Under the resourceful tutelage of label kingpin Chris Blackwell, Joe Cocker has found a new Island home. Without question, Sheffield Steel (recorded in Jamaica) is the gravel-throated singer’s most consistently pleasing program of tunes in many years. He’s supported by Blackwell’s superlative house band, the Compass Point All-Stars (which includes the can’t-miss rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare); throughout, they find a solid groove and ride it with tasteful understatement.
Cocker, clearly at ease in these balmier surroundings, lets his voice roll along as naturally as a sailboat in a Jamaican breeze. This is not the jolting, brassy R&B of yesteryear; rather, this is rocking-chair rockin’ — Cocker and band let these songs get there when they get there, if you know what I mean. Sheffield Steel has plenty of fine moments: Cocker does Bob Dylan proud on the salty funk of “Seven Days” and covers a new Steve Winwood-Will Jennings composition, “Talking Back to the Night,” whose muted urgency is the closest this set comes to out-and-out rock. In Cocker’s hands, the reggae classic “Many Rivers to Cross” becomes movingly autobiographical. Not unexpectedly, Randy Newman (“Marie”) and Jimmy Webb (“Just like Always”) contribute the side-closers, two of the kind of romantic big ballads that Cocker takes to so well.
It’s great to hear the most eloquently ravaged voice in rock & roll have his sly, swaggering say again. Sheffield Steel is filled with teasing, skittering melodies, chugging Jamaican soul-funk rhythms and confident singing, proving that you can cook over a low fire and still have your groove turn out well done.