On a good night in the New York underground around 1976 or ’77, the band led by Willy DeVille (New York native William Borsay, who had arrived back in the city via London and the Bay Area) could be the coolest cats on the scene. Willy dressed like a pimp and played a guitar covered in leopard skin; swagger and soulful strut was a brisk rejoinder to the sloppy punk and wimpy power pop bands they preceded and followed on stages. After the band was discovered, producer Jack Nitzsche got them on the lean, tough R&B beam for a first LP that sweats and smokes through and through as a classic of such fully and lovingly assimilated music should.
Return to Magenta is more of the same but less. On the first LP, a cover of Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” was one of many highlights; here, Martin’s inferior “Rolene” is pretty much it. Le Chat Bleu‘s arrival ended a prolonged absence from recording, but it confirmed that stagnation had set in. The band was, by then, a couple of Minks plus sessionmen; it seemed Willy was looking to become the soul crooner of his dreams without providing the songs to fuel ours (despite some collaborative songwriting with Doc Pomus, hitsmith for Joe Turner, Dion, the Drifters, etc.). Savoir Faire collects tracks from those three albums.
Evidence that DeVille had lost touch with the trash/sleaze aesthetic (not to mention Louie X. Erlanger’s lowdown guitar) is even plainer on Coup de Grâce. Despite a new, young band and a reunion with Nitzsche (Mink saxist Steve Douglas produced the third LP), the magic is still largely absent. Tracks like “Maybe Tomorrow” offer traces of the old bite almost as a concession.
Where Angels Fear to Tread, produced by the hitmaking team of Ron and Howard Albert (who ruined a Gang of Four album that same year), is a fine record of new DeVille originals, starting with the soulful and sweet “Each Word’s a Beat of My Heart.” This uncluttered and uncomplicated tribute to DeVille’s chosen forebears — Sam Cooke, Phil Spector, the Drifters, Joe Tex, James Brown — also includes forays into Spanish Harlem and other wondrously nostalgic time warps. DeVille’s songwriting and singing have returned to top strength, and the record burns with sincerity and warmth. Simply, elegantly excellent.
Sportin’ Life maintains those standards with a set of brand-new oldies that effortlessly evoke the bygone era of sweet soul music. “Something Beautiful Dying” (note the Righteous Brothers reference) is tenderly melancholic; “Little by Little” tries barrelhouse rockabilly; “Italian Shoes” is classic bad dude strutting. Apt self-production and a sharp backing band make this first-rate.
Mink DeVille had ceased to be an actual group long before Willy stopped using the “Mink” moniker on 1987’s bland and gimmicky Mark Knopfler-produced Miracle, which includes the unaccountably Oscar-nominated “Storybook Love” (from the film The Princess Bride). Still, DeVille’s seasoned voice is as strong and colorful as ever, putting the snappy “Angel Eyes,” romantic “Nightfalls” and Van Morrison’s “Could You Would You?” in the album’s plus column. A rootsy covers collection, Victory Mixture, provides a welcome antidote to Miracle‘s misguided modernity, making the most of the singer’s relocation to New Orleans with backup from such local legends as Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo and Dr. John. By contrast, the mostly self-penned Backstreets of Desire skillfully draws on DeVille’s prior genre explorations to create music that’s wholly contemporary while remaining true to the artist’s original vision. The anthemic “All in the Name of Love” is a surefire hit-in-waiting.
Big Easy Fantasy, a mixture of studio tracks and New York concert recordings, is another successful exploration of New Orleans’ musical heritage; the re-energized DeVille holds his own while sharing the stage and the spotlight with an even more impressive array of Crescent City luminaries. Initial pressings contain a bonus disc of DeVille performing “All in the Name of Love” and “Hey Joe” with Los Camperos de National Cano Mariachi Orchestra.
Flash forward a decade, and DeVille’s still at it, growing into soul music and Delta blues like an old tree extending its roots in a graveyard. He begins Crow Jane Alley on a dubious note with “Chieva,” an ambivalent song about recovering from heroin addiction, but then turns his attention to romance and gets it all right. His renditions of Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” and Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” bring their own drama and gravity to the material, while such homemade numbers as the convincingly authentic mojo-wielding “Muddy Waters Rose Out of the Mississippi Mud,” the surging “Right There, Right Then” and the rustic waltztime “(Don’t Have a) Change of Heart” are small strokes of heartfelt majesty. The title track, a cowboy lament of sorts, is a requiem for Jack Nitzche.