Rodriguez – Searching For Sugar Man (Sony) CD REVIEW

BILLED AS THE original motion picture soundtrack to the documentary that has wowed film festival audiences around the world, this is simply a 14-track compilation of what purports to be the singer/songwriter’s best work.
Now that popular music has a substantial history, and is no longer seen as a flash-in-the-pan or merely a cultural quirk, there’s a mini-industry of archeologists digging into the vaults, and looking for artists who were, for reasons of poor timing or bad luck, neglected in their own time.
Rodriguez, who released a small clutch of obscure albums in the early 1970s, is being feted as a major find on the back of that movie, which apparently reveals the fact that, while at home in Detroit he was ignored, his bootlegged albums found a captive audience amongst those struggling for the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa. It sounds like a fascinating story.
The pitch goes that his Bob Dylan-inspired songwriting, matched with an indeterminate soul-inflected sound comparable to the incomparable Bill Withers, is worthy of reappraisal.
Mythology building can be a hazardous job, especially when the music doesn’t live up to the promise of a fascinating backstory. Such is the case here.
Listening to Rodriguez for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind why his career never got airborne. While it’s clear that he was infatuated with early Dylan, his abilities with a lyric are limited, and dated. Besides which, the orchestrations are all wrong, and so is the image. It’s not that Rodriguez couldn’t have cut it without aping Dylan visually, or that using horns and string sections necessarily spoiled his chances; just that the way it all sticks together is no more convincing than the thousands of other chancers bobbing around in Dylan’s large shadow in the early ‘70s.
But the first thing I thought was: Rodriguez has listened to more Donovan than Dylan. After all, it was Donovan Leitch who took Dylan stylings and transformed them into cosmically-tinged hippy paeans and delicate wafty orchestrations and, well, it’s clear that Rodriguez’s singing style is filched from Donovan more than Dylan, because it has the same fey trill and similar melodic curlicues.
Which doesn’t invalidate it, exactly. I like Donovan, for all his flaws. It’s just that, unlike Donovan, Rodriguez doesn’t take his Dylan straight and magically twist it into shapes he can call his own.
Okay, so the unearthing of Rodriguez isn’t going to belatedly change the course of music history, but Searching For Sugar Man still makes for a sporadically entertaining listen for pop culture vultures.
The title track, for instance, is blatantly Donovan-derived, but the strange mix or orchestration and synthesiser makes a musical bed that, while not quite right, has a certain charm, especially from a 2012 perspective. ‘Crucify Your Mind’ is just as blatantly Dylan-derived, but its embellishments (horns, plinky guitar, xylophones) again gives it some novelty value. ‘Cause’ – which starts with the line “I lost my job two weeks before Christmas”, is clearly written while lysergically altered, and is therefore quite hilarious.
His lyrics are hit and miss, and sometimes the emotional tenor of the words don’t match the mood of the music at all. ‘I Wonder’, for instance, bowls along at a jaunty pace with bubbling organ and scooting bass, but contains lines like: “I wonder/How many times you’ve had sex and/I wonder/Do you know who’ll be next.”

Possibly the funniest piece, but one you wouldn’t want to listen to more than twice, is ‘This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues’. It’s an extended rant about all the perceived ills of society, and includes side-splitting lines like: “The Mafia’s getting bigger/Like pollution in the river.”
Then there are love songs like ‘I Think Of You’, which would struggle to reach the depth of a $2 Shop greeting card.
By all means, go see the movie, check out the music, but don’t go constructing pyramids in honour of his belated ascendancy to greatness. GARY STEEL

Sound = 3.5/5
Music = 3/5

3 Comments

  1. It’s strange how many of the early 1970’s artists – who never made it, because “nobody understood their brilliance” are making a belated comeback. – Nick Drake,Sandy Denny, Big City and now Rodriguez.
    I first heard Rodriguez in the earlys 1990’s through some South Africian friends, who worshipped him. I echoed your comments that there were a few good songs but not an albums worth and was almost kicked out of the party for heresy!!!.

    I would add that the above singer song-writers are streets ahead as the current crop of so called “singer song-writers” that seem to disappear after 1 or 2 albums.

  2. Hi Keg. Thanks for your comment. I guess it’s human nature to retrospectively claim greatness, especially when, in Nick Drakes and Sandy Denny’s case, there’s a tragically short life story attached. Not to demean either of them: they were substantial talents, but the tragedy has, nevertheless, made their posthumous stars shine perhaps more brightly than they otherwise would have.

  3. Yes, I suppose it begs the question. If the above artists were still alive and had released many mediocre albums over the last thirty years would they be remembered at all? or end up like Hermans Hermits playing at the Pukekohe Cossy club.

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