Review Summary: A near-perfect pop album that features the timeless "Walking In Memphis," which other artists have attempted to cover, yet fail to hold a candle to the original.
Not a unique story, but my parents raised me on music despite neither possessing a particularly musical background. Neither plays an instrument, but both have hundreds of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs between the two of them. Obviously, music played a significant role in my upbringing, and it still does today when I am at home and not at university. My father is firmly stuck in the 1970s and 1980s - Bob Seger, Boston, Kansas, The Eagles, and other classic rock acts dominate his share of albums owned. My mother, meanwhile, weaves in and out from classic rock to the contemporary music heard today on "mainstream radio."
I'm sure you've experienced something similar to the story I'm about to tell: you're riding in the car with your parents, or anybody else for that matter, and the radio is on. Through the infomercials for Lasik eye surgery, or Metabolife, or whatever product is being advertised, you also listen to whatever music is playing, or in the very least, scan the radio for a station that catches your ear. A few years ago, I was riding with my mother, when an infectious piano-driven intro caught my attention, leaving me spellbound for the duration of the track.
The reason for this hex is easy to explain: I had previously heard those notes before, and the vocals were familiar, but where and when and why did I hear this song? Why couldn't I identify it? The chorus, with its gospel-like background vocals and a smooth male lead vocal transfixing the listener throughout, was incredible upon this re-visiting. Admittedly, the answers to the aforementioned questions are non-existant; however, the impact of Marc Cohn and his 1991 debut still affects me today.
Eleven tracks strong and clocking in near the forty-six minute mark, you can expect a musician, whose voice combines a rugged, gruff feel with a soulful, smooth delivery. Cohn is similar to Bruce Springsteen, if only The Boss turned in his guitar for some keys and toned down his rock-and-roll demeanor for some blues and soul. Cohn has some supporting musicians as well - guitars and percussion are indeed heard on the album - but it is no shock that this record could be stripped of all the instruments, save for Cohn and his piano, and it would be an inspiring, warm listen.
I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is that you hear the album's track. I could underline, italicize, and bold that previous sentence, but it would seem like my persistence would not persevere. The beauty and finesse of "Walking in Memphis" cannot be attributed to just the piano, or just the vocals, or the other musicians who support Cohn. The track epitomizes a well-written, classic adult contemporary track. With Cohn playing some steady single-note eighths to pace the introduction, he begins to swing into a story-like feel, beginning with boarding the plane in his blue suede shoes, singing, "Yeah, I've got a first class ticket, but I'm as blue as a boy can be" before swiftly moving to a higher register for the chorus. As previously mentioned, there are four backup vocalists, whose voices are so rich and harmonious that the listener would think that an entire congregation of gospel singers were in the studio recording with Cohn. The track is littered with plenty of music history: Elvis Presley, Graceland, Union Avenue, Hollywood, and more, which adds to the appeal of the song as well. As Cohn continues to unravel his story, the piano-driven, pop-rock sound that defines Cohn as a musician begins to form. As Cohn slowly and softly brings the track to its end, his closing lines echo and reverberate into a decrescendo, with his straight-eighth intro returning for the conclusion. Forget whatever cover you have heard of this track - Lonestar's, and any other band's effort, does not hold a candle to the charm and elegance of the original cut.
While "Walking in Memphis"is probably Cohn's best-known track - and for good reason - there are plenty of stellar tracks to finish out the album. What is most appealing about the album is the different styles Cohn employs throughout: on tracks such as "Miles Away" and "Walk on Water", the songs allow room for the guitars and drums to be showcased, while Cohn hits his upper register with a controlled gusto. When Cohn chooses slower numbers, the music does not suffer. For instance, the other well-known Cohn number, "True Companion" is the album's closer, often recognized as one of the great love songs in the genre. In it, he states, "Don't you dare and try to walk away, I've got my heart set on our wedding day - I've got this vision of a girl in white, made my decision that it's you, alright." The most moving section of the concluding track is, ironically, the outro: Cohn sings that, even after "The years have done irreparable harm, I can see us walking arm-in-arm, just like that couple on the corner do," and that when he dies, he'll "Be with the angels standin'... out there waiting for [his] true companion." The grace of "True Companion" is emphasized because the track is essentially Cohn on his piano, with a violin and other strings to add another dimension to the music.
One last highlight to the album is a tribute to his late father, "Silver Thunderbird". A variety of instruments and musicians play on the track, from an accordion to a French horn to a mandolin. Cohn again takes the role of a storyteller, explaining that "If there's a God in Heaven, He's got a silver Thunderbird" and shares the tale of how his father would rise before dawn to drive his car: "Down the road in the rain and snow, the man and his machine would go - oh, the secrets that old car would know." The extra instruments certainly add power and additional energy to the track, but again, Cohn and his piano are the highlights on the track.
And that essentially summarizes Marc Cohn and his debut album: his music is fueled by his gruff-yet-polished voice with an obvious understanding of how to write a solid piano progression to compliment his vocals. Throughout each and every track, from the essential "Walking in Memphis" to the Willie Dixon cover of "29 Ways" to the closer love song "True Companion", Cohn's soulful presence on his debut is absolutely palpable, with terrific back-up vocalists and musicians in support as well. James Taylor is one of the standout performers to appear on the album. Bottom line: Cohn's heartwarming debut is absolutely worthwhile to check out, and do not dare to make the claim that any cover of "Walking in Memphis" sounds better than the original.
"Walking in Memphis"