The Cut-Out Bin #2: Ten Wheel Drive with Genya Ravan, Construction #1 (1969)
Often compared to Janis Joplin, Genya Ravan, Ten Wheel Drive's powerhouse vocalist, deserves her own spotlight.
Genya Ravan's never received her due. Even if you haven't heard her music, you should recognize her place in music history. She led Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the first all-woman rock band to record for a major label (ATCO, an Atlantic subsidiary). After her own singing career faded, she became the first established female rock producer, working with the Dead Boys (including "Sonic Reducer"), Ronnie Spector on her comeback, and countless other New York City punk groups in the early '80s. Oh, yeah, and all these achievements were preceded by a childhood stint in a concentration camp during World War II.
Of course, we could brush off the accomplishments if the music wasn't any good, but Ravan left behind a string of records worth finding, if you can. Her solo albums certainly have their moments (including the feminist question mark, "I Won't Sleep on the Wet Spot No More"), but she's at her best when that powerful voice is backed by Ten Wheel Drive, as it was for three albums from 1969 to 1971. Though the band changed lineups for each album, primary arrangers Michael Zager and Aram Schefrin stayed in place to, well, steer the band. As skilled as those two were, Ravan needed to put her stamp on the act before it could be something, turning the pop-Broadway songs with overly collegiate lyrics into gutsy rock 'n' roll. If you are wondering if it's worth your time to scurry down a genre crevasse and search the used record shops or eBay for something that won't fit smoothly anywhere in your collection, trust me -- of course, you do.
On 1969's Construction #1, the band's first album, these three artists combined perfectly with their horn players and drummer to make a rare statement: a jazz-rock record with as much heart as technical precision, and as much dirt and sweat as brains and finesse. It's hard to imagine how this album that once reached the charts has managed to fall so far out of sight. With pop music currently fetishizing the past, you'd expect someone to dig up something this strong, but likely its hard-to-classify nature prohibits it from being influential.
The album opens with "Tightrope", arguably its strongest track. Bill Takas puts down a memorable bass line, and the horns punctuate the groove, echoing Ravan's vocals throughout the chorus. At the three-quarter mark, the band goes off into an absurd breakdown which makes you think at least eight of the ten wheels have fallen off, before Takas brings them back in line. Then Ravan starts wailing again.
Despite the dictionary-necessitating lyrics, smart arrangements and tight playing, nothing about this band surpasses Ravan's astonishing voice. Like many singers from the late '60s, she owes more to blues and R&B vocalists like Bessie Smith, Etta James, and Billie Holiday than to anyone in the rock scene. Early in her career, she would often cover Ray Charles, and his influence remains strong throughout her recordings. Ravan's strong and soulful -- in her memoir Lollipop Lounge she's specific about this description meaning "black"; people would often look at the stage and be shocked to see a white woman. She calls to mind a harder-luck Dusty Springfield, and its hard to find an article on her that doesn't mention Janis Joplin, but she's got a bigger voice than either of them.
When she uses her voice aggressively, it's the sound of the world coming unhinged. On the Cream-gone-dizzy "Eye of the Needle", you don't need to listen to the lyrics to understand what the song's about -- the music and the singers' deliveries give better expression to the obstruction and futility experienced by the singer than any literal interpretation of the words. At the same time, Ravan's repetition of "I can't make it" turns from a wail of despair into a battle cry as she screeches "I got to make it!" "Limited" here to background vocals, Ravan emotes frustration and anger as well as anyone. The high trumpet intro only suggests the strength that the vocals will bring once they begin. But the song isn't driven by just emotion; there's a great sax solo, and at one point Ravan and the uncredited male lead sing not quite together, building a tension between the two vocal lines that won't be resolved until the horns force their point. This kind of smart structure keeps the album both fun and interesting on repeat listens.
Admittedly, the album isn't perfect. The band doesn't harness its energy as well on its slower tracks, such as "Candy Man Blues", but even that number works in a nice buildup, turning the first half's background jazz into a hurt blues instrumental -- a nice piece of arranging by original songwriter Louie Hoff. When Ravan comes back in after the solo, she sounds fortified, as if the music has pushed her through a rough time.
The record closes with "I Am a Want Ad", in which Ravan brings the sex from within a horn section that rages out of control even as it stays tied to the grinding bass line. In between hand drums and a cutting trumpet solo, Ravan sings and screams, and I can't help but imagine her on the ground, Joe Cocker-style, the audience in a frenzy. It's hard to get a grip on what she's talking about -- the psychedelic abstraction in the lyrics veers from anticapitalist leanings to sultry come-ons -- but it doesn't matter in the least. When the needle skips to the inside of the vinyl, it feels like Ten Wheel Drive has ignited another explosion and is ready for more, even if you've been beaten down.