Hymn for My Soul
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Joe Cocker’s 22nd studio album, “Hymn For My Soul,” makes ole sandy throat sound as fresh and vibrant as he did when he made his debut in 1969. One thing Cocker and his brain trust have always been good at is selecting outstanding material that suits his blast furnace emoting. For “Hymn For My Soul,” Cocker has cherry-picked material written by Lennon & McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Andy Fairweather-Low, Daniel Moore, John Fogerty and the Neville Brothers, among others.
Joe Cocker’s career has been comprised of a touch of luck, strokes of good timing and a heap of talent. Cocker’s abilities were touted by Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth, who used Joe as a back up singer on the rock gospel shout out “Feelin’ Bad” on “Spooky Two.” (And why not, the two sound very much alike.) Like Harrison, Cocker was a student of Ray Charles and American R & B and had a talent for taking a song and making it his own. For his debut album, 1969’s “With A Little Help From My Friends,” Cocker was given access to the best studio musicians, including Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page, Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher and B.J. Wilson, and in a stroke of irony, Spooky Tooth members Mike Kellie and Chris Stainton were also asked to participate. Cocker did a high profile gig at the original “Woodstock,” then teamed up with keyboard impresario Leon Russell, who arranged his self-titled second album and assembled a 30-member touring band appropriately referred to as “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” Cocker joked he earned a little over $10 after the small army of singers and roadies were paid, but the die was cast. With his arms flailing as if in the thrall of an epileptic seizure, Joe Cocker became a rock icon barely a year after his debut album was released.
After a nasty break with Russell and subsequent successful tours directed by Stainton, Cocker suffered through the typical “too much too soon syndrome,” battling alcohol and drug abuse. In 1974, Cocker scored a #5 hit with the Billy Preston/Dennis Wilson/Bruce Fisher composition “You Are So Beautiful,” giving a breathy, teary performance that was alternately touching and pathetic. By 1976’s “Stingray,” handicappers were betting if Cocker would beat Traffic’s embalmed flutist Chris Wood or Free’s downer-addicted guitarist Paul Kossoff to the grave – Kossoff won, succumbing to a heart attack at age 25. Cocker reached his nadir that year with an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” in which coke-fueled comic John Belushi lampooned Joe’s air guitar gyrations -- while he was performing! (If Belushi had done that to me he’d have met his end right there on stage instead of overdosing five years later. Belushi’s cruel joke showed that Cocker was a good Joe.) Cocker began crawling out of the bottle with 1982’s reggae-tinged “Sheffield Steel” album, but it was “Up Where We Belong,” a smaltzy duet with singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes (co-written by native American folkie Buffy St. Marie) that reached #1 and signaled Joe was back. It was featured in the Richard Gere romance “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and earned Joe an unexpected Academy Award for Best Song in 1983. A few more soundtrack cuts, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (from 1986’s “Cocker”) and “Unchain My Heart,” (Joe’s 1987 tribute to Ray Charles, which is currently used in a beer commercial), kept Cocker in the public eye.
“Hymn For My Soul”’s clean production, helmed by Ethan Johns (son of Beatles and Stones producer Glyn Johns) is heavenly. The drums pop, the brass crackles with energy and Mike Finnegan’s Hammond B3 organ fills each tune with rich textures of gospel and R & B. The opener, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” has the same mechanical funky groove as the version of “Kiss” Tom Jones assembled with The Art of Noise. But that’s a good thing. The hip arrangement fits drummer James Gadson’s slap happy urban beat. The three keyboard players, David Palmer on Wurlitzer, Finnegan (Stephen Stills Band) and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) on piano, weave but never collide, giving each other enough space to leave an impression. The horns, led by Tom Scott, are the stars. They’re more staccato than in Stevie’s original, but they still blast with soulful authority. And here’s a bonus…You can understand everything Joe says. In the past, a listener’s comprehension of Cocker’s work depended on Joe’s level of sobriety. Sometimes the messier his speech was, the more impressive his performance. I’m still trying to decode what he says in “Delta Lady”: “…Andyetitseemsthecitysceneislacking!” Joe keeps his diction pretty clear throughout the album, which is an unexpected bonus and makes him sound even more like, yeah, I gotta say it, Mike Harrison.
There are two songs on the album that’ll reach right through the speakers and shake your booty and its associated parts. Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” gets a kinetic make over via Gadson’s choppy beat. Finnegan lays down the chords on his B3 like a magic musical carpet, tapping out a circus theme reminiscent of Leslie West’s “Long Red,” and there’s some sneaky sweet interplay between producer Ethan Johns on guitar and Benmont Tench. The title track has shades of barroom boogie with melodic piano rolls by Tench. The very droll Andy Fairweather-Low (who’s toured with Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds and Roger Waters), wrote “Hymn 4 My Soul.” Low once came up with one of rock’s most unusual and amusing couplets: “Watch out for la booga rooga. Some you win and some you loose-a!” Here he balances his whimsy with thoughtful sentiment: “So sing a hymn to my soul, stay with me when I get old.” The song crackles with spontaneity – Joe does a tuneful call and response with the back up singers that shows he’s enjoying himself.
Finnegan’s thick, hallowed B3 gives “One Word (Peace)” its gospel flavor. Cocker is backed up by a legendary chorus that includes Merry Clayton (the singer wailing on the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”) and Julia Waters (who graced many of Jim Capaldi’s 80’s albums).
Cocker puts his heart and soul into Art Neville’s “Love Is For Me.” The chorus is a bit monotonous and back ups Clayton, Waters, Tata Vega, Jim Gilstrap and Oren Waters take their roles a bit too seriously (“I believe! I believe! I BELIEVE! I BEEEELIEVE!”), but Joe is forthright, commanding, and Johns uses the start/stop pattern of the strings to a striking effect.
The Bowery bum ballad “Don’t Give Up” teeters on the edge of Randy Newman absurdity. Joe gets swamped by the song’s lack of rhythmic drive, but his emotional investment helps give the song’s bones a little meat. This time it’s Mike Finnegan who turns the performance into something special, bearing down on a B3 solo that brings back memories of Cocker’s 70s albums when Steve Winwood or Chris Stainton delivered the keyboard thrills.
Ethan Johns plays George Harrison’s role for a credible version of the quiet Beatles’ “Beware of Darkness.” Johns plays it straight – he doesn’t use a slide effect and follows the melody closely, which is as it should be. (It’s Joe’s album, not his.) Drummer Jim Keltner (who appeared on many of Harrison’s albums), gives the song a more heavy touch than Harrison’s original, but Joe respectfully navigates through the lyrics, giving a elegant reading. (And when was the last time the word “elegant” was used to describe Joe Cocker?)
The album closes with a bonus cut, an odd industrial version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Come Together.” One listen will tell you it wasn’t recorded at the same time as the rest of the album. (It was used in the recent Beatles tribute movie “Across The Universe.” Joe even got to act in it.) Ethan Johns did a superb job of mixing and producing the rest of the album. One-off producer T-Bone Burnett coats “Come Together” with a more futuristic sonic brush. It works for this song, but I could see it becoming a teeth-grinder over the course of ten cuts. It sounds as if it was recorded in the Holland Tunnel using bathroom pipes for percussion – in fact Mark Stewart plays something called the “rubber base balls” which may be insidious, since baseballs are made from cowhide. The flat production brings the album full circle back to the Tom Jones/Art of Noise sounding “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” T-Bone Walker and T-Bone Wolk contribute the scratchy, static guitar work that makes the tune sound like a perfect theme song for Mike Meyers’ “Sprockets” sketch on Saturday Night Live. (And isn’t there some sort of union rule against too many T-Bones on one song?). Regardless, Cocker has demonstrated a talent for adapting Beatles songs (For example, “With A Little Help From My Friends.” “Something,” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”). This sticks out stylistically from the rest of the CD, but comes together thanks to Joe growling in all the right places.
Only three misguided missives threaten to put a hole in “Soul;” Bob Dylan’s momentum-killing “Ring Them Bells,” John Fogerty’s “Long As I Can See The Light,” and Daniel Moore’s “Just Pass It On.” Don’t blame Fogerty for “Light”’s inability to shine; Cocker and his crew misfire by trying too hard to reshape the song into an inspirational piece. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original was a sensual piece that played off drummer Stu Clifford’s chugging beat, a foghorn sax solo and Fogerty’s sandpapery vocal that speared you through the heart rather than attempted to soothe. Cocker’s version is earthier, with traces of a hurdy gurdy, pipe organ and strings – and no drums at all. Instead of using Cocker and a rhythm section to punch through the tune (the way Fogerty did), this version drifts on the backs of Tench’s lonesome piano and Greg Leisz’s distant guitar. Joe’s version is about seeking salvation – John’s was about seeking sanctuary in a woman’s arms. You guessed it – I’m going with John’s version.
I actually hope there comes a day I can praise Bob Dylan more than I do. But today’s not the day. “Ring Them Bells” is a dreary, empty song. Not even Cocker’s flailing can justify its inclusion. Gordon Lightfoot recorded a sprightly version for his 1993 comeback album, “Waiting For You.” It didn’t work for him either, and if Gordon couldn’t ring them bells, well then nobody’s going to. David Palmer’s haphazard piano accompaniment doesn’t match or support Cocker’s attempts at infusing the drab lyrics with a sense of urgency, and Greg Leisz’s steel guitar is little more than an ear-bending distraction. Pity. “Ring Then Bells,” the least attractive song on the album, follows “River’s Invitation,” one of the best.
The third failure is the Third World flavored “Just Pass It On,” written by Daniel Moore. It has Paul Simon ripping off South African music written all over it. It starts out like a clip from “Shaka Zulu,” with a trio of back up singers (Jimmy Gilstrap, Oren Waters and Benjamin Ochieng) splitting infinitives in English and African. Cocker’s dusty rumble steadies the heady song of brotherhood and is a calming influence, but there’s no disguising the Ladysmith Mombassa lite feel. Cocker has a long history with the Moore family. Daniel wrote “Put Out the Light,” which Cocker covered on 1974’s “I Can Stand A Little Rain” and his brother, Matthew, penned “Space Captain” for the monstrously successful “Mad Dogs and Englishman” album. Daniel Moore has written a lot of humable hymns and humongous hits, including “Shambala” and “On The Way Home” for Three Dog Night, but “Pass It On” is instantly forgettable. If the “Lion King” makes a screen comeback it’s got a theme song. Otherwise, just pass on it.
If you’d told me twenty years ago that Joe Cocker would be alive, let alone making music, I would’ve asked you what was in your pipe. Unlike Keith Richard, who’s become a cadaverous parody of himself, or Rod Stewart, who hijacked the American songbook in order to buoy his checkbook, Cocker has maintained his sense of self. With “Hymn For My Soul,” Joe Cocker does much more than get by with a little help from his friends. He breathes new life into familiar compositions and is still brilliant at taking obscure songs and making them sound familiar. Even John Belushi would be proud.