AL KOOPER: I STAND ALONE (1968)
1) Overture; 2) I Stand Alone; 3) Camille; 4) One; 5) Coloured Rain; 6) Soft Landing On The Moon; 7) I Can Love A Woman; 8) Blue Moon Of Kentucky; 9) Toe Hold; 10) Right Now For You; 11) Hey, Western Union Man; 12) Song And Dance For The Unborn, Frightened Child.
To finally decide to stand alone was fairly sensible for Kooper, already a veteran of one failed outfit (The Blues Project), one band that kicked him out to ensure a brighter, Prozak-ier future for us all (BS&T), and one duet for which he just had to team up with a psycho insomniac. All that could prevent him from boldly slapping his own name on the front sleeve was lack of self-confidence, and by the end of 1968, he certainly lacked that no more.
Poorly promoted and scantily reviewed, I Stand Alone did not make Al a solo star in his own right, and set off a chain of albums that are now mostly regarded as cult favorites but still have not received, and probably will never receive the same retro-reverence as, say, the Zombies' Odessey And Oracle — a record that Kooper once singlehandedly saved from oblivion, so that most people who actually do know him, know him as «that guy who played the organ on 'Like A Rolling Stone' and promoted the Zombies in the US». Bruce Eder even had to write a glowing review in which he drew comparisons with Sgt. Pepper, implying that I Stand Alone was actually the better album. It didn't help, I think. A few people just bought the record expecting another Sgt. Pepper, and came away disappointed.
Basically, this is just like The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper if you take away all the extended psycho jamming and replace it with a bunch of rag-tag studio effects. The general idea is the same: Eclecticism as a goal in itself, a musical celebration of life's various sides on the part of an innocent, but creative bystander. A humble bystander, too — humble enough to realize, for instance, that his own brain is by no means capable of quickly and effectively covering all the bases, so there is no problem about mixing his originals with lots of covers (something you could easily be publicly castigated for in 1968 if you were aspiring to Art with a capital A, and which may actually explain some of the disinterest in the record).
Both the covers and the originals are consistently swell, though. It is true that the covers add little to the impact already done by the original: there are no really drastic reinventions, with Harry Nilsson's 'One' and Traffic's 'Coloured Rain' receiving more or less the same respectful treatment. 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' throws on a bit too much reverb, overwhelming the fine backing racket that Al gets from a host of Nashville session players (did I mention that the whole thing was recorded in Nashville? possibly the least likely album to be recorded in Nashville that year, yet it still happened — Kooper must have stolen Roger McGuinn's passport or something to dupe these guys), but still a fine brief piece of rockabilly done the Elvis way, not the Bill Monroe one. We also have spirits of Sam & Dave ('Toe Hold') and the Philly soul crowd ('Hey, Western Union Man') guesting around, with equally solid results.
But true fans of the Koop will most likely treasure the record for a few jazz-rock and art-pop numbers that Al must have salvaged from the wrecks of the first lineup of BS&T. The title track is technically a love ballad, but in reality a pained, yet bold declaration of self-assertion: the "love" he is talking about is universal, of course. It's sweeping, stumbling, pretentious, badly sung (Al is no Van Morrison to do these things), but still wins over because of some goofy unlockable combination of freshness and sincerity. Or maybe it's the brass arrangements that help.
'I Can Love A Woman' will easily provoke a whirl of sardonic comments these days (like «Right-o!» or «Who could ever tell?» at the most innocent end of it), but the song has a fabulous soulful buildup from Al, the master of soulful buildups, and really plays out like a mini-classical spectacle of romantic self-discovery. The Blossoms, an early 1960's backing band, provide the perfect counterpart for Al's own vocals here, and the song stands loud and proud next to Kooper's soul-baring classics on Child Is Father To The Man.
And then there is the album closing chamber piece with the record's longest and most pretentiously titled number, which shows that Kooper could write a cool baroque melody for the strings every bit as flawlessly as Paul McCartney (hmm, perhaps that Sgt. Pepper comparison wasn't that way off, anyway). An art-pop masterpiece mixing melancholy and optimism in a 50/50 proportion — should be on every anthology of classical-influenced pop from the late 1960s.
So, any flaws? One — alas, a big one: frankly put, the album needs to be re-recorded, or, at least, remixed in a normal manner from the original tapes. In order to ensure Conceptual Coherence, Al thought it necessary to provide all the songs with large bunches of meaningless sound effects. Sirens, explosions, laughter, shrieks of horror, crowd noises, animal noises — by 1968, everybody already knew that you could insert some dog barking into any song of your choice without being evicted from the Songwriters' Guild, so the novel effect was no longer in action, and still the man plowed on. Sometimes these nasties creep up at the wrongest moment (e. g. the horrified shrieking on 'Unborn Child'), and sometimes they just fuck the song up, like the wobbly warped vocals on the otherwise pretty guitar ballad 'Right Now For You'.
In his review, Bruce Eder put forward the idea that the whole sound effect thing was effectively one large gag, a sort of parody on the abuse of sonic collages — he may have had some firsthand information on this, but it certainly does not come across that way from the music; this is not a Zappa album, and parody and humor do not tie in all that much with Kooper's image of a romantic idealist. They just come across as a bad distraction, an inevitable, perhaps, curse of the time, but something that you have to forgive the record for before giving it the deserved thumbs up. In all other respects, I Stand Alone still stands alone as a unique singer-songwriter-art-pop-philosopher effort — I can think of no other album from 1968-69 with this particular kind of eclectic, yet highly individual sound.
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