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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Al Kooper: Championship Wrestling


1) I Wish You Would; 2) Two Sides (To Every Situation); 3) Wrestle With This; 4) Lost Control; 5) I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool); 6) The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter; 7) Bandstand; 8) Finders Keepers; 9) Snowblind.

After another lay-off period, much longer than usual this time (but, fortunately, depriving us from the experience of learning what «The Al Kooper Disco Album» would have sounded like), Koo­per teamed up with Jeff «Skunk» Baxter, of the original Steely Dan fame... to release possibly the strangest, and unluckiest, album of his career.

The creativity is still there, by all means, but way too many things about the album are simply not what they should be. Starting from the wrap-up concept: the silly title, the puns on the back cover (such as splitting the LP's two sides into «First Fall» and «Second Fall»), the ridiculous photo on the front sleeve, the «ring noises» that open the proceedings — almost as if someone had just wat­ched Raging Bull a couple times too much. The idea of letting Bill Szymczyk (the guy who started out real well, producing classic B. B. King and James Gang albums, and ended up as the prime minister at the Eagles' court) take care of the proceedings was also disturbing: previously, Al had produced all of his efforts on his own, and did a damn fine job at that. Why let the Eagles guy in on an already well-working formula?

But the most confusing thing here is that Championship Wrestling does not sound like an «al­bum» at all. Instead, it feels like a mix of four and a half single records of widely varying quality that someone put together for no reason at all. Part of this is because Al mostly takes a break from singing, contributing vocals only to two of the songs and letting in three different vocalists to bat­tle for the rest — but the vocalists bring their own atmospheres, and, for the most part, they turn out to be completely incompatible.

Al's personal «single» is the best of the lot: a crisp-fried version of 'I Wish You Would' that con­tinues the fine tradition of reinterpretations of old classics (The Yardbirds this time), with blazing leads from Baxter — and a moody original shuffle ('The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter'), with an eerie midnight spirit, that should have made it onto the previous album (that spirit ties in real well with that of 'Hollywood Vampire'). But beyond that...

...the two numbers with Mickey Thomas on vocals sound like a slightly improved take on Forei­gner: pompous arena-rock with too high a concentration of gall and pathos over melodicity. The two instrumentals are second-hand jazz-fusion, rather hollow exercises in technique and fluidity — why should anyone waste one's time on them instead of going for the real thing (Jeff Beck, Holdsworth-era Soft Machine etc.), I have no idea. The almost-retro R'n'B number 'Finders Kee­pers', with Ricky Washington on vocals, is a bit more memorable, but Kooper has already done everything he could with the clavinet anyway.

Strangest of all are the two songs with independent singer-songwriter Valerie Carter on vocals: 'Two Sides' brings on memories of Dusty Springfield (which is a really odd feeling coming on the heels of the hell-raising 'I Wish You Would'), and 'I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart' is an Atlantic-style R'n'B machine that brings on equally solid memories of Aretha Franklin in her hey­day (stylistically, not vocally, of course). Both tunes are pleasant pop, but somehow neither of them feels like it's got anything to do with Al Kooper.

You gotta give it to Al, though: even for what could easily be called his worst ever album he ma­naged to pull some surprises out of his sleeve, and compared to the real garbage that so many of his contemporaries were putting out in 1982 (It's Hard, eh?), Wrestling is one Empire State Bui­l­ding of a masterpiece. Had it not been so confused and misguided in its execution (and the prob­lem was exacerbated quite seriously with Baxter taking off and leaving in the middle of the ses­sions), it might have... well, it might have been just another great Al Kooper album. Instead, it's a not-great, but BIZARRE Al Kooper album! Go for it — that is, if you can find it anywhere.

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