Glenna Bell,
Perfectly Legal: Songs of Sex, Love & Murder
(independent, 2010)

In the early morning hours of October 16, 1899, at her room inside an apartment building in a St. Louis ghetto, Frankie Baker quarreled bitterly with Albert Britt, who had lately been enjoying the charms of a rival, Alice Pryor. As the fight spiraled out of control, Baker produced a pistol and pumped bullets into Britt. Badly wounded, he lingered for three days, then died. Possibly because the two characters were cliches in an America of racial stereotypes -- Frankie was a prostitute, Albert a musician and street hustler -- the story attracted a fair amount of press attention. Frankie was arrested and then released on a judge's decision that the homicide was justified, a conclusion Albert's friends vehemently albeit futilely protested. Frankie Baker went on to live past the middle of the 20th century. Albert Britt stayed dead.

Within days of the crime, a ballad, "Frankie & Albert," was circulating through the streets of St. Louis, and soon it spread all through the country. In the eternal fashion of folk songs, it split into many variants. In 1912 a Tin Pan Alley pop version was published, rewritten as "Frankie & Johnny." It is a sorry imitation of the original, though -- sadly predictably -- it is the one best known to most Americans. I was well into my adult life before I heard Mississippi John Hurt sing "Frankie & Albert."

Possibly because "Frankie & Johnny" is more a stage piece than a raw murder ballad, Houston singer-songwriter Glenna Bell, who is trained in the theater (her CD is dedicated to "My mentor, Edward Albee"), chose it -- "chose it" presumes she is aware of the original -- over the authentic one. Her reading does not imitate Mae West's, but it is theatrical, alternating between comic banter and stark, dramatic pause. Hers, however, is not a smooth, trained theatrical voice; to the contrary, it has a distinctive rasp, notable vibrato and vaguely rural drawl that renders it immediately recognizable. Yet the dynamics of "Frankie" and the other seven songs here are far removed from the earthy influences of blues and hillbilly singers.

One lesson Bell might usefully have learned from the ballad tradition is that a song about something sad or terrible must also be listenable, even entertaining. How this gets accomplished has always seemed miraculous to me, but it is one reason Bob Dylan encourages would-be songwriters to start with, in his phrase, a "classical education" in folk music. American ballads such as "Banks of the Ohio," "Streets of Laredo," "Henry Lee," "Knoxville Girl" and -- yes -- "Frankie & Albert" recount heartbreaking episodes of violent death but, weirdly, also provide full enjoyment. In fact, they've been delivering the goods for decades or centuries, as the case may be.

On the other hand, a horrific Bell original -- capably crafted in a literary sense -- "Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz," which concerns domestic abuse and revenge killing, is something you will admire more than care to listen to. One time is basically the time you will want to hear it. It is a triumph of stage art -- one can easily see the events acted; after all, acted events by definition occur, shock and pass. A good song, by way of contrast, ought to be accessible and welcome forever. "Wedding" grabs your attention quickly upon exposure, but it is not likely to bring you back for more.

The notes identify this as "AN ALBUM RECORDED IN FOUR PARTS," which means it tells a story (I infer about a marriage's rise and fall) guided by three separate producers and cut at three studios at various locations in Texas, another in Pennsylvania. In each case the production is set in one degree or another of spareness, and beyond that devoid of a single cliche of contemporary roots production (also among the pleasures of Bell's earlier The Road Less Traveled, which I reviewed here 3 May 2008). Unhappily, even though it shouldn't, it underscores Perfectly Legal's unfinished quality.

There are several good songs here, but when there are only eight cuts, there is no affording misfires like an oddly uninspired cover, DeWayne Blackwell's "Honky Tonk Man" -- the ephemeral theme song of the 1982 Clint Eastwood film, not the rollicking Tillman Franks anthem that has thrived over the decades in hit recordings by Johnny Horton, Dwight Yoakam and George Jones. Even with her idiosyncratic approach Bell can't get leaves to sprout on the dead wood of "Frankie & Johnny." What's missing here is less an innate talent than a better focus and a broader canvas. And maybe a classical education.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 November 2010

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