Released: March 1973
Chart Peak: #64
Weeks Charted: 21
There's something remotely criminal about not having reviewed one of the biggest surprises and greatest musical successes of the year until it has been in release for six months. Happily, it isn't too late to make amends. Dobie Gray's Drift Away is a superb album, one of the best fusions of R&B, country and pop ever, fully on a par with the best of Joe Simon (whom he sometimes resembles), and dominated by a contagious and irresistibly warm spirit that made the title single so enormously popular and universally admired.
A sucker by nature for comeback stories, I'm taken with the notion of a moderately successful pop singer of the mid-Sixties (whose best record was "See You at a Go-Go," not "The In Crowd") returning to even greater success in the Seventies. But Gray's newfound maturity, combined with so much good material (apparently written specifically for him by producer Mentor Williams, guitarist Troy Seals, Donnie Fritts and Will Jennings), most of it concerning one or another aspect of both his and the rock and roll past, and immeasurably to my predisposition towards the LP.
The Nashville musicians play with uncharacteristic versatility and abandon throughout. There is an occasional stiffness to the production -- perhaps too great an emphasis on the treble range and insufficient filling out on some of the bigger numbers -- but other than that, Drift Away is without flaw. "We Had It All" is an elegant ballad about a lost affair that begins with a perfect classical guitar-styled introduction. "Rockin' Chair' evokes the album's most salient images -- a reflective looking back on what once was, the need for growing old with grace, the desire to keep one's pulse on the past while learning to face the future -- with dance hall vigor. Gray's own "Sweet Lovin' Woman" features the LP's characteristic shifts in dynamics -- a driving verse moves perfectly into a romantic chorus. Other cuts follow suit, each adding shading to what is essentially a unified piece of work. And although there is nary a loser, there are two clear standouts.
And then Gray and the band turn this potentially sentimental pop song into a near-desperate affirmation of rock & roll-as-a-life-force ("Cause I'm staying close to that rock and that roll/ You know, I can still feel it, deep down in my soul..."). A mesmerizing cut, but not quite on a par with the album's title song.
"Drift Away"'s glory rests in part with Williams' perfectly balanced production. His use of subtle effects makes it a continuing source of delight -- for example, the smallness of the introduction pitted against the breadth of the choruses; the floating guitar extending the vocal lines with just the right grace notes; the simplicity of the background vocals; the precision of the transitions between verse and chorus; the introduction of the strings at just the right moment, and to just the right degree; and, best of all, pitting Gray's voice against just handclapping and bass drum during the record's climax.
But it is through the purity of Gray's performance that the listener necessarily infers a connection between what we assume to be Gray's real-life past and his music. The cumulative effect of so many elements working in peaceful harmony perfectly transmits the song's gorgeous and enduring sentiments:
Ah, but then don't we all?
- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 10/11/73.
From the man who had a huge hit several years back with "The In-Crowd," this LP could put him back in the spotlight again. The set features both rock and soul tunes, and all the cuts are strong enough to be singles and receive AM and FM play. Best cuts include the title tune, "The Time I Loved You The Most," "City Stars" and "Sweet Lovin' Woman." LP also features fine production and tight instrumental arrangements.
- Billboard, 1973.
At times this long-lost '60s one-shot sounds like a black Joe Cocker -- with the strain removed, naturally. His frank, unchurchy baritone works material from Nashville producer Mentor Williams for a universal country-rock whose racelessness is a real relief in a world of drawlers and twangers. But though the title hit sticks, I find its central conceit -- rock and roll to soothe the soul -- ultimately enervating. Enough to make me wish he'd rejoin the in crowd, which after all is out by now. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
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