Smooth seventies soul-pop, as revisited by the estimable archivists at Numero Group, never sounded silkier.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
The Numero Group, the curatorial label which is as interested in reviving lost record labels and forgotten musical genres as unsung-hero artists, now makes a claim for the smooth soul-pop of the mid-to-late 1970s via a new anthology of the work of L.A. singer-songwriter Ned Doheny.
That’s not as weird as it may at first seem, given Numero’s love for deep, gritty soul and rock – it had luck last year bringing newfound respect to New Age music with archival recordings by California free spirit Iasos. And the recordings of the most successful 1970s soul-popper, Boz Scaggs, have held up fairly nicely, although he personally seems to have rejected that legacy in favor of something rootsier.
So Numero has put together a generous 19-track Doheny collection drawn from three albums he released between 1973 and 1981, plus demos. From a prominent family, Doheny fell in with the late-1960s Laurel Canyon folk-rock crowd, though he didn’t really fit, and had the first album released on their house label, Asylum, in 1973. Then on Columbia (Scaggs’ label), he got into Scaggs-style post-Motown, upscale-soul song craft and image (his 1976 album Hard Candy even bore a cover of him in a swimsuit, a la Scaggs’ original cover for 1974’s Slow Dancer.)
Maybe Columbia, which by that time had been trying to break Scaggs as a star for a good half decade, had decided to hedge its bets with Doheny. It gave him topnotch producer Steve Cropper and sophisticated arrangements featuring the Tower of Power horn section. But Silk Degrees broke through in 1976 and Doheny didn’t really matter much anymore. Cropper stayed with him for 1979’s Prone, initially just released in Japan at the UK. It, too, is represented in this package.
There are but two recordings from his self-titled Asylum solo album, plus demos of others. As a whole, they show a tuneful Eaglesy/CS&N/Jackson Browne approach (“On and On,” “Standfast”), but Doheny’s instincts –major-key uplift, catchy verse-chorus structure – are already pop.
The songs appearing on Separate Oceans from Hard Candy sound like they could be from Silk Degrees – in their very commercial way, they have the sincere and maybe misplaced romanticism of a young man looking for love (and a little sex) in a 1970s singles bar. “Get It Up For Love” and “A Love of Your Own (which Doheny co-wrote with Hamish Stuart of Average White Band) are good examples. But while Doheny’s voice has range, it’s also thin and struggles to make an impression over arrangements and background vocals that cover rather than showcase it. It’s also not consistently suave, a real drawback with this kind of music.
Separate Oceans also includes the demo recording of another track Doheny wrote with Stuart, “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me,” a sizeable R&B hit for Chaka Khan. The arrangement here, with the percolating bass and bubbly keyboard, sounds amazingly like Joe Wissert’s production work on Silk Degrees.
Thanks to Numero for giving us such a thorough “Lowdown” on Doheny’s 1970s recordings. Interesting, but he was no Scaggs.