Boz Scaggs Silk Degrees Music Album Reviews

Boz Scaggs Silk Degrees Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Boz Scaggs’ 1976 hit album, a record whose ineffable tragicomedy called for its own system of measurement.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, as you read this sentence, a used vinyl copy of Silk Degrees is sitting in the closest record store to you. It is not in great condition, and it is not expensive, and it was first owned by someone at a time when a lot of people owned vinyl records—and a lot of those people owned Silk Degrees. There are certain albums that go down so smoothly—inhaling the busy sounds of pop radio and exhaling their own cool, irresistible blend—that they seem to open a permanent slot in the greater public consciousness, sailing like a ship into a harbor in the clouds. Some albums belong to everybody.

Boz Scaggs’ seventh solo album, released just after Valentine’s Day 1976, is one such album. After it hit, the Ohio-born, Texas-bred, California-based songwriter described his ascent to stardom with the quiet contentment one finds after a long vacation, or a particularly inspiring ayahuasca trip. “It was an enormous satisfaction to have a hit record,” he would say decades later, “and I wish it at least once for every musician.” None of his albums before or after reached the same level of success, and while he’d have his share of hits (especially on 1980’s Middle Man) and artistic achievements (2001’s Dig, 2013’s Memphis), his career in the mainstream is largely defined by the meticulous, glimmering sound of these 10 songs.

If you know Silk Degrees but don’t know much about Boz Scaggs, it is at least partially by design. Before its release, he was largely a critical favorite, first for his contributions to an early, underrated iteration of the Steve Miller Band, and later for the solid if slightly anonymous albums under his own name. Within five years of the release of Silk Degrees, he would retire from the music industry—and not in the casual sense of working behind the scenes, making quieter records for smaller audiences, but in the more literal sense of retreating, spending time with his family, starting that restaurant and concert venue he’d always dreamed about.

Even as Silk Degrees slowly took over the world, casting Scaggs as one of the most successful figures in pop music in the late ’70s, he never had much interest in fame. In his early 30s when it was released, he quickly grew tired of giving interviews and presenting himself as the sleek, solitary, well-dressed icon from his album covers. “Maybe people need heroes?” he offered in 1978. “I’m tired of that.” The line of work did not come naturally: He had already quit playing guitar in the studio, turning his parts over to more qualified session musicians; he didn’t enjoy life on the road and resisted embarking on major tours. He said his dream role was to be a competent bassist, somewhere in the background. “I’m not a real ambitious person by nature,” he confessed.

All this may reek of false humility from someone who sold millions of records and contributed a hit song to a John Travolta film, but Scaggs’ lack of ego speaks to the particular triumph of Silk Degrees. As a songwriter, he operated by feeling, by tempo. Writing most productively with young keyboardist and session player David Paich, he composed the album piece-by-piece, like a DJ building a set: Let’s start with something upbeat then take it into overdrive—OK, now something slower so they can catch their breath. (Unsurprisingly, the album has, for decades, proven a fertile source for sampling.) The lyrics were written last-minute, more to sustain the mood of the music than to capture any distinct narrative. This approach is most noticeable in “Jump Street,” a rollicking outlier where a dark collage of imagery about city life culminates with him howling, “I wish I was dead.”

For Scaggs, the process involved as much listening as writing. One day, Paich was playing one of his own compositions, intended for a solo album, when Scaggs heard a progression of two chords that obsessed him for weeks. Eventually, he started imagining his own song. It became “Lowdown,” the first track on Side B. This is the song that turned Silk Degrees into a slow-burn hit, released as its second single, first gaining traction on an R&B station in Cleveland, then eventually peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard charts.

Listening to “Lowdown” today, you can imagine how Scaggs felt when he heard those chords. It builds gradually, organically, a good idea snowballing in a small room. First, there’s a disco beat, played by Jeff Porcaro, one of several musicians who turned in a career-making performance on the album. Then comes David Hungate’s suggestive ribbit of a bass line, and then those two moody chords, played by Paich on a Minimoog. Eventually there are flutes, Motown backing vocals, a spacy synth freakout, and an electric guitar solo from Louie Shelton that sounds like nobody clued him into what chords he’d be playing over. How many times have I listened to this song and I still can’t tell you the structure, or the order that any of this occurs. It’s less a pop song than a killer party, a story you piece together from blurry photos the next morning.

Such is the beautiful, foggy logic of Silk Degrees, evident in both the music and the words. Scaggs’ lyrics are often indecipherable: a soulful slur of moans and vowels with occasional context clues. “3 a.m., it’s me again,” go the opening lines, and each detail feels crucial. It’s easy to imagine these songs—so romantic, so doomed—being sung in those sleep-deprived hours when everything feels a little hazy, a little desperate. And “again”—there’s a level of intimacy and urgency. We have heard from this person before, and this will not be the last time.

The ballads are what helped push Silk Degrees into something approaching a standards collection: The closing “We’re All Alone” was sung by everyone from Frankie Valli and Rita Coolidge, who both had hits with it, to Michael Jackson and Scott Walker, who did not. These artists were likely drawn to the song for its bittersweet vocal melody and strange, formally beautiful structure—those descending seventh chords that make it feel like it’s constantly changing keys. Scaggs sings it near the limits of his upper register, giving the song a strange, existential loneliness. “Harbor Lights” is just as gorgeous, although it would be even more difficult to replicate the success of Scaggs’ version—a wobbly, late-night swoon that rocks back and forth before suddenly finding its sea legs with the bossa nova coda in the last 45 seconds.

Often the backing band, who would join forces under the name Toto shortly after touring Silk Degrees, stands toe-to-toe with Scaggs, fulfilling his ambition of being just one voice in a collective sound. Some of the most memorable parts are isolated choices from the musicians and arrangers: Porcaro’s opening drum fill of “What Can I Say” introduces the record as if swinging open the door to a California beach house, greeting you a little drunkenly, swaggering, mid-conversation, cocktail in hand. And the horns in “Georgia,” punctuating a string section that hovers in mid-air, ground the song and help make it sound like the last-ditch telephone call that Scaggs describes in the lyrics.

For all of the album’s highlights—the immortal “Lido Shuffle,” a punchy cover of Allen Toussaint’s “What Do You Want the Girl to Do”—“Georgia” is its emotional peak. It’s Scaggs’ finest turn as a lyricist—the half-rhyme of “Christmas in your eyes” and “moonlight through the pines,” the ambiguity of what precisely the narrator did that landed him in jail; the juxtaposition of one of his most beautiful melodies and one of his most depraved stories. It is Silk Degrees at its most luxurious and most tragic, striking a balance that no other album of its era matched.

This juxtaposition defines the poetry of Silk Degrees, whose title itself resists interpretation. “I have this box full of bits of paper, cocktail napkin scribblings, bits of wisdom,” Scaggs explained of its inspiration. “‘Silk Degrees’ was a phrase I’d had around in that box for a long time.” He had thought about using it for one of his previous records but something told him it wasn’t right, not quite yet. It’s perfect for these songs, whose mood is so cohesive and identifiable that Scaggs introduced his own system to measure it.

There are scenes in his lyrics that fit the bill—say, making love in the woods just before getting arrested, mistaking police lights for the moon. But like the films of David Lynch or the paintings of Edward Hopper, the aesthetic of Silk Degrees transcends art and seeps into the real world. Anything can be measured in silk degrees: say, a car running out of gas on a remote highway just in time to catch the sunset, or a couple breaking up in a casino, lit by the glow of slot machines. Songs by other artists—Neil Young’s “On the Beach,” Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter”—also work in his system, as evidenced by Scaggs’ laid-back 21st century cover versions.

Of course, the title can also conjure a useful way to compare the textures of bedsheets, and the commercial appeal of this music, produced by the then-unstoppable Joe Wissert, was initially its most obvious virtue. “Does the world need another white singer/songwriter dabbling in neo-Philly sweet soul?” Vivien Goldman asked in an early review. “I listened to this album over and over and over, hoping to be able to say yes. Now the answer is a qualified yes.” I feel her pain. The job of a critic becomes somewhat difficult when approaching something as smooth and universal as Silk Degrees. And yet, as it has aged, the album feels increasingly divorced from its moment in pop culture, and its more mysterious qualities—the abstract melancholy of Scaggs’ voice, the late-night twinkle of the band—are what pull you in, making it feel like your own, no matter how many people owned the LP before you did.

If I were reviewing this album in 1976, I might feel compelled to note that a lot of the music sounded derivative. Scaggs himself has always been open about his influences, from the Los Angeles contemporaries he studied closely to old standbys like Ray Charles, Jimmy Reed, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. His interviews often proceed like condensed summaries of music history, and so do his recent albums: After a tentative comeback in the late ’80s, Scaggs built up to a quicker pace with records that have taken the shape of tributes to styles, genres, and cities. He speaks about his voice as an instrument he grew more comfortable with later in life, as he got to know himself better.

It’s a quiet legacy but a notable one. Scaggs is a singer in the traditional sense, which means he is an interpreter. It’s this quality that allowed him to make a name for himself in the hippie scene of San Francisco in the 1960s—where he wore suits and was often pegged for a narc—and record his finest album at the peak of the disco era. He has always been adaptable, always thriving when presented with a challenge. If any cynicism remains about the success of Silk Degrees—for what it’s worth, Scaggs has always expressed disdain for terms like “blue-eyed soul” and “yacht rock”—it is impossible to ignore the devotion in his performances, the way these songs dug deeper the more people they reached.

There’s an excellent bootleg of a July 1976 show at Central Park on the Silk Degrees tour, a recording that was broadcast on the radio just as the album was gaining steam. Have you ever been at a concert where the momentum courses through the audience—the band’s been at it a while; the energy is translating; every song seems to burst out, slightly faster than what feels natural? Scaggs keeps his cool but you can tell he feels it. Before he introduces “Georgia,” a low rumble echoes across the stage; he glances heavenward: “Oh, it’s gonna rain a little bit! Yeah! Let’s all get electrocuted!” The crowd laughs. It’s summer in the city and the sky’s looking stormy—that’s Silk Degrees. “I’m ready to go if you are,” he drawls into the mic. He might be tempting God or he might be cuing the band. These songs leave it up to you to fill in the blanks. The man on stage is already gone.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Boz Scaggs Silk Degrees Music Album Reviews Boz Scaggs Silk Degrees Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on November 21, 2021 Rating: 5


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