Wendy Rene isn't a name that comes up much when people talk about soul legends. Never famous, and active for only four short years, her legacy is in the archives with hundreds of other obscure soul acts of the early '60s. Listening to After Laughter Comes Tears, it's mind-boggling that the amount of talent and raw soul put forth by Rene failed to register with audiences of her day or be rediscovered earlier along the line. Sure, in 1994 Wu-Tang Clan built a track on their classic debut 36 Chambers on samples from the spooky organ-led tune that this collection takes its name from, and several years later Alicia Keys borrowed heavily from the same song with her composition "Where Do We Go from Here." DJs and collectors have paid top dollar for her increasingly impossible-to-find singles, but on a broader scale, Wendy Rene has gone largely unrecognized. Starting out as a teenager, Rene sang with short-lived Memphis group the Drapels. The Drapels sole four tracks (all included here) are strong, if standard, Southern soul of their era. Where Rene truly found her voice was on the songs recorded under her own name between 1964 and 1965. Included here is her entire recorded output; all the singles she sang on, as well as nine rarities and two completely unreleased tracks. Ranging from infectious upbeat dance-craze stompers to minor-key ballads of lost-love misery, this is '60s soul at its absolute best, and it's amazing it took almost 50 years to be reissued.
"Love at First Sight" sums up what makes Wendy Rene so powerful. This fairly plain soul song is the typical girl-meets-boy-at-the-dance tale, unremarkable on the surface and generally unassuming. In Rene's care, however, this B-side fodder is imbued with all the loneliness and heartbreak imaginable. Even in lines about happy new love, Rene sounds as if she's singing from the world's edge, gripping hollow promises from a new boy as tightly as possible, lest she fall into the abyss. There's a cold shadow over almost all of Wendy's strongest songs. "After Laughter Comes Tears" is absolutely haunted, but even the slight melancholy of "The Same Guy" and the corny lover-done-me-wrong story line of "Crowded Park" hint at deeper chasms of sorrow. That said, this collection is far from a downer. The jubilant opener, "Bar-B-Q," a ridiculous ode to summer cookouts, lacks any creeping dread, and if you're not paying close attention, it's easy to miss the well-concealed heartache in Rene's steamrolling vocals. Having all 22 known recordings in one place sheds light on just how incredible a performer the world missed out on at the time. The raw, smoky recording quality and electric performances by the Stax session musicians leave just the right amount of negative space for Rene to command the songs with a voice as potent as that of Irma Thomas, Barbara George, Aretha Franklin, or any of the more widely known names in soul history.