Friday, December 01, 2006
And the nominations are... (oldies but goldies)
How do you drum up interest in a Jerry Lee Lewis record, since the Ferriday Fireball is 71 and hasn't put out an album since 1996? First, you pair him with 22 of the biggest stars of rock (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), country (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard), and blues (Buddy Guy, B.B. King), to show how he put his stamp on nearly every genre. Then, you hire the dean of music chroniclers, Peter Guralnick, to give the liner notes heft. And--oh, yes, you also make sure the piano-pounding pioneer displays the best finger form he's shown in 25 years. Throughout, the Killer crows, struts, and self-mythologizes with the brio of youth, and who could resist him? At times, one may question the wisdom of turning an obvious guitar tune (Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll") into a piano-dominated performance, just as it seems odd to not make the best use of such guests as Toby Keith or Delaney Bramlett. But Lewis never yields the throne for a second, even surrounded by the likes of Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton. For that reason, most of these aren't true duets--the star instrumentalists take their solos, and the harmonies of some of the most legendary vocalists (Don Henley, Little Richard) stay too far in the background. But when things really work--as they do with Bruce Springsteen (the rave-up "Pink Cadillac"), Neil Young (a crackling rendition of "You Don't Have To Go"), Kid Rock (an even blacker "Honky Tonk Woman"), George Jones (the novelty-framed "Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age"), and Kris Kristofferson (an especially poignant take on "The Pilgrim: Chapter 33"), the rock of ages cleaves for thee and me. Last Man Standing refers to the famous cover of Million Dollar Quartet, on which he's pictured with fellow Sun artists Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, all now jamming in the great beyond. Yet in a spoken-word reprise at the end of the Kristofferson song--"From the rocking of the cradle / To the rolling of the hearse / The going up was worth the coming down"--the Last Man seems to suggest his own fine epitaph. It's hard to argue with a hellraiser extraordinaire.
Three decades after decisively trading fame and his superstar moniker for the spiritual devotion for which his restless '70s songs seemed a perpetual quest, the singer-songwriter born Steven Demetre Georgiou has successfully resurrected Cat Stevens's muse, if not his persona. The musician whose dedicated embrace of Islam embroiled him in controversy frequently sings its praises on An Other Cup, both boldly (the Prophet-lionizing "The Beloved") and with delicate reflection ("Whispers from a Spiritual Garden" reworks Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi.) Given the political and religious misconceptions that have often plagued him, he's mused for years that his theme song should be Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"; here Yusuf makes good on the promise, conjuring a cover steeped in brooding elegance with the assistance of Madonna/Dido/Rod Stewart producer Rick Nowells.
Yet, as "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" attests, the musician remains as masterfully adept at blurring distinctions between spiritual and romantic ecstasies as he is at evoking his trademark idealism in the lilting harmonies of "Maybe There's a World." Fans of his vintage catalog will find intriguing riches outside the more spiritually focused works here, too, with the familiar idealism of the previously unrecorded 1968 song "Green Fields, Golden Sands" and muscular "I Think I See the Light" further evoking the glories of Cat past. The production leans towards the spare and shrewdly contemporary, whether casting the effusive opener "Midday" in Paul Simon's spirit of cross-cultural adventure, underscoring the melodic charms of "One Day at a Time," or suffusing "When Butterflies Leave" and his autobiographical cover of Simone with graceful, neo-classical strings. Considering the career time lapse, it's a remarkably strong effort, yet one inspired by a gentility and spiritual inquisitiveness that's comfortably familiar.
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