Hit the Freeway...
Now here's a turn for the books, a Cher album that was warmly received by the critics. Sonny is put in the corner (although he was nowhere near the front on Backstage either). After a commercial dry patch, the idea was to move her image along to match the contemporary taste for social commentary (you know, like wars and stuff). This album turns me into a complete fool for Cher, and often I recommend it as a jumping off point for her 60s CV. Because she was dropped by Imperial, she is given a 1 album deal with Atco and the direction is relatively bold. Strutting off to Alabama, she is in the hands of the same players and producers who crafted Dusty In Memphis, so obviously the odds were more stacked against her than Chaz having a go on a urinal whilst drunk. There is no question: there is a real aura to this album, the music is a sheer joy to listen to that it's almost 'a crying shame' that it's Cher singing (I should really point out that there's only one song where I truly think this as she turns out a string of beguiling vocal performances here), and, as on its predecessor, she is an expert interpreter of songs both obvious and baffling, whether giving them one of her face-lift treatments or not.
For What It's Worth unleashes a relative burst of energy. Cher's so deadpan it almost sounds as if she's mocking the actual song she's singing. It doesn't work as a single to launch the album, but I always enjoy listening to it given how iconic the song is.
Living up to its name, (Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On is an essential play. The soft and velvety arrangements and sympathetic backing vocals are divine, giving it a contemplative air. Cher herself is singing all over the joint, stylistically speaking, but she gets the delivery of the chorus just-enough perfect. The fade out leaves me wanting more.
(Sittin' On) The Dock of The Bay has a bluesy decadent vibe. Sometimes Cher's covers are guilty of being a peg or two underneathe the originals. She is in no danger of replacing the original, but the broody pace is the perfect setting for that haunting drawl to languish in. A real mood piece.
First of three Dylan numbers, Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You isn't one of those reckless taxi-rank decisions we've all made, but a slow-moving jam that makes best use of the Muscle Shoals session players. Cher doesn't command it in a particularly special manner, but it's hardly a chore to get through.
And another, I Threw It All Away works better for me. Cher's hollering heartbreak, with an admission that she was cruel, is plenty music to my ears.
Grinding blues, country and a fragment of gospel together, I Walk On Gilded Splinters is a psychedelic fusion of bluesy angst that's murky and mysterious in an Alabama 3 voodoo-conjuring way. I could imagine someone like Moby sampling the chorus with its stark and striking synthesis of sounds.
Leaving the biggest impression of all, Lay Baby Lay counts as one of the unsung highlights of her whole career. The cool glide of her vocals massage so much heat and luxury. It's unexpected turns like this that truly separate her from the pack. Her soft, airy phrasing is sensual and laid-back (sounding relaxed, worn out and in love), but the effect is sizzling. Hard not to imagine her awake in bed with someone who's asleep and not Sonny, with a fag in her hand and a smile she's trying not to give whilst checking his wallet (she WAS poor by this point you know) Her vocal stance takes it to a different realm from the rest of the album entirely, and the delivery elevates the poetry of the lyrics to an even higher place. It drips with emotion and god knows what else. This is the only song on the album where I wouldn't swipe those Dusty expectations.
Below: Cher largely stepped over the marriage issue on the LP.
Not quite her I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore (I'm going with the Dusty theme again here), Please Don't Tell Me sounds like it's threatening to go into a fade out about 3/4s the way through. Plays to Cher's keen facility for a plaintive melody. One of my favourites.
Despite the session guns firing from all cylinders, Cry Like A Baby just doesn't work for me, and it's because of Cher herself. Amazing song, but her inimitable squawk simply isn't a good fit. Through grit and determination I think she just about gets down into the groove, but down and dirty isn't quite happening. She sounds like she's grinding her teeth rather than her hips. I'd give the track itself 7/10 as it is perfectly acceptable, and when all the band come in heavy it's hard not to keep adding extra points. She's got the power and volume, but is just not a surging soul singer.
Frankly, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man doesn't quite get hot enough under the collar for me, but is strangely soothing and plays well. A solid version with a stellar job from her band, but Aretha's got nothing to sweat about (not hat I can imagine her not sweating anyway). Winding down, Save The Children. Prophetic: "Don't leave them daddyless." I like this song, and coming right at the end really evokes a certain relevance to a woman poised to experience new directions both personally and artistically. Coming right at the end, it's inadvertently and spookily potent.
Highway is a free-spirited 60s whirl of Rn'B, blazing balladry, tender passages and soulful maneuverings that retain her rawness all the while immersing Cher in her most accomplished musical settings yet. She doesn't compromise herself and isn't dwarfed or intimidated - instead her vocals had never sounded better and only on Cry Like A Baby does she squawk like a drunk duck at the blues bar (grit your teeth, pretend it isn't happening and the song is actually enjoyable). Like her lovers throughout the years, the variety is strong, sometimes ill-advised and sounds great in bed. Special attention must be given to Lay Baby Lay, her sultry moaning morning after got the horn anthem. Highway is often so slickly and expertly rendered it's almost distracting enough in places to name the project as her decade's best, but although that's not quite the case, it's an ideal showcase for catching the singer in her breakthrough early years whilst exhibiting some key strengths not often credited to her, of which would also be utilized to greater commercial success in the coming years. The polish and gloss don't abandon the grit and rawness, but nevertheless it's unified as an album and shows some serious artistic ambition.