RECORDS / The lady sings the blues: Andy Gill reviews new releases from Sinead O'Connor, J J Cale and 'rock's best mate', Rolling Stone Ron Wood
AM I Not Your Girl? is what happens when sheer contrariness leads a rebellious nature into collusion with retrograde conservative styles. The sleeve- note explains this collection of orchestral arrangements of old standards in typically peremptory fashion - 'These are the songs I grew up listening to. They are the songs that made me want to be a singer. That's the 'why?' ' - but it's as if O'Connor's thought, I've got up everybody else's nose, how can I get up my own audience's nose too?
It's the kind of filler project that artists undertake to paper over a writer's block, not the way to follow up your breakthrough album. Apart from the single 'Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home', where the orchestra's startling melodramatic interjections clash profitably with her tremulous, passionate vocal, the formula tends to play against her strengths: she's no Peggy Lee or Julie London. Indeed, it could be argued that this kind of torch-singing requires an acquiescence to which O'Connor is temperamentally disinclined.
Most of the time, the album suffers from an excess of solemnity, most glaring when the material calls for something a little more brash and vaudevillean, as on 'Why Don't You Do Right?' and 'I Want to Be Loved by You', whose 'boop-boop-be-doo' is particularly uncomfortable. Compared with her work on the upcoming Peter Gabriel album, which is brimful of sensitivity and emotion, these hesitant, tentative torch songs are deeply disappointing. Sinead O'Connor is one of the few modern vocalists with the ability and wit to be able to take a song apart and re-contextualise it, but here she kowtows meekly to her material. Neither she nor it profits aesthetically from the collaboration.
J J CALE
(Silvertone ORE CD 523)
NUMBER 10 traverses the rolling contours of laidback shuffle-funk blues and mellow country more smoothly and effectively than on Cale's Travel- Log comeback album of a few years back. In fact, it's his best album since 1974's Okie: unlike brasher rock styles, this is a kind that matures with age, and the reclusive Cale is well into his fifties, the time that most country singers begin to get a little grain into their voice.
Cale's murmur of a voice has long since been rubbed smooth, present here as just the gentlest of vocal caresses, little more than double- tracked breathing in places. His songs, likewise, are perfect pebbles, worn into being rather than hewn, which is why a simple country blues trifle like 'Low Rider' has the authentic weight of songs six decades old.
Cale's actually writing better, if simpler, than for some while, wielding the basic blues and country archetypes skilfully in settings as disparate as the Latino shuffle of 'Artificial Paradise' and the mild Cajun comedy of 'Take Out Some Insurance' (no relation to the Jimmy Reed classic).
On the most well-worn of ground, Cale can still find fresh but familiar paths: the ruminative retrospection of 'Traces', for instance, sounds like a future country standard, while 'Lonesome Train' provides him with his best opener since 'Call Me the Breeze'. Like that earliest of Cale classics, it goes along at a canter, his guitar picking providing a gymnastic flow of such natural grace and precision, it's the musical equivalent of the sport of dolphins.
Slide On This
WOOD's solo records always sound like parties, guys just riffing together, and this is no exception, composed of equal parts of Stones raunch, rough singing of rough songs, party chums doing party pieces, and Charlie Watts, who's as good here as he is in back of the Stones.
The chums include The Edge on a couple of cuts, Hothouse Flowers on another, and Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White, previously better known for a misspent youth, on percussion; the most arresting guest spot, however, is an attempt by the Russian classical violinist Oleg Ponamarev to turn 'Always Wanted More' - by some distance the best piece of writing on the album - into something off Astral Weeks. For the rest, well, they all sounded as if they had a good time.
Hardly surprisingly, given Wood's position as rock's best mate, the LP fares best when he's working as half of a duo with the Stones backing vocalist Bernard Fowler, who shares writing credits, plays keyboards and does some of the singing. Several other tracks - notably the cover of The Parliaments' '(I Wanna) Testify' - might have improved with Fowler behind the mike, but it's Ronnie's party, I suppose.
Overall, it's enjoyable in an oafish kind of way, though ironically the LP would settle better if it weren't presented with lavish packaging and a full set of lyrics in all their embarrassing glory. Can Ron really be that pleased with 'Knock Yer Teeth Out'?
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