Willie Wright: Telling The Truth

[3 February 2011]

By Jer Fairall

There are lost records, obscure cult favorites rescued from oblivion by heroic record labels and tenacious fan bases, and then there is something like Willie Wright’s Telling The Truth, where the very fact that anyone has the chance to hear it in 2011 is something of a minor miracle. Telling The Truth is an album whose origins might very well redefine the parameters of what we think constitutes “lost” or “obscure” in our current web environment, where every conceivable piece of music is available as long as you know where to search and have the right passwords or invites. 

Willie Wright’s backstory, told in elliptical fragments across the nearly barren pool of sources that exist on him, has the soulful crooner performing in dive bars and street corners for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s before finding work playing cover songs for the members of a private Nantucket yacht club. During the off-season, Wright started composing a set of originals, which he laid down in a New York studio the following spring in a one-day session before heading back to the resort stages for another summer. Whatever he was able to sell during those appearances is 1977 is what constitutes Telling The Truth’s original run. 

Rescued from oblivion by The Numero Group, the tireless archival label specializing in the excavation of soul, funk, disco, and other scattered Americana rarities, Telling The Truth might very well represent an impressive coup even by their crate-digging standards. Listening to this album evokes the unique magic of happening across a recording that you could have only discovered by sheer accident—something found in the dusty discount bin of a used record store, or a dog-eared vinyl cover stacked unassumingly among the discarded relics in a relative’s attic or on the table of a neighbor’s garage-sale ephemera. 

Yet it may be this album’s status as an arcane piece of pop history that defines its appeal far more than the music itself might be capable of on its own. Heard in the context of its era, one imagines these songs might have sounded merely ordinary—gently funky yet wistfully unobtrusive slices of easy listening soul in an idiom likely omnipresent in its time but largely unidentifiable today for lack of current practitioners. If Wright sounds distinctly like anyone who might be recognizable to modern ears, it is Bill Withers, with whom Wright shares both a rich vocal similarity and a distinct approach to 70s soul music that is nevertheless rooted more in the intimate acoustic shadings of Cat Stevens and James Taylor than in the vibrant showmanship of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone. 

Wright is neither as commanding a singer nor anywhere near as indelible a lyricist as the singular Withers, to be sure, but this only further serves to highlight the appeal of Telling The Truth, namely how seamlessly it exists as part of its era rather than in any way defining it. The album’s greatest charms are found in the touches that feel anachronistic even amidst the wide embrace of today’s retro-fetishism: the breezy calypso flavor of “Nantucket Island”, the gritty funk guitar twists of “I’m So Happy Now”, the brief flash of “Like a Hurricane”-like guitar blaring and then dissolving into the otherwise quaint setting of “Love Is Expensive”, the rambling narrative of “Indian Reservation” (today’s singer-songwriters tending to favor succinct verses over song-length stories), the pristine supper-club atmosphere of “Lady of the Year” and “In The Beauty Of The Night”, and the whistling jazz flutes that pop up throughout the whole record. With 21st century sonic landscape so often resembling a dazzling smorgasbord of sounds from every conceivable nook and cranny of 20th century pop music, the very experience of hearing something like this, a recording that could not have possibly come from any time, past or present, than its very own, has become something of a rare and oddly thrilling novelty.

Given the album’s 30-plus-year obsolescence, it would be positively ludicrous to expect this reissue to come adorned with any extras at all, but Numero Group have even delivered on that seemingly impossible front. Both the CD and the vinyl editions of their release come with a bonus single containing Wright’s lone 45 release, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On For The Darkness”, its original b-side (the overly didactic “Africa”), and a playful earlier Wright original called “Lack of Education”. Once again proving The Numero Group’s eye for record-nerd-baiting intricacy, these extras are not tacked onto the end of the album in usual bonus-track fashion but rather included, on the vinyl, as an extra 7” replica or, for the CD, an actual functioning 5” single, giving this lost gem the labor of love treatment that goes valiantly beyond the call of duty.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136198-willie-wright-telling-the-truth/