Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Livin' the High Life

Steve Winwood
Nine Lives (2008) (plus Back In the High Life--1986)
Sony Records


I remember Steve Winwood from my college days. He was pretty prominent on radio at that time, and with his past group affiliations it seemed like he might already be in the latter part of his career. It wasn't that he didn't sound current, but there was something old style about his singing. He was a rock update on a horns and Hammond rhythm and blues style. I never owned any of his music, but I knew of the guy, at least while he was current. And then there was no more new stuff, and I came to feel that his career was maybe over or he had moved on to executive matters, like producing other artists or some such.

Not so fast, it seems. With Nine Lives, he gives us a fine studio recording, his first in five years. Since I had no other music by him, I decided in picking up his new CD to also snag an album from when he was more prominently in pop culture's radar, and chose 1986's Back In the High Life.

The new album does not stray too far from the blue-eyed soul sound for which he is renowned (though he is an experienced keyboardist in jazz and other genres). His voice is immediately recognizable, sounding like the back-of-the-throat belting of an older black man--kind of like Bill Withers: soulful and rich and from the street. I'm reminded (though not stylistically) of the first time I heard Christina Aguilera, whom I was convinced could not possibly be white: I just didn't think skinny British white guy when I heard Winwood sing.

He seems always to be surrounded by able musicians, though one of the banes of an iTunes purchase is that there are no CD notes accompanying. And finding the roster of musicians online has not proven very easy. ( has a listing of musicians, but it's so unspecific that it's of little use). So I'm kind of in the dark about who helped him on his albums.

Nine Lives sounds more relaxed than his older material, maybe as befits someone older and wiser. Winwood's voice is older, but it's clearly the same musical mind attached, and there's a more acoustic sound to the new album. Back In the High Life, though polished and professional, sounds much more processed. Nine Lives begins with the basic R&B wail I'm Not Drowning, basically just the singer and his guitar, and proceeds from there through a range of moods, from the dreamy Fly to the grittier Dirty City, which prominently features Winwood's former Blind Faith bandmember, Eric Clapton. This is a good, honest record from a journeyman musician whose command of his craft lets him not work so hard at it.

But my real revelation is with that earlier album. There are four or five songs on Back In the High Life that still receive regular airtime, songs with which I've been more or less familiar for years. But to hear them in good fidelity and collected into a group--and to pay close attention to them--makes the album seem a more impressive accomplishment than I realized. From some inspired playing from all corners (by whomever--thanks again, iTunes), to really delicious soul grooves, the album just delivers the goods in a satisfying way. If you weren't a fan of this kind of music, here is the album that will make you into one. As a drummer, I'm especially taken with the really fabulous turns on the title track (with sections played in the style almost of a military march) and the utterly infectious Freedom Overspill. Add in a remarkable turn by vocalist Chaka Kahn in Higher Love, and the unmistakable backing vocals of James Taylor (also on the title track--something I had felt sure of for years, but only confirmed with some web digging after buying the album), and the result is an album which most pop artists dream of: a collection of feeling songs, brilliantly played, which stand the test of time.

Together, these two make an impressive pair of releases. The musical world is better for having Steve Winwood in it.


Cat said...

Back in the High Life is one of my favorite 80s CDs...I am terrible about checking out the blogs of those who comment on my regular reads (Kimba) I hope you don't mind.

wunelle said...

Happy to have visitors of any stripe!

kimba said...

I think the steve winwood album with Roll With It was my first ever purchase..

I thik I might even whack that up on my vod:pod..

That is the tragedy though isn't it? That people reminisce about the old stuff and don't even think about buying the new stuff..

wunelle said...

I find the "new" stuff I like--like K. T. Tunstall or John Mayer--are not representative of anything really NEW in music; they're talented exponents of the tried and true.

I show my age in being quite unable to find the MUSICAL merit in anything too new in popular music. It's all theater to me.

kimba said...

I meant - that I like HIS old stuff - and not necessarily wanting to buy his new stuff..

Like The Eagles for egs. - the old stuff was good because it was classic - played everywhere - very familiar.. But the new stuff..? Wouldn't even enter into my consciousness to buy it..
It would be like.. "Oh The Eagles have a new album? Must go and buy Hotel California.."

wunelle said...

I have some stuff like that, stuff I still listen to because I liked it way back when (like, say, Supertramp) and not because I think it has some absolute merit.

But I like that the Eagles, for example, are remembered because they did a certain, mainstream thing very well; they didn't do anything new, they just did the old stuff with spirit and competence.

I tend to think that Steve Winwood is like that. But people always have the capacity to surprise. So far, this new album is not surprising, but still well-made and engaging.

VV said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog. I've got a new post up. I really liked Steve Winwood in the 80s and I had his "High Life" album. I've been looking for some new music, so maybe I'll go give this album a listen and make a Mother's Day purchase. Good review.

wunelle said...

Yeah, give it a sample on iTunes (one of the great benefits of finding your music there--the free taste-test!).