It’s that time again — the year’s fourth quarter, where the worrisome economy pulses to life as songs previously released, “vintage” and rare, get repackaged for holiday consumption. The eggnog doesn’t always go down smoothly, however. You think padded reissues are a touchy subject? Or that rarities collections by definition are enticing but slippery beasts? Posthumous releases are trickier still, vowing to be a necessary addition to an artist’s legacy without digging up limbs with the soil.
As respectfully as possible, Concord Records covers two of those categories in Rare Genius, ten songs from Ray Charles — spanning the three decades before the ’00s — that never saw daylight. As a result, every one sounds preserved, protected, cared for. They’re love songs, all of them, sung either for a woman or a higher power — both touchy, elusive things, hard to pin down and liable to drive a man crazy. Charles’s personality on record suggests he kept it somewhat together, even when he let loose and scared the living daylights out of white people. Controversial as he may have been at the time, and as influential as he remains, Charles was never rock ‘n’ roll per se. Instead, he humbly set up shop at the intersection of blues and gospel, turning Christian music on its meticulously done-up head while playing with crooner-standard strings (“It Hurts to Be in Love”), strident horn stabs (“Love’s Gonna Bite You Back”), and icy lounge-funk (“I’m Gonna Keep on Singin'”).
His final studio offering, Genius Loves Company, saw release two months after his death in 2004, but he carried that Grammy-vacuum to the finish line. The road to Rare Genius is foggier. It’s unclear what Ray’s original intentions were with these tracks, over half of them covers. Was he storing them in a cache for when the well ran dry? Did he have overdubs in mind? While somewhat boilerplate musically, Charles doesn’t sound as if he’s on autopilot, so the feeling is he wanted these to be heard. Indeed, all lights were green on the Johnny Cash collaboration “Why Me, Lord?”, but nobody’s sure why it remained unissued from 1981 to now.
Genius? Maybe. Deft? Now we’re talkin’. To Charles’s credit, none of the songs sound dated, even those coming from a period (late ’70s/early ’80s) that, today, sounds pretty bad. Witness the take on Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear” from 1983, with none of the signifiers that mark that era of rock’s high school yearbook. The chorus has a calming, church-like effect, with the repeated line “a little bitty tear let me down” resolving the melody as a choir would do in a hymn. Charles’s voice has a robust, peppery quality to it, but he nails the notes and keeps the bark on the leash for when it’s needed.
Rare Genius‘s secret weapon is another man who knows a thing about using hymns as a reference point. On paper, a Johnny Cash-Ray Charles collaboration sounds like an 11th Commandment about to drop on the world. Because that closing song is a cover, undoubtedly letting off some of the pressure, the musicians sound unencumbered by expectations. Not that their brains weren’t burning — Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” ties the two together in asking questions of their maker, but instead of a Job-like plea, it shows them curious as to why they have been blessed when others have not. Free from heavy-handed production or the chains of the weary country he would do with the Highwaymen later that decade, Cash’s voice can breathe here as Charles gives up the reins. Admittedly, it’s a bit eerie, two men who would die within a year of each other, here singing “Help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hands” before evaporating into silence. It solidifies the chemistry, though, and in the book of all-time untouchables, have there ever been two guys more in tune with the up above?
The most striking word here isn’t Jesus, but one that rhymes: this is the third Charles release with genius in the title. All have come out after he left us, and while the record label may feel otherwise, genius doesn’t seem like a word Charles would use to describe himself. In his mind, he’s just Ray, no more, no less, and he’s susceptible to the same pitfalls all musicians are.
“Nobody wants you when you’re old and grey”, he sings at his most assertive on the centerpiece “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (“Now, I’m not talkin’ ’bout next year, next month, next week or even tomorrow!” the post-junk piano man interjects). With the appreciation the world showed him in his final years, it’s comforting to know he was forced to reconsider.