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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Billy Preston: You And I


1) Hold Me; 2) Right Now; 3) Lonely No More; 4) Supernatural Thang; 5) You And I; 6) I'm In Love With You; 7) Getting It On; 8) Dream Lover; 9) Sweet Senseous Sensations; 10) You Are So Beautiful.

On The Air effectively cancelled Billy Preston's solo artistic career, and none too soon: another couple of records of comparable quality with even a bare minimum of promotion, and his good guy reputation would be squandered without hope. Actually, he did record more, and there is such a thing as a «1986 Billy Preston album»: the rather threateningly titled You Can't Keep A Good Man Down, released by D&K Records only in the Netherlands and in Spain and utterly unavailable since then — unless you are an Ebay hunter and God loves you so much that you want to spend seventy bucks on a 1986 Billy Preston album.

The remaining two decades of Billy's life were mostly spent on cleaning up, session work, and on­ly very occasional venturing into solo recording — for the most part, he kept to himself in a private manner, with his arguably biggest «public flash» being on the memorial Concert For George four years prior to his own death (ironically, his last glimpse of major fame ended up just as tight­ly connected to the Beatles as his first ones). His discography also becomes confused at this point, with various sources yielding controversial information. He did most certainly attempt a «comeback» in 1995, releasing Billy's Back on NuGroove records: since this already happened in the CD age, the record should be easier to locate, but I have not been able to, and the fact that it opens with a remake of ʽNothin' From Nothin'ʼ does not exactly thrill me into active searching.

He may also have recorded one or more gospel albums, but the only secular project of his that is relatively easily available is You And I, recorded in 1997 under odd conditions — in Italy, wor­king together with brothers Lino and Pino Nicolosi of the Italo disco / synth-pop / soft-rock band Novecento. The union sounds kinda scary, but also curious on paper — in theory, this could be something as utterly awful as On The Air and more, but could just as well present some curious surprises. Besides, if it really is the last complete (secular) LP that Billy ever released, it would make at least some reverential sense to get hold of it. So what is it?

Well, apparently, there is nothing particularly Italian about it, and, likewise, there is nothing parti­cularly awful or astounding about it. It is just a perfectly middle-of-the-road, not-too-irritating, smoothly even collection of R&B and ballads, ideologically very much belonging in the 1970s but production-wise, an unmistakable product of the 1990s. Which is good, actually — it means clear and sharp production for music recorded by a real band rather than a bunch of samplers. But it also means adding an adult contemporary edge, and it is a little sad to watch the «kiddie spirit» of Billy dissolving away in pools of «heavenly synthesizers». At their best, Billy's grooves were lightweight, upbeat, and giddy; these ones sound deadly serious and «mature», which may theo­retically be alright for a 50-year old, but really, some people need to stay forever young because there is simply no sense at all in their growing old. (And, for that matter, has Billy produced even one thing worthy of long-term memory storage after he turned 30?).

Some of the R&B grooves are decent enough to make for acceptable background listening: ʽHold Meʼ, ʽRight Nowʽ, ʽLonely No Moreʼ, and ʽGetting It Onʼ are impeccable from a technical point of view — strong, well-oiled rhythm section with adequately jumpy bass, tasteful jazzy guitar licks, synthesizers creating a moody background but not getting too much in the way, catchy re­petitive choruses, even an occasional attempt or two at entrancing (such as the acappella break in ʽGetting It Onʼ). ʽSupernatural Thangʼ adds a mariachi band vibe for a little extra diversity, and ʽI'm In Love With Youʼ heads towards neo-disco territory. It's all competent, but I am a bit puz­zled about why it was necessary to engage an Italian band (unless, of course, no one else was wil­ling to play with an old washed-up has-been, which might just be the reason) — worse, I am a bit puzzled about why it was necessary to engage Billy Preston, because neither his keyboard playing nor his rather non-descript singing are really at the center of this music.

The ballads (title track, a duet with Dora Nicolosi, brother Lino's wife; and the last three tracks that include a remake of ʽYou Are So Beautifulʼ, also as a duet with the same lady singer) fall into the category of «totally generic», although the lady does have a nice tone and all (and a re­markably good English pronunciation, with almost no traces of Italian accent, a relative rarity in the Mediterranean world) — rendering the last twelve minutes of the album pointless from just about any potential point of view. But yes, what's a Billy Preston record without a few heart­breakers? It's good enough they left the Lord out of it this time.

Moody, unnecessarily serious, redundant, ultimately dull — all of this could qualify for a cruel «thumbs down», but if taken in the general context of Billy's ups and downs, You And I is still a creative rebound, and it does seem as if he had a bit of fun making it: nothing left to prove, not the slightest chance of commercial success — just a relaxing session with some trendy European friends, themselves probably head-over-heels about working with a «living legend». As a final memento from the man that helped bring us ʽGet Backʼ, ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ, and ʽLet It Beʼ, it is at least an acceptable choice, even if I feel he could have done much better even at that point.

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