ALBERT KING: ALBERT (1976)
1) Guitar Man; 2) I'm Ready; 3) Ain't Nothing You Can Do; 4) I Don't Care What My Baby Do; 5) Change Of Pace; 6) My Babe; 7) Running Out Of Steam; 8) Rub My Back; 9) (Ain't It) A Real Good Sign.
Albert King himself is like a big bulging rock: he may lose a bit from weathering every now and then, but you cannot really tell unless you reconstruct the original size a million years back. The purity of the waters around him, though, is quite heavily dependent on how many oil tankers got sunk in them recently. And if the stench gets too unbearable, will you still be able to admire the rock? You will probably be too busy searching for your gas mask.
At the height of his funky Bar-Kays period, King left Stax — the most unfortunate move of his career — and joined the small label Utopia. Not that he had much choice: Stax had been suffering from major financial problems for a few years, and by the end of 1975, was forced into bankruptcy. But regardless of whether he did have a choice or not, the effect was predictably tragic. All of a sudden, despite the voice, guitar licks, and tunefulness still being there, nothing else is.
Purists will want to hate Albert with all their strength, since it pushes King further down the commercial track, with the addition of poppy female choruses and disco basslines; it may even seem that the guitar itself is frequently pushed back, letting the typically Seventies party atmosphere take centerstage. I do not think this should necessarily be a problem; King hadn't been a rigid blues purist since at least 1966, and there was no reason why he should suddenly become one in 1976, and besides, «black party music» in 1976 was not necessarily a bad thing: if you can stand Chic, you can stand Albert King with a disco beat.
The problem is that the backing band — and there is a whole army of backup musicians listed in the credits, none of whom I've ever heard about previously — is fairly rote. These are generic session hacks, doing their job faithfully but without any sort of inspiration. The opening track, 'Guitar Man', had every chance to become an outstanding rousing funky brawl, but the way they do it — it's just okay. The drummer just drums, the bass player just lays down a stiff rhythm, the backup singers chant "guitar man, guitar man, let's get it on, guitar man, guitar man" as if someone wound them up for a five-minute period, and even King himself, distraught by this stiffness, plays in a perfunctory manner, hiding deep down in the mix in an ashamed manner.
The same is true of everything on the album — there are no serious lapses of taste, but neither the slow blues numbers ('Ain't Nothing You Can Do', 'Rub My Back'), nor the more upbeat ones ('My Babe') register as «having that extra special something». It is always better understood in comparison — for instance, one is advised to play King's version of 'I'm Ready' along with Muddy Waters' original. The latter made you want to run and hide; the former makes you wonder just how bored one should have really been to record this tripe.
It is all moderately pleasant, but there were millions of records like this, no better or worse, made in 1976, and it is a pity to see giants compete with mediocrity. Thumbs down; I cannot even recommend one deserving song off the album. Maybe 'I Don't Care What My Baby Do' — it has a curious flute part. More interesting than most guitar parts on here.