Album Review: Rodriguez “Coming From Reality” (1971)


Coming from Reality is the 1971 second and till this point last album by Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez. Rodriguez and his music came to wider public prominence with the 2012 academy award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”, with his career having largely been till that point an underground word of mouth sort of affair, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries. The story of Rodriguez career is fascinating, to say the least and the documentary film does a good job in bringing it to light for a wider audience, which is why I will not touch on it here and instead will focus on the music and what is a truly great second album. An album which often gets overlooked in favor of its more well-known predecessor Cold Fact.

Coming from Reality was in some ways a transformational album for Rodriguez after his lo-fi acoustic folk debut. Here he placed more attention on the production of the tracks going for a slicker sound, while the songs themselves also have more of an electric feel, although his standard acoustic folk style is still prominent across the album. This might have been down to a desire from his record label to make a more commercially sounding album, as well as the presence during the recordings of acclaimed British guitarist Chris Spedding who helps out on electric guitar and production. Musically, Rodriguez also branches out more into other styles on this album, with spoken word, garage, funk, R&B, jazz, Latin and classical all appearing in various forms and guises across the album, making this set of tracks a highly eclectic take on the singer-songwriter/folk style which Rodriguez successfully went for on his debut. Lyrically, the songs themselves continue to focus largely on social themes, something which was ever-present on Cold Fact, with their social imagery and anti-establishment inklings settling in the mind of the listener right from the get-go. Lines such as “I’ve played faggot bars, hooker bars, motorcycle funerals” are hard for the listener to ignore as they are so vivid and hard-hitting, especially when they take the form of a spoken word track, in this instance “A Disgusting Song”. Through his words, Rodriguez is masterful in capturing the essence and mood of his own experiences living in Detroit, a city which was then experiencing the beginnings of its now well-publicised collapse and downward spiral.

In terms of what songs standout, well there are many and it is impossible to narrow the list down as there is hardly a dud on here. “Climb Up on My Music” is a brilliant opener and sets the tone for the rest of the record. Here you are immediately alerted to some of the changes from the first record, especially this tracks electric feel and Santana-like sound with its shuffling guitar, electric piano, and subtle jazz influences. “I Think of You” is a beautiful folk ballad that features some delicate acoustic finger-picking in the mold of Jose Feliciano and a very soulful vocal. “To Whom It May Concern” is another stunning track that opens with a great piano refrain before transforming into a kind of LA singer-songwriter jam. I am sure if Rodriguez had been involved in that scene he would have taken it by storm. “Halfway Up the Stairs” like many of the tracks on this album employs electric piano and also strings, with Rodriguez paying more attention in trying to achieve more of a pop sound, something he manages with great success. Finally, we are fortunate that the re-release of this album contains three outstanding bonus tracks which should have made the final cut for the original album given their quality. The first of these is the fantastic “Street Boy”, a sing-a-long sort of affair which also features a well-constructed acoustic solo. Aside from his vocals and lyrics, Rodriguez guitar playing is an album highlight and probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves especially given the quality of the little solos he puts in like the one on this track. This bonus track is accompanied by the road tripping “Can’t Get Away”, and finally the acoustic summer track “I’ll Slip Away”.

Although Rodriguez debut album was fantastic, and in most people’s eyes represents the true essence of his songwriting and music, I feel that Coming from Reality trumps that album. Musically the songs on here are more melodic with a stronger focus on the production of the songs and how they are presented to the listener, something I believe improves the material. Rodriguez still retains the level of song-writing of his debut and the folk sound he is known for is still there in spades. However, the thing I love about this album is how he branches out further musically, especially in his exploration of other styles and sounds that all in all come together so well on here. This album is an early-70s classic and I guess symbolises what might have been had Rodriguez continued to record. My parting message is a request for those of you who haven’t seen the film “Searching for Sugar Man” about this man’s musical journey to see it. As apart from the brilliant music on display here, this man’s story is truly one of the more fascinating stories in the history of twentieth-century music.

– Sam

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