Jul 1, 2009 at 12:00 am

Any record whose opening is a piquant version of Bill Withers' wonderfully promiscuous "Use Me" gets mad points, certainly — and considering the year this 10-song album hit shelves (1972), that song, with its gender reversed, becomes a feminist aphorism as much as it is a sexual confessional in Esther Phillips' hands. The singer also tackles Withers' lovely "Let Me in Your Life" here — more polished and maybe attentive than the original, heavier strings and elegy-like — and you can just picture the person who loves the least in a troubled relationship that's destined for failure. Withers wrote songs in personal truths and Phillips interprets his and others as such; her voice alone captures darker human sentiments with jazzy-blues poise, as if haloed by cigarette smoke under glinting neon and fed too many late-night lounge cocktails. Her syllables wrap and curl words, becoming storyteller talky like Carmen McCrae, or punchy like Betty Wright, or sad and vibrato-nasal like Billie Holiday. And, the frequent Nina Simone comparisons are at times accurate. The woman was rounded; it's no wonder the Beatles loved her.

Eddie Floyd's "I've Never Found a Man (To Love Me Like You Do)" is the album's pop centerpiece, a close interpretation (the only song included that's faithful to its original, and that's a beautiful thing), which hit the R&B Top 20 in '73. Dan Penn's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" is as dramatic as the Flying Burrito Brothers' version was dissimilar to Aretha Franklin's — is it jazz or R&B or soul or country? Who cares? It sings straight to the bone. The singer's voice is sexy slinky on Big Joe Turner's "Cherry Red" and believably lonely and abandoned on the nearly unrecognizable title song, and maybe what its author Gilbert O'Sullivan really had in mind for it. The fitting closer, "Georgia Rose," is a ballad of epic proportion summoning female power with an underside theme of do-or-die desperation for equality, all in the voice of a hurting chanteuse — it's slow anti-romance that's romantic as all hell, because, yes, the times have changed. 

Phillips, who at 13 scored a No. 1 ("Double Crossing Blues") with Johnny Otis, was pushing 40 when she recorded this, the second of seven for the CTI's soul-ready Kudo label. The record earned a Grammy nod, but note that her preceding album, From a Whisper to a Scream, so impressed Aretha Franklin that she presented her 1973 vocal performance Grammy to Phillips, saying she deserved it more. The accumulated wisdom of Phillips' life spent mostly in song shows in both her tone and touch, and so it is that the singer died of liver and kidney failure after too many years embracing heroin and alcohol. She wasn't yet 50.

The album's pacing and timing flow effortlessly: The Rudy Van Gelder recordings are spare and open, a sonic dais for Don Sebesky's lovely string arrangements, and the musicians' (including Billy Cobham, George Benson and Ron Carter) cozy relationships with strings, brushes and horns are clearly audible. More, the audiophile-class CD mastering is remarkable, from the original Kudo/Sony mix-down master tapes, and the eight-page liner notes tell of Phillips and her Alone Again well.

Brian Smith is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].