Despite their many flashes of genius, Jesse Winchester’s first three LPs proved to be less than fully satisfying affairs. While each contained one or more tours de force (i.e. “Yankee Lady”), out-and-out clunkers consistently mingled with the gems. Moreover, the singing and backup seemed as uneven as the programs. And the albums’ minimal productions and off-handed arrangements frequently also left much to be desired.
Let the Rough Side Drag, the sort of sterling package that his fans have long suspected he might one day deliver, is another story entirely. The production, instrumentation, and arrangements are all excellent. Winchester’s vocals, which profit from the mix, radiate new warmth and conviction. And many of the eclectic compositions rank with the singer’s best.
Topping the menu is “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” a revamping of a song that first appeared on the artist’s 1970 debut LP. Well demonstrating Winchester’s extraordinary ability to turn a phrase, the effusive original has already long been regarded as a classic. In this superbly sung new rendition, which boasts spirited backup and an arrangement that proves redolent of the Everly Brothers’ interpretation, the number gains fresh power.
Other highlights abound. On the advisory “Damned If You Do” and the infectious “Everybody Knows But Me,” for example, Winchester winningly showcases his inimitable brand of sardonic wit. “As Soon as I Get on My Feet” and “Blow On, Chilly Wind” (which features the singer on flute) underscore his ability to write deceptively simple, widely accessible tunes that beg to be covered by a diversity of artists. At the same time, Winchester’s heartfelt readings of these numbers suggests that he has become his own best interpreter.
Though the lilting, celebratory title cut, “The Only Show in Town” and the pastoral “Working in the Vineyard” (which would fit nicely on a Band LP) also delight, not every track is up to par. For instance, despite competent vocals and some tasty harp fills by Paul Butterfield, “It Takes More than a Hammer and Nails to Make a House a Home” can sound as tedious as its longwinded title. Similar criticisms apply to the plodding, albeit rather funky “Step by Step.”
Considering the program’s overall excellence, however, these complaints hardly seem important. I’d suggest that you let the few rough sides drag and pick up immediately on the rest.