At his best Chuck Berry was a hip short-story teller, with insightful, affecting and entertaining pictures to show, set to a strong jumping boogie beat. But he never had much of a way with albums, and the problem with being chief chronicler and day-to-day historian of the ways of an era is that it fades away — and people grow older. Times and audiences change — but Berry hasn’t much.
One of the best things about this current LP is the package with photos of Berry over the years — the cover shot of him as a young man bears an uncanny resemblance to him today. The title song, “Bio,” is built on the ever-popular Elmore James “Dust My Broom” riff, and the lyrics are just that — Berry’s life from his first record to his Hollywood career. (Nothing, however, about the years since.) “Hello Little Girl Goodbye” is an I’m-leaving-you-baby number, again with highly familiar structure, distinguished mostly by nice piano work. (On all but two numbers Chuck is accompanied by members of Elephants Memory, and they add a nice solid backup, working well within the limits Chuck sets — he don’t like anybody getting too fancy, you understand.) “Woodpecker” is a pleasant little instrumental jam with riffing by Chuck — but again, nothing exceptional.
“Aimlessly Drifting” is a slow blues, ain’t-life-on-the-road-a-lonesome-bitch lament, which owes a lot to the Charles Brown standard “Drifting And Drifting.” As a bluesman, Berry is a good rock & roll player. “Got It and Gone” is another guitar player song, “Johnny-B. —Goode —Take —Thirty —Two.” “Talking About My Buddy” is another borrowed riff, this one from Ray Charles, “Lonely Avenue.” The lyric is an involved and confusing tale of Berry’s “buddy” who went on the rock & roll road and learned about life, while Chuck is coming on to this woman who he’s singing the song to because she reminds him of everybody he knows. It makes some kind of sense after several playings, but it’s too long and thin.
The only infectious cut that you want to play again is “Rain Eyes,” an almost C&W-sounding boogie number that tells a story of a Louisiana broken home — with Berry double-tracking vocal harmonies. It has all the evocative power and charm of the Berry songs of old — and it jumps steady too.
Bio is OK — but if you never hear it you won’t have missed much — certainly not anything important in Chuck Berry’s musical history. And if that’s a harsh judgment, well, damnit, it’s supposed to be. I don’t know how much longer Berry can get away with putting out albums that are just all right, but I wish he’d put some effort into making the really good one that he has in him.
Mediocrity is such a bore.