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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Al Kooper: Black Coffee


1) My Hands Are Tied; 2) Am I Wrong; 3) How 'My Ever Gonna Get Over You; 4) Going, Going, Gone; 5) Keep It To Yourself; 6) Get Ready; 7) Imaginary Lover; 8) Green Onions (live); 9) Another Man's Prize; 10) Childish Love; 11) Got My Ion Hue; 12) Just For A Thrill; 13) Comin' Back In A Cadillac (live); 15) (I Want You To) Tell Me The Truth.

In Al's own words, this album had been «thirty years in the making», and it certainly sounds like it, because no album (at least, no rock album — we aren't talking Wagner operas here) that had been thirty years in the making could ever aspire to turn out to be a jaw-dropping masterpiece in the end (what with spontaneity being a major component of it and all). Instead, it is simply the first «true Al Kooper» album of new material in 30 years, if, out of purism, we disregard the bi­zarre Baxter collaboration and the all-instrumental Rekooperation — and it is simply every bit as good as any other true Al Kooper album. No better, no worse.

Still, it is a somewhat special feeling to be listening to a brand new Al Kooper album in the 21st century and realize that the man has not really withered one little bit. Call it the old grumble gru­mble, but only grizzled Sixties veterans manage to preserve the proper amounts of energy and cre­ativity so as not to sound completely out of vogue in their, er, sixties. Of course, almost no­body no­ticed Black Coffee when it came out — and why should they, when they so rarely noti­ced the young Al Kooper? — but those few who did, all gave rave reviews (Al himself was asto­nished at one such review in the Mojo magazine, no less), and I can't blame them. They had no choice, if you ask me.

Seventy minutes worth of material here, with hardly a second idly wasted. Even the two live jams included from a gig with his new band, «The Funky Faculty» (apparently, consisting entirely of his fellow music professors at the Berkelee College in the Boston!) are terrific: Booker T. & the MG's 'Green Onions', fully respecting the cool grimness of the original (Al begins with a rather slavish imitation of the old organ solo), adds blazing rock solos and fades out just as the repetitiveness factor threatens to kick in. 'Comin' Back In A Cadillac' is a semi-original that begins with a brass riff borrowed from 'Bony Moronie', immediately becomes a part facetious, part bitter-ironic autobiographic rant ("Right now I don't have a dime / Most folks say the life I live is a crime"), and then unpredictab­ly turns into a «soul clapping» session with the audience. How Al Kooper-ish.

As for the studio recordings — «black coffee» is indeed the perfect way to describe their general style: somewhat on the dark side, with plenty of bitterness, and yet, at the same time, an overall pleasing, satisfactory, mind-clearing effect. The music is not quite as diverse as usual, generally well set within the classic R'n'B pattern, with occasional excourses into Dylan-ish singer-song­writing and the lounge style, but all of the songs are exceedingly well-written, starting from the anthemic brass riff that opens 'My Hands Are Tied' and all the way down.

Al's voice, which was never one of nature's treasures to begin with, has become even lower, crack­lier, and whinier than it used to be; but the genius of Al is that he always knew what kind of stuff this voice was best fit for, and Black Coffee is the final proof, because the songs are lower, cracklier, and whinier, while never losing the necessary soulfulness. 'Going, Going, Gone' is an old man's rant at the inevitably changing times (with a funny stab at hip-hop culture as opposed to «deep soul music» which I cannot help enjoying), but it is nowhere near as flat and close-minded­ly bitter as, for instance, Steve Stills' 'Seen Enough'. Songs like 'Keep It To Yourself' and 'Ano­ther Man's Prize' seem to be borrowing the vibe from Mark Knopfler — gloomy, introspective, nocturnal broodings, but also catchier and more interestingly arranged than the average Knopfler song (Dire Straits always sucked at spicing up their sound beyond just one awesome guitar).

As usual, there are some interesting covers — 'Get Ready', 'Just For A Thrill' — that almost seem to be there for comparison with how well Al can write his own songs in a similar style: 'Am I Wrong' is a cross between swamp blues and boogie that stands loud and proud against Smokey Robinson's fast-paced register, and 'How 'My Ever Gonna Get Over You' matches Lil' Arm­strong's mood and depth bit for bit, with Al's raspy vocal performance treasurable over the song's musical content (generic, but tastefully arranged lounge stuff).

Overall, Black Coffee is very much an old man's album, and that's a compliment: always true to himself, Kooper recognizes his age and is not ashamed to make nostalgia, retro-reflection, and slow-burning, bitter-esque emotion into the central themes. Which never completely suppresses the desire to rock out, either, as the 'Green Onions' cover successfully demonstrates. Charismatic then, charismatic now, he is aging just like a good wine should, settling so comfortably into the «el­der statesman» role that the hat-tipping reflex becomes unconditional, and so is, of course, the thumbs up motion.

Check "Black Coffee" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Black Coffee" (MP3) on Amazon

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