AL KOOPER: REKOOPERATION (1994)
1) Downtime; 2) After The Lights Go Down Low; 3) When The Spell Is Broken; 4) How 'My Ever Gonna Get Over You; 5) Sneakin Round The Barnyard; 6) Soul Twist-ed; 7) Lookin For Clues; 8) Honky Tonk; 9) Clean Up Woman; 10) Don't Be Cruel; 11) Alvino Johnson's Shuffle; 12) Johnny B. Goode; 13) I Wanna Little Girl.
Kooper lay low through most of the Eighties — which only further confirms his sensibility; had most of the prominent artists of his generation followed his example, their present day reputations would only have been the better for it (just imagine — no Press To Play, no Dirty Work, no August, no Never Let Me Down, not even Camouflage... then again, an artist with a thoroughly unblemished reputation can be a real dangerous type, come to think of it).
Surviving this, his next notable musical move happened at the perfect time — in 1992, when, for a while, decent musical taste returned to «mainstream periphery» as the smoke screen dissipated and people began to realize just how ridiculous synth-pop and hair metal guitars have gotten. With Jimmy Vivino, originally the main guitar player and arranger for the Conan O'Brien Show, he formed «The Rekooperators», a professional no-nonsense, if not exactly innovative, team, and put them on the road, playing a smorgasboard of eclectic material in the proper Al Kooper way.
The band's only studio album was released two years later — and yes, after twelve years of silence one might have expected anything, but, most probably, Rekooperation is not at all what one would really expect. What it is is a collection of twelve instrumental and only one vocal numbers, mixing inventive original compositions with covers of classic standards, mutated beyond recognition. The very fact that, once again, Al is taking other people's ideas and submits them to genetic engineering, is not at all new — but the setting within which he is doing it certainly is, and the near-total absence of vocals, coupled with the complexity of the arrangements, gives the whole thing a killer hip atmosphere. On Kooper's vocal albums, one could accuse the man of being bloated and pretentious — a hollow accusation, since all of the bloatedness was always compensated by professionalism, and all of the pretentiousness, by sincerity, but an accusation nevertheless. Rekooperation is not pompous, anthemic, or overtly cathartic. It is simply thrilling. And it kicks ass.
The assemblage of covers raises Al's eclecticism to unprecedented heights here. There's Elvis, with a 'Don't Be Cruel' that has been converted to a sort of lazy, non-chalant, New Orleanian Dr. John-style shuffle. There's Chuck, with 'Johnny B. Goode' slowed down, a little bit discoified (but definitely not the way Elton John killed it on Victim Of Love), and transformed into a comic stomp, what with the organ playing all of Chuck's vocal parts (not that it wasn't a comic stomp to begin with, but, if at all possible, Al makes it even less serious than it used to be).
There's Betty Wright, whose 'Clean Up Woman' fully preserves the sunny brightness of the upbeat original. On 'After The Lights Go Down Low', Kooper mimicks Al Hibbler's original vocal part so perfectly that it made me reevaluate the soulfulness of the song. A bit less interesting is the cover of Bill Doggett's 'Honky Tonk', if only because it sticks way too close to the already perfect original; and the only serious misstep is 'Soul Twist-ed' — Kooper is doing fine when he uses his keys to mimick voices, but when he tries to substitute them for King Curtis' sax, the outcome is sort of evident. You'll love this only if you haven't heard the original 'Soul Twist'.
Stepping out of the old school rock'n'roll/R'n'B template, there are two more surprises — a deep-cutting tribute to Richard Thompson ('When The Spell Is Broken'), with Al's organ at its most soulful, and an utterly grossly ridiculous and equally loveable reworking of Robert Palmer's 'Looking For Clues', with the original xylophone solo replaced by a bumblebee-style organ passage that features the speediest, most perfectly flowing playing from the guy we have heard up to that point — clearly, the twelve years were not passed away from the keyboard.
Throw on a couple of adequate (but not so interesting) original compositions, sum things up with a vocal rendition of the old lounge standard 'I Wanna Little Girl' (well, the man was not yet 50 when he recorded that, we shall not count that against him), and there you have it — a record that clearly demonstrates how awesome it is to still have Mr. Kooper with us in this post-revolutionary musical period. Were he a major commercial star at this juncture, all of these people that he is covering, with the possible exception of Elvis and Chuck, should be paying royalties to him instead of vice versa; a classier way of introducing so much past talent to newer listeners can hardly be imagined. (Not that a lot of listeners would bother locating the originals, of course, but these days, with Youtube and stuff around, it is much easier; if you have heard the album, but are unfamiliar with some of the ground it covers, here's your chance). Thumbs up, heartily.
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