artsy and audacious theme albums are rare in R&B. And albums as weird and canny as Orquestra Was' "Forever's
a Long, Long Time" are infrequent in any style. Producer, multi-instrumentalist and ringleader Don Was (nee Fagenson) has been aiming off-center since the early '80s, when he was a leader of the loose aggregate cult band Was (Not Was). The outfit romped through mid-period disco, late-period soul, hard-guitar rock and Detroit doo-wop even as it sprayed Brian Eno's warm jets on George Clinton's funkentelechy. What Was (Not Was) turned out could only be called polyglot dance music for smarties and cynics, and numbers like "Wheel Me Out" and "Out Come the Freaks" attracted more plain folks on the lookout for fun than you might imagine. The group has been inactive since 1990, while Was compiled funds as a producer (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones, the B-52's) and indulged his passion for
films ("Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times").
Now he's back with some of the old crew, including journeyman soul vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson and ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, and some new hired hands like Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and the suspiciously named David "McMurray." The Wilson project must have inspired Was to mess around with the fundamentals, because the high concept summary of "Forever's a Long, Long Time" is "the songs of Hank Williams meet downhearted soul and lighthearted jams in the noir streets of Motor City." Yep, the material consists of five transformed Williams honky-tonkers (one
already reworked by Hank Williams Jr.) and five Was post-mod workouts.
The metamorphoses of songs like the title cut and "Lost on the River" are equal parts enchanting and perverse. Besides a couple pedal steel groans, no country atmosphere remains at all (Merle Haggard's cameo vocal on the final track, "I'm So Tired of It All" is a meaningless incongruity). But Williams' numbers give Atkinson some rugged melodies to caress, and with hep inflection sprinkled on them, the weary, lovelorn hillbilly lyrics rub nicely against the Digital Age arrangements. One particular chortle-inducer is "Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door),"
with vocal by Portia Griffin, which sends up the glossy, sexy-mama style of Babyface. His angriest tunes are squishy in the middle -- "Never Again" is
rejection all the way through.
Was only jokes a little bit here, though. He's become such a deft arranger, what with all his production work, that the seamless unfolding of his songs provides the album's chief entertainment. The 13-minute "Lost on the River" begins as a slinky blowing session in medium tempo with Blanchard and
"McMurray" stretching out -- for once with Blanchard the more choppy, dissonant phrasemaker. Then, with the coiling bass figure holding the
transition, the tune becomes a dubby space flight that slowly dwindles into arcade bleeps. Sure it's just a sequence of scenes, but the timing and
rehearsed moves are spot on. This is inspired indie jazz-funk from an unclassifiable who wears his years lightly.
Incidentally, those who play this disc with more computer muscle than I can muster will witness the enhanced-CD short film of "Forever's a Long, Long
Time," directed by Was and starring Atkinson and Kris Kristofferson (who doesn't sing on the regular CD at all -- I told you Was is smart).