AL KOOPER: NAKED SONGS (1973)
1) (Be Yourself) Be Real; 2) As The Years Go Passing By; 3) Jolie; 4) Blind Baby; 5) Been And Gone; 6) Sam Stone; 7) Peacock Lady; 8) Touch The Hem Of His Garment; 9) Where Were You When I Needed You; 10) Unrequited.
Apparently this was released to fulfill Al's contractual obligation — a mish-mashed quickie to allow for some breathing space and take a three-year break from recording. However, always a gentleman to the core, Al took the obligation seriously: Naked Songs may not be altogether more «naked» than anything else he's done (and, fairly speaking, the title would fit in much better with his next album, if you compare the front sleeves), but it's another good Al Kooper album, not striving for much of anything except satisfying his usual goals and values. And whoever holds no love for Mr. Kooperschmidt's usual goals and values has no reason to be present at this part of the review sequence anyway.
'(Be Yourself) Be Real' has a clichéd hippie title and a slightly moralizing attitude (are we supposed to cast out everyone who wants to be fake? Well, on second thought...), but it is one of his best three-minute outpourings of soul, two amazing piano and choir crescendos that crash down in a hoarse, near-suffocated "be rea... eaaa... eal" which let you know for a fact that, unless you solemnly pledge to be as real as real this very instant, the guy is going to expire right here and now, thrashing in agony on your blood-stained carpet.
Then, no sooner than the pledge has been given, he launches into the fiercest, broken-heartedest interpretation of Albert King's 'As The Years Go Passing By' that anyone has ever given (and cover versions abound, by the way, of which Jeff Healey's is the more recommendable one, Gary Moore's is the one to avoid for those who prefer subtlety over pathos, and Eric Burdon and the Animals' is the goofiest one). On here, Al enters his 'More Than You'll Ever Know' mode: Shakesperian doom without disgusting mannerisms, every word weighted out carefully before being pronounced, and, in a rare fit of passion, he plays both of the scorching guitar solos himself, assassinating the instrument (occasionally, people mistake this for a Mike Bloomfield performance; Mike would have probably gone for more complexity, but I doubt he could have played with more feeling).
These two performances, I believe, are the best ones, but there is always space for more highlights: the big band arrangement of the rainbow-coloured optimistic soul ballad 'Jolie', the hilarious country sendup of 'Blind Baby' (lovers of Paul McCartney's similarly upbeat country shuffles from the early 1970s will want to hear this at all costs), the wall-of-sound arrangement of John Prine's anti-drug classic 'Sam Stone', and the exotic lushness of 'Peacock Lady', which is like a mind-altering jungle of guitars, strings, tablas, and reeds (or reed-like synths). You can always count on good old Al for diversity.
A couple of relatively unfocused and underarranged, if still classy, piano tunes give the impression of having been laid out too quickly to pad the sessions; and 'Touch The Hem Of His Garment', unfortunately, is very hard to appreciate next to the Sam Cooke original, because there are almost no melody twists to distract from the vocals, and while I do not hold the orthodox opinion that it is theoretically impossible for anybody, let alone a blue-eyed soul singer with limited range like Al, to outperform Sam, this is one of Sam's best ever vocal performances — in fact, this may just be the single greatest straightforward gospel number ever written and performed by a solo artist — and Al Kooper can move big hills, but not major mountains.
Other than that, if only all «contractual» albums were ever like this, the world would have a much higher opinion of the legal system as a whole and record industry lawyers in particular. More thumbs up for Al.
Check "Naked Songs" (CD) on Amazon