Songs and Stories
1.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Listening to George Benson has always been an exercise in frustration for me. He has an attractive, mellow voice; the problem is it's as flexible as King Kong's underwear. George has an infuriating penchant for scat singing, the vocal equivalent of running your fingers down a dust-covered chalkboard. He's also likes to run rampant on the guitar and scats while playing. I'm all for multi-tasking, as long as it doesn't constitute two heinous acts at once. George hasn't been that creative with his style either. If you've heard his epileptic rendition of the Drifter's "On Broadway" or his sway by the numbers fakery in Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," then you've sampled his playbook.
"Songs and Stories," takes jazz's version of Scatman Crothers and let's George try to reinvent a few classics to see what he scats up. Unfortunately, like most kool kat jazzbos looking to crossover, George keeps coughing up hairballs.
How does George fair with familiar fare? Well, less than fair. Only one of the dozen tracks, "Come in from the Cold," will warm your heart. Joni Mitchell wrote a great song with the same title that was one of her few listenable tracks from her post "Court and Spark" period. George needed more material like "Come in from the Cold," even if George borrows heavily from Al Green's persona. Then again, maybe that's why it succeeds.
It's a sad story as far as the rest of the album goes. James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" is hallowed ground for me and George is a grave robber. Altering a line to "sho' nuff good to see you" wasn't necessary, George. It makes it sound as if you're patronizing the homies and the Pigmeat Markham set. (C'mon, I know your're out there, or at least George does.)
The chief offender in George's rendering factory is his dismantling of Tony Joe White's "A Rainy Night in Georgia," which was immortalized by Brook Benton. As far as covers go it's not as unintentionally funny as Frank Sinatra's desecration of George Harrison's "Something," ("Somethin' in da way she moooves, baby!), but it's a monsoon of jumbled jazz and crass crooning. George's phrasing is watery. He accents the wrong words and sings one line "It-still-comes-out-the-same" as if he's reading it off cue cards after waking from a nap at one of his concerts. And to complete his sacriledge, George omits the third verse, exiting with "I play my guitar through the night," which he does in such a haphazard manner it'll make you wish he'd gotten hit by a truck in the midst of a rainy night in Hoboken. Be thankful Brook Benton's dead and Tony Joe's too nice a guy to sue, George.
George also sinks Christopher Cross' "Sailing" with a considerable revisionist broadside. At least George is smart enough to make this an instrumental. I'd sail straight to the isle of projectile vomiting if he sang Cross' titanically terrible title. George keeps the scatting to a tolerable minimum and finally plays a solo with pride instead of trying to impress the radio czar's with flashy flourishes. Nevertheless, "Sailing" is an unsalvageable wreck.
As for the less familiar songs and stories, well, the story is, they have nothing to say.
"Show Me the Love" starts off with a dwee-doot-da-dweedalee-do scat. Can't fool me, George. I caught that brief homage to disco dross era hit "Turn Your Love Around." Show me the door.
"A Telephone Call Away" is a duet with Lalah Hathaway that gets hung up on he-man cliches. Hathaway has a smokey Mary Wilson way of emoting that inspires George to slip into an embarrassing "you sexy thang" mode. He's already taken down Tony Joe White. With "Telephone" he makes a bad connection with Barry White's style and dials up a wrong number.
Too bad "Nuthin' But a Party" isn't the J. Geils wall-shaker (that'd be "Nothin' But a House Party"). It's finger popping disco with programmed drumming. This is party should have been raided and the organizers locked up without bail. "Lowenbrau, welcome to the party," George exhorts. Montel Jordan anyone?It's the same old story. George's Tourette's Syndrome scating was a novelty "On Broadway," but it's become a crutch he pulls out whenever substandard material is falling apart, and "Songs and Stories" has plenty of listless, dated, safe performances. George picked two diamonds in "Rainy Night in Georgia' and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" then fell asleep at the switch. You will too.