November 22, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 25...

Welcome to part 25 of the Golden LP Series...we're up to 1988 and the twenty-fifth studio album from Ray Stevens. This particular release contains 10 songs, five per each side of the album. There were only two single releases from this LP although I feel there should have been a couple more lifted from the album.

In the previous blog entry I mentioned rope tricks...and such a sight can be seen on the album's cover. I Never Made a Record I Didn't Like was on the Country Album chart for nearly 20 weeks and peaked ten places higher than Greatest Hits, Volume Two earlier in the year. In spite of it's chart appearance only one of the two single releases managed to make an appearance on the Country Singles chart. "Surfin' U.S.S.R." was the lead-off track and the release that made some news for a couple of weeks since the American and Soviet Union were inching closer to an end to the decades long Cold War. The Reagan and Gorbachev summits throughout the mid to late '80s played a role in the music video that Ray put together. In the video, which starts out like a nightly newscast, Ray's voice is heard describing the latest Cold War news. The video continues on as Ray does vocal impressions of both. I don't know exactly who's on screen wearing the replica masks of Reagan and Gorbachev, though, but I know it's Ray performing both voices. After this segment is completed, the actual song starts to play. The audio recording found on the album lacks this Cold War news segment as it was apparently made exclusive for the music video. Unfortunately this slice of topical levity didn't receive a lot of attention from radio. Acclaim for his previous single, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", continued to mount when it became a finalist for a Grammy in 1988 and it found it's way into the editorial sections of newspapers that year. Paul Harvey, a little more than a year after the single became a hit, had the song as the subject of one of his columns when he criticized the reputation that religious leaders found themselves in due to the shenanigans of a select few.

In the meantime, the other single release from I Never Made a Record I Didn't Like was track six, "The Day I Tried To Teach Charlene MacKenzie How To Drive". In this recording Ray sings about attempting to teach a near-deaf woman how to drive and how she mishears all of his instructions which leads to chaos, wrecked cars, and angry bystanders. It has an early rock and roll sound depicted by the uptempo, urgent vocal delivery and the prominent saxophone heard throughout completes the mood. The single did manage to reach the Country Singles chart but it didn't have the staying power to have a good chart run thanks largely to decreased radio airplay and an overall changing of the guard in the country radio industry. This would be his final single to reach the country charts for a couple of years but it was by no means the end of the fact, Ray continued to do more than 100 shows a year entertaining hundreds of thousands of fans with his eclectic music. Elsewhere on this album we have a few songs that I think should have been issued as commercial singles. "Mama's in the Sky With Elvis" was included on here as track three. It made it's debut on 1987's Greatest Hits, Volume Two. It's about a man whose married to an Elvis fanatic...but she dies in the darkest kind of way and now she's having the time of her life with her idol. The song should have been explored a bit more and promoted as a single. Another song that should've been a single is "Bad". Yes, it's the song that Michael Jackson wrote and had a gigantic pop hit with. If Ray's cover would've been promoted as a single and if country radio would've played it I don't think too many people could resist buying it. It's such a funny, cute, and satirical performance. One of the topics spotlighted is satellite TV. In an era when, it seemed like, the quantity of one's channel line-up and the size of a satellite dish plopped down in the front yard told the difference between "rich and poor", Ray tells a humorous tale of a southern family who get satellite TV for the first time in a song that spells it out rather bluntly: "Language, Nudity, Violence, and Sex".

In an unusual twist, Ray delivers a performance with a raspy, hushed, southern-rock zeal on "Blood and Suede", a humorous song with big production about a wreck that happens in Southern California between a rock singer and a drunk driver. If all this wasn't emotional enough we add adultery to the mix. It's a very unsuspecting will take repeated listens to take in everything that's going on in this melodrama. The album closes with a jewel of a song in "Old Hippie Class Reunion". This is a very funny song playing on all kinds of stereotypical imagery and phrases that have been associated with hippies down through the years. It's one of those few recordings where you don't hear Ray's natural voice at all. He delivers the song in a laid-back tone with a mix of Bob Dylan added in. Ray performs two hippies at their class reunion...the laid-back hippie and a gruffer voiced hippie. Vocally we're to assume that the hippie with the laid-back voice is thin while the gruff, throaty voiced hippie has some weight to him. He used the same gravelly voice on 1987's "Ballad of Cactus Pete and Lefty".

In conclusion, studio album 25 in the career of Ray Stevens could be considered more daring in terms of humorous content. Never before on a Ray Stevens album had there been as many of what I call "song sketches" like there are on his 1988 LP. How would studio album 26 compare? That particular LP appeared in was a side by side examination in song and personality of an artist who'd not recorded many non-comical songs over the last 6 years...was he about to? Studio LP 26 answers those questions and be on the lookout for my next Golden LP Series commentary!

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