The Melbourne International Film Festival is starting soon and part of the program is a series of documentaries under the banner Backbeat, one of the artists featured is singer songwriter Rodriguez who released two brilliant albums on the Sussex label in 1970 and 71. His debut album Cold Fact was released in 1970 on the Detroit based Sussex label, the album was produced by Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore. The album although gaining positive reviews failed to sell in the U.S as did it's follow up Coming From Reality, following which Rodriguez disappeared from view. In 1976 the album was issued in Australia on the Blue Goose label and became a huge success leading him to tour here in 1979 and again in 1981 with Midnight Oil, the album was also a huge success in South Africa. I first heard the album close to ten years ago when I heard it on the Breakfasters program on 3RRR, it had just been released on cd I believe.
I was immediately struck by the tone of despair on the album it shares similarities with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On with it's depiction of a decaying America, it displays a palpable sense of frustration, the war in Vietnam and economic hardship. Rodrigues lays it all bare in This is Not A Song, It's an Outburst: Or The Establishment Blues,
The mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates,
Public gets irate, but forgets the vote date,
Weatherman complaining predicted sun it's raining.
Inner City Blues is less direct and confrontational, it has more oblique references but you get the sense that Rodriguez is trying to capture the growing sense of frustration that was occurring in America. I Wonder takes a more introverted and personal look at the growing sense of isolation many Americans were feeling about the state of their country.
I wonder about the tears in children's eyes
I wonder about the soldier that dies
I wonder will this hate ever end
I wonder, I truly do my friend
Sugar Man is an intense description of drug addiction, the desperate need for escapism from the dreariness of everyday life, it has a similar feel to Marvin Gaye's Flying High in the Friendly Sky, Rodriguez creates a more spaced out atmosphere with fading vocals. Musically the album is quite sparse, it fits the themes of the album and allows the message to resonate more deeply. The album probably lacks a certain dynamic in that when you consider the calibre of the musicians in Dennis Coffey and the great Bob Babbitt on bass it doesn't have a strong sound. Babbitt who created a strong pounding metronome on the records he played is given a more subdued role when on some songs like Only Good For Conversation that are more harsh, an insistent funky bass line would have suited more. Still I really enjoy listening to this album it's such a distinctive record especially as a document of a troubled past in America.