I’ve been feeling a little guilty about posting nothing but recycled entries from my own blog to BlogCritics, so here’s some original content.
Don’t Give Up On Me by Solomon Burke. Solomon Burke is one of the great overlooked legends of soul music– he’s widely respected by other musicians, but somehow hasn’t ever really made it big. It’s easy to understand the former, and hard to believe the latter– he’s got a great voice, and a resume that’s pretty hard to beat:
[S]oul legend, ordained bishop, father of 21, licensed mortician and current Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member
(That’s from the liner notes. I don’t know which is more boggling, “father of 21″ or “licensed mortician,” though together they make a certain amount of sense, I suppose. You need some sort of steady employment if you’ve got that many kids…)
This album is, in some part, an effort to parlay the “respected by other musicians” thing into greater commercial success. The songs on this record were written for Burke by a number of well-known songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Brian Wilson. That’s been enough to get him some critical attention, at least, and it did get me to buy the record, so maybe it’ll work out. I hope so, because this is good stuff.
The really impressive thing about this is the way that Burke does songs by more famous authors in a way that leaves the source clear, but is also very much his own. I guess that’s not surprising, given that he’s old enough to come from an era when people didn’t really write their own music, but it’s interesting to see.
The liner notes extol Burke’s interpretive prowess, but the striking thing about these songs is really the lack of modification from the sound favored by the original authors. The instrumentation is very basic (a gospel-ish combo of drums, bass, guitar, piano and organ, plus a couple of female backup singers), but as a singer, Burke does all the same things the original artists do, only with a better voice. Tom Waits’s “Diamond in Your Mind” is clearly part of his cabaret-singer-from-an-alternate-universe thing, and with the addition of mysterious honks and clanks in the background, could easily fit on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones. Van Morrison’s “Fast Train” and “Only a Dream” lack the mysticism that characterizes a lot of his work, but they’re very much in keeping with his recent return to fundamentals (indeed, they apparently ended up on his latest album, as well). Bob Dylan contributes the straightforwardly bluesy “Stepchild,” which wouldn’t be out of place on Love and Theft, while the pop bounce of “Soul Searchin’” is unmistakably Brian Wilson.
The only real failure from an author I recognize is Elvis Costello’s “The Judgement,” which is too complicated a song to work well with Burke’s spare approach– it needs orchestral flourishes, or something more. Burke gives it a good go, and sings with conviction, but it’s just not the right sort of song. The overwrought “Flesh and Blood” (by producer Joe Henry) is the only other weak point on the album.
Tracks by authors I’m less familiar with are also pretty solid. Nick Lowe’s “The Other Side of the Coin” is a highlight, while the somewhat wistful “Sit This One Out” closes the album nicely. Between those two is the gospel message of “None of Us Are Free,” backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s hardly a subtle song, but it’s undeniably effective– Burke got his start in gospel at an early age as “The Wonderboy Preacher,” and definitely knows how to use the form.
The simple sound of this album is probably a little too spare to find real commercial success (the fact that I had to try three different stores to find it doesn’t help), which is a pity, because it’s good stuff. Then again, the “old-timey” music of O Brother, Where Art Thou was a big hit, so it’s probably not inconcievable that they could sell a lot of these. If you like soul music, gospel music, or any of the artists who contributed songs, you should check this out.