Monday, December 14, 2009

Undeservedly obscure: Louie and the Lovers pose for a promo photo circa 1970

The Complete Recordings

There's a roiling, "Proud Mary" bite to the choppy guitars on "Rise," the title track of Louie and the Lovers' lone album, released in 1970. The Creedence Clearwater anthem had been a massive hit the year before, a generation-defining smash, and that, combined with their Salinas, California roots, ensures that a certain Creedency songwriterly quality ripples through this lost gem.

But Louie Ortega, leader of the Chicano quartet, a talented if green teenager then sucked into Doug Sahm's ever-swirling vortex, hardly possessed John Fogerty's gruff, work-a-day vocal crustiness. At its silky best, Ortega's tenor--an elastic, expressive instrument--adeptly captures a kind of melancholy sadness and vulnerability. The dulcet "I've Always Got You on My Mind," a drop-dead gorgeous ballad of unrequited love, had the goods to storm the charts à la "Proud Mary." This song, with the rest of the group (Frank Paredes, Steve Vargas, and Albert Parra) lending a knowing, understated grace, is brilliant simplicity--intense romantic longing set to a gentle, loping rhythm.

But, like Mr. Sahm himself, who produced the debut, Rise is not happy to stand in one place for too long, and Louie and company handle the eclecticism with aplomb, pulling off stray-dog blues, '50s-style R&B throwbacks, and guitar showpieces like the ace teen dance band they were. It's a dazzling mix--there's some material with real staying power here--but the verities of the music business circa 1970 ensured success was not to be. Rise failed to rise up the pop charts, as it were, but Bear Family's typically peerless archaeological work has unearthed the band's entire studio output, the entire Rise plus a raft subsequent cuts produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd for Atlantic but, except for a couple of singles, never released.

Among the more gripping numbers included are "Driver Go Slow," a brooding, guilt-wracked reflection of its protagonist's crime-of-passion murder; a spectral cover of Kaleidoscope's "If the Night," more 1966 than 1970 (this Chris Darrow composition appeared on the group's 1967 album Side Trips); and mysterious rocker "Little Georgie Baker" (later released as a non-album single), which hinges on an infectious rockabilly guitar lick and a narrative delivered with an ominous urgency (this song would've been fascinating in the hands of early UK R&B stompers like the Animals or Them).

Ortega proves to be a fine writer as well, just starting to find his voice. And if some of it is derivative, it's gloriously so: "I Know You Know" is a jangly wonder, guitarist Frank Paredes pitching in on celestial harmonies, a cut that could've nestled comfortably into side two of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. "Royal Oakie," a joyous, stoned, back-to-the-country ramble conjuring CCR, is infectious in a "Mendocino" kind of way (wonder if Sahm ever tackled this one?). Emblematic of the entire legacy of Louie and the Lovers might be "Tomorrow Just Might Change," 1:48 of pure pop sunshine destined for b-side anonymity. Given an authoritative, hopeful Ortega vocal, chiming guitars and swirling keyboard fills, it's irrefutable evidence of how powerful this group could've been.

The 1971 Atlantic sessions, featuring session aces like saxophonist David Fathead Newman, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, piano wizard Dr. John, and steel guitarist Charlie Owens, present a slicker, sadly sanded down edition of the band. Delving deeper into corrido other Mexican influences, burnished with a cosmopolitan pop sensibility (perhaps an early draft of Sahm's later Texas Tornados), they're trying harder with lesser results. It's all very tasteful, fascinating in its own way, but no match for Rise. Still in search of that magic bullet--a MOR hit that might land them in the big time--the band lost the thread. Even the more promising cuts--would-be wedding song "We Don't Have to Change," a ramshackle cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso," and "Caribbean," the latter cut in apparent desperation at the behest of Wexler, are nonstarters. Very little of the Atlantic sessions carries on the raucous, anything-can-happen spirit of Rise, even though Ortega's exponential growth as a singer is much in display.

Of the later material, "My Belief in You," with its catchy stair-step melody and steel guitar and accordion interplay, stands out. As does "La Paloma," the oft-covered Mexican ballad, here serving as a showcase for Ortega's soaring vocals. All in all, Bear Family was right to pull together this group's collected works; throwing Rise a long-deserved lifeline is a masterstroke. And anyone with a modicum of interest in inventive, eclectic pop will find something to like on The Complete Recordings. (Luke Torn)


Ben Meyercord said...

Nice review. I think it is cool that you used to write for No Deprssion.

Any way, I play in a Portland OR band called Y La Bamba - We just finished a record called "Lupon" with The Decemberists' Chris Funk producing and we're getting ready to release the album and we'd LOVE to play your showcase, I know you have very few spots left, we'd be honored to be considered!!
Get the record, bio, pics and everything else here:
pass: lupon2010



Luke Torn said...

Hi Ben--

Hey thanks for the note! Not sure if there's gonna be a PCP show this year, but will keep you in mind if so.