AL KOOPER: NEW YORK CITY (YOU'RE A WOMAN) (1971)
1) New York City (You're A Woman); 2) John The Baptist (Holy John); 3) Can You Hear It Now; 4) The Ballad Of The Hard Rock Kid; 5) Going Quietly Mad; 6) Medley: Oo Wee Baby I Love You / Love Is A Man's Best Friend; 7) Back On My Feet; 8) Come Down In Time; 9) Dearest Darling; 10) Nightmare #5; 11) The Warning (Someone's On The Cross Again).
Back to single LP format: many artists, after the kind of effort that it would take to produce a complex monster like Easy Does It, would be left somewhat exhausted (think Goat's Head Soup right on the heels of Exile On Main St.), but not Kooper, who, having finally hit his stride, was seemingly determined to set a new world record of continuous creativity.
Again, there is no single conceptual thread to this collection, and it's good, because it allows each single song to shine on its own: again, no filler within miles. Again, Al is working with lots of musicians, including an immense bunch of guests during a Los Angeles session, which yielded most of the tracks on here, and a smaller combo while guesting himself in England. One of his new influences is Elton John (yes, the true well-established professional will never be afraid to borrow from the young, and it doesn't always look as ugly as a Mick Jagger/Lenny Kravitz collaboration): not only does Al cover the freshly issued 'Come Down In Time' (one of the generally overlooked album tracks from Tumbleweed Connection), he even gets Caleb Quaye to play guitar on a couple of tracks – but not on 'Come Down In Time' itself, which was recorded in L.A. Always the perfect guy to confound expectations, Mr. Kooper.
With albums like these, it is sometimes easier to switch to a song-by-song manner than try to summarize impressions that simply cannot be summarized. Immensely beautiful, the title track: countless battalions of songwriters have tried to convince the people at large that their personal relationship with New York merits popularization — Al is one of the few who convinces me, not just because lines like "New York City, you're a woman / Cold hearted bitch ought to be your name / You ain't never loved nobody / Still I'm drawn to you like a moth to a flame" are a phenomenally successful way of collating clichéd images into a fresh sequence, but musically, too, it's a grand aural celebration, with progressively soaring organs and Mellotrons and a coda that is stuck somewhere in between «anthem» and «prayer» (yes, it does remind of Elton John circa Madman Across The Water quite a bit — hey, that's a good thing).
'John The Baptist', on the other hand, sounds like The Band: not my fault if, in addition to the rootsy melody, Al whines his way through the lyrics like Rick Danko, but it's one of the best Band songs The Band never wrote. 'Can You Hear It Now' is a grand art-pop ballad, more Mellotrons and echoey soulful guitars and a gospel buildup at the end. Then it's boogie time with 'The Ballad Of The Hard Rock Kid', parodic in name but a guitar lover's paradise in nature (excellent slide parts played over a bluesy riff borrowed from Slim Harpo's 'Shake Your Hips', I believe). 'Going Quietly Mad' places us in psychedelic piano territory that is sometimes said to emulate the Beatles but mood-wise is really more reminiscent of that other Cooper with a C (think 'Ballad Of Dwight Fry'). The 'Oo Wee Baby' medley is Philly soul incarnate, a steady beat, a fat layer of instruments, and hooks entrusted to female backing vocals...
...which, altogether, may finally answer the question of why these Kooper classics are not as universally acclaimed as they should be: throughout the album, Al is clearly capable of emulating all those other people, but it is not so easy to see «the proper Al» in the songs. The complex answer is that Al Kooper is all of these things; he is being completely sincere and passionate regardless of whether it is Elton John, Robbie Robertson, Jackie Wilson, Bob Dylan, or Phil Spector whose creative manner he is appropriating at the time. But a detailed review of the album will inevitably be choked with comparisons — and not simply because all of those guys are the more better known ones, so it is them who will figure in Al Kooper reviews and not vice versa, but because that's the way it really goes with Al.
Simply put, the man got his own soul and his own talent, but not his own style; it's an almost terminal case of «chameleonism», next to which David Bowie is behaviourally undistinguishable from Lemmy Kilmister. Which clearly translates into the problem of finding one's own steady fan base. Average fans tend to associate with distinct personalities, and this ain't no distinct personality; and musical critics like to pigeonhole, and New York City cannot be pigeonholed even if one kills off all the pigeons.
If there is some sort of unifying aspect to all these songs, it is BIGness. Lots of musicians, lots of layers, grand ambitions, everything is driven as high up as possible. 'Nightmare # 5' strolls along cloaked in a stern organ melody and prophetic lyrics, and the title of 'Someone's On The Cross Again' speaks for itself. (Both songs are carried off splendidly, though.) But even in this aspect Al loses out, for instance, to George Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass (also quite possibly, one of the influences here) had established the unbeatable Standard Of Sounding Real Big a year earlier; next to Harrison's grizzly-size Al is just an ordinary black bear.
None of which should discourage any honest music lover from checking out this excellent LP; newcomers will find it a more accessible and easy-going introduction to Al's early 1970s greatness than the excess-improvisation-loaded Easy Does It. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine «newcomers» looking for «accessible» stuff to be interested in Al Kooper in the first place, so disregard this and just go for the chronology. Thumbs up, of course.