One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Robin Greenstein
Tracy Nelson's career started in the late 60's when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Her first album was a collection of classic acoustic blues. In those days, some other white women exploring the same genre included Maria Muldar and a female slide guitarist named Bonnie Raitt.
Nelson's voice set her apart from most other folksy-bluesy women singers. She had such a huge sound with an effortless emotional vibrato. She seemed to be the blues/folk equivalent of Joan Baez, another golden-voiced female whose talent seemed god-given (by this time, the great Janis Joplin, who also started out singing acoustic blues, had already rocked out). Tracy went on to front a seminal band, Mother Earth, who put out some memorable albums which were influential with scores of groups to come. Her original songs were strong and unusual -- Linda Rondstadt had a big hit with Nelson's "Down So Low, " a vocal showpiece and pretty good piece of songwriting as well. Nelson was also a great interpreter of her contemporary songwriters, notably Eric Kaz, writer of "Love Has No Pride."
But Nelson took off and disappeared, so it seemed, from the music business. She spent the 80's living in Nashville and not recording at all. Her comeback started with a blues recording for Rounder in 1993 titled IN THE HERE AND NOW. Another LP followed in 1995 and now she has released MOVE ON, a melange of different songs and styles, some originals, other covers, in a style that is hard to categorize. You could call it R&B meets Nashville, without the glitz.
The good news -- Tracy's voice is still big, sweet, strong and compelling. If anything it has aged and mellowed into a self-confident voice exuding wisdom and experience. This woman could sing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and make it compelling.
The album has a live feel to it. Many songs are cut just with a basic rhythm section and horns. In some cases, such as "Good To Ya Baby," this works. The gritty guitar complements Nelson's vocal. For many of the other tracks, however, it could use a bigger backing sound to offset her powerful voice.
Take for example "Playing It Safe," to this reviewer the best song on the album. Written by Nelson, it has the feel of a church revival while chastising her would-be lover for not taking more chances on love. Al Kooper makes an appearance on organ, but he is way in the background. The production seems to lack power. The lyrics are full of biblical references, "You might believe that your body will be safe, but your soul will be lost in the fire..." With lyrics like this, and the churchy feel, you want to hear a choir behind her throughout, the organ wailing, the musical rafters shaking. Interestingly, at the end of the record, an unaccredited version of the same song is included, featuring Nelson. It's an acoustic piano and choral arrangement that really rocks. Hearing this sparser version, I longed for the two to be combined.
Some production values are real miscalculations, such as the "steel drum" sound in "Drowning In Memories" (which I presume was listed in quotes because it isn't real- it sounds like a bad sample). There is a wasted cameo by Delbert McClinton who provides a harmony vocal on "Living on Love," the opening track. A real duet would have been great. Here, McClinton is relegated to singing a few lines with Nelson, without distinction. The record is full of these hits and misses, but the power of Nelson's voice comes through regardless on ballads like "Tonite I'll Dream," the self-penned title track "Move On," and the feel-good closing song "Somebody Loves You." Many of the songs are written by Nashville writers, and as such, have a somewhat formulaic quality to them.
Without a doubt, the showpiece track (if not the best, it is the most interesting) is "Ladies Man," a pop song featuring vocal turns by Nelson, Phoebe Snow, Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldar. For any music fan from the 70's, this is truly a treat having these singers, all music business veterans and survivors, singing together on one track. Oddly enough, with all these rootsy voices, this song is the most pop-like tune on the whole album.
While not a classic album, MOVE ON showcases Nelson nicely for those who might not be familiar with her work. For Nelson fans, well- it's just great to hear her singing anything, period. Welcome back, Tracy.
Edited by Cynthia A. Harney