AL KOOPER: WHITE CHOCOLATE (2008)
1) Love Time; 2) You Never Know Till You Get There; 3) Calling You; 4) I Love You More Than Words Can Say; 5) It Takes A Lot To Laugh (It Takes A Train To Cry); 6) I Cried So Hard; 7) Staxability; 8) You Make Me Feel So Good (All Over); 9) Susan; 10) Hold On; 11) Cast The First Stone; 12) No 1 2 Call Me Baby; 13) Candy Man; 14) I (Who Have Nothing); 15) (I Don't Know When But) I Know That I'll Be There Soon.
This aptly titled companion piece to Black Coffee is a little disappointing. Apparently, Al was on a limited budget, but that does not really explain why he needed to fall back on hollow synthesizers and obsolete-sounding drum machines on so many of these tracks — what is this, making up for lack of Eighties output? Stuff like 'You Make Me Feel So Good' sounds simply awful, especially coming out of the hands of such an experienced soundmeister — and the rest of the tracks often come out pretty flat as well.
Out of reach of the major studios and, perhaps, compensating with homebrewn digital technologies, Al is in real strong need of a master producer here, yet, if I understand it correctly, White Chocolate was his first album not to get any official distribution at all: physical CD copies could only be acquired from his own site. Well, that's still no reason to infect your atmosphere with sounds that never really belonged in it.
Musically, this is another batch of first-rate «white soul / R'n'B» compositions and interpretations that suffer from subpar production and, sometimes, so-so musicianship (Al is still playing with The Funky Faculty, and The Funky Faculty is still playing like a faculty rather than a well-grounded rock band), but certainly not from a lack of melodicity or, God forbid, sincerity. There is, in fact, so much R'n'B on here that by now we know: Al Kooper has lived all his life suffering from not having been born in Sam Cooke's, Otis Redding's, or Marvin Gaye's shoes, and even though he has a clear advantage on all three of them now (as in, they are all violently dead and he is peacefully alive), I miss those early days, when the man was radiating all sorts of styles and genres. Now it is as if he just felt the need to resuscitate the old Atlantic Records spirit.
A song name like 'Staxability' says it all, even if the tune itself is a load of fun, and no one really has to concentrate on Al namedropping all of the Stax-Volt heroes (although it does not hurt to refresh one's memory, either — quick, name all of the M.G.s! and most of them, incidentally, are guesting on the actual song) instead of the funky brass riffs. It's an homage, but a good one, but still an homage, and the whole album is this unabashed trip down memory lane. Al covers Eddie Floyd ('I Love You More Than Words Can Say'), Ben E. King ('I Who Have Nothing'), and, in a moment of personal luck, gets to co-write a couple songs with Gerry Goffin himself. It's a bit of an overkill, really, even for Al's standards.
Interestingly, White Chocolate came out sunnier and shinier than Black Coffee: half of the songs are either loud, pompous, life-asserting anthems, pleasantly offset only by Al's ever-whinifying, but still highly resonant, old voice ('I Love You More...', 'You Make Me Feel So Good', 'Susan', 'No 1 2 Call Me Baby'; some of these I can easily imagine on post-Al Blood, Sweat & Tears albums — after all, how much emotional difference is there between 'You Make Me Feel So Good' and 'You've Made Me So Very Happy'?), or equally loud and anthemic tunes with just a slight touch of melancholy, but no tragedy ('Love Time'; the fast moving 'You Never Know 'Til You Get There', arguably the album's most introspective and personal number that begins with a subtle lyrical nod to Dylan's '115th Dream' and could have been really great if its main melodic hook weren't played on some cheap-sounding electronic keyboard — to my ears, it would need a couple of real cellos to truly come alive).
In a way, that's good, because the world has seen way too much whinying from old rock'n'roll farts already; and I have no idea if Kooper is so much internally at peace with himself as would seem from listening to the album (so much so that he wraps it up with the happiest, cheeriest «carnival gospel» performance about death ever put on record) — but even if he isn't, White Chocolate gives no sign of that. It may be somewhat monotonous, and it certainly is a disgrace to the classic «Al Kooper sound», but I do believe him when he writes how much fun he had making it, and, after all, at the ripe age of 64 he should feel absolutely free to lock himself in that one particular groove that, throughout his whole life, he has loved the best. Thumbs up.