As the 1960s came to a close, the Band changed the orientation of rock temporarily with their earnest, scholarly take on roots rock. Suddenly, it became de rigueur, especially among performers who took themselves dead seriously, to have sepia-tone album covers, tasteful mandolin flourishes and lyrics about outlaws and Civil War soldiers.
One of the most surprising albums in this vein, in retrospect, is Elton John’s 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection. It’s hard to imagine a time when the flamboyant pop Liberace behind the maudlin tribute to Princess Diana and the bathetic schmaltz of The Lion King soundtrack was considered a bona fide rock performer, but this record survives as evidence.
Tumbleweed Connection, particularly the astounding bass playing of Herbie Flowers, left a deep impression on Al Kooper, who responded by recording his own sepia-tone solo record, New York City (Your’re A Woman), making use of Flowers’s services and covering John’s “Come Down in Time”. Kooper’s main claim to fame now may be his organ playing on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde albums, but in the 1960s he also played in the Blues Project, one of America’s first blues-rock revivalists, and then later put together the original Blood Sweat & Tears lineup, unleashing horn-section rock on an unsuspecting world.
After being booted from that band in a clash of egos, BST would go on to record one of the signature albums of the era, whose hits—“And When I Die”, “Spinning Wheel”, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”—continue to pollute oldies stations’ playlists and whose success spawned the likes of Chicago. Meanwhile, Kooper became an A&R man for Columbia Records and something of a rock history footnote. He released several genre-fusing solo records, musicanly albums seemingly made for other session musicians’ appreciation that accordingly left no particular impression on the listening public.
Though Kooper’s albums seem largely to have been unfortunately forgotten (mostly out of print and never reissued in the US) , none is more deserving of rediscovery than New York City (You’re a Woman). It features some of the best of his original compositions and is free of his tendency to include reinterpretations of over-familiar songs like “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and James Taylor’s “Country Road.” The album’s tone of grim determination is established immediately with the sweeping title track, an unsentimental tribute which wastes no time in letting us know what sort of woman New York City is (“a cold-hearted bitch”).
Amid the string arrangements, the massed backing vocals and florid keyboards, Flowers’s searching bass runs cut through. Perpetually surprising, his bass playing here is almost impossibly expressive, as mercurial and difficult to assimilate as the city itself. This is followed by “John the Baptist (Holy John),” which sounds like a hyper-orchestrated version of the Band, down to the Rick Danko impersonation Kooper offers in his vocal.
But Kooper is nowhere near as self-consciously rootsy; he is too much enamored of concocting complex arrangements to keep anything rugged and rudimentary. “John the Baptist” and the similar “Can You Hear It Now (500 Miles)” which follows both feature dense yet subtle arrangements, with a variety instruments coming in and out of the mix—a sudden flute or trumpet line here, an organ swell there, a background vocal suddenly cutting through, a guitar lick punctuating a drum fill.
After the opening trio, the album falls off some. “Ballad of a Hard Rock Kid” sounds like session pros aping Mott the Hoople, and “Going Quietly Mad” attempts to approximate the Beatles but is sunk by Kooper’s strained vocals, which makes one wonder if he’s performing the song straight or doing a Zappaesque parody. And his obligatory 60s soul homage, the medley of “Oo Wee Baby, I Love You” and “Love Is A Man’s Best Friend,” is competent but perfunctory, more a signal of where Kooper’s heart is at than a satisfying recording in and of itself. It’s impeccably played and produced, but it won’t make you forget about Wilson Pickett. His cover of Bo Diddley’s “Dearest Darling” works a little better; that it sounds like he’s trying too hard manages to come across as endearing.
But the record regains its footing with the exuberantly loopy “Back on My Feet” and the cover of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time”, a rival for the original. Here Kooper’s vocal limitations actually serve the song well, especially next to John’s take, which seems bombastic in comparison. Kooper also clears the arrangement out to highlight Flowers’s bass. The solo passage shifts the tempo and gives the song a more dynamic feel as well, once you get used to keyboard’s initially off-putting pseudo-clarinet tone.
The album concludes by returning to the mock Band sound. “Nightmare #5” is another Flowers showcase, with a storytelling lyric about a cosmic hitch-hiking trip, and “The Warning (Someone’s on the Cross Again)” returns to the religious motifs that permeate the record. But the explicit appropriations of Christian imagery seem to have less a spiritual than musical purpose; they just seem part of the accoutrements of approximating a gospel sound. They signify Kooper’s lofty artistic goals without muddying them with any particular message, biblical or otherwise.
Instead, listeners are left with a sense of musical ambition, even in the form of outright imitation, as an engrossing calling that requires discipline and permits only controlled release, and supplying, in the end, if not transcendence, then the pleasant exhaustion of energy well spent.