Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron - Pieces of a Man

Although I've chosen some favorites to start off the review side of this blog, I'm unfortunately not completely in love with every album I review.  Not to say I don't enjoy this album, it's just too easy to describe the ways it doesn't fit with what I look for in this type of music and to list choices I wouldn't have made if I were the artist or producer.

Then again, it's pretty hard to fault the opening track--the one everyone thinks of when they think of Gil Scott-Heron--"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."  This is the song people are thinking of when they say Gil Scott-Heron was the first rapper (or somesuch fanfare), and it's unarguably the freshest thing on the disc with Scott-Heron's rapid-fire, cutting assessment of black America's imperatives in 1971 (as he sees it) over funky drum and bass, supported by a jazzy flute.  This is one of those cases, though, where almost all of the album is totally different from the flagship song.

The rest of Pieces of a Man sees Scott-Heron considering the state of his fellow man, often through the lens of what he's feeling about himself.  On the one hand, it's fascinating from a historical perspective--it's clear that socially-conscious black artists in the early 70's were processing their world musically in a pretty different way than their analogs do today.  The problem is that none of the other songs here capture the wit or verve of the leadoff track.  Instead of using irony to prove his point with a bit of sting, Gil seems content to rely on relentlessly earnest exposition.

This problem could be thoroughly alleviated by the music; lyrics don't get much more severe than Curtis or What's Going On, but the orchestral sweep of both albums and the frantic, redemptive highs found on the former fill the words with a sense of gravitas that overcomes the seriousness of the words.  Here we get an organic (lots of flute), jazzy type of soul that seems like it would have already fallen out of fashion by 1971.  Now, that's an artistic choice I don't totally agree with, but there are issues here that go beyond taste.  First off, Scott-Heron's voice isn't up to the challenge.  There are plenty of vocally-limited artists I love: Allen Toussaint is one, and an R&B artist.  Whereas Toussaint plays to his abilities by singing simple, catchy melodies that present him as an endearing personality, Scott-Heron attempts to hit notes and run off on flourishes that he can't nail.  Moreover, there's a distinct melodic deficit in a lot of these songs--most have at least a hook or two, sometimes around the chorus, but the verses show a pretty distinct lack of attention--like he decided on the chords but didn't bother to think about which notes he was singing as long as they fit the harmonic structure.  Perhaps less important but still irritating to me personally is that, for someone who's reputedly strongest on the lyrical/poetic side of things, Scott-Heron also pays little attention to how the meter of his words fits with the rhythm of each song, running fast to fit words in too small a space or awkwardly stretching a couple of words to fill a blank space demanded by the rather rigid, unimaginative song structures.  You can't expect the artist to cover all of these bases every time, but a good producer would have at least found one way to tighten things up a little bit.

It sounds like I really hate this album.  Not so; despite the ill-fitting music and cheese ("When You Are Who You Are," "I Think I'll Call It Morning"), there are some moments where it gels and gets worked-up the way it should--"Home is Where the Hatred Is" conjures an appropriate dark edginess, and "Pieces of a Man" overcomes its Van Morrison lounge feel to do the words justice with a pretty solid vocal performance.  Overall, Pieces of a Man is actually a pleasant listen (I actually play it fairly regularly) and a pretty cohesive album, it's just that the unique promise and potential of the first track is nowhere to be found as the album progresses.  And that, my friends, is not a classic.

Get it here--out of print, but affordable on MP3.

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