(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Recording review: Boz Scaggs, Memphis (2013)

Beautifully engineered easy-listening music fails to excite

Even with Boz Scaggs’ distinctive voice, Memphis is of little distinction. The album is beautifully engineered, mixed to perfection, but has all the spontaneity of 1970s easy listening music. Age hasn’t hurt Scaggs’ singing – regardless of the time that’s passed, his understated soul tone unfurls like fine napped suede – but these songs rarely provokes him to engage. It’s frustrating because the musicians are all top notch, including the righteous Spooner Oldham on organ. Keb’ Mo’ even lends his haunting slide guitar to prop up “Dry Spell”. Given a freer hand, these players could infuse the tracks with personality. But Steve Jordan’s production keeps all the focus on Scaggs, who can’t be coaxed into caring enough. Maybe the problem is that the material is too comfortable for him. Most of the tunes rely on the same pop-soul feel that filled his breakthrough album, Silk Degrees (1976).

For the most part, his crew sets the hook while he breezily keeps his emotional distance. On the opening track, “Gone Baby Gone”, he sings,
Tell you where’s it’s at
Ain’t nobody cryin’ now
‘Cept for me
But it always mattered to me 
Except for a touch of falsetto to break up the flow, he could be singing a jingle for Buick or Oldsmobile rather than a breakup song. Memphis doesn’t really wake up until the lead single, a cover of Mink DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”. Scaggs retains a fair amount of Willy DeVille’s original phrasing, tempered with a Van Morrison vibe, but the soul grows out of a cross-pollination of spare NOLA funk and Blind Boys of Alabama backing vocals. In this case, his distanced perspective and rueful tone fits the lyrics.

After building this slight momentum, the next two covers slow it back down with a retro trip to 1970s easy listening. “Rainy Night In Georgia” is the stronger of the two, relying on a stripped down, jazzy guitar and Scaggs’ voice to carry the tune. While the sparse instrumentation supports the moody interpretation, “Love On A Two Way Street” goes for a lounge vibe. The languid beat and lazy bass line create a phenobarbital trance. It takes another Mink DeVille cover to shake off the stupor. “Cadillac Walk” lays down a dark bayou boogie that simmers at a slow boil. It’s simpler than slide master Sonny Landreth might play, but the heat shimmer of the tremolo guitar is right up his alley. The recording is perfectly mastered with every voice easily distinguished, from the distant tinkling of the honky tonk piano to the drummer’s subtle stick work in the opening verse. The power of these two Mink DeVille songs, along with the weary sadness of “Corrina, Corrina”, suggest that bluesy songs are a better showcase for Scaggs today than the pop-soul that shot him to fame in the mid ‘70s.

It’s interesting to go back to Silk Degrees again in the light of the album and see the parallels. Slick soul arrangements with silky strings? Check. Light female backing vocals? Check. Tight grooves and relatively shallow emotion? Check. But youthful enthusiasm and exuberant energy win the day. Songs like “Georgia” and “Lido Shuffle” have the spark of a singer ready to take on the world. Memphis fans the embers and shows that Scaggs still has his voice, but has gotten complacent. The jazz standards on 2008’s Speak Low seemed to challenge him more and evoked a livelier set of performances. Five years later, despite the exquisite engineering and note-perfect playing, his latest album is more of a museum piece.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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