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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Billy Preston: I Wrote A Simple Song


1) Should've Known Better; 2) I Wrote A Simple Song; 3) John Henry; 4) Without A Song; 5) The Looner Tune; 6) The Bus; 7) Outa-Space; 8) You Done Got Older; 9) Swing Down Chariot; 10) God Is Great; 11) My Country 'Tis Of Thee.

Sporting a slightly tougher image here: still as deeply religious and idealistic as ever, yes, but is that a slightly threatening «street punk look» that I feel is directed at me from the sleeve photo? Nah... can't be, really. Then again, the funk hits pretty hard on this record — clearly, Billy feels a strong need to emphasize that he is cool with the rock crowds of the day, and that it is really the last thing on his mind to get pigeonholed as a «ladies' man» or a «spokesman for God», or both. He still doth speak for God on occasion (ʽGod Is Greatʼ, yeah, right), but note the complete ab­sence of sappy ballads — in fact, the title track is, in itself, an angered rant against sappy ballads: "They took my simple song / They changed the words and the melody / Made it all sound wrong / Now it sounds like a symphony", he complains. Who knows, this might even have been a direct jab at Phil Spector and his strings on ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, or something.

In any case, the approach does work: there are no particularly stunning highlights on this album (no George Harrison covers, no mega-epic production triumphs like on ʽThat's The Way God Planned Itʼ, etc.), but no particular sentimental lowlights either, with the possible exception of the very last track — for some reason, at the last moment we are presented with a weepy anthemic outburst of patriotism (ʽMy Country 'Tis Of Theeʼ) that misses the mark. Basically, unless you are Jimi Hendrix or the Sex Pistols, you should probably avoid putting your mark on century-old anthems: singing them directly is a corny move, and trying to find your own unique, refreshing interpretation is a risky one — particularly for Billy, who ain't no performing genius, and, despite all his personal charisma, cannot hope to get by on sincerity and passion alone for too long; and adding strings and a gospel choir does not make life any easier.

But disregard the country and vouch for space instead — the instrumental ʽOuta-Spaceʼ was ini­tially released as the B-side to the title track, then gradually overtook it in popularity and became one of Billy's most classic numbers: a rather daring experiment in funky, wah-wah-treated, cla­vinet composing, with Billy hanging on a wobbly, scratchy groove and the rest of the band jam­ming rings around his simple, but infectious phrasing. The effect is somewhat close to the one achieved in ʽSuperstitionʼ — although the latter employed a more difficult chord sequence, and was overall «tighter» in the composition sense, this one not only comes earlier, but has much more of a «nasty party» atmosphere.

That said, even if the punchy, prickly clavinet does make ʽOuta-Spaceʼ into the most memorable event on the album, the overall strength of the grooves is not any less on such workouts as ʽThe Busʼ and ʽShould've Known Betterʼ (nope, not a Beatles cover here at all: most of the material is quite rigorously self-penned). The pop spirit comes out on the upbeat, jumpy ʽLooner Tuneʼ (which, for some reason, quotes from ʽEntry Of The Gladiatorsʼ on the chorus, adding some psychedelic gloss to the circus atmosphere), and most of the gospel is either disguised as mid-tempo funk once again (ʽGod Is Greatʼ) or gets a nice rootsy sheen (ʽSwing Down Chariotʼ).

The album marks the end of Billy's «star luck» period — all the fabulous guests, courtesy of the Beatles connection, that contributed heavily to the star power of That's The Way and Encoura­ging Words, have finally packed and gone home. However, Harrison still stays behind for a few guitar and dobro flourishes, and Quincy Jones is responsible for the strings and horns arrange­ments (which might be the reason why the strings never sound annoying); notorious Motown session player David T. Walker is responsible for most of the guitar work, but most of the time, assuredly sticks in the background (overall, there is very little genuine «soloing» going on here — emphasis is always on collective groove playing).

In short — this is just another good Billy Preston album, designed to heat up the party and cheer up the heart, not to blow the mind or any­thing (even if ʽOuta-Spaceʼ seems to set its sights a little bit higher), which corresponds to a modest, easy-going, quickly-passing thumbs up in my book.

Check "I Wrote A Simple Song" (CD) on Amazon

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