In the winter of 2010, a new generation of a cappella fans were introduced to Jerry Lawson—a legend in the form who has been making music without any instrumentation for over four decades. Lawson was best known as the front man for The Persuasions, but he had left the group years before, with intentions of pursuing a variety of personal goals that transcended a cappella music. Little did he know, Talk of the Town was waiting around the corner.
You can learn much more about Lawson’s story throughout the Persuasion years and how he came to his new group here. What’s important to know is that he found a new group of talented singers to back him, who shared a common vision for how a cappella should sound, how to approach the art form, and worked with Lawson to record what he, himself, has declared the masterpiece of his a cappella career.
When listening to the group’s eponymous CD, the first thing a listener might observe is how much purer it sounds than many other a cappella albums in recent years. Plenty of today’s a cappella CDs don’t sound like a cappella, not because of the skill of the performers, but on account of production effects. In this day and age, it’s remarkable and refreshing to hear a collection such as this for which the production team clearly trusted the old school vocal sound of the musicians, polishing the tracks without blurring the lines, leaving each voice to be heard in its natural form.
The album stands on the foundation of two key components. First and foremost, there’s Jerry Lawson, not only the lead vocalist for most tracks, but the album’s narrator and guide who leads off multiple tracks, and throwing in asides in which he talks to listeners in much the same way he charmed live audiences for so many years. It’s a device that could come across as patronizing or just odd in the hands of a lesser audience, but even Jerry’s speaking voice is remarkably soulful, and gives you the feeling that you’re in very good hands, taking you on a tour through music history.
The other piece of the foundation for the album is bass Ray Ragler, who tragically succumbed to leukemia mere months after the group finished recording the CD. If this album is to serve as Ragler’s legacy, it’s a darn proud one—singing with understated swagger that anchors so many of the tracks with its steady rhythm and rich sound. Ragler gets his surest opportunity to shine on his comedic interjections on “Honey I’m Home”—a splendid down-home reimagining of a Shania Twain ditty.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The very first track, “Mountain of Love” makes a bold statement in its own right. Though the group doesn’t sing in the barbershop style, I couldn’t help recall a conversation I had with Allan Webb about the barbershop documentary American Harmony in which he talked about four voices can lock into a chord and create the auditory illusion of additional notes. Talk of the Town achieves a similar effect on this track, and most songs that follow—despite the paucity of voices, you never get the sense that they’re missing parts. It’s a full sound that draws listeners right in, and makes them forget to listen for distinct voices and flow with the music instead.
“Ray’s Rock House” shows off a slightly rougher side of the group, but don’t mistaken this for a contemporary rock track. On the contrary, the piece is all about the patience of experienced storytellers, willing to circle around to lyrical repetitions, but deftly building the complexity, volume, and tempo of the song as it progresses to add a real drama to the piece.
Part of what’s most interesting about a recording assembled by an older group of musicians is the artistic choices they make in terms of which songs to include in the recording.“I Hope” sounds very much like forefathers singing to the next generation of not just family members, but the broader community of musicians in general, so richly speaking to the responsibility of their generation to prepare the next. Similarly impactful, if far less serene is the group’s take on “Thank God For You,” a piece all about looking back to pay homage to the people who paved the way. I defy any listener not to smile at the sound of Jerry singing about his mama’s cooking and his father’s whoopings. The track is simply beautiful in its simplicity, and an utterly infectious take on a very fun song.
Lawson and Talk of the Town extend beyond personal messages to more socially conscious music. “God’s Gift to the World” is a strikingly sincere spiritual that’s not only about praise, but striking song of inclusivity that includes lyrics Lawson added himself, declaring the value of all people—gay, disabled, no matter the color of a person’s skin. It’s a moving piece.
One of the coolest elements of this album is the way in which it pays homage to not only different time periods and genres but the spectrum of Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town’s own sound and lives. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” features Talk of the Town without its lead, for a take on the song that is, at once, strikingly traditional, but also unique in its own right for the distinctively male sound on a song far more often covered by female voices. The album also includes Easter eggs like guest vocals from Jerry’s daughter Yvette on “For the Love of You” and very sweet duet from Jerry and his wife Julie on closing track “Side by Side.” And, of course, there may be no truer joy for long time Lawson fans the Persuasion medley that through which the guys joyously sing that “we’ve been making music all these years, and we still ain’t got no band,” and progress through time and melodies to arrive at perhaps the most traditional a cappella song of all “Good Ol’ A Cappella.”
I could have done without some of the more obvious choices on the CD—tracks like “The River of Dreams” and “What a Wonderful World,” which, as beautiful as they are, didn’t feel as though they added as much to the a cappella lexicon as other tracks. Of course, had the group strayed too far from standards, we may not have gotten my personal favorite track, “Islands in the Stream.” Music fans from my generation may most readily associate the chorus with late ‘90s rap anthem “Ghetto Superstar.” Lawson and Talk of the Town boldly re-appropriate the music for something closer to its original purpose with a soulful groove, featuring lovely high harmonies from Sean Altman and a hidden gem of a muted trumpet sample courtesy of the one and only Deke Sharon.
Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town may not appeal to every listener, but for those who pine for an old school sound, or take pleasure in deep and sincere reimaginings of diverse sounds, this album is a hidden treasure. It’s available now via Lawson’s website here (upon request, Lawson will autograph copies ordered through his site), Amazon, or digitally via iTunes.