Sunday, 28 October 2012

D CDs #496: Boz Standard?

Number 496 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest..." list, and hot damn, now we're talking.  Sure, we already discussed the virtues of the Stone Rose's debut album, but this is the first time in this admittedly still-young series that I've come across something both new and exceptional.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm still very much a beginner when it comes to music of this kind.  I don't know when soul moves into R&B, and how R&B is distilled into pure blues. It's clear country & western is somewhere nearby all of that, too, but I have no idea how to assemble the jigsaw.

So when the internets tell me this is soul, I'm just taking its word for it - after all, when has that ever gone wrong (it also tells me soul is R&B plus funkiness and an air of testifying, which, OK, that sounds right here).  What I don't want to dodge around is the fact that I enjoyed this disc noticeably more than B.B. King's "Live From Cook County Jail" - which of course is not to say the latter record isn't good; it most certainly is.  The fact that Rolling Stone agrees in the context of this list's rankings notwithstanding, a post in which a white guy discusses how he prefers a white guy's approach to traditionally black music over a black musician's can't just pretend there isn't something here to address.

So, what's here that isn't in King's live album? I can think of three things to point to, all of which kind of feed back into each other.

First of all, there's a welcome degree of variety across these nine tracks. The one-two punch of "I'm Easy" and "I'll Be Long Gone" that opens the album.  The former is a filthy uptempo stomp, the latter a slice of keyboard-driven melancholy defiance.  All that ties them together, really, is the quality of the playing on display. The backing singers, bass player and horn sections are particularly worthy of praise, but really, no-one here sounds anywhere other than at the top of their game.

This is the second strength of the album, the fact that it strays into so many different areas and yet is entirely cohesive, keeping itself together purely by the force of its individual elements.  One real problem with "Live From..." was the distinct impression that King was a far better player than he was a writer (this may be very unfair in general, but at present I can only go by what's served up on that particular platter); the switch to his back catalogue halfway through does the album no favours.

In contrast, the swap in "Boz Scaggs" is both in the other direction (from original material to covers and collaborations), and impossible to detect without either reading the liner notes or recognising the songs being covered.  Under other circumstances, it might be possible to construct an argument suggesting this is a flaw; that this is indicative of an album so all over the map that a twelve-minute nose-harp solo would be less surprising than consecutive songs in the same key, but I refer you to the previous point: if you can hold everything together by sheer presence and talent, then more power to you.

Scaggs and Co. hold it together very well, bringing us to point three, overlapping heavily as it does with points one and two.  Each song has a standout among its constituent parts (the bass groove of "I'm Easy", the keyboards in "Finding Her", which sounds like it could've been Zepplin's inspiration for "Stairway to Heaven" except it finishes in four minutes, rather than taking six to get to the fucking point), but it's clearly the work of an immensely talented and confident ensemble.  King's band are never less than competent, and have a great deal to recommend them, but "Boz Scaggs" feels like a group effort in a way that "Live From..." just can't match.

Anyway, that's my argument as to why one album works pretty well, and the other blows me away.  "Boz Scaggs" isn't perfect, admittedly; "Another Letter" isn't particularly interesting, nor is its cover of Fenton Robinson's "Loan Me A Dime" - which is a particular problem when it clocks in at twelve and a half minutes - and the problem with short albums like this is that any dropping of the ball seems like a big deal.

But really, it's not.  This is a disc that starts with two phenomenal songs, ends with another killer (the heavenly "Sweet Release" co-written by Scaggs), and offers several gems - and motherfucking yodelling - along the way.  If there is in fact only 22 minutes of solid gold here, I've seen much worse, and what's good here is very, very good indeed.

Eight and a half tentacles.

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