[18 July 2012]
In his 1991 review of the monumental Stax singles box, Robert Palmer called the label’s catalog a “deep well that just won’t run out”. Releases like Light in the Attic’s overview of Wendy Rene, After Laughter Comes Tears: Complete Stax and Volt Singles + Rarities, 1964-65, keep on proving this statement true. Although Rene was never one of the label’s most prominent acts, never even achieving the status of its quieter heroes like William Bell and Eddie Floyd, the quality of the material offered here makes it hard to keep her out of the top drawer.
In 1964, when Mary Frierson pivoted from The Drapels (a group she shared with her brother and a pair of childhood friends) into a solo career, she adopted a new name and a sound that matched the hard-driving R&B of the early Stax sound. “BBQ”, one of her earliest singles and this set’s opening cut, is an ebullient celebration of Memphis’s second most important export, and an sharp introduction to Rene’s charms: The song bounces like a rubber heartbeat off of the snare drum and a persistent chorus of handclaps, while Rene’s halting phrasing leans hard into the beat.
Although Rene may not possess the vocal gravity of some of her labelmates, these recordings reveal an almost unnerving charisma. This music is full of emotions and sounds that are easy to recognize but harder to define. That charisma, described another way, is the sound of youth, braiding anticipation and disappointment — innocence and experience — in an anxious bundle. “Young and Foolish” is the title of one track, yet it tells only part of the story; the fire in Rene’s voice reveals more wisdom than folly, but it’s the wisdom of innocence burning away. No surprise, then, that Rene’s career closed up just as it was beginning, with the birth of her first child. (In December of 1967, she famously backed out of her final show by declining a seat on the ill-fated flight that ended the lives and careers of Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays.)
The highlights of the set are, in most cases, also its most familiar moments: “After Laughter Comes Tears”, which relies on a sinister, stuttering rhythmic setup that predicts Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”, and “Crying By Myself”, a ballad with ballast, and one that expertly captures the ironies of late-teenage world weariness. After Laughter Comes Tears also includes four previously unreleased Rene tracks, among which “He Hasn’t Failed Me Yet” stands as a pure expression of the mid-period Stax sound, with its swelling horns and deep, deep pocket. While not every track hits these high marks, it’s always a pleasure to witness the economies of grace and groove represented by the Stax house bands and Rene’s vocals are consistently compelling. Although several of these tracks will be familiar to Stax listeners, it’s a minor revelation to hear them all sequenced back-to-back, as After Laughter Comes Tears presents a full and satisfying picture of a figure that has only been visible in glimpses and shadows.