If you’re unfamiliar with the name Dan Penn – as I was – it’s probable that you are familiar with some of the hits he’s written since his first songwriting hit (Conway Twitty’s 1960 recording of ‘Is A Bluebird Blue’), such as ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (The Box Tops), ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ (Aretha Franklin), ‘Dark End Of The Street’ (everyone from James Carr via Joe Tex, Elvis Costello, and Linda Ronstadt to June Tabor and the Oyster Band), and ‘I’m Your Puppet’ (James and Bobby Purify). Penn’s own recordings as a singer are thin on the ground, but his new album Living On Mercy (for CD and digital release on 28th August 2020 and as 12″ vinyl on 23rd October) proves that at nearly 80, he can still deliver a soulful song.
The promo package I received for review didn’t include details of who wrote what or when, or played what, but the album includes collaborations with long-established writing partners such as Carson Whitsett and Bucky Lindsey, and the backing comes from a studio band that includes stalwarts of the Muscle Shoals and Nashville scenes such as Milton Sledge and Michael Rhodes. Here’s the track list.
- ‘Living On Mercy’
- ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ is not the 1924 song by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, of course, but a perfectly serviceable original.
- ‘I Do’: curiously, this is a song that seems to go back to 1965 or thereabouts, and a demo version previously appeared on Penn’s collection of 60s demos The Fame Recordings, though the arrangement and delivery of that demo were very much characteristic of that time. The strength of this collection is that the arrangements are classic examples of the genre rather than of a specific era.
- ‘Clean Slate’
- ‘What It Takes To Be True’
- ‘I Didn’t Hear That Comin”
- ‘Down On Music Row’
- ‘Edge Of Love’ stands out as a slightly edgier performance, with bluesy guitar and keys, and the horns a little further forward. Kerr’s vocals seem a little more adventurous too.
- ‘Leave It Like You Found It’ is less pacey, but has a pleasant sourness to the lyric.
- ‘Blue Motel’
- ‘Soul Connection’
- ‘Things Happen’
- ‘One Of These Days’ – I was slightly chilled to hear the first lines of the Ray Charles classic ‘I Believe To My Soul’ repurposed, but then Charles wasn’t above repurposing older songs either. It’s a pleasant enough song anyway.
I’m slightly out of my depth – or at any rate at a tangent from my preferred genres – on this occasion. While Penn’s songs have been covered by people with some folk-y history or credibility (Tabor/Oyster Band, Richard and Linda Thompson, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder…), the songs here are closer to the soft/easy-listening end of the 60s/70s soul spectrum – are we still allowed to say blue-eyed soul? – rather than folk, though lyrically they incline more to country. That said, some have the potential to be classic examples of their genre; they’re all expertly played and Dan Penn’s vocals still have the power to move.
Artist’s website: www.danpenn.com/
‘I Do’ – Dan Penn’s original demo from 1965: