Archie James Cavanaugh was born in a Tlingit Indian community in Southeast Alaska. The cover of his debut album, originally released in 1980, features the image of a raven that, in Tlingit mythology, unleashed a kind of Pandora’s Box of sickness and disease into the world, and turned color from white to black. Cavanaugh is an artist steeped in ancient traditions, an involvement which doesn’t quite prepare listeners for the conduit he uses to share his joy and worldview: blue-eyed soul. Black and White Raven is a solid, lightly funky R&B album that should have given Cavanaugh a few hit records, if not stardom, but it’s a private press release that deserves a wider audience, and it’s finally starting to get it.

Connoisseurs of private press albums often favor music on the fringes of society: folk-psych Christian records like The Search Party’s Montgomery Chapel, homegrown teenage pop-rock like Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild and strange crooners like Lewis. What unites these records is an inspired amateurism, cheap production values matched by a decidedly uncommercial awkwardness. But Cavanaugh assembled a professional band and booked time in a well-equipped studio in Portland, Oregon, to record a polished album whose best tracks sound like lost Top 40 hits. The album sounds so good that its Allmusic review (by Eugene Chadbourne of all people) is under the false impression that the A&M on the record label refers to the major label. But this A&M stands for Archie and Melinda (his wife and co-writer). A few tracks from Black and White Raven have turned up on recent compilations (thank the Numero Group), and the appearance of its leading song in The Overnighters seems like the resurrection of a forgotten light-funk hit. With its American Indian artwork and title, Black and White Raven doesn’t look anything like what it is: a vibrant slice of late ’70s soul, all the way from Alaska.

A catchy funk bass and high-hat intro opens the album. “Take It Easy,” the album’s strongest track, picks up light rhythm guitars and keyboards and Cavanaugh’s confident, easy-going soul vocals. Its lyrics are simple and as perfect as its chorus: “I get up/ And get down down down/ And take it easy.” The music is professional without being slick—Cavanaugh searched hard for the right musicians to put his pop vision across, going through four groups before he met Pete DePoe, drummer of the Native American rock band Redbone (who had a hit with “Come and Get Your Love”). Fellow Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper came on board to give the album some yacht pop sheen. He’s like a less sleazy, less affected Boz Scaggs.

What makes Black and White Raven stand out is the band. They aren’t just accomplished session musicians, they’re a seasoned unit that plays well together and knows each other’s strengths. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and it makes a joyful track like “Make Me Believe” more than a love song. This may be by design; a few songs later it resonates with a higher power on “Light Unto the World,” as catchy a piece of gospel soul as you’ve ever heard.

The album’s songs don’t all hit, but even the weaker material benefits from the band’s consistent and distinct sound, closely related to yacht-pop but with lightness in its guitar lines and horn charts. “Foolin” is a showcase for the group’s interplay, as the band rises to the occasion of a fiery organ solo, guitars and drums pulling out the stops between the funky keys and an inspired Jim Pepper solo. The album’s carefree funk takes a strange, bluesy turn on “Jail Cell Door,” about a man robbed by “three dudes in a Monte Carlo” who then takes them out with a .44 Magnum; it’s the bluesman’s path of transgression and redemption. One of the album’s strongest deep cuts suggests what would have been a more commercial title: “High Rise,” about a party condo, but one that also suggests his spiritual concerns: “Get on up to get on in.”

Black and White Raven is top-heavy, leading with its two best songs. “Make Me Believe” was released as a limited edition single in Japan, where the album received its only official rerelease. Original copies of the album and even that Japanese CD reissue go for a premium, but this album and the two subsequent recordings Cavanaugh made decades later are available on iTunes, and Cavanaugh sells CDr copies directly through his website. The album may be inspired by a dark legend that tries to explain a troubled world, but its music suggests that the way to change that world is through art — and dancing.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous

    March 12, 2018 at 9:28 am

    You can thank the HBO series High Maintenance for bring this great song to the public’s attention 38 years after it was released n Alaska.

    Reply

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