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Main Category: Soul Music
Also applicable: Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

White soul doesn't get any more down-to-earth than this.

Best song: CHANGE IN LOUISE (sic!)

Track listing: 1) Feeling Alright; 2) Bye Bye Blackbird; 3) Change In Louise; 4) Marjorine; 5) Just Like A Woman; 6) Do I Still Figure In Your Life; 7) Sandpaper Cadillac; 8) Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; 9) With A Little Help From My Friends; 10) I Shall Be Released; [BONUS TRACKS:] 11) The New Age Of Lily; 12) Something's Coming On.

If you haven't heard this and your most recent memories of Mr Joe amount to the vigorous cheesefest videos of 'Unchain My Heart' and 'You Can Leave Your Hat On' (yeah, as if you couldn't jack off to the sights of Kim Basinger without extra support!), you probably won't believe me when I tell you that once upon a time Joe Cocker's albums were distinguished not only by the sheer power of his voice, but by other music-related factors as well. Cocker may have recorded his debut in the same year as the Carpenters, and he may have eventually ended up in the same basket with the Carpenters, but they sure started out from quite opposite directions. I don't see the Carpenters performing at Woodstock, dressed in rag-taggy shirts, sporting long entangled manes of hair and waving their arms like madmen before a thoroughly anti-establishment audience. I do see Joe Cocker in that function.

This is the beginning of Joe's short-lived romance with his "Grease Band", and a dang great beginning it is. Most of the people he recruited were session players, not many of them well known; in particular, Joe's main music collaborator, pianist Chris Stainton, seems to have had his first big break. But the kind of atmosphere Joe envisioned for this was the right one: "amateurish" professionalism (as opposed to the "professional professionalism" of hosts of automaton-like, faceless American musicians), looseness, spontaneity, and a sense of being let in on all the fun. Occasional high-profile guests have also been selected with care - Steve Winwood and Jimmy Page, in particular, never hurt nobody by guesting on a record. In fact, this might be a little risky, but I'll still go ahead and say that in 1969, only The Band were equal to the Grease Band in the ability to play full-sounded, non-boring roots-rock on a regular basis, and this considering that The Band had been playing together long before Joe Cocker embarked on a serious musical career.

One thing has stuck with Joe from the beginning - he always had a problem with songwriting, preferring to inject his spirit into somebody else's creations. It would be a raving exaggeration to say that Joe always opens some "previously hidden dimension" in others' tunes or some crap like that. Songs like Traffic's 'Feelin' Alright' are, at least superficially, very similar to the original versions. But in all of these cases Cocker's singing improves the former originals - indeed, I'd take his version of 'Feelin' Alright' over the original any time. Did Dave Mason's vocals really convey that great feel of nervousness, paranoia, insecurity, that Cocker's vocals do? Hardly. Move over, Dave. If you were Bob Dylan at least...

Actually, speaking of Bob Dylan, the only relative disappointment for me has been Cocker's take on 'I Shall Be Released', which simply adds nothing to the already rugged, shakey, aching original, not to mention the Band's version, wrapped around Manuel's unforgettable falsetto. Maybe the trick is that Cocker and Dylan, though we fail to notice it originally, are actually playing on the same field: like Bob, Cocker brings roughness and unconventionality into singing, and even though he is technically far more endowed and powerful than the little whiny Jewish kid from Minnesota, you have to get "used" to his voice in a similar way to getting used to Bob's voice - meaning that merely covering a Dylan song the way it's supposed to be covered by default just isn't enough.

And this point seems to be further confirmed by the fact that, on the contrary, I am really moved by his interpretation of 'Just Like A Woman'. While bands like the Hollies and Manfred Mann were busy taking the "pop" potential of the song, making it more upbeat, catchy, and sparkling, Joe, I think, preferred to sacrifice the structure of the song in favour of the spirit. 'Just Like A Woman' is, after all, a very tender song - one of the most tender Dylan songs ever written, and Cocker revels in that tenderness, which is not the least bit cheesy because he's got such a charmingly clumsy, Tarzan-like way of expressing it. In addition, Stainton thinks of a completely new - and memorable - piano melody to hang Joe's vocals on; and Joe himself performs the song in full, without omitting half of the lyrics the way Manfred Mann would do in order to "singlify" it.

The most radical reinvention is, of course, the Grease Band's treatment of the title track. Once again, the pop elements are discarded in favour of "soulfulness"; it is still a compliment to the Beatles that you could take such a minor trifle as the second song on Sgt Pepper and transform it into a powerful, sweeping anthem for the ages, but you certainly had to have Joe Cocker doing this - I sure wouldn't trust that mission to Manfred Mann, you know. The song itself was thought to be dedicated to specific chemical substances since the original release, but I think that it was only Joe's version, not the Beatles' one, that more or less satisfied the accusations, especially if you watch the live performance at Woodstock (I have no idea whether Joe was really stoned out of his mind when he took the stage or if he acted as if he was, but "stoned" sure is the right word here). Then again, times were moving so fast that what made a ton of controversy in mid-1967 (especially with the Beatles as the culprit) wouldn't really be making that much controversy in early 1969, I guess.

There are other solid covers on here - noted and laudable, like the one of 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' (with a cool psychedelic riff backing it up); occasionally laudable, like 'Bye Bye Blackbird', which catches our eye because it's got Jimmy Page as guest star, giving out an obligatory ferocious guitar solo (I think he also plays on the title track, but I could be mistaken); and almost never mentioned, like 'Do I Still Figure In Your Life', which is a shame because, despite somewhat generic backing vocals, it's got Joe at his deepest and saddest.

Now I suppose it's time to explain my choice for best song. First of all, it's one of the few Cocker/Stainton originals on here, which is, of course, an advantage, provided the song is aesthetically acceptable in the first place. Second, it's just... a wonderful song. Cryptic lyrics that don't really let us know whether it's optimistic or pessimistic (is the 'change in Louise' supposed to be for good or for bad?); a chorus that's marvelously crafted, catchy, and soulful; a rip-roaring transgression from verse to chorus; perfectly placed backing vocals (the whoah-whoahs on the third line of the chorus send me to heaven every time I hear them, much more so than the endless wailings on the title track); and minor, minute, minuscule, piggly-wiggly bits like the raspy intonation with which he says 'my little girl' - in a way I've never ever heard anybody else pronounce these words. [Sniff.]

The two other Cocker originals don't even come close, although both are nice and catchy, particularly the folksy and funny 'Marjorine', with a rarely heard falsetto (one more reason to buy this album - hearing Cocker do falsetto is as unique an experience as hearing Pat Boone sing metal, and far more pleasant at that). 'Sandpaper Cadillac' is, er, uhm, sort of the heaviest number on here (Page on the prowl again?). That's all there is to it. (The 1999 reissue of the album adds two more original B-sides, one of which, 'The New Age Of Lily', is a charming pop song that's been cruelly overlooked).

Well, I didn't want to mention all of the songs, but somehow it came out above and beyond my will, and I take this as one more sign that this is, indeed, a very good record that fully deserves classic status. A rare exception, indeed: "classic" status for a record of a guy who almost never writes his own material. It's a funny coincidence that With A Little Help was issued in the same year with Rod Stewart's debut - Rod might have been carrying a bit more significant artistic baggage along with him through the years, plus he'd already cut his teeth by singing on two Jeff Beck records, but he certainly failed to present himself in all his power and beauty on his first album, something which Cocker managed to do in a near-perfect way.

Which, of course, begs for an interesting (and not entirely useless) question - who's the boss, Joe or Rod? Me, I honestly can't answer it without bringing in their shitty Eighties' careers, where Joe probably wins simply because he didn't record as much as Rod did in that decade. What do you think?



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating =

Another album, another mugshot, another success. What else?


Track listing: 1) Dear Landlord; 2) Bird On A Wire; 3) Lawdy Miss Clawdy; 4) She Came In Through The Bathroom Window; 5) Hitchcock Railway; 6) That's Your Business; 7) Something; 8) Delta Lady; 9) Hello Little Friend; 10) Darling Be Home Soon; 11) She's Good To Me; 12) Let It Be.

It's a good thing, when I come to think of it, that Joe Cocker had the stamina to issue two albums in 1969, at a time when the regular rate for bands became seriously slowing down due to circumstances behind the hitmakers' control. That's his only year with two records, and these two records are unquestionably his best; only addicted converts, I think, should really advance beyond that border. Naturally, Joe Cocker! is a bona fide "follow-up" to With A Little Help in every possible meaning, but the formula is still fresh. Besides, Joe was riding on the coattails of his Woodstock success, and this must have given him extra self-confidence and inspiration. Now, with the addition of Leon Russell as co-producer and occasional songwriter, it was even possible to inject some ardent young blood into the project, which sort of compensated for Cocker's near-complete resignation from songwriting. Which, after all, is understandable - as long as there's still enough uncovered Beatles material to fill up the empty slots, who in his right mind would want to hear a Joe Cocker composition instead?

Indeed, Joe must have felt that covering Beatles songs was his true destination (not that I blame him - this was the year of Abbey Road, after all); therefore, he ushered in a whoppin' three of them on the album - this time, three far more recent ones, not digging into the oldies. Alas, while none of the performances are bad, neither of the three turns out to be a radical re-interpretation, and therefore, they all pale behind the originals. Okay, so perhaps turning 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window' into an 'independent', self-sufficient, bombastically arranged pop-rock song (with a gritty five-second Hendrix-like feedback intro, no less!) wasn't such a bad idea: the Grease Band rocks out like a significantly better-oiled Traffic, and I can understand the hit potential of the song (even if it's probably my least favourite moment on the entire Abbey Road suite - fewer hooks than on anything else).

But was Cocker's decision to turn 'Something' and 'Let It Be' into generic soul crooners really an ace move? I don't think so. Songs so perfect in the first place that tampering with them is riskier than sticking your tongue into a light socket; and I love Joe's voice - not having had the experience of a friendly mug o' beer with the guy, I'm hardly interested in anything else from him - but hang on a minute while I load it onto this here part of the scale and now if you'll only pass me these Beatles arrangements and melodicity to put on the other... EYOWWW, my toes are smashed! Oh, hello, female backup vocals. Nice to meet you. What are nice female backup vocals like youse doing in a place like this? Singing "something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover"? Don't you know that lesbian intentions have been outlawed since the year 2004? You run along now, you.

I've been complaining, have I? Well, that's nothing, really. Wait until I get to Frank Sinatra - Joe's 'Something' relates to that one about as well as George Harrison's original relates to Joe's. And besides, whenever Joe isn't too busy chuggin' up pallid versions of Fab material, this album works well. Out of the other 'notorious' covers, Cocker does a really, really good job with Cohen's 'Bird On The Wire', which is given the usual 'grandiose' treatment and can be heartily recommended - particularly to those who can't stand Cohen, acoustic singer-songwriting, bad singing, French Canada, or the Jewish nation (God save me from extra readers like these, though).

And one more point for an inventive revision of Dylan's 'Dear Landlord', transformed into an upbeat, boppy tune and stripped of all the intentional lethargic feel of the John Wesley Harding version. Not a highlight on that album, which had way too many highlights on the first side to save me enough energy for strongly caring about the second; but definitely a highlight on this one, and not just because it's the perfect opening number, but because it's got the best guitar-oriented arrangement on the record. I love it when a good song gets as many overdubbed guitar parts as possible, and the Grease Band almost seems to have tailored this one on direct order from me. (I was approximately minus seven years old at the time, but that's what the magic of music is there for). I'd even go as far as to call this version one of the most delicious slices of COUNTRY-ROCK (in the true sense of the term, not in the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo understanding) I've ever heard.

The album's biggest 'artistic success' is often considered to be Leon Russell's 'Delta Lady' - probably because Russell later recorded a bombastic version of his own. The "delta" thing is a bit sleazy, especially when it's being referred to as "soft and fertile", but the melody is damn good anyway. Of course, it's when I listen to songs like these that I realize just how little really separates the "hipster" Cocker of the late Sixties from the old balding lounge lizard Cocker of the Eighties/Nineties - the man has always been a fan of the "Sexual Undertone on the Brink of Good Taste". It's just that when you're young, fresh, and surrounded by talented musicians, the downsides of the business are not so easily noticeable. Still, when you get to the bottom of it, 'Delta Lady' is basically just a nice, catchy, rootsy, soul-ified, country barroom piece of whatever. And I can hardly see what makes it better than the humorous Cocker-Stainton collaboration on the saloon anthem 'That's Your Business', for instance. Both are slight, but enjoyable and amusing.

I actually far prefer 'Hitchcock Railway', a great chunk of energetic R'n'B, highly distinguished by magnificent piano work from Stainton (here reminiscent a bit of the finest moments of Nicky Hopkins on some of his Stones and Quicksilver Messenger Service work) and a suitably overwhelming delivery from Joe. This is the kind of performance that should have truly been stunning contemporary Cocker audiences, not the phoney arrangement of 'Something'. His fastest number yet, along with 'She's Good To Me', which is more lightweight and boogie-woogie-like in nature, but also kicks butt a-plenty with hilarious guitar solos and that nagging one-note piano riff. I have a hard time trying to locate one other Cocker song where the man would seem to be having that much fun.

In retrospect, though, Joe Cocker!, despite its exultated exclamation mark and optimistic facial expression, was probably a disappointment to some - the record showed that Joe had not the least intention of transgressing the 'singer' border and venturing off into 'songwriter' areas, and forever grounded him in that camp of talented people who are intentionally willing to put their talent into the hands of whoever comes along their way, with predictably mixed, and often tragic, results. If that sounds pathetic and indulgent, I have a good excuse for it - it's completely true. But for the moment at least, Joe was putting his talent into the hands of Chris Stainton and Leon Russell, both gentlemen being rather trustworthy - not to mention Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney. Call me a whiny retrograde, but man, 1969 was the year to rely on outside songwriters.



Year Of Release: 1970

Aaaah.. well, some fans - as far as I understand - almost treat this as Cocker's pinnacle, a double live album that epitomizes the blah blah blah. Me, I realize that the album is indeed massive, and it was designed very well in order to fit Joe's pompous'n'soulful image, but perhaps it was too well designed. A live band of gigantic proportions, with tons of female backup singers and zillions of players, and lengthy, extended multi-layered R'n'B grooves simply do the inescapable - they manage to completely drown out Cocker himself. And I'm not just talking of songs like Leon Russell's 'Superstar', where Joe steps off the pedestal completely and hands the lead vocal duties to Rita Coolidge (whose rendition was obviously taken as a model for the Carpenters' version of next year). I'm talking of almost everything - there are so many instruments and so much plain jazzy fun that quite often I don't get around to hear Cocker himself. Who is that singing the chorus to 'Feelin' Alright'? Cocker or the female singers? Who's the main star on Ray Charles' 'Let's Go Get Stoned'? Cocker or the brass section?

There are, of course, quite a few highlights on this album - after all, it's a double one, and there should be at least something. Cocker's take on 'Honky Tonk Women' is hilarious, for instance, together with improvised lyrics (apparently he took the cue from Jagger himself, who used to reinvent the lyrics to that song on stage) and a nice, if not spectacular, revision of the song's main guitar riff. 'Delta Lady' actually beats the original studio version, finally standing up for the energetic rocker it potentially was. The duet with Russell on Dylan's 'Girl From The North Country' is emotionally moving - again, it was probably modelled after the Dylan/ Johnny Cash duet on Nashville Skyline, but it's quite a good imitation, and atmospherically different. Out of the new material, this is where you'll encounter a couple more interesting, semi-classic R'n'B stompers like 'Sticks And Stones' and 'The Letter'; and if you're after the hits, you'll be pleased by 'Feelin' Alright' and 'She Came In Through...'. Oh, and 'Bird On The Wire', although it's slowed down so drastically you could almost swear the engineer was stretching out the tape with his teeth or something.

Unfortunately, for every solid number there's an uninspired, lazy, fillerish duffer of some sort. The absolute low point is 'Blue Medley', a twelve-minute (I almost wrote 'twelve-year', and that wasn't just a pure accident) bluesy jam that has Cocker ramble out bits and snatches of incoherent, raving material, as the band drags through one insecure and sloppy shuffle to another. It's all the more pitiful because Cocker's voice is actually well-suited to that kind of material; God knows he could have transformed 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' into vintage hit material if he'd only cared. But no, this is just a mess; I avoid adding 'drunken' or 'drugged out', but I do fear deep inside that at least one of these epithets counts. Likewise, the seven-minute 'Let's Go Get Stoned' gets losts in all the ambitious jazzy solos and loses my attention around the thirtieth second or so.

In conclusion, I simply wish Cocker had released the obligatory live album half a year earlier, with just the regular Grease Band - like the Woodstock performance or something like that. Mad Dogs, despite its huge commercial success, turns out to be a bit too much in retrospect. Simply put, this is not a Cocker album; this is a 'Mad Dogs & Englishmen' record, with Cocker playing insecure raving frontman who often gets lost amidst the general fuss. I also have a suspicion the band was very poorly rehearsed. I also have a suspicion this really fits my definition of 'self-indulgent', much as I hate abusing the term. It's definitely worth picking up if you're a huge Cocker fan, and it's certainly better than almost any of Joe's slick adult pop Eighties' albums, but essentially, this is just a misstep. Stick to the two previous studio albums instead.



Year Of Release: 1972

The last of Cocker's classic early period records, it's an almost surprisingly strong affair; I'm assuming that nothing can still beat his debut, but apart from that assumption, nothing can prevent me from announcing Something To Say as a minor Cocker classic. The amazing thing is that this time Joe wrote most of the material himself - in collaboration with Stainton and others, but still, this is a really independent record, and thus an absolute anomaly in the Cocker canon. Even more amazing, these songs are mostly good. This is also a good buy for those who like their Cocker more rockin': lots of fast, upbeat, punchy grooves on here, and a solid enough amount of packed energy.

'High Time We Went' is a prime example: a steady, mean bassline holds down the groove, while Stainton's unnerving piano and delicate bits of slide guitar lend the song a gritty, desperate edge. Frankly speaking, Cocker's backing band has simply never been that tight before; for some, this is actually a bad sign that symbolizes the transition from the rough, druggy Cocker of yore to the slick Cocker of the future, but so far, despite all the tightness and lack of improvisatory vibe, the band sounds absolutely live and the music breathes. 'Black-Eyed Blues' follows more or less the same pattern, with less convincing results (slower and even more repetitive), but it's still eminently listenable. The best of the bunch, though, is Cocker's take on the Allman Brothers' 'Midnight Rider', with added brass and the obligatory female backup vocals. And the worst? The misguided funk of 'Woman To Woman', with a very irritating falsetto and a really irritating and primitive brass riff that seems to be endlessly repeating itself simply for lack of better ideas.

Not that the album lacks lighter numbers. 'Pardon Me Friend' and 'She Don't Mind' are two delicious chunks of jazz-pop, both with outstanding vocal deliveries. Both completely forgettable in the long run, of course - but as long as they're on, we're talking, man! Joe's got that something in his vocal cords that really makes me wanna take these songs and treasure them, and I can tell you, there ain't too many jazz-pop numbers I'd like to treasure.

Not that the album lacks epic numbers, either. The title track is really grandiose and really moving - it doesn't have much of a memorable melody, either, but when Joe goes with his '...and so... what can I say?... thank you dear...', something deep inside my heart really clicks. Hey, I gotta tell you, it's not until you start listening to somebody like Cocker that you really realise how much is there in a voice. I mean, had this song been performed by anybody else - anybody - I would never even have noticed it. A little of that gravelley hoarse voice, though, and it's elevated to the state of a masterpiece. Mind your singing, brothers and sisters. Mind your singing. Although not even the singing is able to save Cocker's live take on 'Do Right Woman', which runs for nearly seven minutes and achieves absolutely nothing. Leave the Aretha Franklin material to Aretha Franklin, Joe.

He recovers on 'St James Infirmary', though, a slow waltz-tempo blues (sic) that brings out the best in Joe and his backing band. No stupid backing vocals this time; just raw power, emotion and unrestrained passion, underpinned by excellent sax/organ/guitar interplay. The performance (also live) is so gripping and breathtaking that I can state with all sincerity - if Eric Clapton is the best white blues player on this planet, then Joe Cocker's gotta be the best white blues singer on said planet. If you find this statement debatable, just give this track a listen. It's guaranteed to blow you away, unless you have an alergy on blues (or unless you're John Alroy, which is less probable, but also less understandable). The track provides a blistering finish to the album and boosts its rating an entire half-star. And firmly cements the final recommendation, too - this is a record well worth owning, and a respectable finale for the best part of Cocker's career.



Year Of Release: 1976

Jamaica this time. Not a lot of reggae influences here, of course, but a small bunch of tracks are indeed reggaeified - as if somebody really cared. I personally don't give a damn if Cocker sings his songs backed by a reggae beat or by a steady 4/4. The problem is that the songs themselves don't actually qualify all that much. Three primary influences here: Leon Russell (although he no longer plays on here), Dylan, Ray Charles. Oh, and Joe is actually slowly starting to deteriorate, did I mention that? Getting fatter, sweatier, growing a beard... well, slowly metamorphosing into the famous "Cocker sellout" as we know him nowadays. Thing is, at that particular time he had quite a few personal problems (you know, the standard Woodstock bunch) which was certainly not contributing particularly well to the overall inspiration pool. And the inspiration pool has grown shallow. Even the huge backing band, that includes everybody from Albert Lee to Eric Clapton himself, doesn't always help; neither do the "reggae masters" like Peter Tosh, responsible for a few arrangements on here.

The Dylan songs are indeed the best of the bunch. 'Catfish' (a contemporary unreleased Dylan creation from the Desire sessions, it has since then wound its way onto Bob's Bootleg Series and is worth checking out) is gloomy and frightening, with nice "deep" organ soloing and otherworldly guitar licks from one of the master guitarists (Clapton? Lee? Somebody else? Who gives?). And the reggae version of 'Man In Me' (isn't it nice how Dylan is just about the only artist bar the Beatles ninety percent of whose output can be used as a potential hit single or, at least, a decent cover?) is novel - in the good sense - and fun - in the novel sense. Although that moment when Joe sings 'takes a woman like you' so drastically off-key makes me crrrrrringe. Yyyyuck.

However, most of the other stuff is terribly weak. Weak, insipid melodies, with the band losing it all the time. Where's the tight powerful soulful grip of yesterday? Or at least, where is something like 'High Time We Went' with its stern solid pace? Nowhere. Nowhere in sight. Instead, we get lightweight forgettable dreck like 'I Broke Down' and 'You Came Along', boring formulaic slices of mid-Seventies R'n'B that have no energy whatsoever. I count one good song here, 'Mood Dew', a pathetic synth-led ballad saved by Cocker's extremely heartfelt delivery; if there is one song on the album where he put a little bit of his soul, it's that one - have I ever told you that Joe's voice can just sometimes take you by the hand and lead you with it into a deep dark thicket full of romantic adventures and unsolved mysteries of this strange phenomenon we call life? No? I haven't? Well of course I haven't. I'd never tell you anything like such laughable sentimental bullshit. But joking apart, I'm really moved by his delivery on that number.

But I'm not moved by his delivery on Leon Russell's 'A Song For You'. Why did he ever take that song in the first place? Because he wanted to. But why was that song already marred by the disgrace done to it by Karen Carpenter? And why did Joe pile his own disgraceful rendition of it on top? Why? Because this song sucks. At least when taken in a slow soulful arrangement. It sucks. It's simple as that.

I will refrain from mentioning any other song titles because it's hardly worth my time. No, there's nothing offensive; luckily, the Eighties have not yet set in and Cocker is still able to get through somehow by vibe alone, something that would become absolutely impossible once the high technologies and drum machines had set in. But judging by Cocker's usual late Sixties/Seventies standards, this is shockingly weak anyway, and would not serve at all well as an introduction to da man, but I guess nobody would use that as an introduction to da man unless it were found in a used bin. And guess what? We sure don't feel that comfortable about albums we find in used bins! Maybe that's why Wilson & Alroy are so darn sceptical in most of their reviews.



Year Of Release: 1978

You know what? It's actually worth listening to every damn Cocker album ever released just for the thrill of betting on which famous old standard exactly he will be covering next time. Last time around, we had 'A Song For You' and 'Man In Me'; this time around, we have 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' and - surprise, surprise - 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. That last choice is really totally unpredictable, because on the whole Luxury You Can Afford is a rather dull and monotonous listen. Cocker has finally gone totally mainstream, but so far, 'mainstream' for him still means 'retro' - you won't find any experiments with disco or even modernistic production on here, as that change wouldn't happen until the complete sellout of Sheffield Steel. The album cover is very demonstrative: Joe already sports a stylish official outfit, but at least his hair is still long, you know. And the record itself is for the most part dedicated to half-baked, half-known, half-inspired, half-tepid covers of R'n'B and soul material. Huge arrangements, bombastic brass section, gospelish female backing vocals... ye know. Strong Motown influences. Same plodding beat on every track and sorely lacking, routine musicianship. In other words, boring as hell.

'Whiter Shade Of Pale' does come out surprisingly good, though - perhaps it's because it's the only song on the album that ditches the formula, if only slightly. I seriously doubt that anybody could ever improve on the beautiful original version of the song, but Joe probably does it more justice than anybody else. It's kinda strange that he actually selected the song, though: so far, I haven't noticed him singing too many songs whose lyrics didn't make immediate sense, but it seems that he really digs this selection. So kudos to Joe for paying a tribute to one of the greatest art-rock bands of all time.

As for the rest of this stuff, well... I really don't have that much to say. As spotty as Cocker's Eighties and Nineties catalog is, I would still take some of his later albums over this mess. He sings pretty well on most of the tracks, but then again, name me an album where he sings poorly. It's like naming a Led Zeppelin album where Jimmy Page sticks to kazoo throughout: the day Cocker sings poorly on an album, the rest of his days as a superstar are numbered. The faster, more upbeat numbers in particular do jack for me, and I suppose can only do more for the most rabid supporters of Mr Hoarse Throat. Apart from the fact that they're 'faster' and 'more upbeat', I have no other words. Unless you want me to just state some obvious trite facts which I won't. Oh well, I suppose the cover of 'Grapevine' is energetic enough, but same can be said of the original, and after CCR's version of it the tune belongs to Mr Fogerty anyway.

Some of the slow numbers are really moving, though: I suppose that I could really extol the virtues of 'Southern Lady' and especially the subtle 'Wasted Years' without too much hypocrisy. See, when Cocker 'boogies' along, it seems that he's just boogieing for the sake of it. It's like 'I want to show my skills at doing a fast number, even if I don't feel like really getting it on'. With the inept and generic backing band, too, it just don't feel right. But when we get these slow ballads where Joe's passionate vocal delivery isn't overshadowed by anything, it's hard not to get moved. Granted, 'Southern Lady' is hardly up to the standard of 'Something To Say', for instance; but I just love the way he roars through the lyrics like there was no tomorrow. And 'Wasted Years' is a concealed minor gem in the Cocker catalog that shouldn't be overlooked: the song is clearly heartfelt and self-referential, and makes me feel real pity for Joe, the poor little guy who struggled so much to become a true artist but lost that battle in the long run. Don't worry Joe, you'll still be forever treasured by those who truly appreciate your talent...

Was that sentimental? Sorry, but you know, when you deal with a guy like Mr Cocker, you either have to be sentimental or you'll just have to give all of his records a one-star rating. And wouldn't that be shitty? Ah well...



Year Of Release: 1982

The Joe Cocker as we know and hate him starts to arrive here. Yet this album is nowhere near as disgustingly produced as the ones that followed it, in fact, it is positively docile compared to some of the atrocious Eighties hi-tech-synth-based overproduction as befell Joe on most of the following albums. In fact, there is only one track on here that points at the complete future degradation: the unterminable murky dance-pop number 'Talking Back To The Night' (written by Stevie Winwood of all people!!), a monotonous bore that's based on a clumsy Europop synth line not unlike the kind that Modern Talking used so much to radically poison the tastes of European generations of the Eighties. With rotten synth solos and a very vague and vapid vocal track, the song stands as positive proof of Mr Cocker's being ready to happily slide down into the barrel of shit prepared for him. Ugh. And of course - how could you even doubt - it was this song that was chosen as the main single off the album. Of course!

Elsewhere, though, the atmosphere is much more laid back and just simply decent, with real guitars and drums and stuff. Apparently, the album was recorded in Jamaica again, which explains the reggae stylizations on a small bunch of tracks (even if again, the reggae grooves are only used occasionally; Joe probably just liked the climate or something, because it doesn't look to me like he's ever taken that reggae thing too seriously). Jimmy Cliff himself is rumoured to be among the players, and one of the songs is a Cliff cover... other guests include Mikey Chung and an everpresent Adrian Belew, although I'm not sure what the latter is supposed to be playing. Boy did that guy ever enjoy being a session musician.

The really bad news, then, is that the songs are all rote. The production isn't dreadful, but it's liquid and soulless, and this makes the petty melodies even pettier - after the required three listens, not a single song managed to really say something to me. I'd probably choose 'Seven Days' as the best song, because after all, Dylan is Dylan (even if the song isn't among his best - yet so many people apparently liked it that it bugs me), but unfortunately, Joe just doesn't do it that much justice. You know, I'd probably even say that Joe isn't in fine form throughout. Or else he's just been overshadowed by the general production. Too often, he just lets out isolated yells and yelps instead of actually burying the listener under the raging fury of his vocals (as on, say, 'Unchain My Heart'), and this makes an already pretty pathetic album really pathetic.

'Look What You've Done' isn't a half-bad funky number, I think, although I could do without the oh-so-modenristic synth blasts that detract from the vocals. There's some really good singing and some really good guitar playing on here, but the album never really lives up to the level of energy provided by this track. There's a couple trite ballads like the ominous, super-duper-slow waltz 'Marie', or the closing 'Just Like Always' with echoey acoustic guitar to create the right mood and all, but you've heard it all before and you've heard it all better. When I start looking for the hooks, I find none - most important, I find no vocal hooks, I just find a bunch of soulful vocals recorded over an unimpressive backing track.

The Cliff cover, 'Many Rivers To Cross', is actually one of the most boring numbers - it has nothing to do with reggae, just with slow melodyless adult contemporary that starts nowhere and ends nowhere. I actually do like the few reggae-related tracks much better: 'So Good So Right' and 'Ruby Lee' at least have some dance potential while still based on guitars rather than the drecky synth loops of 'Talking Back To The Night'. But not enough to give this album any more than the weak rating it deserves. A couple solid tracks, and, well, it's Cocker, let's not forget about that. Maybe the addition of his voice doesn't exactly make everything turn to gold, but at least it does make everything turn to... er... whatever the table of periodic elements says. Stay away anyway - if you're so desperate for an Eighties Cocker album, just grab something which has catchier songs on it, even if everything post-1982 will seriously suffer from overproduction.



Year Of Release: 1984

This is a little better, although maybe I could be wrong about that. It's pretty hard to tell with these interchangeable slick sludgey records. Anyway, Civilized Man discards the last of Cocker's ambitions to actually play band-style music. The guitars aren't exactly on their way out, but they have been totally dehumanized and totally muffled down to not yield even a little bit of the personality of whoever is playing them (not that you'd ever guess - as with every solid corporate product, the sessions include at least a couple thousand names that you or me could care less about). And the keyboards are almost universally represented by lifeless plodding synths, whether "aggressive" (i. e. dorky poisonous tones) or "peaceful" (i. e. heavenly New Age muzak tones). Hey, I needn't introduce you to this kind of sound - even if you weren't a child of the Eighties, you probably know better about this kind of sound than I do.

However, it's almost as if at this point Mr Cocker was simply telling his audience - 'I don't care who's playing what as long as I can concentrate on making some soulful sounds with my vocals'. And throwing away the snub-nosed attitude and the indie conscience, one can enjoy a part of this material, because it is generally stronger than the rag-taggy selection of Sheffield Steel. The abandoning of the "live feel" at least gives Cocker the opportunity to include some tightly written and tightly performed pop structures, lifeless as they are. In other words, it's typical radio fodder, and it's pretty strange that only the title track off the album has managed to become a relative Cocker standard, whereas the very next album already yielded at least two "superhits".

The title track is pretty nice indeed, not because of its apparently anti-racist message, but rather because it manages to get Joe to do his best schtick - the type of climactic vocal crescendo that wasn't anywhere to be found on Steel. Of course, it ain't no 'Unchain My Heart', but that means it also ain't overplayed and some of you gentle listeners might like it better. But then there's Cocker's take on the old Fifties' standard 'There Goes My Baby', for instance, which butchers the original melody with a strange reggae-like melody (c'mon, wake up now, Joe, we ain't in Jamaica any more!), but has enough of that soulfulness to make it acceptable. And then Mr Cocker shows he ain't falling out of the times nohow by covering Squeeze's 'Tempted' - not having heard the original, I can't discuss the superiorities and inferiorities here (yeah yeah, no need to scoff at poor Joe, I realize his covers of anybody can't be superior, but let's follow the presumption of innocence, shall we?), but this version seems pretty upbeat and even powerful to me.

Of course, one can't get away without having to sit through a couple tedious and absolutely middle-o'-the-road ballads like 'Crazy In Love' and 'Long Drag Off A Cigarette' (the latter at least has the advantage of featuring some cool minimalistic acoustic picking in the first half). And the second half of the album covers all kinds of rote material, from the lame 'upbeat' (in this context, 'upbeat' = 'featuring a couple fast boring synthesized funky rhythms') R'n'B throwaway 'A Girl Like You' to the hookless 'I Love The Night'. But the first four songs off the album all rule (I haven't yet mentioned the cute, gentle, poppy 'Come On In' with some gospelish overtones to it - in a different age, with a better backing band, it would be a definite highlight), and for a mid-Eighties album, that sure ain't too bad. Plus, even the generic ballads and stuff like that are all listenable... Rod Stewart comparisons and stuff like that are whirling through my head all the time, but you gotta understand: a huge part of the atrocity of Stewart's Eighties' albums lies in his posing and posturing, in his pulling a thoughtful heartful balladeer on one track and then playing a macho braggard sexist rockin' dude on the next track, with continuously cheesy arrangements and stuff. Cocker, on the other hand, doesn't need to resort to low tricks like these - basically, on Civilized Man he still goes on doing the same things he did five, ten, fifteen years ago. He is soulful and he has depth, the only thing that's changed is the surrounding music which has gradually turned from tasteful and refined to flat and tinny. But the man is still here.



Year Of Release: 1986

Dammit, I'm losing my credibility with every new step, but I like this record. Not love it by any means, though. It's a typical "1986 album" - electronic from the beginning to the end. Know what's so friggin' wrong with typical 1986 albums? They don't give a damn about musicianship. Really, there are some decent rhythms and even some decent sax and piano solos on this album (not guitar, though!), but taken in the general context, they're all so grim and lifeless you can easily count 'em out. The production is sterile, the melodies often neglected in favour of "atmosphere", and the "atmosphere" means abusing these hi-tech synths until you're ready to puke and go for ukulele or Jew's harp as long as they liberate you from the necessity of sucking in that sound.

BUT. The interesting thing is, a big part of this material - really - ain't at all rote. Cocker didn't score that much with this album, in fact, he was in kind of a slight commercial slump at the time, but as it sometimes happens, this commercial slump didn't have anything to do with the actual merits of the record. First of all, there are at least two well-known Cocker standards on here which I'm ashamed to admit I totally dig. 'Shelter Me', for all I know, should've been a goddamn classic... apart from the annoying pssht-pssht-pssht electronic drum track, there's really nothing wrong with it, and the chorus is catchy to the extreme. Not just catchy, it's actually moving. Why it wasn't a monster hit is not quite clear to me... perhaps the public just didn't want to see Joe as the kind of "electronic rocker" this track presents him to be. Moreover, I pretty much like how the number actually extends towards the end, with the lengthy - and solid - sax solo (although the guitar solo is rather tasteless, but then again, it's hard to find a tasteful guitar solo on a record like this).

And then, of course, there's Joe's version of Randy Newman's 'You Can Leave Your Hat On', totally transformed and, uh, deformed in the singer's interpretation, but while the typical accusation is that Mr Cocker took the tongue-in-cheek irony of the original for serious, to me it somehow seems that it all depends upon your personal interpretation in the end - naturally, since the song was selected as a single and became a minor hit, it would be taken seriously by the average buyer, and then, later on, this blunt interpretation would be projected onto the critical reviews and everything. Joe Cocker may not be the smartest person on Earth, but heck, to prove he's that dumb you'd need some additional evidence. Anyway, this version is cute.

Other - minor - highlights include, well, I kinda like his version of 'Don't You Love Me Anymore', where he works his vocals to the max - even if you despise the song, which I wouldn't blame you for, you have to accept that his vocal technique gets a marvelous display on that one. And then there's a couple more of those semi-shitty electronic rockers like 'A To Z' and 'Don't Drink The Water' which don't manage to offend me in the least. Guess I'm simply such a big sucker for Mr Cocker's singing. But maybe the correct answer is that I try to imagine how these songs would have sounded in the hands of, uh, Rod Stewart, and then I get so depressed and so underwhelmed by that perspective I turn to Joe again. A powerful masculine approach, and NO macho sentiments whatsoever - that's a rare case in our days. You really can't accuse the fellow of having too bad taste, unless you wanna hang all these generic guitar solos on him.

One thing that's always been confirmed as a highlight on here is his take on Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues', but I have to disagree this time - this is the kind of material that Cocker simply can't improve on in any way. It's not bad or anything, and the piano solo is miles more pleasant than the crappy guitar wanking on other tracks, but Cocker interpreting Marvin Gaye simply doesn't cut it for me, and I dare say it shouldn't cut it for you as well. Likewise, I'm absolutely cold about the ballads. Let's be serious: this album is all generic from head to toe, and if I wanna hear generic music, I'd at least opt for some hooks, as on 'Shelter Me' and 'Don't Drink The Water'. Generic sappy hookless ballads like 'Living Without Your Love' and 'Heaven' don't give me no particular reason to like them and never will, even if I have to admit a Joe Cocker album can hardly do without 'em, right?

In any case, after considering all the odds, I'm really pleasantly surprised about the record. Granted, I'll hardly be playing it any time soon, but this was the year of albums which weren't simply mediocre, this was a year of albums that were hideous, pseudo-sellout ("pseudo" because they were destined to sell, but none of them really sold that well) garbage representing their authors' lowest points. Compared to stuff like Dirty Work or August or Press To Play, Cocker doesn't really look that bad at all.


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