I wasn’t looking forward to this. A comeback album by a middle aged blues and soul artist, little known outside his native Chicago. A mix of originals and covers, marshalled by a ‘veteran producer’, using the cream of Nashville and Memphis session players (holy cow, is Steve Cropper still alive?). All this plus cameos by younger, more ‘relevant’ artists, whose name will be less relevant if you live in, say, Inverkeithing. The word ‘featuring’ (never as inviting as marketing guys think) appears eight times in the track listing. I could almost hear the songs before I pressed Play. And then I pressed Play…
Baker Brook’s stated intention is that this album will act as a bridge between traditional and modern R’n’B: “authentic enough for the older generation but have something that the younger generation could latch onto”. I’m not convinced that he succeeds in this aim but he has certainly made a very classy record indeed.
Opening track Show Me is a cover of Joe Tex’s 1967 original, an old favourite of Northern Soul fans. It’s nothing surprising but the sheer quality of those session players lifts it above the average (not surprising as Cropper was on the original). They improve on this trick with the boisterous oldie Twine Time. The title track uses the formulaic nature of the blues to give rapper Al Kapone (possibly not his real name) a solid structure to work with, but using real musicians rather than samples and loops works to everyone’s benefit.
Vocally, Baker Brooks is a ringer for Robert Cray, particularly on Long Story Short and the smoochy When I Was We. It’s fine but he’s best when he lets his guitar do the singing. The whole album is slathered with a thick layer of his fluid guitar. It soaks into the tunes, filling the gaps and imparting distinctive flavours – warm and buttery on the ballads, tangy and sharp on the upbeat songs. It weeps like BB King, swings like Stevie Ray Vaughn, whinges like Clapton. This could be a weakness or a strength – Baker Brooks is so versatile that he has no obvious signature style – but it makes for a very rich and nourishing aural stew.
Case in point: Doing Too Much is is a love letter to the sort of woman your mother wouldn’t like. The song is propelled, or rather, stalked, by an absolutely filthy riff, which curb crawls behind the protagonist like a Dodge Charger on the wrong side of town.
The seventies bedroom soul of Give Me Your Love is a surprising disappointment given the presence of singer Angie Stone. She is perfect casting but the song ends up close to pastiche. Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants boasts the New Orleans chicken strut guitar of The Meters. The lyrically suspicious Wham Bam Thank You Sam is rescued by warm background vocals, hot brass, and some incendiary guitar licks. This will be a corker at live gigs.
The best track is the ballad Old Love, ‘featuring’ the great Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland on vocals, which I listened to several times consecutively without being reminded of another artist. After a couple of sweetly sung verses it gives way to a weirdly haunting guitar motif that melts into a bittersweet solo – no fireworks, just yearning. That sublime moment of transition succeeds in creating the music ‘bridge’ that Baker Brooks is seeking and I wanted more of it.
Ronnie Baker Brooks new album Times Have Changed will be released on Provogue/Mascot Label Group on 20 January 2017.