Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Soul to Soul’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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Stevie Ray Vaughan simply didn’t live long enough to produce a real dog of an album. Although he had been a professional musician since his adolescence, his time in the spotlight was brief. There were only seven years between the release of Texas Flood and his 1990 death in a helicopter crash. That would be two albums at best in today’s terms. Fortunately, Vaughan left the world with four top notch studio albums completed, along with sundry other live stuff and a collaboration with his brother Jimmy.

And yet, I was drawn to the challenge of determining which of his albums might have been disappointing at the time or figuring out which one divides fans. It sure as hell isn’t Texas Flood and only a reckless fool would try to make the case that Couldn’t Stand The Weather was a ‘difficult’ second album. In Step, his final one, isn’t disappointing in the least. In fact, it’s a masterpiece. So, I decided, at the risk of being stoned by or with SRV’s fans, to pick on Soul To Soul. Here goes.

It’s probably fair to say that however this album sounds to his fans, it was a difficult third album for Stevie. Expectations were running at a fever pitch. I remember a few beery late night discussions where it was theorised, in hushed tones, that he might be better than Clapton. Clapton? Of course he’s better than Clapton, it’s Rory Gallagher who should have been worried! Hendrix maybe. In any case, everyone agreed that the cat could play.

Clapton? Of course he’s better than Clapton, it’s Rory Gallagher who should have been worried! Hendrix maybe.

Soul To Soul took a long time to make and every account of the recording sessions mentions ping pong and powder. The jury is out on what coke contributes to a recording session but ping pong strikes me as a worrying sign. Many musicians, Dylan notably, find recording wearisome. The idea that anyone felt sufficiently relaxed enough to play a dumb game like ping pong raises questions. Stevie was well on his way to rehab at this stage and, indeed, his fourth album, In Step, four years later, was the product of a much happier and cleaner Texan guitar hero.

It’s obvious on this record that Stevie is continuing to open up the music. However, I don’t think Soul To Soul is, in any sense, a radical departure from Couldn’t Stand The Weather. Howlin’ Wolf’s You’ll be Mine is given the Texas treatment and wouldn’t be out of place on any of his records. His choice of artists to cover is perhaps expanding with a song like Gone Home by jazz artist Eddie Harris. But Earl King, whose Come On, Pt 3 makes an appearance, is no big surprise. Vaughan’s inspired reading of Hank Ballard’s Look at Little Sister is a wonderful but predictable choice.

The keyboard sounds on this record are much more pronounced than on his previous records. Reese Wynans, a one time member of the Allman Brothers Band has joined Double Trouble by this point and brings a bit of Gregg Allman atmosphere to songs like Aint Gone ‘N’ Give Up on Love. But that’s a good thing, right? More than a few critics pointed to this shift when the album appeared. Some were happy, the rest wanted him to keep recording Texas Flood until we all grew old. The usual stuff.

Why is it disappointing?

It doesn’t send a cowboy boot into your solar plexus like his first two albums. At least, not at first. I like his version of Gone Home and the idea of Vaughan playing the sax parts on guitar. The fact that he could play jazz isn’t as astonishing as just how well he could do it. Somewhere in an alternative universe, a distinguished Texan jazz musician named Stephen Vaughan is playing at the Lincoln Centre with Wynton. Listen to this song. It’s not that hard to imagine. But his fans wanted Texas blues and read this as filler. Others thought Say What was too funky. What can you say to such people?

Why should you hear it?

Two words: Doyle Bramhall. Change It is one of SRV’s finest moments and a beautiful piece of songcraft by Vaughan’s old buddy. Lookin Out The Window is another Bramhall stunner. The lovely Like Without You closes the record on a plaintive note. It sounds like he has discovered a lost Otis Redding demo but it is his own composition.

Saying that there is plenty of great guitar work is a bit silly when discussing this guy, but he outdoes himself on the Earl King song, in particular. This album was probably something of a disappointment to Vaughan himself and didn’t exceed anyone’s expectations at the time. It’s probably fair to say that old man death cheated us out of a truly disappointing Stevie Ray record. Soul To Soul might not be Texas Flood but it’s not the Chihuahuan Desert either.

For the rest of this series, click here.

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