Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leon Russell - 1975 - Will O' the Wisp

Leon Russell 
1975
Will O' the Wisp




01. Will O' The Wisp (Instrumental) 0:55
02. Little Hideaway 3:57
03. Make You Feel Good 2:23
04. Can't Get Over Losing You 5:04
05. My Father's Shoes 4:16
06. Stay Away From Sad Songs 4:01
07. Back To The Island 5:20
08. Down On Deep River 3:55
09. Bluebird 3:55
10. Laying Right Here In Heaven 2:52
11. Lady Blue 3:28

Tommy Allsup Guitar, Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric)
J.J. Cale Flute, Guest Artist, Guitar, Guitar (Electric)
Moon Calhoun Drums, Drums (Snare)
Ambrose Campbell Drums, Drums (Snare), Percussion
Steve Cropper Guest Artist, Guitar, Guitar (Electric), Slide Guitar
Donald "Duck" Dunn Bass, Guest Artist
Teddy Jack Eddy Drums, Drums (Snare), Guest Artist
Rev. Patrick Henderson Keyboards, Organ, Percussion, Tabla, Tambourine
Carl Himmel Drums, Drums (Snare), Percussion
Masako Hirayama Biwa
Jim Horn Guest Artist, Sax (Alto), Saxophone, Soloist
Al Jackson, Jr. Drums, Drums (Snare), Percussion
Jim Keltner Bass, Drums, Drums (Snare), Guest Artist, Percussion
Bobby Manuel Guest Artist, Guitar, Guitar (Electric)
Mary McCreary Tambourine, Vocals, Vocals (Background)
David Miner Bass, Percussion
Don Preston Guitar, Guitar (Electric), Vocals
Carl Radle Bass
Leon Russell Bass, Bass (Electric), Clavinet, Composer, Guica, Guitar, Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Keyboards, Organ, Percussion, Piano, Piano (Electric), Primary Artist, Producer, Slide Guitar, Synthesizer, Vocals, Vocals (Background)
Mary Russell Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals



I suspect that the title of Leon Russell's fine new album refers to the experience of pop stardom and the lessons, many of them painful, Russell has absorbed in the process of attempting to sustain his self-created myth. For the role Russell has portrayed over the past several years, that of a glamorous, reclusive Renaissance man of pop, has lately seemed larger than the man playing it. His efforts at expanding his repertoire beyond pop and rock to encompass first country and then jazz have proven respectively mediocre and inept, while his two-year-old live album seemed excessively long and showed Russell desperately parodying his own imitation of black gospel vocal style.

The memory of the pop consumer is short. Only three years ago, Leon Russell released his near masterpiece, Carney. An album that both defined and enshrined Russell's self-portrait with astonishing artfulness, Carney cohered as an understated, completely convincing statement from a man obsessed and confused by the roles that pop stardom demanded and suggested. It was at once monumentally egotistical and romantically agonized in its promotion of the age-old "lonely at the top" scenario. With Carney Russell definitively cinched his superstar status, securing an artistic autonomy he would subsequently squander in choices that seemed extremely self-destructive.

Happily, Will o' the Wisp represents Russell's most substantial achievement since Carney. Its ten songs are all well made, and the Russell/Denny Cordell production is the most imaginative to be found on any Russell album. While no one song quite matches the eloquence of "A Song for You" and "This Masquerade" from earlier albums, Will o' the Wisp expresses a unity of purpose in its spirit of dedication to one woman, Mary McCreary, who sings elaborately overdubbed back-ups on several of the tunes and lead on one; and just as significantly, a rededication to the basic spirit of rock & roll.

For the first time since Carney, Russell applies his exploratory restlessness not to forms outside of rock but to the technical possibilities within the rock context afforded by a 40-track tape machine and the use of synthesizer as an important supplementary rock instrument. The outer limits of these possibilities begin to become most apparent on three exotic studio "production numbers" -- "Little Hideaway," "Can't Get Over Losing You" and "Back to the Island." "Little Hideaway," which celebrates two lovers' idyllic retreat, apotheosizes McCreary's extraordinary voice (sassy, soulful and highly flexible) by turning it into a huge choir, while Russell runs exciting arpeggios on the synthesizer, treating the instrument as a sort of electric harpsichord. "Can't Get Over Losing You" opens with bizarre instrumentation, most notably Minoru Muraoka playing a Japanese wooden flute, then segues into a classic rockabilly format led by J.J. Cale on electric guitars, while McCreary is again overdubbed into a weird off-harmony chorus of lamentation. "Back to the Island," another joyous escape song, is tricked out with oceanic sound effects. The cut works in the way intended -- as a piece of delightful fantasia.
With few exceptions, Russell's new songs appear to be inspired by his creative relationship with McCreary. Among those that are not, the most touching and personal is "My Father's Shoes," a gospel-styled hymn in which Russell meditates on the continuity of the father/son relationship, regretting the difficulty of being able to express directly both paternal and filial love:

And now I think of my daddy
He bought these kind of shoes
And after all this time
I think I know him
I'd like to say I love him
But the time has passed away

Equally strong is "Bluebird," a song whose powerful melody and vigorous performances paradoxically celebrate a state of complete emotional desolation. It's reassuring to hear that Russell can still belt out the cosmic blues with the best of them. The album closes with two intimate love songs. For "Laying Right Here in Heaven," which is touched with reggae, McCreary and Russell sing the very sexy lyrics as call and response. "Lady Blue," the lovely tune that ends the album, is a simple love song of total devotion: "I love you more and more and more/Lady blue." Here, Russell's vocal is remarkably unmannered and Jim Horn delivers a subtle alto sax solo.

Though Will o' the Wisp does not pretend to the intellectual level of Carney, it is warmer and more enjoyable. The arrogance, facetiousness and just plain sloppiness that have flawed Russell's post-Carney albums are hardly apparent. For a change, Russell's vocal mannerisms work for him instead of against him. To define the difference between affectation and a spontaneously felt personal style in Russell's singing is difficult. I suppose it simply comes down to one's intuiting how involved Russell is with his material. To may ears, he sounds very much involved on this album. Being the studio Pygmalion to McCreary's choir of angels has inspired Russell to find appropriately "perfect" sound settings that would enhance the beauty of his creation: an eccentric proposition that fortunately does not go over the line into craziness. The reason it doesn't is that Russell's songs remain firmly rooted in rock and pop tradition. Moreover, while Russell has only begun to explore the capabilities of synthesizer, he has resisted the temptation to indulge in experimentation for its own sake. Which is why Will o' the Wisp is such an encouraging album. Adventurous but disciplined, it goes a long way toward re-establishing Russell's artistic credibility and marks him as a pop innovator who cannot be counted out.
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 6-19-75.


Russell's seventh album proved to be one of his best. Will O' The Wisp is a diverse record, showcasing many sides of his sound, with tender ballads, funky grooves and rollicking piano. It seems to be very much an experimental studio album, much like Carney. Among the backing musicians are many of Russell's friends, incuding JJ Cale (guitar), Jim Keltner (drums), Steve Cropper (guitar), Carl Radle (bass), Reverend Patrick Henderson (keyboards & percussion), Karl Himmel (drums), Don Preston (guitar), Donald Dunn (bass), Al Jackson Jr (drums) and Jim Horn (sax). Russell himself plays piano, organ, clavinet, synthesizer, guitar, bass and percussion. Many of the songs have an eerie psychedelic vibe, helped by some mind-frying synthesizers in places. Of particular note is "Little Hideaway", which is a dark, breath-taking masterpiece, and "Laying Right Here In Heaven", a duet with soon-to-be-wife Mary McCreary.
One song from the album, "Lady Blue", was released as a single and became a hit, getting to #14 on the charts. The album itself got to #30, making it one of his most successful.

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