Toni Price: Low Down and Up
by George Graham
(Antone's Records 10044 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/14/99)
It's gotten to the point in most of pop music that the words "singer" and "songwriter" are almost inseparable. But there are still examples of vocalists who don't engage in composing, at least on a regular basis. In the country music world, many of the stars have been song interpreters, though the role of singer-songwriter is also increasing. In jazz, especially, the singers tend to rely on the great old standard songs. And there are singers like Bonnie Raitt and Etta James who have built great reputations as song interpreters.
This week we have an album by a versatile and appealing vocalist who performs the music of others, doing a little blues, a little jazz and some country. She is Toni Price, and her new fourth album is called Low Down and Up.
Toni Price has been part of the prolific Austin, Texas music scene for several years, where she has developed a big following, and is known for her regular Tuesday night appearances at The Continental Club in Austin, which have gotten to be called the "hippie hour." Though often thought of as a bluesy singer, Ms. Price runs the gamut from acoustic folky material to straight out rock and roll to Memphis style soul. Her new album also adds a bit of country twang as well.
She proves her ability to move among the styles with ease, while maintaining her easy-going lack-back vocal style that seems to glide through the songs in a cool, almost detached manner that nevertheless draws you in. In her subtle way she can range from the sultry chanteuse to the sincere folkie.
She is joined by an impressive collection of musicians, mostly Texans, but also including Dr. John on piano on a song that he wrote, plus fiddler Johnny Gimble who was a part of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, Champ Hood of the semi-legendary Texas folk-rock group Uncle Walt's Band, and the members of the Leroi Brothers: guitarists Caspar Rawls, and Steve Doerr and drummer Mike Buck. Also appearing is Ian McLagen who was a member of the British group Small Faces, and also played in Bonnie Raitt's band for a while. Co-producing the album with Ms. Price was guitarist Derek O'Brien, who has done similar duties on a number of Austin made records.
The material comes from a variety of sources. Four songs were written for the CD by Gwil Owen, who has penned songs fora ll of Ms. Rpice's previous albums, and who was nominated for an Oscar for a song he wrote that was used in the movie "the Horse Whisperer." Other material ranges from a jazz standard recorded in the 1940s by Billie Holiday to a song done by Bonnie Raitt, to a couple of songs by people on the session, including guitarist Doerr.
What makes this album so appealing that one loses sight of its considerable eclecticism, is that almost everything is exceptionally tasteful. The arrangements capture the essence and spirit of the style being represented without sounding forced. Ms. Price likes all of these genres and seems perfectly at home moving among them.
Low Down and Up begins with Out the Front Door, a song recorded by Bonnie Raitt. The arrangement is reminiscent of Ms. Raitt's style, though Ms. Price's band goes for more of a Memphis soul sound. Ian McLagen is heard on the electric piano, while Ms. Price delivers the song directly and but with a lot of subtle charm. <<>>
If there is a dominant style on this album, it's probably swing-influenced. The first of several songs with a little jazz undercurrent is Foolin' Around, written by the late Walter Hyatt of Uncle Walt's Band. Hyatt's bandmate Champ Hood is heard on one of the guitars. <<>>
Also in the swing mode is the old standard Comes Love, which was first recorded by Billie Holiday. Making a guest appearance is Western swing fiddler extraordinaire Johnny Gimble, who shows his jazzy side. Ms. Price puts in probably her best vocal performance on the album, giving the song just the right amount of sincere cool. <<>>
The great New Orleans pianist and songwriter Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack makes an appearance on a song he wrote called Remember Me? which has a bluesy, but sultry sound. Dr. John's playing is great, while Ms. Price sometimes sounds a bit too detached. <<>>
One of the songs written by Gwil Owen takes a decidedly country direction. Loserville Blues is a reminiscent of a classic honky-tonk tune. <<>>
The title track Lowdown and Up is another highlight of the CD. The acoustic setting for this countryish bluesy song provides a great backdrop for Ms. Price's laid-back, almost whimsical vocal. <<>>
Feel Like Cryin' is another of the Gwil Owens songs, that takes the form of an electric blues-rock tune that the band seems to have a lot of fun doing. Lyrically, the song is archetypical blues, but it's got a great groove. <<>>
The folky side of the album is represented on the track Rusty Old Red River, written by Tim Henderson. In keeping with the folk influence, the song is embued with thoughtful, though sad, lyrics. The acoustic arrangement is appropriately introspective. <<>>
The album ends with another good swing tune, Why Is Love Like That, by the influential singer-pianist Charles Brown, who passed away earlier this year. Ms. Price's cool delivery of the song adds much to the performance backed by three acoustic guitarists. <<>>
Austin, Texas singer Toni Price's new album Low Down and Up is a thoroughly enjoyable recording that is surprisingly wide-ranging in style, from country to jazz ballads to blues. Everything is performed with such aplomb that one hardly notices the great transitions of direction from one track to the next. Ms. Price's personable vocals are decidedly on the cool side, with what measure of emotions she puts into the songs being subtle, but her understatement makes this an album that reveals something more each time you listen. She's a classy singer whose interpretations of songs lend themselves to more intimate settings. The backing musicians also provide a lot of class to the album. Each tune has a different lineup, but the players all make just the right contribution to the songs whatever the style.
From a sonic standpoint, the album gets a good grade. The mix is pleasing, the overall sound captures the proper mood of each of the songs, in this recording made in part at Willie Nelson's studio in Pedernales. The one little foible in the mix is that Ms. Price's vocal sound varies, sounding better on some tunes than others. There's also more compression in the mastering than there needs to be, but that's unfortunately rather standard now.
Toni Price may not be a songwriter, but she has assembled some first-rate songs, including some brand new ones, and got together with some fine players to come up with a wide-ranging album that makes for great listening.
This is George Graham.
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