Give Until It Hurts

Ray Charles
The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986

Kronos Quartet: 25 Years
Kronos Quartet: 25 Years

ONE REASON ATLANTIC'S three-disc Ray Charles retrospective, The Birth of Soul, is such a consistently satisfying listen is that it culls from such a small, fertile patch of Charles's output. By focusing solely on the pioneering R&B developments he engineered during his four-year tenure with that label in the late '50s, it ignores the ravenous pop appetites he developed afterward, which would lead to his most startling triumphs and head-scratching miscues--often in the same song. As if to compensate, this four-disc examination of Charles's lifelong flirtation with country music highlights the flawed genius that makes him impossible to write off, even when he's indulging in goopy moments too frequent to be dismissed as mere lapses in taste. Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, included in its entirety here (along with its companion follow-up volume), was heralded as a monument to musical miscegenation and creative control when released in 1962. Unfortunately, it's also as infuriatingly uneven as any artistic achievement ever to earn such landmark status. Once Charles proves himself capable of swinging out Hank Williams numbers with droll sophistication, the wan dynamics of his string settings sound even more unforgivably intrusive. One moment he's caressing the lyrics of Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me" with a canny intelligence, the next he's carelessly bequeathing the melody to an overblown choir. Over the course of the '60s, the quality of Charles's country releases varied wildly, often within the same song. But he also managed to refine his choral-and-string addiction to maintain a semblance of palatability. Well into the '70s, treasures verging on the miraculous bubble up: "Take Me Home, Country Roads" laced with a metallic electric piano; an orchestral and panoramic "Wichita Lineman"; a definitive "Ring of Fire" that typifies Charles's knack for admiring his own emotional depth. But by the time Ray wowed 'em at the '84 Republican Convention, his vocals had settled into gruff affectation, punctuated by the obligatory huh. And so he embraced metronomic regularity, allowed Nashville hack Billy Sherrill to put him out to stud with forgotten country pinup Janie Fricke, and unearthed such masterpieces of American doggerel as Gary Paxton's "Woman Sensuous Woman." Which leaves one to wonder: Does Charles's career in country document the complexities of racial and commercial integration, or just one man's dubious taste in white people? (Keith Harris)

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