The expanded release of Lonely Just Like Me avails a complete depiction of a man who made listeners feel a little less lonely.
Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter celebrates the late Arthur Alexander's heralded comeback in 1993. For those unfamiliar with his legacy, Alexander was an Alabama-based soul / blues singer and songwriter whose songs found a home in the repertoire of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley. Seeing nary a nickel because of a poor publishing deal, he left the music business in the late '70s. A series of high-profile industry events led Alexander to a contract with Nonesuch / Elektra Records in the early '90s. Lonely Just Like Me (1993) was poised to be his full-fledged return to recording. Sadly, Alexander passed away following a concert in Nashville shortly after the album's release. With their deluxe edition of Lonely Just Like Me, HackTone ensures that the memory of Alexander and the album that re-launched his career live on long after his death. The set bursts with rare tracks: four songs and an interview recorded on NPR's "Fresh Air", demos recorded with producer Ben Vaughan, and a 1992 appearance recorded at The Bottom Line in New York City. It's a suitable tribute to an artist whose resuscitated career held lots of promise.
Lonely Just Like Me is remarkable primarily because of its back-story. In fact, I wonder if the initial praise for the album in 1993 -- from artists like Robert Plant, Kris Kristofferson, and that most elite of music fans, Elvis Costello – was predicated, in part, upon the re-discovery of an obscure and forgotten blues singer rather than on the actual music. Alexander has a limited vocal range, for one, which is ill fitting when matched with Ben Vaughan's glossy production. (For a man who begins a song with the line, "Hello Mr. John / Put away the gun", he's alarmingly placid.) Though the production sounded clear and clean in 1993, it leaves a "dated" ring in the ears now. Any redeemable qualities about Alexander's performance that could have outlived the early '90s are squashed by the then-pristine mechanics of the recording.
That said, there is still a place for this record, however limited its appeal might be in 2007. Ben Vaughan writes about Alexander in the liner notes, "If heartbreak had a sound, it was this voice". Heartbreak is a timeless commodity and Lonely Just Like Me succeeds in taking you "there". The content of the songs is about as happy as the album's title suggests, which is to say, very melancholy. The opening verse of "In the Middle of It All" pretty much sums it up:
My house is a lonely house
But it once was a happy house
And the two of us
We were happy as I recall
But now the rain falls around it
And loneliness surrounds it
And I'm in the middle of it all
At times, Alexander sounds more "forlorn" than heartbroken. His voice is not anguished in the way Ray Charles or Solomon Burke communicate loss (not that Alexander needs to sound like them). I just caution the uninformed listener to know where along the spectrum of heartbreak they'll land in listening to this album.
The only times the album "lifts", whether musically or thematically, are during "There is a Road" and "I Believe in Miracles", which both arrive towards the album's now re-sequenced track list. The former could be the album's highlight. It builds as Alexander assures, "Let me lead you to my promised land / If you want to go / There is a road". It's an inspired, rousing moment.
The NPR recordings better display Arthur Alexander's gift for singing and storytelling; they're the best reason to investigate this set. For one, the stripped-down performances easily trump their recorded counterparts for shear emotional impact. These arrangements reveal the true heart and soul of the songs. The heartbreak in "Go Home Girl" and "Genie in the Jug", for example, come across more in Alexander's voice without the dressy production on the album. (Listeners can also hear him sing "You Better Move On" and explain how the Rolling Stones became aware of his music since they, too, recorded the song.) The interview segments convey Arthur Alexander's sincerity and eagerness to share his songs even if the questions addressed to Alexander by the interviewer are a bit uninspiring, e.g., "What kind of music were you doing in the church?" Take a wild guess at that one…
Also on hand to flesh out the listening experience are a handful of cassette-recorded demos that featured Alexander working through some songs with Ben Vaughan. Most notable here is a version of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" and an a cappella version of "Lonely Just Like Me". Tellingly, the demos indicate what the songs were before the sheen of studio enhancements was applied. (Note to record labels: "expensive" doesn't equal "better".)
It's to the benefit of the uninitiated that HackTone has assembled such a comprehensive overview of Arthur Alexander at such a crucial juncture in his career. The extra tracks on this expanded release avail a more complete depiction of a man who made many listeners feel a little less lonely.