AL KOOPER: RARE AND WELL DONE (1964-2001; 2005)
CD I: 1) I Can't Quit Her; 2) Somethin' Goin' On (demo); 3) Autumn Song; 4) I Can't Stand The Rain; 5) Baby Please Don't Go (live); 6) I Let Love Slip Through My Fingers; 7) The Earthquake Of Your Love; 8) Bulgarya; 9) Nuthin' I Wouldn't Do (For A Woman Like You); 10) New York's My Home (Razz-A-Ma-Tazz); 11) Making Plans For Nigel; 12) I Believe To My Soul; 13) Went To See The Gypsy; 14) Rachmaninoff's Birthday; 15) Hey Jude (rehearsal tape); 16) Living In My Own Religion; 17) The Big Chase; 18) They Just Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore; 19) A Drive Through The Old Neighborhood.
CD II: 1) I Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes (live); 2) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 3) This Diamond Ring; 4) Albert's Shuffle; 5) Bury My Body; 6) Season Of The Witch; 7) New York City (You're A Woman); 8) I Can't Quit Her (live); 9) I Stand Alone; 10) Flute Thing; 11) You Never Know Who Your Friends Are; 12) I Got A Woman; 13) Brand New Day; 14) Love Theme From The Landlord.
Frankly speaking, I do not understand what in the world made Al decide to go ahead with this double CD package — most likely, he just wanted to make a fine present to his beloved self with this «totally killer package» (in his own words). It is one of those ridiculous «half greatest hits, half rarities» things that make fans and novices alike overpay and overcringe; all the more ridiculous coming from Al Kooper, the man whose last significant batch of «novices» was probably acquired the week that Child Is Father To The Man reached its chart peak at No. 47.
In addition, the second («well done») CD is odd as hell even for old fans' sakes: for instance, Al has insisted on cramming the entire seven minutes of 'Albert's Shuffle' and eleven minutes of 'Season Of The Witch' from Supersession on it — yeah, these are fine jams all right, certainly well done and all, but coming at the expense of so much other great stuff (the resulting «retrospective» pretty much stops dead in its tracks around 1971), the choice reeks too much of unpredictability for unpredictability's sake. For the Beatles to have a «Millennium Collection» that drops three or four textbook hits in favor of 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)', would be refreshingly cool; for Al Kooper, whose popularity does not even begin to approach Ringo Starr's solo career, it is unpleasantly haughty (but I still love the guy).
Now on to the real meat: the nineteen rarities on CD 1. There is one big catch here. On one hand, Al Kooper does not generally write or perform crappy filler, and most of this vault stuff could make fine, worthy additions to any of his classic albums. However, much of it is in the form of «fully-arranged demos», meaning synthesizers and programmed drums in the place of real competent musicians, and vocals that seem processed through a test tube. As soulful, sincere, and memorable as 'I Can't Stand The Rain' and 'Living In My Own Religion' can be, I just cannot recommend them to anybody but the most hardcore fan — not until Mr. Kooper decides to re-record them with a normal band. Sorry, Mr. Al.
A few of the choices are, admittedly, just plain bad, and the worst one is chosen as the opening track — a 2001 remake of 'I Can't Quit Her' as a slow, draggy adult contemporary ballad, throwing out everything that was so great about the song's melody in the first place. There is also a bit of cheesy «senti-pop» ('The Earthquake Of Your Love' is like a collaboration between Neil Young, Billy Joel, and disco-era Bee Gees), a stupidly pathetic arena-rock theme with Titanic Guitar Solos™ ('Bulgarya') and an instrumental number that sounds like generic Eighties prog rock ('The Big Chase') — yuck.
On the positive side, the long stretch from track 11 to track 15 is almost worth the price of the entire package on its own. First, in a fantastically unpredictable manner, there is a cover of XTC's (!) 'Making Plans For Nigel' from Drums & Wires (!!), rearranged as a carnivalesque extravaganza with hopping violins and, the way it seems, accordeon-imitating keyboards (!!!). It is bizarre on its own and even more bizarre compared with the original, but, if possible, even catchier. Then there's a terrific take on Ray Charles' 'I Believe To My Soul' (from 1970, with Mick Taylor on guitar and Al at his deadliest) and a raving hard-rock/power-pop, whichever way you like it, reinvention of Dylan's formerly quiet and introspective 'Went To See The Gypsy'.
Then the next track is, again, spoiled by crappy arrangement, but it is fairly hard to forget a song whose chorus goes "Oh I just can't believe you left me on Rachmaninoff's birthday" (which, as a matter of fact, also happens to be April Fools' Day). And finally, the universally acknowledged highlight of the program is a 1969 big band instrumental arrangement of 'Hey Jude' — no, not the coda, but the song itself, in a fun, stompy, stormy manner that Benny Goodman himself might have envied.
In the end, such positives outweigh the negatives, making the collection a must-have for all those who have admitted Al into the circle of their personal greats, and justifying its thumbs up; and yet, at the same time, coupled with the general deterioration of the Al Kooper Sound on his 21st century albums, it makes me wonder a little bit whether the man hasn't really gone deaf in one ear or something. Then again, I guess when you hit sixty, it is natural of you to cut your own legacy more slack than you used to — or, in a more philosophical manner, it is easier to perceive the little specks of beauty in what you previously saw as monolithic turds.
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