3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Another five minutes...another Rod Stewart reissue!
"Atlantic Crossing," rockin' Roddy's sixth solo album, was a big departure from his previous five... Not only was it recorded in America instead of England in order to help Rod avoid England's severe taxation (hence the title), it was his first "Faceless" album - his first solo endeavor that didn't feature any of his group, The Faces, specifically guitarist, co-composer, best friend, and pint guzzler extraordinaire Ron Wood.
"Atlantic Crossing" was Stewart's also his first album on Warner Brothers and his first collaboration with producer Tom Dowd, who'd helmed classics platters by The Rascals, Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, Cream, and Dusty Springfield, among others. Dowd listened to a Faces' rehearsal and was appalled at the group's lack of chops, declaring the pub pranksters were better at suited for playing sloppy rock and roll than the R&B inspired tunes Stewart had in mind. With The Faces having failed their audition, Dowd told Stewart he could get ¾ of Booker T. and The M.G.'s to participate (guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson. Booker T. was occupied). He then drafted noted session players Jessie Ed Davis (George Harrison, Taj Mahal), David Lindley (Crosby & Nash), Barry Beckett (Aretha Franklin, Traffic) and Albhy Galuten (Eric Clapton). Dowd's plan was to mix and match rhyme sections so the tracks would sound distinctive and fresh. It was Stewart who came up with the idea of a "fast" and "slow" side (did he steal the idea from Ray Charles?). The gimmick proved to be a public relations boon, as much of the album's best material wound up on the second side.
"Alright For An Hour," co-written with Native American party machine Jesse Ed Davis, features Al Jackson's leap frog drum beat and non-stop mashing of his hi-hat. Jackson's action creates a shoulder-shaking, can't miss reggae rocker.
Two of the first side's rockers, "All in the Name of Rock and Roll," and "Stone Cold Sober" are disjointed affairs that would have fit The Faces tumbledown approach, so it's no surprise to find that "Sober" was originally titled "Too Much Noise," because it is.
Stewart's cover of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" is pretty faithful to the original, but as the alternative version on Disc Two points out, it didn't start out that way. Stewart injects a sense of desperation that Gray's version lacked, although it's still got a way to go to equal the rock-you-to-your-soul power of Humble Pie's husky version sung by bassist Greg Ridley.
What was once side two, the "quiet" half, opens with Danny Whitten's "I Don't Want to Talk About It." Rod was sometimes accused of phoning it in, but not on this cut, or any of the ones that follow. Stewart's vocal is sensitive and emotional, made all the more melancholy by the addition of a whispery string section. Sadly, Whitten, a talented guitarist and hopeless heroin addict, had already been dead for three years when Stewart recorded his song.
Barry Goldberg (keyboardist for the Electric Flag and KGB) and Gerry Goffin (Carole King's ex-husband and writing partner) penned the reflective "It's Not the Spotlight," which is given a halting, thought evoking arrangement.
Although Tom Dowd's original plan called for a significant dose of Memphis music, the only R&B tune that actually made the final cut was a remake of the Isley Brothers "This Old Heart of Mine." Al Jackson channeled the distinctive rimshot beat he used on Al Green's hit records for Rod's take and ()'s sax solo turns Rod's grainy, subdued vocal into suave soul.
"Still Love You" is as forlorn as "It's Not the Spotlight." There's a bit of production overkill whenever Roddy sings in an echoed vocal, "I still love you...you... you..." but there's no trickery in the sentiment he pours into what he's saying.
The most popular song from the album in England was the closer, "Sailing," originally recorded by The Sutherland Brothers. Stewart turned the hook laden crowd pleaser into a sing-a-long by adding a bevy of cozy back up singers that sound as if they're bonding over some warm beer. The song became so popular it was chosen as the theme song for a B.B.C. series about life aboard the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal, and it was used at soccer games as a rallying cry.
How career savvy is Rod Stewart? If you've got a bit of Scotsman in you, you'll appreciate the bagpipe ruined "Skye Boat Song." If not, hoot mon, you'll recognize why this esoteric piece of sheep dip was sheared from the final release. It's bagpipe baloney. It doesn't blow any wind up my kilt - no visions of Scotty rigging the transporter with chewing gum, or Mel Gibson charging across the muddy heather - and the whoopee cushion serenade of the bagpipes sound like the external gastric musings of my ex-roommate after a lunch at Taco Bell.
Atlantic Crossing's Alternate Route...Disc 2's Different Versions...
Too many reissues are fattened with rough mixes already so close to the final product that only someone who was at the recording session can tell you what the differences are. Well, Roddy delivers with "Atlantic Crossing's" second CD. Many of the embryonic alternates are 180 degrees from the final versions and well worth a listen.
Disc 2 contains 14 unissued cuts, beginning with three recorded with the MG's (with ex-Traffic keyboardist Barry Beckett ably sitting in). The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," originally intended for Otis Redding, picks up a more soulful countenance and is well within Roddy's vocal realm. Rod's version can't top the Brothers Gibbs' hit, but his raw delivery says he means every word. Thankfully, Rod retains the emotive string arrangement that flowed through the original.
The M.G.'s tack on the intro to Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" to Allen Toussaint's "Holy Cow," giving it the classic Stax treatment. Rod cuts loose, pushed by Al Jackson's New Orleans nuanced beat, as Beckett lays down a carpet of Hammond chords. The Band put together my favorite rendition of "Holy Cow" on their covers album, "Moondog Matinee." With Rick Danko hiccupping the lead vocal, The Band's version was restrained, almost shy. Rod's is loose limbed, as if in tribute to Otis, and holy smokes, it's good.
Some songs should never be remade, even if they're totally reconfigured. "Return to Sender" is such a song. In this case, giving it the Stax treatment only underscores that Elvis owns it. Rod sounds uneasy and only Beckett puts forth any assertive effort. Rod once did a remake of "All Shook Up" with The Jeff Beck Group that was an ear-opening spin on Elvis' hit. Then again, he had creative input from Beck on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano. His "Return to Sender" with the M.G.'s is a note for note no-no.
The second disc contains alternate versions of "Atlantic Crossing," many of which vindicate the way the final turned out. With an acoustic backing and the organ doing the heavy lifting, Rod's vocal for "Three Time Loser" is more pronounced, but the shuffling beat and absence of the teasing back up singers takes some punch out of the naughty lyrics. Jesse Ed Davis' solo is missing and a good portion of the final lyrics for "Alright For An Hour" are in transition, but Al Jackson's infectious hi-hat frenzy is already in place, demonstrating it was headed in the right direction.
Rod gives "Drift Away" more of a reggae feel along the lines of Johnny Nash's "Hold Me Tight," dicing up some of the lyrics to put his stamp on Dobie Gray's signature tune. Compared to Gray's version, Rod's take shapes up in the third verse as he let's his razor throat loose. He generates the type of energy in the last half of the song that he did in the reworked reggae-reduced final take, so it must have dawned on him that it was best to sing it straight. Nice to hear that Rod wasn't afraid to stretch out, though.
An early version of "Stone Cold Sober," entitled "Too Much Noise" pounds away like an Excedrin headache - relentless and seemingly unending. Once again, Rod was right to trash this derivative rocker.
Pokey electric guitar fills turn "I Don't Want to Talk About It's" sentiment into sediment - one listen and Rod probably said to Tom Dowd, "We need to talk about those wonky guitar parts." Another case of addition by subtraction is the rim shot beat in the alternate take of "It's Not the Spotlight." Take away the determined beat and the spotlight falls on Rod's vocal and the trailing viola.
As if to prove a point, the alternate take of "This Old Heart of Mine" is relatively punchless without Al Jackson's patented kicks. With Jackson's lead-footed beat, chirping singers and warm strings applied to the final version, the additions turned a pleasant rendition into a Stewart stand out.
The alternate take of "I Still Love You" reads more like an outtake from Rod's "Every Picture Tells a Story" era. A fading violin and a folky arrangement make Rod sound more like a Gasoline Alley storyteller leaning against a grimy wall. The final version's tempo was slowed, giving it more retrospective meaning. This more upbeat version is a pleasant diversion, but once again, Rod picked the right one to release.
The alternate take of "Sailing" utilizes a more soulful, but less fitting guitar solo, and there's a big hole without the dozens of back up singers Rod used to fill out the sound on the final version. It'll still set your sails for a calm sea.
"Atlantic Crossing" was Stewart's last promising album. His next endeavor, "Night on the Town" (1 ½ out of 5 stars, also now available in a 2 CD deluxe version), would find him wallowing in the school boy bliss or his very public love affair with actress Britt Ekland (remember his icky video for "Tonight's the Night" with Brit cooing in French?). "Night on the Town" and the albums that followed featured a veritable hangover's worth of self-absorbed tracks, reflecting an artist who was falling in love with his celebrity status. How about the aptly named "The Balltrap?" or the endless embarrassing tribute to a gay friend, "The Killing of Georgie (Pts.1&2)?" Although Rod followed the successful formula of "Atlantic Crossing" by hiring Steve Cropper and the Memphis contingent and creating a fast side/slow side flow, the only salvageable tunes were two he didn't write - a touching version of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut is the Deepest" and a south of the border flavored take on Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo."
Roddy would go on to make some very spotty but highly successful albums in the 80s and 90s and experience a comeback by pilfering the American standards catalogue. But if you want to drift away and feel all right for an hour, you should book your passage with Rod and take an "Atlantic Crossing."