My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

6 responses to “Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

  1. Alan Jobe January 25, 2017 at 8:02 am

    I’m sure I’ve made everyone sick to death of using the terms ‘a favorite of mine’ or ‘one of my favorites’, etc… But Cage The Songbird is without a doubt my very favorite Crystal Gayle album. I liked it a lot more than Jonathan does here, but I still enjoyed his excellent review. Bowen has said it was one of his favorite albums he’s ever worked on in Nashville. Crystal was pregnant with her first child, daughter Catherine, while recording this.

    This would be the last time that a CG album would peak in the top 5 of the Billboard Country Albums chart, as the trend in country music turned away (pun intended) from pop-sounding and back to a more traditional sound. Ironically, Bowen would be instrumental in this trend when he took over production duties for Reba McEntire and George Strait over at MCA.

    I remember hearing The Sound Of Goodbye on the radio when it was first released and thinking that it was one of the best CG songs I’d ever heard. Others must’ve agreed because it was a huge hit for her. One of the trends in most of her singles is heartache. She’s either remembering an old love, longing for a new love, or dealing with the loss of love. This song is absolutely perfect for her and she sings it with everything she has.

    I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love is my favorite (there’s that word again) song on the album. I never tire of hearing this song. It’s written so beautifully and imagining how difficult it is when you realize that someone you love doesn’t love you anymore is heartbreaking – and Crystal sings it that way. The song was flying up the chart on it’s way to the top, but was leap frogged at the last minute by the Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias smash To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before. Crystal actually went into labor while mixing this song in the studio.

    Turning Away is a change of pace from the other songs here and it’s such a fun, toe-tapping song. I knew when I heard it that it would probably end up being a single. It’s definitely a stand-out track.

    Crystal had never released four singles from one album unless the fourth was stuck on a hits package and released much later. I’m not sure why it happens here, but I’m glad it did. Me Against The Night is a strong, beautiful song. For it to climb to #4 as a fourth single says a lot. It was strong enough that it helped the album to continue to chart well over a year after it was released.

    The title track is amazing as well. I’ve never heard Elton’s version but I love the arrangement by Bowen and Crystal sings it with a soft but strong vocal. I’ve also never heard Crowell’s version of Victim Or Fool but again loved Crystal’s vocals on this song. I admit it is loud in some areas, but the overall feel of this song feels right to me. I liked On Our Way To Love a lot more than Jonathan did. I never made the Air Supply connection until he pointed it out. At the time this album was released, I had planned to have this song played when I got married. It didn’t happen, but that was the plan at the time. LOL

    I’m really not sure why this album connected with me so much. Was it her pregnancy that made her vocals so strong? Was it the excellent material she chose to record? Was it Bowen’s production choices? I’m not sure, but it seemed to all come together for an amazing album. It’s a shame that Bowen left Warner Bros for MCA after her next album. I would’ve liked to have heard much more from their collaborations.

  2. Razor X January 25, 2017 at 9:45 am

    I really liked all of the singles from this album and also like “Victim or a Fool” a lot, although the production is a bit heavy-handed on that particular track. I do agree that some of the remaining tracks are a bit bland.

    Jimmy Bowen came from a pop background and had worked with a lot of pop acts including Frank Sinatra before coming to Nashville. I remember reading somewhere — and I don’t remember where now — that one of his goals upon coming to Nashville was to rid country music of the fiddles and pedal steel, because he felt that was the way to make it more palatable to a wider audience. That is the whole direction that much of mainstream country seemed to be headed in the early 80s. As Alan has pointed out, Bowen would later change this approach when he took over at MCA and began working with George Strait and Reba McEntire (he even produced Loretta Lynn’s final MCA album), but I would also argue that he was the one who persuaded Reba to move in more of a pop direction.

    Then, as now, there was an ongoing argument about what was pop and what was country. It certainly can’t be said that albums like this one were particularly country but the difference is back then you could hear Crystal Gayle on the radio alongside George Jones and Merle Haggard, as well as Eddie Rabbitt and Gary Morris. There was a lot more diversity then, unlike now when every song seems to have the same the production.

  3. Alan Jobe January 25, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Razor X, you said a mouthful about the diversity of this time period. Even on pop stations, you could hear rock, pop, soul, country, and AC all mixed together. And I don’t think country listeners minded the pop-sounding music that much because, like you said, they were mixing in traditional country along with it. It was an amazing time in country music back then because so many songs sounded unique from the song you had just heard. I think that’s part of the reason that Crystal, Anne Murray, and others like them were so successful because they were offering music that was different, but still beautiful to listen to.

    One more thing I’ll add about this album that has nothing to do with the music. Crystal had always had some beautiful cover photos on her albums. The front cover photo shown above is very nice. But it was the back cover that was jaw-dropping. Crystal in a somewhat short red dress sitting on the floor with that beautiful long hair slightly curled and flowing down and behind her. It would later be used on a hits package released around 2001 or 2002. Absolutely gorgeous.

  4. Ken January 25, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Crystal’s transition to Warner Brothers from Elektra was not the usual sequence where an artist completes a contractual agreement and then enters into a new one with a different company. Elektra was one of three labels under the WEA umbrella [Warner Brothers – Elektra – Asylum] In 1983 the Nashville operations of Elektra and Warner Brothers were merged because Warner was under-performing and losing money while Elektra was flourishing. Elektra chief Jimmy Bowen was appointed as head of the consolidated entity and transferred most of his Elektra roster to the Warner Brothers imprint including Conway Twitty, Eddie Rabbitt and Hank Williams Jr. (who was a Curb/Elektra act) Ultimately that label change had no substantive effect upon Crystal’s career at that time other than the fact that the label on her record had a different color and logo than her previous release.

    I don’t find the fault that Jonathan does with Bowen’s production. He was mirroring a lot of the popular country music during that era. Crystal was a successful A/C sounding act so Bowen continued producing her in that style. The New Traditionalist movement had not yet gained traction so there was no reason to change course. Though that style of country music is not my favorite I thought he produced that sound as well as other producers of that time. Bowen produced a variety of acts including Hank Williams, Jr. Conway Twitty and the Bellamy Brothers so he was familiar with many different musical styles and approaches. After his move to MCA he produced some very traditional sounding songs for George Strait & Reba McEntire. Considering he produced some of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin’s biggest hits back in the 1960’s his expertise covered a lot of musical territory.

    The reason to go four singles deep may have been related to Crystal’s role as a new mom and several other factors. The departure of Bowen for MCA in early 1984 meant new executives in the Warner Brothers office were reorganizing the label. Crystal needed to team with a new producer and select songs for the sessions because when Bowen departed she did not have enough songs recorded for an entire album. A fourth single gave country fans a new reason to purchase the album. It also bought Crystal some time to have a current song on the charts and playing on country radio until a new single & album could be scheduled.

    • Razor X January 25, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      I had totally forgotten about “Me Against The Night”. It’s surprising that it made it all the way to #4. I don’t remember ever hearing it on the radio. My local station may not have played it.

      One more thought with respect to Crystal being an AC-sounding act: it’s not my favorite kind of country, either but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t many crossover acts making worthwhile music (not suggesting that Ken implied otherwise). Traditional country will always be my favorite, but I’ve come to realize I prefer the Jimmy Bowen-Crystal Gayle approach to the current practice of taking a (usually bad) non-country song and adding some fiddle/banjo/steel to it to try and give it some country cred.

    • Alan Jobe January 25, 2017 at 5:14 pm

      Ken, your reasons listed for a fourth single make perfect sense and one or more of those is most likely correct. January is winding down so I’m not sure if we’ll get a review of Nobody Wants To Be Alone or not (fingers crossed hoping so), but I was always curious as to why Bowen only produced six tracks for that album. You cleared that up for me. Thanks.

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