No Depression Magazine: Let’s Go Out Tonight
Tim Brennan, No Depression Magazine
There was a time when some people wrote song and some people sang songs. The two rarely mixed. In that era of Tin Pan Alley and the songwriting mills, Curtis Stigers would have been a demi god. As he displays on Let’s Go Out Tonight, he can take well written songs and wring every bit of melody and emotion out of them. Songwriters would be inventing ways to get Stigers to record one of their works.
But those days of songwriters churning out one song after another in the hopes of crafting a melody that a signer spins into gold, have all but faded away. It became forgivable for a singer to be less than perfect if they wrote their own songs. We could allow a poor performance if we knew that the song came from the artist himself. We’d go so far as to praise the performance “inimitable”. But when that happened, some audiences found themselves unable to get past the quirkiness of some performers, and they lost out on the chance to find some great songs. Dylan was too nasal, Earl too controversial, Tweedy has a punk kid history.
Curtis Stigers gets past all of that and uses his smooth tenor to present some great songs in a fresh manor.
Opening with Dylan’s Things Have Changed, Curtis shows he has great instincts for melody and phrasing. Where Dylan’s lines can sometimes be alternately rushed and halting – like a man learning to walk on a new wooden leg – Stigers’ pacing is smooth, direct and inviting; like some Hollywood leading man from long ago, walking the red carpet. When he sings “I’m well dressed / Waiting on the last train”, you can see the black and white movie scene.
What is revealed is a melody that moves in ways I had not noticed in the original, and a song that is more well organized than I had realized. Stigers obviously knows and loves Dylan and this song, because he shows how hard it is to sing Dylan without allowing a little grit to enter his voice. With some singers, that might sound like a bad impersonation. With Stigers, it sounds natural and almost accidental.
But nothing on this release sounds accidental or thrown together. There are moments throughout where Stigers voice will trail off toward silence, but before he lets it go, he holds that lat note on the fine balance between technical strength and emotional exposure. And in finding those spots, he creates a tension that exposes the feeling of each line.
Count me among those who love the singer/songwriter model, and typically cast off those who sing covers as cheap imitations. Yet I can’t help but fall in love with this recording. Just about every song here I have owned on the original writer’s recording, yet I did not consider any the standout. Stigers makes me realize how good each track is, and makes me wonder how I must not have appreciated each the first time around.
Overall, the collection is supposed to be a story of where he was in his life at the time of the recording. The narrative, as it is for any of us making our own mix tape, is for him to understand alone. We can interpret the complete story any way we want.
Musically, this is released on a jazz label and Stigers has a strong history in jazz and pop singing. Hopefully, all that does is open up some ears in the jazz and pop community to the brilliance of these songs and artists.
The recordings as a whole are very sparse. Brushes on the drums and an upright bass create a fine bed for a very clean guitar, acoustic piano and the occasional horn. I would describe the musical tone as smoky. These players know jazz, but they are playing blues, folk, country, soul and other purely American styles of music. Producer Larry Klein managed to mix in all of these styles into one cohesive collection and avoided any of the jazz or pop clichés which would have cheapened the songs.
All of these songs stay far away from the typical Great American Songbook of over-recorded stands that many people fall back on. But none more than the closing title track, originally by The Blue Nile. Back in the 80s and 90’s I loved groups like The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole, etc for their songwriting and very unique singers. When The Blue Nile mixed slow, electronic music with a singer who sounded like his throat was being choked with every word, they were not destined for commercial success. For Stigers to take such a song, and present it with acoustic instruments and his spot on voice, he ends this record on a terrific, unexpected, and somber note.
– Tim Brennan