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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Dan Penn - Nobody's Fool (1973 us, essential country soul funk, 2016 japan remaster)

Nobody’s Fool was recorded by Penn for Bell Records in 1973, and remained his only solo album for more than two decades.  Penn, the co-author of such unquestioned classics as “The Dark End of the Street,” “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “I’m Your Puppet,” and “Cry Like a Baby,” has a soft, reedy drawl of a voice that he deploys to soulful effect on tracks like the opening anthem and title song, “Nobody’s Fool.”  The track introduces Mike Utley’s warm keyboards, John Huey’s steel guitar, and the combined Nashville Horns and Strings.  (Renowned arranger Bergen White, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, handled the strings and Nashville Horns, while Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love wrote the charts for The Memphis Horns heard on later tracks.)  

Though the personnel shifts from track to track, the feel remains consistent as it blends deep soul and country with commercial pop gloss (strings, background vocals, etc.) circa 1973.  One could easily hear Elvis Presley singing these songs, though Penn acquits himself well.  Alex Chilton, lead singer of The Box Tops and later Big Star, actually did cover the loner’s anthem “Nobody’s Fool” nearly fifteen years later.

“Raining in Memphis,” co-written with Mic Lietz and Penn’s greatest collaborator, Spooner Oldham, has one of the album’s most potent melodies, with a catchy chorus and atmospheric verses.  It could also have been a major hit for The King or another blue-eyed soul great like Bill Medley.  But Penn’s laid-back growl is appealing on this tuneful slice of R&B, even if the N’awlins brass and varied arrangement threatens to overwhelm the delicacy of the song.  The Penn/Oldham team also supplied “Ain’t No Love,” allowing the singer to cut loose with a fiery performance.

“Tearjoint,” a co-write with veteran session keyboardist Donnie Fritts, is pure twangy country-and-western.  Penn and Tommy Richards share guitar duties, while Leo LaBlanc adds the requisite steel touch.  “I Hate You,” authored by Penn and Leroy Daniels, is similarly in the classic country vein of tears and heartbreak, and features the great session players David Hood and Roger Hawkins on drums and bass, respectively.

The master songwriter obviously thought enough of John Fogerty’s “Lodi” to make it the only cover selection on the album, and his down-home treatment is far-removed from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swamp-rock original.  With Spooner Oldham’s graceful keys as fine support, Penn digs into the lyric with rough-hewn passion.  He also brings fire to the closing trilogy of songs, the socially conscious mini-suite of “Prayer for Peace,” “If Love Was Money,” and the spoken-word-over-instrumental “Skin.” The affecting “Peace” is one of the many tracks to feature background vocals by Mary and Ginger Holiday, has a gospel flavor and even a spoken “sermon” from the good Rev. Penn.  “If Love Was Money” is another shoulda-been-a-hit track, with its propulsive rhythm, big chorus, and brassy orchestration.  

The album finale “Skin” melds a mawkish if heartfelt rumination on race over a grand string composition and what sounds like backwards music.  It makes for an unexpected conclusion to a low-key, enjoyable album from the moonlighting songwriter.  While Penn’s vocals are sometimes lost in the album’s very-separated stereo mix, his voice as a composer and lyricist always comes through loud and clear.

Analog Spark’s reissue is housed in a single-pocket gatefold digipak, and sound is up to the label’s usual high standards.  There are no new liner notes nor are any bonus tracks present.  Dan Penn released one other single for Bell Records, “Stony” b/w “Blind Leading the Blind,” which might have made for a nice addition to this fine reissue.  (Interestingly, “Nobody’s Fool,” “Prayer for Peace” and “If Love Was Money” were issued on Dunhill’s Happy Tiger subsidiary prior to the Bell album, along with the non-LP track “Buckaroo Bill.”)  Nobody’s Fool would be worthy alone for the title track, “Raining in Memphis” and “If Love Was Money,” all of which can stand tall with Penn’s finest compositions.  In its entirety, the album is a fascinating lost statement from an underappreciated talent.  This under-the-radar reissue is one that connoisseurs of deep soul and lost pop shouldn’t miss.
by Joe Marchese, January 26, 2017

Dan Penn is one of the great songwriters. His work and his life are what legends are made of, and so is this recording. Penn wrote or co-wrote such ’60s classics as “Dark End Of The Street”, “Do Right Woman” and “I’m Your Puppet”; Nobody’s Fool, released in 1972, was his first solo record. His voice and demo recordings had been spoken about with great reverence, and he had written hits, so Bell records might have expected such a record from him. The sad truth was that it wasn’t very successful saleswise and didn’t stay in print very long.

Penn’s 1994 release on Sire Records, Do Right Man, covered the famous bases. It was a reminder and a testament to his talents and ability. That was a fine and necessary work, but Nobody’s Fool is even more interesting because it doesn’t rely on the tried and true. On this record, he stings hard with what he does best and still finds time, by the end, to walk out on the limb a bit.

Penn had a hand in writing all the material here, with the exception of John Fogerty’s “Lodi”. Penn’s reading of the Creedence classic is a natural; his incredibly soulful voice and a great arrangement make this an ideal cover choice. The title track, which opens the disc, is a loner’s anthem that sounds like a standard the first time your hear it. The great country-soul of “I Hate You” is also a stunner, with Penn’s warm voice lamenting in the first degree.

One of the mysteries of this record is why “If Love Was Money” wasn’t a massive hit. At the time this record was released, radio was eating this kind of thing up. A song that catches you big-time from the first note, it’s 3:22 long, which is about right for most great singles, but it’s never enough; it demands to be played again.

A couple of slightly self-indulgent forays in to the social concerns of the day make the end of the record seem a little overblown, but they don’t diminish the high worthiness of this work. This is an essential recording by an essential artist. They just don’t make records like this anymore, and it’s a shame.

1. Nobody's Fool (Bobby Emmons, Dan Penn) - 2:52
2. Raining In Memphis (Dan Penn, Mic Lietz, Spooner Oldham) - 3:43
3. Tearjoint (Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts) - 2:55
4. Time (Dan Penn) - 2:22
5. Lodi (John Fogerty) - 3:17
6. Ain't No Love (Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham) - 3:36
7. I Hate You (Dan Penn, Leroy Daniels) - 2:26
8. Prayer For Peace (Bill Rennie, Dan Penn, Greg Reding) - 2:45
9. If Love Was Money (Bill Phillips, Dan Penn) - 3:32
10.Skin (Dan Penn) - 2:47

*Dan Penn - Vocals, Guitar
*Spooner Oldham - Organ
*Jay Spell - Piano, Keyboards
*David Hood - Bass
*Sammy Creason - Drums
*Bill Phillips - Organ
*Greg Reding - Organ
*Mike Utley - Keyboards, 
*Tommy Richard - Guitar
*Charlie Freeman - Guitar
*Jim Johnson - Bass 
*Tommy McClure - Bass
*Dulin Lancaster - Drums, Backing Vocals, Horns