2016 proved a very good year for fans of southern soul songwriter (and sometimes singer) extraordinaire Dan Penn. The U.K.'s Ace Records label released a generous second volume of Penn's rare and previously unreleased recordings for Fame Records as Close to Me: More Fame Recordings, and later in the year, Analog Spark delivered a surprising and very welcome release. Nobody's Fool was recorded by Penn for Bell Records in 1973, and remained his only solo album for more than two decades. Although it had seen CD releases overseas in 1996 and 2009, a domestic CD issue had eluded it. Analog Spark has rectified that with a fine new edition of this lost Memphis soul stew.
Penn, the co-author of such unquestioned classics as "The Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Man, Do Right Woman," "I'm Your Puppet," and "Cry Like a Baby," has a soft, reedy drawl of a voice that he deploys to soulful effect on tracks like the opening anthem and title song, "Nobody's Fool." The track introduces Mike Utley's warm keyboards, John Huey's steel guitar, and the combined Nashville Horns and Strings. (Renowned arranger Bergen White, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, handled the strings and Nashville Horns, while Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love wrote the charts for The Memphis Horns heard on later tracks.) Though the personnel shifts from track to track, the feel remains consistent as it blends deep soul and country with commercial pop gloss (strings, background vocals, etc.) circa 1973. One could easily hear Elvis Presley singing these songs, though Penn acquits himself well. Alex Chilton, lead singer of The Box Tops and later Big Star, actually did cover the loner's anthem "Nobody's Fool" nearly fifteen years later.
"Raining in Memphis," co-written with Mic Lietz and Penn's greatest collaborator, Spooner Oldham, has one of the album's most potent melodies, with a catchy chorus and atmospheric verses. It could also have been a major hit for The King or another blue-eyed soul great like Bill Medley. But Penn's laid-back growl is appealing on this tuneful slice of R&B, even if the N'awlins brass and varied arrangement threatens to overwhelm the delicacy of the song. The Penn/Oldham team also supplied "Ain't No Love," allowing the singer to cut loose with a fiery performance. "Tearjoint," a co-write with veteran session keyboardist Donnie Fritts, is pure twangy country-and-western. Penn and Tommy Richards share guitar duties, while Leo LaBlanc adds the requisite steel touch. "I Hate You," authored by Penn and Leroy Daniels, is similarly in the classic country vein of tears and heartbreak, and features the great session players David Hood and Roger Hawkins on drums and bass, respectively.
The master songwriter obviously thought enough of John Fogerty's "Lodi" to make it the only cover selection on the album, and his down-home treatment is far-removed from Creedence Clearwater Revival's swamp-rock original. With Spooner Oldham's graceful keys as fine support, Penn digs into the lyric with rough-hewn passion. He also brings fire to the closing trilogy of songs, the socially conscious mini-suite of "Prayer for Peace," "If Love Was Money," and the spoken-word-over-instrumental "Skin." The affecting "Peace" is one of the many tracks to feature background vocals by Mary and Ginger Holiday, has a gospel flavor and even a spoken "sermon" from the good Rev. Penn. "If Love Was Money" is another shoulda-been-a-hit track, with its propulsive rhythm, big chorus, and brassy orchestration. The album finale "Skin" melds a mawkish if heartfelt rumination on race over a grand string composition and what sounds like backwards music. It makes for an unexpected conclusion to a low-key, enjoyable album from the moonlighting songwriter. While Penn's vocals are sometimes lost in the album's very-separated stereo mix, his voice as a composer and lyricist always comes through loud and clear.
Analog Spark's reissue is housed in a single-pocket gatefold digipak, and sound is up to the label's usual high standards. There are no new liner notes nor are any bonus tracks present. Dan Penn released one other single for Bell Records, "Stony" b/w "Blind Leading the Blind," which might have made for a nice addition to this fine reissue. (Interestingly, "Nobody's Fool," "Prayer for Peace" and "If Love Was Money" were issued on Dunhill's Happy Tiger subsidiary prior to the Bell album, along with the non-LP track "Buckaroo Bill.") Nobody's Fool would be worthy alone for the title track, "Raining in Memphis" and "If Love Was Money," all of which can stand tall with Penn's finest compositions. In its entirety, the album is a fascinating lost statement from an underappreciated talent. This under-the-radar reissue is one that connoisseurs of deep soul and lost pop shouldn't miss.
- Nobody's Fool
- Raining in Memphis
- Ain't No Love
- I Hate You
- Prayer for Peace
- If Love Was Money