Mink DeVille – Cabretta + Return to Magenta + Le Chat Bleu

January 01, 1970

(Capitol/Culture Factory USA)




When Willy DeVille died in 2009, there was an outpouring of
grief from his diehard fans, but otherwise the event was barely a bump in an
American pop culture landscape that seems to revel in celebrity deaths. (In Europe, where he was always more popular, it was likely
bigger news.) It didn’t help that his music, both solo and with his original
band Mink DeVille, was difficult to find in the country of his birth. That was
a major drag, as DeVille’s musical vision was so distinctly American – based in
R&B and soul, inclusive of rock & roll, blues and any other genre that
caught his fancy. While a large portion of his catalog remains in limbo,
Culture Factory USA
has at least brought back the Mink DeVille LPs originally released on Capitol
in the ‘70s, as vinyl replica CDs with excellent remastered sound (though no
liner notes or bonus cuts).


Recorded after becoming one of the darlings of the CBGBs
scene in the mid-70s, Cabretta (9 out
of 10 stars) is the first flowering of DeVille’s remarkable talent. Aided by
producer Jack Nietzsche and a stable quintet led by guitarist Louis X.
Erlanger, DeVille mixes the 50s style R&B he loves with the tough punk rock
sounds emanating from the New York streets during the period. The latter is
well-represented by the lean and mean “Gunslinger,” “One Way Street” and a
cover of Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk,” as Erlanger’s stinging riffs duet with
DeVille’s bad-boy swagger. “Party Girls,” “Can’t Do Without It,” the Crystals
gem “Little Girl” (AKA “Little Boy”) and the pretty junkie lament “Mixed Up,
Shook Up Girl” corner the market in ballads, with DeVille pouring his heart
into his performances without bombast. The band splits the difference with the
streetwise pop rockers “Spanish Stroll,” “She’s So Tough” and “Venus of Avenue
D,” showing off its nimble versatility. DeVille’s voice hasn’t quite reached
the impossibly soulful heights that would make him the world’s finest blue-eyed
soul singer, but it’s still a wonder to behold on this LP, and deservedly given
pride of place in the arrangements. With its strong craft and the exuberance of
musicians making their first LP, not to mention the most consistent set of
songs the band would ever have, Cabretta is a classic American rock & roll record. (It’s mildly ironic that in the U.S.  the original release was titled simply Mink DeVille; one imagines some Capitol
A&R or marketing drone sniffing in 1977 that the name Cabretta sounded “too European” for the American market.)


Except for the
addition of a string section and increased prominence for guest Steve Douglas’
saxophone solos, Return to Magenta (6
stars) is essentially Cabretta Pt. 2.
DeVille essays more Leiber & Stoller-inspired R&B pop (“Just Your
Friends,” “Easy Slider”), soul-searing ballads (“I Broke That Promise,”
“Guardian Angel”) and dirty rockers (“Soul Twist,” the bluesy “Steady Drivin’
Man,” which remained in DeVille’s repertoire until his death) – even another
Moon Martin cover (“Rolene,” more fiery than the original). DeVille’s singing has
improved and the band is as tight as always, but there’s something missing here
– that essential element that means the difference between merely satisfying
and truly great. Maybe it’s the songs – none of them are awful, but only the
mellow soft rocker “‘A’ Train Lady” (written and co-sung by David Forman) and
the anthemic Latin pop tune “Desperate Days” really hold up to the material on
the first record. There are much worse sophomore slumps than Return to Magenta, but it’s still a
disappointment in light of the debut.   


After relieving the rest of the band of their duties,
DeVille, Erlanger and Douglas (assuming the production chair) decamped to Paris
with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section to cut the cinematic Le Chat Bleu (7 stars). DeVille’s vocals have fully matured and his
songwriting, sometimes in collaboration with hero Doc Pomus, has returned to
full strength; Douglas frames both in
arrangements with little fuss but a wider sweep. Grand ballads “That World
Outside,” “This Must Be the Night” and “Just to Walk That Little Girl Home”
tremble with emotion but pull well back from the precipice of melodrama. The
catchy “Lipstick Traces” and “Savoir Faire” bristle with almost savage rock
& roll energy, with DeVille and Erlanger practically dueling in the mix.
DeVille takes a few chances as well, trying his hand at Cajun music with “Turn
You Every Which Way But Loose,” mixing Latin pop and street poetry on “Slow
Drain” and faithfully covering the Jive Bombers’ 1957 jazzy doo-wop hit “Bad
Boy,” all with mixed results. But he also explores French chanson with the surprisingly effective “Heaven Stood Still,”
showing as much aplomb with reserved crooning as soulful belting. Cut for cut, Le Chat Bleu may not be as strong as Cabretta, but the good stuff hits real
highs, and what Mink DeVille sacrifices in consistency it makes up for with
maturity and artistic development.


It remains to be seen if Culture Factory intends to reissue
the rest of Mink DeVille’s catalog. The fourth record Coup De Grace is out of print in the States, while Where Angels Fear to Tread and Sportin’ Life were given no-frills
reissues a few years ago. We can only hope.    



So Tough,” “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” “Venus of Avenue D,” “Cadillac
Walk,”  “‘A’ Train Lady,” “Desperate Days,”
“Savoir Faire,” “This Must Be the Night,” “Just to Walk That Little Girl Home”


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