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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Billy Preston: The Kids & Me


1) Tell Me You Need My Loving; 2) Nothing From Nothing; 3) Struttin'; 4) Sister Sugar; 5) Sad Sad Song; 6) You Are So Beautiful; 7) Sometimes I Love You; 8) St. Elmo; 9) John The Baptist; 10) Little Black Boys And Girls; 11) Creature Feature.

A perfect title, actually — if there is one soul performer who might be said to have it special for the kids, it is unquestionably Billy: never going heavy on 16+ themes, always loaded with sunny charisma, yet very rarely lapsing into overt tastelessness. Formally, this is not a «kiddie» album, but it is very lightweight in attitude and atmosphere, almost intentionally targeted at those who like it easy-going, unburdened with too much pretense or complexity, but still retaining some basic rock'n'roll grittiness, for the sake of the reputation.

Billy's main inspiration in those days seems to have been Stevie Wonder — it is no coincidence that both of them used to be the opening acts for the Stones, Stevie in 1972, Billy in 1973, and there is nothing surprising that Stevie's own sunny-optimistic style, borrowing all the brightest sides from ye olde R&B, jazz, and pop traditions, must have inspired Preston to try going in the same direction. Thus, The Kids & Me is like a lite, much simplified version of Talking Book (Innervisions was chronologically closer, but had much more socially-conscious tenseness to it — not that Billy is never socially conscious, but that side of his is downplayed on The Kids & Me), with more emphasis on dance beats, but the same idea of merging the «catchy pop-hit»  with the «building up an R&B groove» approach, and dressing it all up in modernized production values with a buzzing synthesizer on top.

The inspiration proved worthwhile — the album gave Billy his second and last #1, ʽNothing From Nothingʼ, a song that is even fluffier and sillier than ʽWill It Go Round In Circlesʼ, but even more catchy, sort of a fast-tempo vaudeville number with layers of piano, banjo, and brass com­bining, respectively, the atmospheres of music hall, country-western, and New Orleanian party muzak. The song may be easily despised, but it is hardly worth wasting your despisal generator on such an innocent, cuddly trifle. Besides, it was the first musical number ever to be performed on Saturday Night Live, so it's already made history, want it or not.

Almost everything else here is just as short, sweet, (more often than not) catchy, and up to the point. The only exception is the slow anthemic love ballad ʽYou Are So Beautifulʼ, which Billy happened to co-write with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys — and which Beach Boys fans will consequently recognize from Dennis' own live performances (e. g. on Live At Knebworth). Of course, the fully worked out, elaborately arranged version here is the one that shows the song's true potential — a little cheesy, but passionately and honestly sung, with an odd, (no doubt) Stevie-influen­ced, synth tone smearing weird electronic honey on top.

Around this ballad, strategically placed in the middle, all the little ditties hop around, shifting their places in the blink of an eye — funky instrumentals (ʽStruttin'ʼ), proto-disco with a head-spin­ning strings-to-brass marriage (ʽSister Sugarʼ), almost-completely-disco with metronomic beats (ʽSometimes I Love Youʼ) and Bible-for-juniors adaptations (ʽJohn The Baptistʼ, possibly the most upbeat song ever dedicated to the poor martyr — and sort of a blueprint for nearly the entire career of The Average White Band), and, at the end of the day, a «mock-spooky» B-movie-paro­dy (ʽCreature Featureʼ, where Billy fools around with a talkbox, correctly using it as a tool for producing goofiness, rather than going the Peter Frampton route and trying to employ its po­tential with «serious» purposes).

On the whole, The Kids & Me is a surprisingly «adequate» record, one on which there is never any feeling that Billy — a «limited» artist, for sure — may be overstepping his limits, stretching out in directions that he really cannot handle. For a «deeper» Billy Preston — deep enough, that is, to talk to God and humanity in general, but not deep enough to say a lot of interesting and ori­ginal things to either — Encouraging Words or its predecessor still remain the basic standard, but the «fluffy» Billy Preston never got any more charming than on this record, where the fun almost literally drips through his fingers. Thumbs up.

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