Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Livin' the High Life
Nine Lives (2008) (plus Back In the High Life--1986)
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. (Allmusic.com 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.