Don't Give Up On Me (2002)
Don’t Give Up On Me / Fast Train / Diamond In Your Mind / Flesh and Blood / Soul Searchin’ / Only a Dream / The Judgement / Stepchild / The Other Side of the Coin / None of Us Are Free / Sit This One Out
As a regular visitor of the Fat Possum-site, I came across the announcement that the label that’s famous for releasing albums by country-blues punks such as R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, was gonna release a new Solomon Burke-album. This came as a surprise to me because despite my limited knowledge about Burke (I was only familiar with a few of his 60’s hits like “Just Out of Reach,” “Down In the Valley,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and I read in Peter Guralnick’s essential Sweet Soul Music that he was one of Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic biggest starts in the first half of the 60’s), I knew that he had to be an anomaly among the label’s other artists, who generally prefer their blues raw and dirty. “Has Burke opted for the blues now?” was the next question, and I got an answer because of the opportunity to listen to the album on-line. I was stunned by what I heard, and it was the first time that I heard a modern soul album sound this warm, genuine and rewarding. Producer Joe Henry got Burke a load of songs from some of the giant’s admirers, which are not the least: Bob Dylan, Dan Penn, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson, etc. Despite the variety of material, Henry and Burke have come up with an album that’s satisfyingly coherent. Burke’s fenomenal voice steals the show during each of the songs, alternating between a deep and intimate baritone, excited yelps and impressive crooning.
After hearing this album, you immediately realize why he was hailed as “the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul”, although the elaborate arrangements of the earlier days have been replaced by a sober, ‘less is more’-approach (quite similar to Mark Lanegan’s covers album I’ll Take Care of You (1999)).
“Don’t Give Up On Me,” the album’s Memphis-soul opener has already become one of my favourite soul songs, from the acoustic intro to Burke confidently portraying his vocal range and sheer passion during the rest of the song. It’s a song that also would have suited Al Green fine during his 70’s heyday. Another song that brings Green to mind is Van Morrison’s “Only a Dream,” in which the accentuated hi-hat gives the bluesy song an extra sensual dimension. The second Morrison-song (and, like “Only a Dream, also on his album Down the Road) is the folk-soul (?) of “Fast Train,” which sounds undeniably like a Morrison-song, but which is given a heartfelt interpretation by Burke. Another successful result is the treatment of Tom Waits’ “Diamond In Your Mind,” with verses that remind a bit of “What a Wonderful World,” some great lyrics (“She’s got the milk of human kindness and the fat of the lamb, scared like a baby, well she drives like a man, she lives outside of Natchez where she operates a crane, she’s like a wrecking ball no longer connected to the chain”), and lovely muted backing vocals that are also used in Brian Wilson’s sunny-sounding “Soul Searchin’” (in which you can imagine some Beach Boys-harmonies). Nick Lowe’s “The Other Side of the Coin” is turned into a gentle ballad employing biblical imagery (fittingly so, since Burke has his own ministry, as well as his caretaker’s business). Slightly less successful (but still highly enjoyable) are Costello’s “The Judgement,” a dramatic variation on “I Stand Accused,” that has some nice things about it (just listen to those drum shuffles), but ultimately is a bit overdone. Bob Dylan’s “Stepchild” might have been an outtake from his Time Out of Mind, but that’s probably because of Daniel Lanois playing electric guitar. Anyway, it’s a decent blues song, but not one that distinguishes itself from loads of similar songs. The album’s closing song, written by a guy called Pick Purnell (whom I never even heard about) is a well-sung tender ballad, but not album highlight.
Two of the album’s superior attractions (besides the brilliant opener) are Joe Henry’s “Flesh and Blood” and “None of Us Are Free,” written by Brill Building legends Mann & Weill. “Flesh and Blood” is very moody (almost sinister) and gets a superior vocal performance from Burke (whose voice declares, sooths, yelps and croons), while the details in the music make this song great: the organ of Rudy Copeland (Burke’s church organist), the muted saxophone of Bernie Wallace, the deep bass; they all add to the song’s remarkable tension. “None of Us Are Free,” is the most gospel-tinged song on the album, Burke singing the chorus with The Blind Boys of Alabama (who had won a grammy the night before the recording of this song). The passion conveyed in this song is remarkable, and the pulsating music, with steady drumming, some delicious guitar accents, and Burke’s righteous conviction, make this a song to treasure.
Not really a comeback in the true sense of the word (Burke never disappeared – he just didn’t have the material that matched his voice), but a remarkable return to form, Don’t Give Up On Me is one of those albums that enables a new generation of avid music fans to acquaint themselves with an unjustly neglected artist, in this case a larger-than-life (both his legend and physical presence are ‘enormous’) figure who, at the age of 66, made one of the most heartfelt albums of the past few years, and an album that serves an exemplary function for soul singers trying to become great artists and not just successful superstars.
Read album reviews of similar or related artists: Hound Dog Taylor