T-Bird combines Mac Davis’ first two albums -- 1971’s Song Painter and 1972’s I Believe in Music, neither of which were previously released on CD -- on this 2010 two-fer. Prior to releasing Song Painter, Davis was very well-known as a songwriter, particularly for penning the Elvis Presley hits “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto,” songs strong enough to earn him his own recording contract with Columbia. The label decided to spin his songwriting success as a badge of honor, positioning him as something more than a professional -- he’s not a pen-for-hire, he’s a "Song Painter," a term that certainly carries the weight of the art. To be sure, the album itself carries through on that promise, containing hints of Mickey Newbury’s impressionistic country, brief bridges between full songs and quiet moments of introspection, sometimes drifting into a sweet, psychedelic haze as it does on “Home,” but the heart of the album is anchored in a rootsy rock reminiscent of Joe South and a splashy orchestrated country-pop in the vein of Elvis’ ’68 comeback. The latter would provide Davis the vehicle toward massive pop success, but it takes the backseat to soft, symphonic country-pop throughout Song Painter. Davis punctuates this lushness with the terrific boogie “Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham” (co-written by Delaney Bramlett) and a touch too much cutesiness, but this remains an ambitious yet soothing piece of period progressiveness that maintains much of its charm over the years. Davis tightened his focus considerably for his 1972 sequel I Believe in Music. The title track had already scaled the charts in a version by the AM pop band Gallery, well on its way to becoming a ‘70s standard, and it provided the touchstone for Davis’ approach on his second album: he ditched the artistic flourishes -- including, thankfully, the brief bridges connecting songs -- and concentrated on his commercial craft, cutting his own versions of “A Little Less Conversation,” “Watching Scotty Grow,” and “Something’s Burning,” pairing them with gentle, sentimental pop and some pounding, polished, country-soul, highlighted by the raving “Yesterday and You.” Moments like this don’t arrive too often, though: the insistent hooks arrive via the well-known hits, leaving most of the new songs as delicate acoustic numbers that play well in the context of this record but didn’t work as radio-ready singles. The next time around, Davis would give himself his big, splashy original tune “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” thereby finally hitting the big time, but here, he’s still finding his voice as a recording artist. He’s almost there but the results are most interesting in how his versions of his older songs point the way at what was to come.
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