One minute, twenty-two seconds.
That’s how long Rod Stewart’s new album, Soulbook, actually gave me some hope that it might be something more than the latest in a series of cash-grab albums that started with the first American Songbook disc back in 2002. For the first 1:22 of his cover of The Four Tops’ “The Same Old Song,” Stewart croons over a slow, mildly sad, ballad arrangement. It’s unpredictable. Actually pretty good. And then…
The drums kick in, and both the music and Stewart’s vocals switch to a near replication of the original version, and basically keep the same pattern going through the rest of the songs on the album.
Anyone familiar with Stewart’s career is probably also familiar with phrase “treading water,” but this album may actually be a new low point for Stewart, as arguably the greatest white soul singer ever turns himself into the world’s oldest American Idol contestant, putting emotionless vocals over copycat arrangements of the original songs–songs that should mean more to Stewart than to give him the same MOR treatment he’s given the pop and rock standards on his previous five endeavors. What may be even worse (if that were possible) is that the promotional materials for “Soul”book state that a number of the songs feature the original recordings’ musicians on them. Here, however, whatever talents they brought to the original songs are drowned under studio decisions that produce the life out of them, turning what were once classics into expensive karaoke backing tracks.
Regardless, Stewart’s name and sleepy-looking visage is on the cover of Crapbook, and thus he must take the majority of the blame. I’ve previously criticized his output of the last twenty-five years as relying too much on the “whisper/scream” technique of singing to simulate emotion, rather than expressing it genuinely via his natural talents. Here, Stewart doesn’t even even have the scream to fall back on. To be blunt, his voice often sounds strained. When he tries to hit the high notes on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” the results are cringe-worthy. Similar problems occur on the album’s only other “fast” song, as Stewart’s cover of the O’Jays’ “Love Train” finds him struggling to keep pace with the energy of the arrangement.
But perhaps nowhere on Flaccidbook does Stewart’s combination of age and wear show through than on the cover of “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” which, unfortunately is turned into a duet between Stewart and Mary J. Blige. I say “unfortunately” because what Blige perpetrates on Stewart is nothing less than the equivalent of a vocal beatdown (probably stealing his lunch money and shoving him into a locker in the process), exposing the current disparity in the two artists’ abilities.
If this tale wasn’t sad enough, there’s the fact that Stewart decided to devote his time and diminishing skills to recording Assbook and promoting it through the better part of 2010 at the expense of the previously rumored reunion of his old band, the Faces. Meanwhile, the other three surviving members of the band (Ron Wood, Kenny Jones, and Ian McLagan) got together to play a benefit show on October 25th at the Royal Albert Hall, with former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman on bass, and a series of vocalists filling in for Stewart, including an amazing turn by Mick Hucknall, former lead singer of Simply Red.
In fact, news has it that the Faces will likely go ahead and tour in 2010, with or without Stewart on lead vocals. And to be honest–especially if Hucknall is the full time fill-in–I feel the Faces would be better off without Stewart. At this point, the only thing he brings to the table is his name. I set out with this series nearly two years ago to expose people to the good things about Stewart’s output in the last quarter century, but alas, with his current release (and that it is part of a choice of money over actual reconnection with his musical roots) Stewart leaves me with nothing to declare redeemable. As for the fact that he continues to pay lip service to his soul heroes and influences in interviews, the laziness inherent on almost every track of Checkbook says much more about how Stewart really feels about music than any seemingly pre-rehearsed statement; for, if he can’t get it up to sing the songs that formed the basis of his musical education, why should we an an audience want to see him sullying the Faces’ reputation by going through the motions with them?
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