DION - s/t LP (Laurie/1968[CD reissue via Ace/UK])As good as I'd hoped for. The name "Dion" had sprung up in polite company the last couple of years, and I instantly found it mighty curious that a guy who was most famous as a kind of teen-idol Italian-American street-corner doo-wop singer who, w/ the Delmonts, found great fame and fortune in the late '50s/ early '60s had then, apparently, in the late '60s cut a couple of highly-regarded discs in a kind of Fred Neil/Tim Hardin vein. And that he did, and my curiosity finally got the better of me.
Dion left his original label Laurie for mega-corp Columbia in 1963, though by then his heart wasn't set on more teeny-bopper fair; instead, he'd become enthralled by the new folk scene centred around Greenwich Village, particularly Bob Dylan, and he'd also found himself w/ a raging heroin habit. He recorded a few hit singles, but largely didn't record much the next 5 years. It was only when he kicked his addiction in '68 that he hit the studio again w/ a bag of covers, some originals and a yearning to get all introspective. On Dion, lush orchestral arrangements accompany the fairly bare-bones folksy/bluesy songs, and Dion takes a more free-form approach w/ his vocals, sounding a whole lot like obvious contemporaries Fred Neil, Tim Buckley and Van Morrison. He's got the sweetest damn voice you'll ever hear, one which never falls into the occasionally over-dramatic warbling of Buckley, but soars like Neil or Morrison at their best. It's the best instrument on the album.
The covers are pretty obvious choices for the era - Fred Neil, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Dylan, though there's also a vastly different reworking of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" (the CD liner notes call it "embarrassing": sounds pretty fine to me!), a non-terrible example of white-boy blues w/ Lightnin' Hopkins' "You Better Watch Yourself (Sonny Boy)", and a surprisingly non-saccharine take on Stevie Wonder's cheesefest, "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". Best of all is the lead-off track, the top 5 hit from the LP, "Abraham, Martin and John", a song which, for all I know probably still gets a flogging on oldies radio and I just happen to be the last guy on earth to've heard it. Written by Dick Holler (though Dion claims to've written the song's melody) it's a close to perfect slice of string-laden AM folk-pop, and even though the subject matter is about as dated as last week's milk (you shouldn't have to try too hard to guess what he's singing about), even an old curmudgeon like me can admit it's still an affecting tune.
There's also an original tune by the man himself, the anti-war "He Looks A Lot Like Me", a sparse guitar/vocal lament which proves he was more than just a jukebox for the best singer/songwriters of the day. As a whole, Dion is an astonishingly good album, a total surprise and a must for any fan of late '60s Buckley, Fred Neil, Astral Weeks and even Forever Changes, and possibly even best of all is the bonus track on the Ace CD, the rare B-side to "Abraham, Martin and John", "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)", another Dion original which makes him sound like a street punk for real. Lou Reed always dug him, and now I can see why. The opening riff, complete w/ a violently strummed distorted guitar, sounds uncannily like the Velvets' "Sister Ray", and it's a primo slice of punkified '60s folk-rock likely ignored by all but the most foolhardy collector dork.
Later on, Dion traded in the smack for God and has apparently refused to play anything but religious material (I think his interpretation might be a little loose), though people still speak highly of the records he's made throughout the last 40 years, especially the Spector-produced Born To Be With You from 1975, a record alleged to be one of the best ever, according to Limey guitar-slingers Pete Townsend and Jason Pierce. I'll deal w/ that another time. Until then, if your taste in music extends beyond my usual rants about old punk discs and SST releases, you might wanna investigate.