Elyse Weinberg – Greasepaint Smile (1970/2015)

“Sweet pounding rhythm from an old song of mine…”

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I was big fan of the singer-songwriter’s first LP, billed and self-titled simply as Elyse (1969), and I’m a sometimes-sucker for the seemingly endless hard luck stories of careers stalled due to mismanagement or label indifference. So when Numero Group presented Elyse’s unreleased second album last year, it felt like a pretty safe bet. I’d given it a few spins, but somehow had not formed much of a reaction to it, so I’m going to try again now.

One of the best songs on the debut was her cover of Bert Jansch’s “Deed I Do”—little more than her smoky voice and an acoustic guitar—and the opener here captures a similar unadorned magic in an original called “What You Call It.” This album too mixes things up with more raucous songs, and a tight snare crack and at least two electric guitars (with some nice fuzzy/squealy interplay) propel the autobiographical tale of this Toronto-to-L.A. musician trying to make it in the “City of the Angels.” No surprise that such a transplant (a Laurel Canadian?) might find a friend in Neil Young, and he plays a bit of guitar on “Houses” (the CD release of her debut included the otherwise unissued collaboration as a bonus track, which succeeded in alluring some press). It’s a pretty modest but trademark contribution, but not that compelling of a song to me. Some of the ramshackle vibe of the the first album appears on “It’s All Right to Linger” (“…but it’s no good to stay”—a cousin to The Charlatans’ “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”). “Collection Bureau” is a good name for a blues song, but electric blues jamming usually ain’t for me, and especially a shame when a pretty game belter like Elyse gets lost under the overly ornamental wailing guitar (thanks to an 18-year old Nils Lofgren) and competing barrelhouse piano. “Gospel Ship” tries too hard, and fails to move the spirit. And there’s probably a decent tune in “Nicodemus” but again most of the instrumentation feels overplayed—and I think I’ve decided I hate a harmonica in a band context—leave it to the blues duo, lonesome cowboy or solo troubadour… OK, I can think of some other exceptions, but it’s bad here, though slightly less obtrusive on an otherwise pleasant “My, My, My.” Things recover considerably with the jaunty and hard-to-resist “Your Place Or Mine” (apparently the harmonica player had been rightfully murdered). The title song wraps it up with an energetic but unfussy arrangement, for the first time since side one not sounding like a recording session at war with itself. Though the liner notes claim the opposite, it’s her debut album that sounds more bare bones to me. Everybody was young and hungry here (settle down Nils) and producer David Briggs was a still a few years off from Tonight’s The Night, the acme of laid-back and loose recording, but the clutter feels overly contrived here.

Hard to know what the form the album would have taken in 1970, or what this was really cobbled from. The hype tries to make the case that she’s “more assured” here, but to me there’s nothing quite as vulnerable as “Here In My Heart” or as sublime as “Spirit of the Letter” from the much more consistent first record (really only marred by the vaudeville comedy of “Mortuary Bound”). Overarrangements aside, honestly I’m not sure there’s enough distinctive songs here, and maybe this was shelved because it never quite got there. Elyse was not really in control of the proceedings, recalling “I didn’t know I could have an opinion.” Apparently she’s got another unreleased album from this period too, and I’d have preferred to have a stronger LP curated from all of these, rather than be sold another ‘lost masterpiece.’ Records are cooler, but sometimes a playlist will have to do.

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