Giving Chi Coltrane Another Listen

Originally posted April 23, 2007

I dithered and dithered about this most of the weekend, and now, even as I’m about to post it, I’m still dithering.

Last week, at her marvelous blog, The Wolfman Howls Again, my blogging colleague Mephisto posted “Go Like Elijah,” a single cut from Chi Coltrane’s self-titled 1972 album. I hadn’t heard anything from the album for a while except “Thunder And Lightning,” the single that went to No. 19 that autumn. And, as often happens, hearing Coltrane’s voice reminded me that I had the LP in the stacks and that I hadn’t looked at it since I began ripping mp3s from vinyl and posting many of the results here.

So I pulled Coltrane’s album off the shelf and took a look at it. It looked okay for a cheapie; I bought it for fifty cents during a 1993 spree split between Down In The Valley in Richfield and Cheapo’s in south Minneapolis, a spree I’ve already mentioned here before. I played a little of the Coltrane over the weekend before ripping it this morning, and I hesitated. There are more bits of noise than there usually are in things I post here, especially in the opening cut, “Thunder And Lightning.”

But . . .

I checked the files, and I already had a clean mp3 of the opening cut, ripped at 192 kbps. And I decided to go ahead.

That’s because Chi Coltrane has a unique sound to it, one that places it securely in its time, and one that I think still holds some interest for those who were around then and would also interest those who’ve never heard it.

Chi Coltrane was a Wisconsin girl, born in 1948, says All Music Guide. After Columbia released Chi Coltrane, for which she wrote all eleven songs, AMG says that stardom seemed assured, given her style, which it called “a sort of ultra-sophisticated take on Carole King and Elton John,” and her song-writing, which it praised both musically and lyrically.

(Her debut album brought her some attention and a Top 40 hit. But Let It Ride, Coltrane’s 1973 release, failed to find an audience, say AMG, and she put her career on hold for a few years, eventually releasing Road To Tomorrow in 1977. After that, AMG says, she moved to Europe, where she released three albums in a new wave, euro-rock style during the Eighties. She did some soundtrack work and then collaborated with Tangerine Dream in 1990. There’s been nothing from her since.)

Musically, Chi Coltrane was very good, showing Coltrane with the vocal and instrumental ability – she played all the keyboard parts on the record – to handle a diverse number of styles, from the white soul of “Thunder And Lightning” and the gospel of “Go Like Elijah,” to the quiet confessionals of “Goodbye John” and “It’s Really Come To This.” In addition, Coltrane was secure in writing about her faith without sounding preachy. AMG says she was “allegedly fiercely committed to bible study, and Jesus, but disinclined to follow organised religion,” which would not have been uncommon at the time. Her faith-based songs – “The Tree,” especially, but also portions of her anti-war “I Will Not Dance” and the album closer, “The Wheel Of Life” – remind me just a little of the clear-eyed but somewhat naïve faith expressed in other pop songs of the time, most notably “Put Your Hand In The Hand,” the No. 2 hit by the Canadian group Ocean.

I think it was that quality in her lyrics – a slight bit of naïveté balanced with that clear-eyed and clear-headed assessment of the life choices she’s facing in her songs –that attracted me to this album again as I listened over the weekend. Coltrane’s lyrics are not sophisticated. They’re not witty. Nor are they simplistic or vague. They sound very much like the efforts of an intelligent young woman trying to make sense of the world, which should really be no surprise. And, listening to them for the first time in years, I found them charming.

Combine that with her music – she shows a sure sense of melody, seeming so at home in her music that it must have been scary and thrilling for Coltrane’s producers thirty-five years ago – and Chi Coltrane is a record that I thought I just had to share. It’s not without flaws: As charming as they are, her lyrics could have used a little more craft in terms of rhythm and rhyme, and a couple of the more contemplative songs sound a little similar.

The musicians backing Coltrane on her debut included some of the major studio players of the time: Jim Gordon on drums, Larry Knechtel and Lee Sklar on bass and horns arranged by Jim Horn.

As I indicated above, there are more pops and snaps in these mp3s than there usually are in the things I post. But I thought the album was interesting enough to put up with a little extra noise.

Chi Coltrane – Chi Coltrane [1972]

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