Tommy James

A Night In... Big City: An Audio-Movie

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This is an ambitious project by songsmith Tommy James featuring 11 songs and ten tracks of dialogue linking them together. Concept albums are tough -- a great example of a successful marriage of music and dialogue on CD being The Wizard Of Oz soundtrack. When Lou Reed released Berlin in 1973, the RCA label touted it as a "film for the ear." It was a soap opera set to music, a downer version of the "rock opera" format the Who launched with Tommy. In order to grab the listener, a storyline must be as compelling as the music. The narrative on A Night in Big City is confusing, but the music is among Tommy James' best solo work. This audio-movie has the smart pop Tommy James is known for, suspended by an unnecessary story thread. A natural evolution from his Christian of the World phase (which included the hit "Draggin' the Line"), the song "Baby Tonight" is vintage Tommy James with modern sounds. But it's necessary to get up and hit "next" on the CD player to skip the interruption and get to the next song, "Give It All," another hook-laden tune with James' great vocals and guitar work. It's nice to see he's still working with arranger and co-producer Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner (keyboards, synths, strings), who worked on the Christian of the World album. "Give It All" segues nicely into a revision of "I Think We're Alone Now," a very sparse, very cool "new wave" version. "Who Do You Love is ethereal Tommy James music, very nice indeed. James then picks up a chick for a ride in his limo, tuning his radio in to hear the single from this CD, "Megamation Man." This is a Ray Davies kind of "20th Century Man" that comes during the century after, a solid tune. "Madd Blue" is unique solo TJ. Unlike his Roulette discs without the Shondells, this is downright psychotic, sounding like Boris Karloff meets Richard O'Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the comic book accompanying this disc -- which features a "3D" cover a la Chuck Negron's The Long Road Back -- Willoughby, the crazed maƮtre d', attempts to explain the night's show. "Blue Bird" begins in a Tiny Tim-ish '40s style (which Mama Cass Elliot embraced so well -- this song would've been perfect for her). "Angels and Strangers," written by James and Glen Wyka, has a great hook that is classic Tommy James, a bit of "Crimson and Clover's riff speeded up a tad.

James is in excellent voice on this disc. "Tighter, Tighter" -- the hit he wrote for Alive 'n Kickin' (which became Brooklyn Dreams and appeared on Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows") -- is different than the version James re-recorded for his Fantasy Records debut in 1976. Co-produced by his old friends Ritchie Cordell and Kenny Laguna of "Mony Mony" fame, the Fantasy version is dreamier. This is more up-tempo and rocking. The band gets into a limo and ends up in a nightclub that burned down in 1937 -- some kind of script right out of Quantum Leap (not as much fun as the music, although it sounds good in theory). The final track, "In Slow Motion," is reminiscent of "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Despite the flaws in this endeavor, it is music that radio desperately needs. Maybe a new script for what comes between these songs upon re-release is in order, for without the interruptions, A Night in Big City is a classy effort.

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