Although Phoebe Snow is one of our most gifted and distinctive singer/songwriters, her career has never been an unqualified musical success. Singers with far fewer technical endowments have made far more of their gifts, while Snow's equals have produced at least occasional classics as songwriters - "Both Sides Now," for instance. And yet the hopes she aroused among everyone from ex-folkies to jazzies to funkophiles testified not only to the range of her talents but also to the range of musical contexts that lay within her grasp. To cap her appeal, of course, was a voice whose timbre and attack were more like a ragged, bleeding tenor saxophone's than that of any woman singer since Ellen McIlwaine, Snow's closest analogue in tone just as (yes) Neil Young is nearest to her in inflection.
No cynic when Snow's career began in 1974, I didn't lose my enthusiasm until the release of her third disc late in 1976, It Looks Like Snow, but the reasons for my loss of faith turn out to apply to every one of her records. Though she masks it well, Snow is at heart a show-off. Snow's overconfidence in the huff, the purr, and the throaty scrawl etched haphazardly - and usually superfluously - at the end of a phrase or in place of a strategic turn-around trashes her potential for drama in ballad, swing, and funk alike.
Even more telltale is that the style and quality of her peculiar articulation don't really change much from groove to groove. This is fine if you're Coltrane, where a new kind of logic proves its worth by working out no matter the rhythm under it, but in Snow's case the phrasing is often wholly unrelated to the groove in question. Much as Joni Mitchell submits herself to the standards of the poet and loses, so Snow is defeated by the standards of orthodox jazz and r&b. Despite what sometimes seems a reasonable attempt (like Betty Carter's, perhaps) to figure out a whole new approach to singing, Snow never gives herself a chance to be as honest and adventurous as her graduate-hippie persona might lead us to believe. She doesn't nestle fully into any groove at all, and on ballads the lack of dramatic tension is positively exasperating. Particularly disappointing are the flat-out jazz tunes, where Snow is often capable of hip phrasing, but almost never for more than a moment at a time.
Fortunately, though, Snow seems to have settled in a good deal on her newest album, Against the Grain, arguably her best even though its strengths are confined almost entirely to the second side. Here Snow suddenly appears more at home than usual in her various grooves, and manages to wrench genuine tension and emotion from each one. Even more impressive than "Oh, L.A." (distance and desire) and "Married Man" (forbidden fun) is Patti Austin's "In My Life," which ripens with the emotional generosity that is the converse of formal restraint - the soaring punctuations at the end of verses following naturally from the unhurried composure of the phrasing that precedes them, the pregnant pauses and split-second delays kicking her voice sky-high by intelligence rather than by effort.
Such saving coherence, though, is still forced to co-exist with the usual disproportion of pyrotechnics and feeling elsewhere on the album. The cover of "Do Right Woman," a tough enough order in any case, leaves you wondering what the point is - the opening of the first chorus sees Snow lose whatever drama the song may pack as she drops into neutral register to state the principal melodic theme; she tears off the closing "tomorrow" as absent-mindedly as you might tear a phone number off a pad. On a cover of "He's Not Just Another Man," the arrangement builds but the intensity of Snow's voice does not; at tune's end there's a virtuoso screech that signifies climax instead of enacting it.
The same problems beset Snow in concert at Queens College December 12, largely nullifying whatever fresh hope the new album had kindled. Aggravated by a three-month tour, Snow was long on effect and short on substance. At first the band seemed to percolate, while Snow's voice, remarkably guttural and jazz-rooted live, seared both mind and membranes as it rose from the electric swell. But subtle tempo problems soon infected the sound with a central unsteadiness, which was magnified by Snow's shaky acoustic guitar (unlike most old folkies, she's more flash than funk when it comes to picking). Both these instrumental uncertainties were symptomatic of a greater spiritual (or maybe just intellectual) one, what a friend who came along called "skidding." Often pearls by themselves, Snow's phrases on ballads and bouncers alike followed one another with no particular dramatic order. No trajectory was established, no pressure created; there was no inexorable driving force either in the narrative flow of her voice or from the band.
Particularly ironic and especially symptomatic was the virtuoso blitz at the end of a free-form blues thing between Snow and pianist Dean Krauss early in the show. Sheer effect rushing in after a very credible and emotional display of soulful restraint was not only superfluous but downright mindless and tacky. This is a dangerous and upsetting thing to see a gifted performer do, and particularly upsetting when weighed against the few near-triumphs scattered through the hour-and-a-half set, notably a thumping cover of McCartney's "Be With You," a swinging "No Regrets" that featured some tempting glimpses of Snow's genuine jazz abilities, and a deep-rooted version of "Let the Good Times Roll" towards evening's end. Let's hope some rest will allow Phoebe Snow to consider her gifts more thoughtfully. She is no longer a novice at her trade.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 25 1978