When nostalgia gets in your eyes

So the Perrys latest project, Remembering the Goodmans, is now available for a test drive at the Ps site - and it’s the full project, which is really nice to have access to (hat tip, JH and RF). You can’t download it, of course (for free or pay, alas), at least not unless you’re really smart and know how to hack Flash audio files. But it’s all there to listen to, or “preview” in the marketing jargon. I “previewed” most of it just before lunch today. And parts of it were entertaining enough: I love the way the project perfectly reproduces the kitschy back-ground vocals that the Goodmans used in the early years, especially when one of the group’s members was soloing a song (here, the high-gloss bgvs are most memorable on Tracey Stuffle’s solo). And of course the project repeatedly confirms what we already knew about Libbi Perry Stuffle: that she nails that wide open vibrato Vestal Goodman was known for. Plus, it’s nice to get to hear Joseph Habedank’s voice in isolation for the sustained work required by “Who Am I.” And, too, Loren Harris is his regular self, full of easy brilliance and dashed off magnificence. All of which is burnished to high sheen with classy, elegant bundles of pleasant instrumentation.Thing is, the Goodmans weren’t classy or elegant or even that pleasant to hear (which is not the same thing as being pleasing to hear). So, for instance, Harris’s voice sounds more than a little too stylized for the artless sound the Goodman’s perfected (his chorus on “Eastern Gate” illustrates what I’m talking about). The Goodmans were brassy maybe, but they never approached the kind of vocal class that Harris inhabits and exudes. And herein lies a larger related problem with Remembering the Goodmans: the Perrys don’t sound like they want so much to pay tribute to the Goodmans as sound like them. It doesn’t really matter if you buy the old truism about imitation and flattery. For disciplined singers like the Perrys to “remember” the Goodmans by trying to sound like them (I stress trying, because as Harris demonstrates, they often don’t), something’s gotta give. And here, what gives is primarily creativity. The arrangements are slavishly faithful to the Goodmans renditions, even down to repeating the Goodmans own arranging mistakes. Thus the introduction of “When it All Starts Happening” sounds almost identical to the opening bars of “When They Ring the Bells of Heaven.” Yet the songs are sung with the kind of studied, imitative precision that saps all the life out of them: “Eastern Gate” is the best, worst example - a pale spectral, distant cousin to its original, the ending flat and uninventive, far too clean, not sloppy or risky enough to come close to the Goodmans’ flaunty style. On the other side of things, “Living in Canaanland” tries too hard, the ending almost laughably exuberant as an attempt to pass for the easy bigness the Goodmans traded in.

All in all, this is pretty disappointingly derivative stuff. Like mimeograph copies taken from an original that has been recycled too many times, both the copy and its master suffer in the reproduction. And you gotta wonder what we’re doing here in the first place. Because the truth is, a studio project is an odd way to pay tribute to the Goodmans. They did their best work on stage, where they could slip the chain and head for the woods in a full gallop. Their work always felt slightly misplaced and stunted when forced into the constraints and narrowing demands of the recording booth, the animating zest in the Goodman voices that made them great somehow depleted in the isolation and carefulness of a studio. The best Goodmans albums are the live ones, which is why I don’t know anyone who talks of this or that Goodmans’ studio project being life-changing or even that memorable.

Unfortunately, the same thing might now be said of the Perrys nobly flawed imitation of Goodmania. Take, for instance, the money song, “God Walks the Dark Hills.” It’s nice, but Libbi had already outdone herself at NQC’s Remebering the Greats concert last year, when she sang the song with her husband, Tracey, Gerald Wolfe, and Mark Trammel. It’s not just happenstance; the difference between a live setting and a recorded one for the Goodmans could not have been vaster, starker, or more insuperable. And I’m half surprised (but only half) that the Perrys let their nostalgia get the better of them long enough to pretend this wasn’t true (the other half of me knows perfectly well that, in addition to being the product of the Perrys’ genuine affection for the Goodmans and their desire to honor them, the project will also sell and perform quite well). Maybe the best thing to say about the project is that it gives the Perrys an excuse to create more Goodman memorials on stage like the RTG performance. Beyond that, let’s hope this gets the Goodman bug outta the Perrys’ system. The best way for the Perrys to honor the memory of the Goodman legacy is to unleash their own music, sung in their own way, upon the gospel world. Discovering what that means and sound like is, as I’ve noted before, what stands between the Perrys and the proverbial next level

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