Rod Stewart, lead singer with the off-again on-again Jeff Beck group, has come up with a superb album of his own. Imagination pervades the music, in the choice of material, in the frequent use of beautiful bottleneck guitar work to draw out the subtler aspects of many cuts (Ron Wood is responsible here), and in the range Stewart himself displays on virtually every vocal.
British albums are often over-done, with good ideas transformed into gimmicks; on this record the music sustains itself through innumerable listenings. A bass solo is not an indulgence here but a perfect lead-in to striking piano; the bottleneck is so sparing that you simply hunger for more of that brilliant sound. What is more amazing is that the musicians make their statements with the same sort of friendly sympathy that recently has been displayed only by the Stones and by the three geniuses of Traffic. Their soul is in their timing.
Stewart opens by taking the big risk, with "Street Fighting Man." And, like Johnny Winter's "Highway 61 Revisited," Rod's performance shows no self-consciousness, no worry about the "right way" to do it. He starts in the middle, brakes with a crash, and then a familiar "We Love You" riff on the piano carries the song back to the Stones' beginning. Rod's ending. It's just a fine piece of music, not a cover.
"Man of Constant Sorrow" is next; Stewart's own guitar is up front, while Wood's bottleneck creeps in from the other channel, adding depth to a vocal that is just about the definition of English soul. The richness of this album begins to suggest itself here — this is not just another solid Joe Cocker LP, but something more. You don't hear Ray Charles or anyone else looking over Stewart's shoulder, but an echo of lessons well earned.
"Handbags & Gladrags" clinches it. It will remind most of the Stones' "No Expectations"; the same soft despairing heart-breaking Floyd Cramer-style piano played by Mike D'Abo, and again, the sort of restraint and timing that makes the listener wish the song would never end. It's a very sophisticated composition, a brief story that's full of emotion but which never slides into dull sentiment. Like the rest of the songs Stewart is singing here, it's not going to get old.
Stewart's LP is perhaps the only album released this year that reflects something of the feeling of Beggars' Banquet, aside from Let It Bleed. And, unlike so many of the records of 1969, issued with a flood of hype and forgotten after a dozen playings, this one is for keeps. Many LPs are a lot flashier than this one, but damn few are any better.
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