- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

Rod Stewart

Still the Same … Great Rock Classics of Our Time

J Records

Aaron Neville

Bring It on Home The Soul Classics

Burgundy Records

Here’s all you’ll ever need to know about why some artists whose greatness has diminished, and yet whose hearts still pump blood, won’t quit:

In an interview with MSN.com to promote his latest CD of covers, “Still the Same … Great Rock Classics of Our Time,” Rod Stewart said: “There’s not many songwriters at my age still trying to release albums of their own music, and I’m not planning on it myself. Paul Simon, Elton John, the Rolling Stones have all penned their new records, and all the critics loved them, but they just didn’t sell.

“When you get too old, people don’t want to play your songs on the radio, so you have to go about it in a different way.”

A hungry, unknown singer might reasonably look at a situation such as Mr. Stewart’s and say, “Gee, it must be great to have decades of achievement at your back, not to mention the net worth of a small country. I could do anything, write any kind of song, I want — and for the fun of it.”

Not Mr. Stewart, who, by his own admission, hasn’t tried to write a song in four years.

“Go about it,” then, means “make money” — the specialty of label-exec rainmaker Clive Davis and his Midas-touch schemes for rescuing floundering old rock stars. After guiding him through four vanilla sets of traditional American pop and jazz standards (the last finally notched a No. 1), Mr. Davis convinced Mr. Stewart to redo songs made famous by his peers.

Truth is, I don’t really begrudge Mr. Stewart his craving for relevance. Heck, I think 1998’s “When We Were the New Boys,” the first manifestation of the abject state he finds himself in now — glorified karaoke barfly — showed moments of real inspiration.

The choice of singer-songwriter material (Nick Lowe, Ron Sexsmith, Graham Parker) was incisively offbeat. (There was a stab at Oasis’ “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” too; and, yes, it was painful and ridiculous.)

For about five minutes in the early 1970s (10 minutes, if you count his work with the Faces), Mr. Stewart was, for my money, the baddest singer on the block. I had coincidentally been listening to ‘72’s “Never a Dull Moment” before “Still the Same” came in through the transom, and I find its urgency and eclecticism pretty staggering.

And this new set, honestly, isn’t quite a disaster. As its title perhaps unwittingly implies, its selections are inoffensively arranged to recall the originals; the lemony scent of modern digital recording never quite overpowers. Badfinger’s “Day after Day,” Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” and Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” are all great songs. (You know what? So is Bread’s “Everything I Own.”)

None is tampered with or soiled here in any significant way. And Mr. Stewart, whatever his myriad faults as an artist, always has been a great vocal interpreter who can’t help but command your attention. He has specifically been a great interpreter of Bob Dylan’s; “If Not for You” here continues a long tradition that Mr. Stewart began in 1970 with “Only a Hobo.”

Some choices, meanwhile, are downright mystifying, such as a stab at the Pretenders’ devotional torch ballad “I’ll Stand by You” (a “rock classic”?) and John Waite’s “Missing You,” which, last time I checked, had already been flogged to death by Tina Turner. But, mostly, they suit Mr. Stewart’s still-basically-decent voice just fine.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” which leads off the disc, is particularly snappy, as is Mr. Stewart’s personally resonant take on “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Rod Stewart record when blues-rocker Elvin Bishop had a crossover hit with it in 1976.

Still, there’s something more than a little odd about the whole project — and I don’t mean the fact that it seems sonically engineered not to disturb people while they massage laptops at Starbucks.

Like I said, these are Mr. Stewart’s peers. Isn’t “Still the Same” akin to Bruce Springsteen playing in a Jackson Browne tribute band?

Or Aaron Neville covering Al Green?

Mr. Neville, the R&B; legend, had his reasons for making “Bring It on Home … The Soul Classics,” which does indeed include a fresh take on Mr. Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Last year’s Katrina devastation in the Neville family’s native New Orleans was uppermost in his mind; he dedicates the album to its victims.

“I feel God in every song,” Mr. Neville says in the liner notes, alluding to the secular-sacred divide of American soul and gospel music. “God gave me my voice. My hope is that you hear Him no matter what I’m singing.”

Whatever the case, one wonders what took him — or Him — so long. “Bring It on Home” is chock-full of winners, not least its pairs of Sam Cooke (“You Send Me,” “A Change Is Gonna Come”) and Curtis Mayfield (“It’s All Right,” “People Get Ready”) covers.

Mr. Neville puts his unmistakable vibrato in the service of songs such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” whose familiarity has long passed the saturation point. Yet even these are rescued by classy arrangements and resourceful session musicians such as Brazilian guitarist Heitor Pereira, who adds a tropical twist to the Motown standard “My Girl.”

“When a Man Loves a Woman” comes off a bit sleepily; it lacks the playful passion of what immediately precedes it — a funky, fiery duet with the great Mavis Staples on “Respect Yourself.”

What ultimately distinguishes these two enterprises of Mr. Stewart and Mr. Neville? It has something to do with sincerity and, even more important, craft. What are the singers doing with this stuff that justifies a 21st-century lease?

Every singer, at the end of the day, wants a paycheck. With that I’ve got no problem. But if I’m the signing the check, I want to pay for something more than just an excuse to feel nostalgic.

I want some soul, in other words.

Rod Stewart sold his.

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