Out of the Blues is the final part in a trilogy of genre albums that have seen Boz Scaggs take a step back as a songwriter, contributing just a song or two to each release.
Out of the Blues
27 July 2018
To casual listeners, Boz Scaggs is the American singer/songwriter who hit his stride in the mid-1970s with a series of gold- and platinum-selling releases on Columbia Records of which the two produced by Joe Wissert – Silk Degrees and Two Down Then Left – were exquisite unions of pop, rock, and soul, and not entirely dissimilar to what, on a much less successful level, Ned Doheny and the inestimable Danny O'Keefe were attempting at the same time. Scaggs continued in this vein on the gorgeous Middle Man (produced by Bill Schnee and issued on Columbia in 1980) and its principal hit, gangster character study, 'JoJo'. By 1988's Other Roads, the formula was starting to wear a little thin with the ballads, in particular, veering towards Michael Bolton territory.
Today, however, Scaggs is making albums that have more in common with the five or so collections he issued in the late 1960s/early 1970s, following a two-album stint with the Steve Miller band, long before hitting paydirt with Slow Dancer (1974) (as an interesting side-note, the second of these, 1969's Boz Scaggs, was produced by Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner). For well over ten years now, Scagg's albums have been grittier works that draw upon his passion for blues and R&B, rather than the smooth, sleek, yacht-rock textures that informed his mid-1970s to mid-1980s output.
Out of the Blues is the final part in a trilogy of genre albums that have seen Scaggs take a step back as a songwriter, contributing just a song or two to each release. The first, 2013's self-explanatorily named Memphis, was a blues-rock odyssey that mingled a couple of originals with songs by Mink DeVille, Steely Dan, Tony Joe White, and Moon Martin. Then came the Nashville-recorded A Fool to Care (2015), which did for soul what its predecessor had done for blues, going back to its roots and beginnings, with guests including Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt. Like Memphis, it was a genre album that managed to avoid being a mere exercise in nostalgia or a predictable oldies collection, mixing the early soul of Huey P Smith's "High Blood Pressure" with much newer material, like Richard Hawley's "There's a Storm a-Comin" and Scagg's own "Hell to Pay".
Despite its title, on Out of the Blues, Scaggs actually takes the listener back into the blues. For the third time in a row, he deftly avoids the pitfalls of making these sorts of albums by selecting unpredictable material. In fact, almost half the album is made up of new songs written by musician/friend, Jack Walroth. The balance comprises material from the celebrated pens of people like Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Jimmy Reed. There's a change of producer (the first two sets were overseen by Steve Jordan, while this one is handled by Scaggs with Chris Tabarez and Michael Rodriguez) and of location (to Hollywood, California), but some of the musicians are hold-overs from the previous album, including unsurpassed veteran-legend, Willie Weeks (bass), who's now joined by other session stars who've played with Scaggs before, such as Jim Keltner (drums).
The Walroth material absolutely sparkles, with "Rock and Stick", the album opener, having the heat and smoothness of a sports car in the sun, and the kind of groove that will satisfy fans of Silk Degrees. Scagg's voice is affected by age but not to its detriment. It's the same voice with rougher edges, and rougher edges only serve to enhance this kind of music. They allow Scaggs to inhabit a song like "I've Just Got to Forget You" where some of his contemporaries (e.g. James Taylor) might just glide pleasingly along the its surface. Whether or not Scaggs is acting, you can really feel the predicament of the song's narrator who's in a place most of us have been – of needing to relinquish something that's long become toxic. The same applies to "I've Just Got to Know", although now the protagonist is at the beginning rather than the end of the situation, beseeching the flighty object of his affections to commit.
The sequencing keeps things interesting, so the old-school blues of "I've Just Got to Know" is leavened by the contemporary beat of "Radiator 110". In fact, inter-threading the old with the new is exactly what has made this experimental trilogy so satisfying, and here we travel between the 1960s (Jimmy Reed's "Down in Virginia"), the 1970s (via a beautiful take on Neil Young's "On the Beach"), and the present day masquerading as the 1950s ("Little Miss Night and Day", the only track with a Scaggs co-writing credit). Perhaps the most startling name in the list of contributing songwriters is that of Don Deadric Robey, the infamous record label executive active in the industry from the 1940s to the 1970s, who owned Duke/Peacock Records and always sported a pearl-handled 38 on his hip. His 'songwriting' method involved going to prisons and paying inmates five dollars for song lyrics, for which he then assumed the publishing and credit. We'll therefore never know the real provenance of "I've Just Got to Forget You" or "The Feeling Is Gone", which brings Out of the Blues to a wonderfully smoky, dive-bar close.
If, at the end, you've had enough of Scaggs in his interpreter role (bearing in mind that this trilogy was preceded by other albums on which he was singer and guitarist but not writer, including Speak Low and But Beautiful), then you'll be glad to know that while promoting Out of the Blues, he's let slip the tantalising fact that he's been stockpiling his own compositions for future projects, so there's plenty to look forward to yet from this underrated legend.