[28 July 2009]
Detroit’s Sixto Rodriguez short-lived career had no place in the 1970s. While his debut album, Cold Fact, fell in line with the fuzzed-out, soulful grooves of the late ‘60s, his sound didn’t fare well with the developments in the early ‘70s. Although he was gritty, funky, and a talented wordslinger—one must take into consideration the cultural influence the album as an aesthetic expression was having in 1971, the year Rodriguez’s followup album, Coming from Reality, was thrown out into obscurity. With Led Zeppelin’s IV, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On amongst the releases put out the same year, its easy to decipher why Coming from Reality was such a bomb stateside and in Europe. Although Rodriguez enjoyed a surprise following and sustainable career in South Africa, its safe to say the position he was in was not the most adept to longevity.
Another misstep that might have led to his hardship with Coming from Reality was his decision to leave former producer/guitarist Dennis Coffey (which in part, probably has something to do with the loss of the gritty, funky edge) and hightail it to London, where producer Steve Rowland had offered to produce his followup after being so enamored with Rodriguez’s sound on Cold Fact. Rowland took Rodriguez’s sound in a more cinematic direction, implementing the use of orchestral arrangements behind unadorned lead melodies and mellow, jangling acoustic guitars. He also always made sure the vocals were extremely dry and at the front of the mix, an execution used to put the focus on Rodriguez’s skill of waxing poetic. This very well could’ve had something to do with Rowland’s experience in the world of cinema, playing roles in prolific films such as The Thin Red Line and Crime in the Streets. He then enjoyed success on the Spanish charts and eventually became drawn to swingin’ ‘60s London, where he would produce many pop standards. Tying all this together, it may have sounded appealing to Rodriguez at the time after his commercial failure with Dennis Coffey, but as far as making a decision in the best interest of a long-standing career, it was near suicide.
The nearly two-minute intro of “Sandrevan Lullaby-Lifestyles” is a prime example of the aforementioned cinematic experience. It sounds less bohemian singer-songwriter, more neo-realist film score. Not that the latter direction is any less valid than the former, but for an artist who came screaming out of the gate on all cylinders to fall into something so rich and dramatic shows that he was possibly not content with his sound, and felt maybe taking a complete 180° would be the most viable option. Rodriguez’s intuition must have told him this after the release of Coming From Reality, because included with the reissue on Light in the Attic (the first time this release has seen the light of day in since 1976), are three bonus tracks recorded between 1972-73, once again with Dennis Coffey. “Slip Away” would have been the more logical progression from Cold Fact, and is frankly the best track included with the reissue, sporting minimal Latin percussive elements and a driving bass line that complement his voice and aggressive, off-kilter strumming effortlessly.
All in all, Coming from Reality is by no means a below-par album. Rodriguez’s songwriting is still on point, full of life and vigor in the way he expresses our everyday experiences and emotions. “Cause” may be the most lyrically adept track on the record, shining with lines such as “My heart’s become a crooked hotel / full of rumors” and “I make 16 solid half-hour friendships / every evening / because your queen of hearts who’s half a stone and likes to laugh alone / is always threatening you with leavin”. Rodriguez has that rare quality in squeezing out words at a mile a minute. Unlike Dylan’s disciples, his lyrics are on a much more direct, blue-collar basis. There’s hardly any interpretation or beating around the bush, just an introspective look in layman’s terms of the world and its everyday irregularities.
Where Coming from Reality fails, Cold Fact succeeded—unfortunately, its not the other way around. Thankfully, there aren’t many points where Coming From Reality fails, still making it an interesting, if not vital listen for fans of his previous work. With the recent resurgence of his work due to Light in the Attic’s lovely reissues (the vinyl comes with a bonus 7”, for you wax junkies), maybe Rodriguez has another album in him. With the little interest Light in the Attic has in commercial viability, he would be free to explore any sonic palette he so desired, and release it to a native US audience that would finally be responsive.