Oscar Brown, Jr.

Between Heaven & Hell

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Of the four albums Oscar Brown Jr. recorded for Columbia in the early to mid-'60s, Between Heaven & Hell is perhaps the least celebrated, in part because it was the last to get onto CD (taking until 2010 to do so). Brown did his best work during this stint for Columbia, however, and this, the second of those LPs, fits comfortably into the flow of his peak as a recording artist. It's entirely characteristic of his sound of the period, Brown delivering sly lyrics with a hipster feel to bluesy jazz arrangements with big-band verve. The most famous, and best, of the songs is the first, "Mr. Kicks," with its up-for-anything devil-may-care vibe. But it's a pretty consistent album, benefiting from some arrangements by Quincy Jones, Brown maintaining an unflappably suave posture throughout. Sometimes that stay-on-the-sunny-side charm might verge on the smug and smarmy to some listeners, and there isn't as much of the more serious social commentary you find on some of his other efforts. The seamier side of life does surface sometimes, however, if in a rather lighthearted manner on tracks like "Opportunity, Please Knock." More satisfying outings in that regard are "World in Grey" and two poems to which Brown set music, "Elegy" (by Gwendolyn Brooks) and "When Malindy Sings" (by Paul Lawrence Dunbar). Overall, it's a worthy investment for those who like Brown well enough to want more in their collections than one or two compilations.

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