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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Al Kooper: You Never Know Who Your Friends Are


1) Magic In My Socks; 2) Lucille; 3) Too Busy Thinking About My Baby; 4) First Time Around; 5) Loretta; 6) Blues, Pt. 4; 7) You Never Know Who Your Friends Are; 8) Great American Marriage/Nothing; 9) Don't Know Why I Love You; 10) Mourning Glory Story; 11) Anna Lee; 12) I'm Never Gonna Let You Down.

Al Kooper may not be a «genius», either John Lennon-style or Paul McCartney-style — which is, really, just about the only explanation of why these late Sixties' records are not generally remem­bered as musical pinnacles of their time. But when three great doubly-defined qualities come together — ambiti­ousness/bravery, sincerity/honesty, balance/taste — you do not necessarily re­quire a superpower to craft simple and stunning hooks. It only remains to the listener to take his time, and eventually it'll all hang out.

There is no «development», as such, from I Stand Alone to You Never Know, because, after the titanic sprawl of Kooper's interests in 1968, there was really very little new territory for the man to penetrate, considering that neither trip-hop nor metalcore had yet been invented. Thus, all that was left to do was to try it again — which he did, with one major improvement: most of the sonic collage stuff was sent packing, to the delight of all those future generations who love the 1960's achievements but hate their excesses. Another difference is that there is more original material, but, given Kooper's interpretive talents, that may not necessarily be a plus.

The sessions were produced with the aid of «The Al Kooper Big Band» — a veritable swarm of musicians very few of which I am familiar with, because most seem to come from jazz rather than blues or rock backgrounds, be they guitarists, pianists, or brass players. Not that You Never Know is, in any big way, a jazz album. There is a huge R'n'B presence, lots of blues, some music hall, Motownish lush pop, and one or two songs recreate the style of the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, perhaps, but that's about it. That said, if you want to record a great pop album — better still, a great eclectic album — get some well-oiled jazz dudes to do it.

An almost frustrating feeling of evenness all but prevents me from talking about the tunes; each and every one defines worthiness. One possible choice for top of the pops would be 'Too Busy Thinking About My Baby', which just might be the most «authentic» Motown number recorded by a non-Motown artist (not inside a Motown studio). If Kooper cannot properly hit the high no­tes required of Eddie Kendricks, he still does a good, passionate job, and in all other respects he builds up on the song's potential, throwing on a brass, strings, and back vocals arrangement that is at once very Motown-ish and artsy — an arrogant, but subtle synthesis of tribute and reconstruc­tion, and a great euphoric feel to the whole thing.

The album starts out on such a rowdy note, actually ('Magic In My Socks' will rock those socks off you with its fast-moving brass riffs) that it is possible not to notice the wonders of the slow, moody numbers at once: the cover of Harry Nilsson's 'Mourning Glory Story' has a complex «an­ge­lic» harmony arrangement, and 'Nothing', opening with an interesting neo-classical in­tro­duc­tion, then turns into psychedelic Sinatra, riding from cello cloud to harp cloud to piano cloud in a frenzied fit of never-stopping imagination. Decidedly not my favourite style of music, but when it's done with that much enthusiasm, even the sappiest notes regain some freshness.

At this point in his career, with just a little bit of restraint on meaningless weird side effects and unjustified song length, Kooper could do no wrong. Even 'Blues, Pt. 4', essentially just an instru­mental blues jam, has five minutes of soulful organ and piano solos that soothe rather than bore. And if it really is so hard to pick out outstanding tracks, well, so much the better — think of this as one even-quality fourty-three minute symphony with tons of ideas that trump quite a few four­ty-minute-symphony-structured progressive rock albums. Thumbs up.

Check "You Never Know Who Your Friends Are" (CD) on Amazon

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