Perfect Sound Forever

Carol Hall on Elektra Records

By Kurt Wildermuth

"She is one of the best writers I've ever heard. Her songs are beautiful and unmistakably her own, with the paradoxical unpredictability and haunting familiarity of real and creative imagination." --Kris Kristofferson

When Carol Hall died in 2018, she was remembered as a songwriter, with good reason. In the mid-1970's, she had written for Marlo Thomas's groundbreaking TV special and album Free to Be ...You and Me and its sequel, Free to Be...A Family. She also contributed to Sesame Street. In 1978, she won Drama Desk Awards as composer and lyricist of the hit Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which became a movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. Her songs had been recorded by, among others, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and Frederica von Stade.

More of a footnote in the farewells were Hall's two albums as a singer-songwriter: If I Be Your Lady and Beads and Feathers, released by Elektra Records in 1971 and '72 respectively. If you're a collector of folk-pop-rock LP's of the period, you may find these albums secondhand, maybe in a thrift store or used-record shop. That's the experience journalist Charles Donovan describes in his interview with Hall, done at the end of her life. In framing Hall's final statements on that period and her craft generally, Donovan made his heartfelt case for the world to revisit her two Elektra albums. To the best of my knowledge--and I mean no disrespect to Donovan--the world did not accept the invitation.

Shortly before Hall died, I found those albums in my local charity thrift shop. From afar, they looked cheesy yet possibly worth hearing. I took a chance on them because the folk-pop-rock of that time presents fascinating combinations of clarity and fuzziness, of sophistication and naivete, and because both records bore the vintage green Elektra label, with the butterfly And, truth be told, because they each cost a dollar. In those days, Elektra's roster included such diverse and major figures as Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, The Incredible String Band, The Doors, Love, MC5, Stooges, Nico, and Carly Simon. If it's vintage Elektra, it's going to be interesting. And so here I am, another proud owner of Carol Hall's two Elektra albums, about to restate or reinforce the case that these records deserve the world's attention.

If you're intrigued, you can, as of this writing, go to YouTube and listen to all of If I Be Your Lady and a few cuts from Beads and Feathers. You'll have to settle for those mostly decent-sounding files made from old LP's. But if you're not satisfied by that experience and you don't own a turntable, you won't be able to hear this music as it was meant to be heard. In other words, and given the rediscoveries of marginalized female singer-songwriters such as Judee Sill and Vashti Bunyan, it's time for a history-conscious record label to lovingly remaster and reissue Hall's albums, whether as digital files or vinyl or a CD, where both will fit.

(As Charles Donovan notes, images--Hall's dated image--will be a problem. It's as though Elektra used up all its sexy energy on Carly Simon and chose to make Hall look dowdy and hazy, positioning Judy Collins somewhere between Simon and Hall.)

Hall's life didn't include the tragedy of Judee Sill's or the mystery of Vashti Bunyan's. If it had, she might be a cult favorite, with her Elektra albums revered as the two gems produced under pressure put on this fragile talent, or something like that. But no; Hall lived into old age, and her youthful music was extremely self-assured. She doesn't sound pressured. Her debut displays the relaxed grace of an artist not needing to prove anything, and her affect deepens on the second record. Perhaps that was her music's problem in terms of the marketplace--its sense of an artist not so much reaching out to draw the listener in as holding steady and giving something the listener was welcome to take or leave. She worked within conventional boundaries yet risked chances that subtly challenged the boundaries.

Hall's music won't be a revelation if you've heard Laura Nyro, Buffy Sainte-Marie, or (and I say this as a huge fan but at the risk of alienating many) Yoko Ono at her most melodic (and she can be highly melodic). The sounds could be heard as a time capsule from the early '70s, setting a template for the later excursions of Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, Victoria Williams, Maria McKee, Fiona Apple and Lucy Dacus. But as those comparisons suggest, Hall's singing is the essence of sincerity, straightforward expression, yet it sometimes, especially at the ends of lines, takes flight in curves, swoops, drags, and shouts. These effects hint at distance and irony. Her voice isn't "out there" enough to qualify as "outsider," but it's singular enough for the music's obscurity to make sense.

However, Hall's success in the theater also makes sense, and not just because her delivery can be theatrical. Her lyrics tell stories--quick ones, slices of life--not through narrative but between declarative lines. Her characteristic lyric addresses someone, such as a lover, friend, or relative.

If I Be Your Lady consists of short songs of inventive chamber pop performed by Hall and top-notch folk and jazz players. At times it conjures the Left Banke fronted by Julie Andrews, and I mean that as a compliment. In its title track, the album's single, an independent woman addresses a potential castle-builder: "If I be your lady / What will you be"? On "Why Be Lonely?" faux-baroque keyboard accompanies a newspaper-coupon invitation to join a singles club: "We can match you to a compatible friend / Who's lonely too / Price includes hors d'oeuvres." Bluesy horns cushion the bittersweet regret of "Baby, If We Had time," a sign-off to a married lover: because there isn't time to "teach you all I know ...Won't you walk with me just a little while?"

In "Who Will Dance with the Blind Dancing Bear" --the Hall track most likely to surprise jaded ears--a barker presents a show animal that evokes Kafka's hunger artist: "Who will move to his captive refrain? ...Who will move if he cries out in pain? ...Hold him as tight as you possibly can." Vibes usher in "Miss McKinley," where a most likely African-American mother addresses her young son, explaining that his father has "died so far away keep us free," and that while she irons for Miss McKinley, "someday you'll be a man / and make a better way." "Let Me Be Lucky This Time" is swinging gospel, in which the singer asks God to let her prospective relationship prosper: "I got a lot of old sorrow in me / But maybe tomorrow I'll be lucky." "Jenny Rebecca," slowed-down, skeletal, with a touch of salsa (listen for it!), is addressed to a four-day old girl who has "swings to be swung on ...dreams to be daring for."

Beyond addresses, there's the surreal mindscape of "The Crooked Clock," with a keyboard-and-strings arrangement that takes unexpected dissonant detours. Also unexpected, in "Goodbye, Jasper," is the contrast between the music's sunshine pop and Hall's intense, Broadway-belting delivery. All's not shiny and bright within these scenarios. In "The Ceiling Song," the singer is "in the city now, I don't breathe the air." In "Crazy Marinda," "You look up one day / and she's gone away.... She's a witch, I think." Finally, "Ain't Love Easy" retraces the path that brought the singer to her "true love": "never thought I'd get off that lonely road I was travelin' on ...If it had to be that way / All I got to say / Is ain't life easy?" (This song was covered nicely by Olivia Newton-John and superbly by the Partridge Family.)

Beads and Feathers places Hall's piano-based ballads in more of a Carole King setting. The band consists of folk-country-soul musicians, including members of Muscle Shoals, and while tastefully restrained, the sound is more organic than on the more "arranged"-sounding debut. Hall's vocals--assured, prominent, a bit husky, a bit dusky--convey an anger-tinged wistfulness for time past and opportunities lost, such as when the singer asks her grandmother, "Were you scared / Of growing old?" Half the songs are portraits: "Carnival Man" ("And when he left, some folks said he was no good / But folks, I got memories"), "Sandy" ("I would lie beneath his sunburned hands"), "Sunday Lady" ("Wears her beads and feathers / And paints on a great big smile"), "Nana" ("She speaks of Daddy / Calls him the baby"), an unnamed couple ("Scared to death to stay together / Scared to death to walk out free"). One address, "Hello My Old Friend," reads as well on the page as it sounds set to music that swirls like windblown autumn leaves:

I hear Jac had a wild
Crazy scheme to get rich
And damned if it didn't work out
And Alice ran off to see Africa
No one knows what that's about
And Robert, the one who was smart as a whip
Well, he couldn't stop crying one day
But the gang plans to visit him
Out at the hospital
(If they're driving that way)

The album's most general and therefore least interesting song, "Thank You Babe," was sweetened up to be the single. In the much more complex and downbeat "Uncle Malcolm," which at one point was inexplicably pressed as a second (promotional?) single, the citified singer returns to her rural home for a family funeral and an existential reckoning, which Hall delivers with the bite of a cabaret chanteuse. In "My House," by contrast, the singer welcomes her retreat from society: "The city's callin' me but I ain't listenin' / Civilization's got me goin' / Down the road / To my house." Finally, just as If I Be Your Lady ends with a summary of the singer's romantic history, Beads and Feathers leaves us with "I Never Thought Anything This Good Could Happen to Me." The song earns its grand title. As Hall, dry-eyed, revisits her past to celebrate her new love life, an electric guitarist works his soulful way through the band's pensive groove. What is not to like?

So come on, people, get hip to Carol Hall on Elektra. It's nearly time for the 50th anniversary celebrations of two charming albums that few people have heard or even heard of.

Also see the Carol Hall website

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