Compilations are not simply designed to showcase individual singers or groups. They can equally be exploited as a narrative device to comment on socio-cultural trends in a given country, and that is precisely what the expert paring of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have come up with on this terrific and extremely well thought out compilation: and one that follows on, in tone at least, from their earlier in the year offering on events in Paris in May 1968 and the musical off-shoots. It is a compilation that now several months later seems all the more prescient given recent demonstrations in that same city. A cinematic representation of the American dream that had gone sour might be found in Arthur Penn’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
For ‘State of the Union’, the compilers have this time round assembled both an impressive and disparate cast of actors on their take of what is wrong with the fundamental ideals of American society. Who else would have brought together Frank Sinatra and Eugene McDaniels, or the Everly Brothers and Earth Kitt, but Messrs Stanley and Wiggs have done precisely that and pulled it off with aplomb. An immediate favourite and decidedly funkier than anything this writer has previously heard of Della Reese, better known for her polite 1950’s orchestrated brand of jazz, is the gritty Stax sounding ‘Brand new day’, from 1970, that effectively communicates the new atmosphere and thinking in black consciousness from a somewhat unlikely candidate. Earth Kitt reinforces that new pride in her own ethnicity with ‘Paint me black angels’, a plea, perhaps, for greater recognition and status in society as a whole.
What is truly surprising on this compilation is the number of white singers who share the downside of how American society operates, even when they personally may have prospered within it. That includes Buddy Greco, whose vividly evocative, ‘Cardboard California’, speaks volumes about life on the other side of the tracks, or Paul Anka who is both more general and emphatic when asserting, ‘This crazy world’, a theme which Marvin Gaye would masterfully dissect with ‘What’s goin’ on’. Interestingly, Bing Crosby gets in on the social commentary with a little known B-side, What do we do with the world?’, though in his case its was more ecological destruction that preoccupied him rather than any outspoken desire to combat social injustice. Bobby Darin simply poses ‘Questions’ that remain unanswered. A parallel case for social conscience poet could be made for Eugene McDaniels whose anthemic, ‘Compared to what?’, was a cry of despair that was first covered by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Here, ‘Cherrystones’, from 1970 is an indicator of what was on McDaniels’ deeply creative and fraught mind.
Folk singers such as Bob Dylan were actively reflective about the changing times and in the case of the lesser known Dion, a cover of Gaye’s, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, conveys that message succinctly. Jazz singer Theresa Brewer was clearly concerned for those more vulnerable with her offering, ‘Save the children’, that is actually an interpretation of an early Gil Scott Heron composition that hit home with her and others. Even Sinatra was exploring new avenues with the more experimental ‘Watertown’ album, and the title track was an ambitious, if ultimately somewhat flawed, concept album and heartfelt attempt to reach a younger audience with a more poppy singer-songwriter sound, and there is a good deal more substance to the album than on first listening. On a wider level of rapidly changing social mores, Mel Tormé sang in praise of a man running off with his secretary on, ‘Take a letter Maria’, from the hit album, ‘Raindrops keep falling from my head’. Impeccable booklet notes include individual and in-depth notes on each song with cover illustrations and/or 45 label wherever possible. ACE demonstrate once again why they are the undisputed champs of the erudite compilation.