the air each time makes it seem like funeral bell tolling, or maybe like a guillotine's ax suspended over someone's neck - the singer's? the object of his affection? - that's poised to fall. Terrific record.

Holly A Hughes said...

Yes, I see exactly what you mean about that guitar strum -- nice touch! This album certainly is fantastic.

Holly A Hughes said...

Aha -- I knew it! I got a chance to see Pirate Radio again, and no matter what the soundtrack says, "Tell It Like It Is" is very definitely the song I wanted to download when I came out of the movie.