Steve Wilson. On music.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The 2011 Countdown Continues with No. 18, Steve Cropper

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year on December 31st (if my math is right), we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal.

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.
Since Steve Cropper's Dedicated (429 Records)isn't an album I've reviewed previously, here's a new review:

That the 5 Royales have yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is silliness bordering on the shameful. Instead, they are principally remembered by true rhythm ‘n’ blues aficionados. Oh, people know their songs – “Dedicated to the One I Love,” covered by the Shirelles and the Mamas and Papas; “Think,” reworked by James Brown; “Tell the Truth” popularized by Ray Charles are but a few examples. And they were their songs; the majority of them composed by Lowman “Pete” Pauling, somewhat unusual for rhythm ‘n’ blues artists of their time. Not just a fine songwriter, Pauling was an innovative guitarist, whose seamless switching between steady, staccato rhythm comps and sharp blues leads was an inspiration to many younger players. Among them was Steve Cropper. 

Cropper’s two recent albums with Felix Cavaliere (Rascals) were pretty naff.  Given the talents of the tandem they were disappointingly dull. It’s not like Cropper lacks a pedigree. As guitarist for Booker T. & the MG’s and session man at Stax studios Cropper’s sound defined Southern soul and inspired every guitarist who heard him. Dedicated is Cropper paying his debt to Pete Pauling’s substantial influence on Cropper’s approach to guitar and arrangement. A collection of 5 Royales songs, produced by Cropper and Jon Tiven, Dedicated features vocal turns from the following: Steve Winwood, Bettye La Vette (twice), Willie Jones, B.B. King, Shemekia Copeland, Lucinda Williams (twice), Dan Penn (twice), John Popper, Brian May, Sharon Jones (twice), Buddy Miller, and Dylan Leblanc.

Okay, don’t know what you’re thinking. But hell, I’m thinking, God help us – not another all-star collection of half-ass interpretations of songs (way) better rendered by the original performer. Is there one collection, out of the fifty-three, of Leonard Cohen “tributes” that’d you ever listen to before reaching for Songs of. I didn’t think so. And Lord, examples of this dire phenomenon are legion.

But lo and behold, Dedicated is damn good. Cropper simply knows and loves these songs too much to let anybody butcher them. Not everything here is as great as Sharon Jones’ smokin’ take on ‘Messin’ Up,” or Buddy Miller’s hearty romp through the hilarious “The Slummer the Slum.” But I’ll be damned if most of Dedicated isn’t fine. Cropper and his crack support staff (Miller hangs around on guitar, the bottom end man from Muscle Shoals, David Hood is on bass, and Steve(s) Jordan and Ferrone bring the funky drumming) play with just the right mix of edge and relaxation, knowing how to push the beat when needed and when to slide down to the groove when not. Okay, one song featuring Lucinda Williams semi-appropriate drawl might have been enough. And I’ve never been John Popper’s biggest fan (although he acquits himself pretty well on “My Sugar Sugar,” after all). Still, this is a fun listen from start to finish. Even the lesser tracks fail to spoil the spirited fun of Dedicated, a tribute record that actually does true justice to its inspiration – the undervalued 5 Royales and the songwriting and guitar gifts of one Lowman “Paul” Pauling.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)
22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)
21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

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