Sing It Again Rod touches all the solo bases since Stewart’s departure from the Jeff Beck Band, wherein he cut his teeth on American audiences for $75 a week plus expenses, and wisely ignores his generally inferior work with the Faces. With only four solo albums to his credit, the retrospective is premature, even though it is pulled off with taste and imagination.
Stewart’s music has passed through blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, rock, Dylan and British folk music. He did some of his best blues with Beck and it is regrettable that the album doesn’t finally offer United States audiences his fascinating “I’ve Been Drinking Again” as a testament to that side of his style. We are stuck instead with the overexposed “I’m Losin’ You” which, because of its popularity at Faces concerts, has become his albatross (he couldn’t drop it if he wanted to), just as “Serve You Right to Suffer” has become for the J. Geils Band. His raspy voice and the Faces’ arrangement just don’t compare to the David Ruffin-Temptations-Motown produced original, and I would have preferred the inclusion of the slightly longer, lyrically autobiographical and musically indispensable “Every Picture Tells a Story.” In fact, no Stewart collection can be considered complete, let alone entirely successful, without its presence.
Taking into account the facts that the album contains one long cut that drives me up the wall, omits another I think the best he has yet written and recorded, and ignores the best of his pre-solo career, how good is Sing It Again Rod? Almost as good as the brilliant singer — interpreter — personality who made it, an exciting record to play, excessive in both the right and wrong ways, and, above all, a tribute to the classiness and character of one of rock’s few significant leading men.
Because it was culled from such a relatively small body of work, the album required a bonus — so they threw in (or is it away?) his “Pinball Wizard,” from the all-star version of Tommy. It’s strictly for those who can laugh, with him, at the idiotic chorus and orchestra that surround his singing. (I would have enjoyed hearing him do it against the original Who band track.) His “Reason To Believe” isn’t terribly impressive either, because his sentimental reading burdens the already syrupy lyrics with more emotion than they can withstand. “Street Fighting Man” is excessively raucous, although it mellows dramatically when Nicky Hopkins drifts into his famous Rolling Stones “We Love You” piano riff. From the same The Rod Stewart Album, “Handbags And Gladrags” reveals his working-class, rugby player’s controlled sentimentality and it works perfectly — a lovely song, and his voice keeps it from getting too pretty.
On Gasoline Alley Stewart discovered his solo style. He has since learned to combine three distinctive elements with amazingly consistent results: a largely folkish instrumentation, a hard-rock rhythm section style, with special emphasis on heavy, flatly recorded drumming and a voice that sounds as if it has to stretch for every note, but rarely misses one. It is, by the way, the failure of the Faces to develop a style of even roughly comparable quality that has made their records so much less interesting.
His version of “Country Comfort” is the biggest favor anyone has ever done a Bernie Taupin-Elton John song. Rod Stewart raising his right hand, closing his eyes, pointing to the ceiling and singing, “Down at the mill they’ve got a new machine/Foreman says it cuts manpower by 16” — that was a rock spectacle in itself. Sing It Again Rod closes on the obvious but nonetheless perfect mood created by his smaller autobiographical semi-chant, “Gasoline Alley” — the only other number from that landmark album.
Presumably for commercial reasons, the rest is culled from his biggest sellers to date, Every Picture Tells a Story (his best album) and Never a Dull Moment (a mild disappointment but only by comparison). “Maggie May” is here as it must be, despite the fact that even his most dedicated admirers must have long since tired of it. On the other hand, “Mandolin Wind” holds up as not only one of his handful of brilliant originals but possibly his best arranged piece of music to date. The studio group’s mastery of dynamics is dazzling, especially when it goes from a verse supported by minimal acoustic instrumentation to a pounding blast of energy that takes the song home. From the later album, “You Wear It Well” was a perfect successor to “Maggie” — it improved on its predecessor in both sophistication and melody, was shorter and tighter, and he sang it better. But the sequel never matches the commercial appeal of the original, so the song didn’t receive the attention it deserved.
“Los Paraguayos” is most notable for its use of Latin horns. Stewart’s only rival for eclecticism is Paul Simon and on each of his albums has relied on a slightly eccentric musical motif — Gasoline Alley had its fiddles, Every Picture Tells a Story its mandolins, and Never a Dull Moment its trumpets and such. But all of the changes are always offset by the ferocious drumming that a more conservative stylist would have avoided at all costs.
Finally, “Twisting the Night Away” is everything good about the boy — beery-eyed sentiment, saved from mere sentimentality by a hard-assed free spirit and a voice that sounds coated with some magically palatable chalk. Even in the midst of a tribute to his idol, Sam Cooke, his strikingly original and completely distinctive approach never falters.
Sing It Again Rod is, like all such greatest hits albums, a compromise, because any Stewart fan has long ago digested the material. However, it was put together with great care, is brilliantly edited, intelligently, if imperfectly, selected, plenty long and well-paced, and as much fun to listen to, if a bit less unified, than most of his solo albums and all of his Faces records. The LP doesn’t add to his reputation but only confirms his rightful place in any Seventies rock pantheon. His next move should be a genuine solo album — one on which he takes the big chance and writes the whole damn thing himself. He has it in him — as the album’s crucial missing link, “Every Picture Tells a Story,” proved some time ago.
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To her audience, Janis Joplin has remained a symbol, artifact and reminder of late Sixties youth culture. Her popularity never derived from her musical ability, but from her capacity to link her fantasies of freedom and immortality with ours. Jimi Hendrix was no less a significant exponent of those fantasies and lifestyles, but his music has survived his death and one is not so resentful about the continued release of previously unissued material, because he was one of the great innovators of rock music.
Not so Janis Joplin, and I wish Columbia had given it up after the disastrous and painful In Concert. However, they hadn’t yet released her Greatest Hits so one can’t really complain about this new album — even if it’s packaged with all the tender loving care usually reserved for Mantovani’s Golden Oldies, Vol. XIII. The jacket has the smell of mere product to it, although the record has been carefully selected and edited by some unnamed person — shades of the producerless Cheap Thrills.
The best cuts are taken from the earliest and latest dates in her career. On “Down On Me,” from In Concert, and “Bye, Bye Baby,” from the Mainstream LP, she sounds relatively innocent and unaware of the impending flood of pressure. Big Brother was not yet regarded as an inadequate backup band, but as nearly equal in importance. The combination of her sheer, unrefined exuberance and their unapologetic demo-quality music gives both cuts a warmth and naive lack of pretension that collapses into mere incompetence on Cheap Thrills, from which “Piece of My Heart” and “Summer-time” have been pulled.
It must have seemed incredibly cruel to Janis that when she took the advice of management, record company and critics, and hired a professional backup band, she quickly encountered a new set of criticisms. Instead of solving everything, the second band generated complaints that she had become too professional, smooth, controlled and show businessy. After their disastrous Memphis debut, many realized that as a performer she had always been treading on thin ice. Certainly, for all their polish, Janis Joplin did not make significantly better music with the Kozmic Blues Band, as the only cut from their joint effort, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” proves.
Only on the not wholly successful (but still her best) Pearl did she stop relying on changing personnel to improve her music and take stock of her own shortcomings. For the most part, she had determined the quality of her work, and it was her lack of control, insensitivity to nuance and style, and insecure instinct to bludgeon everything into her shallow conception of R&B style that most contributed to making her records so mediocre.
The Full Tilt Boogie Band was the best she played with and on “Cry Baby” she regained the spirit of the mainstream “Down On Me” but added some new-found class, confidence and self-control which intimated that her musical future could have been much more satisfying than her past. It would have been a nice way to end the album but the person in charge got arty and ironic and instead closed it with the live version of “Ball And Chain,” complete with her drunken rap about living for today, “because it’s all the same fucking day.” The applause quickly fades out into the silence of the unmarked rotating grooves.
Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits is no final testament to an artist, nor is it