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- March 28, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 12
Picks and Pans Main: Song
Everybody's heard of the calm before the storm. But not enough is said about the calm after the storm, where the latest album from six-string king Clapton seems to come from. His brilliant early career soared with the Yardbirds and Cream and Blind Faith, but after the 1970 release of the Derek and the Dominos two-record set Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Clapton began to lose his musical compass. The surprisingly poor sales of Layla apparently crushed him, to say nothing of his problem with drugs, and by the end of the decade his records had become lackluster and hollow. Ulcers forced Clapton to cancel his 1981 tour, and he spent much of last year recuperating. Happily, the opening number on this album, Everybody Oughta Make a Change, seems to be signaling a fresh start. It's an impression he reinforces later in Ain't Going Down, with lyrics that declare "I will survive" and "I've got to step outside myself/I've still got something left to say." Clapton offers no surprises of style, nor even a particularly memorable guitar solo. But, joined by such challenging sidemen as guitarist Albert Lee and Ry Cooder, he is playing and singing with conviction once again, reaching for inspiration, as he always has, in the blues. One listens in vain on this LP for a few of the lightning bolts Clapton generated in concert on his recent month-long U.S. tour, but for now it's enough satisfaction to see an influential veteran back in the studio sailing under clear skies.
Clapton's sideman Lee also has his own LP. He is a gifted guitarist who has spent most of his career shining only in reflected glory, having lent his talents to Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris. His specialty is clean, lavish and creative country picking, and this rockabilly collection has, by turns, the sweetness of sarsaparilla and the kick of white lightning. Lee is helped along by an enthusiastic band of players, overseen by wunderkind Nashville producer Rodney Crowell. For material, Lee borrows Hank DeVito's spiffy Sweet Little Lisa, John Hiatt's clever Pink Bedroom and Don Everly's 1969 lament So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad). The primary appeal is Lee's superb guitar work, but he also unveils an impressively relaxed singing voice—for comparison, Dave Edmunds and Buddy Holly come to mind. This LP confirms that Lee need play second guitar to no one.
Nelson's first album of new material in nearly eight years is a peculiar mix. This is another of his screenplay-in-the-making concept albums; there is a more or less consistent plot, involving a rugged Westerner's devotion to a woman who likes roses. It includes a couple of model Nelson tunes: the lovely I Am the Forest and the wry Little Old-Fashioned Karma. But there's also a lot of repetition, as if this were, indeed, a sound track, and the storytelling gets muddied by inconsistencies. (At first the focal point seems to be an old gunfighter. Then he dies abruptly, and the tale focuses on a case of mistaken identity that leads to an execution. Is this a double feature?) More important, the music seems hindered by the shortcomings of Willie's band. While Nelson's loyalty to an old friend is admirable, drummer Paul English is a minor league musician. He's apparently incapable of anything in the way of subtlety or finesse, as he demonstrates, unhappily, on Karma. And while she is Willie's sister and longtime pianist, Bobbie Nelson is also too limited a musician to be supporting someone of her brother's skill and stature. Willie, though, is in fine voice and form, full of rough grace. Having him back writing and recording songs almost makes everything else seem unimportant. Almost.
It's probably an illustration of some unhappy principle of pop culture that Bofill seems to be commercially successful with her most inexpressive, least sensitive material. The title tune from this album—a sterile, strident, semi-shrieky post-disco overproduction by Narada Michael Walden and Jeffrey Cohen—is an illustration, drowning out all Bofill's nuances. It is, of course, a hit single. Meanwhile the same album contains three gentle, affecting original Bofill songs, touchingly rendered: Song for a Rainy Day, Rainbow Inside My Heart and Accept Me (I'm Not a Girl Anymore). There's also a gutsy version of the old Aretha Franklin hit Ain't Nothin 'Like the Real Thing, here as a duet with Boz Scaggs, that is full of texture and feeling. Its energy makes Too Tough seem artificial and synthesized, as indeed it is, thanks to Walden's synthesizers. Bofill's voice is sure and exact but not on the powerful side; she needs room to work. When she gets it, her music shows the delicacy and elegance of Diana Ross at her best.
Teresa Brewer/Stephane Grappelli
The Hooked on...syndrome is apparently catching, and Brewer, who has become a stylish interpreter of pop music after the silliness of her early career, has got the disease. Her I Dig album includes excerpts from 35 songs, grouped according to the bands that made them famous (Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and two sets of miscellaneous medleys). The backup band includes such splendid musicians as trombonist Urbie Green and drummer Grady Tate. Brewer sounds vivacious and interested. But condensed music is inevitably frustrating and maddening. There ought to be a law against this sort of thing. It's especially annoying in comparison to Brewer's other current release, with the venerable jazz violinist Grappelli. Included in that LP are a bright version of the Willie Nelson title tune, a thoughtful As Time Goes By and the delightful Kay Thompson song I Love a Violin, written as a friendly retort to Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano. To quote the old Brewer hit, this album is full of music, music, music.
Dead duck is more like it. Ozzy Osbourne, where are you when we need you?
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