Tight and Slight
The resumes of these two men are so impressive, so monumental, that they almost transcend traditional criticism. Cropper, of course, is the guitarist, producer, and songwriter behind the Stax soul sound of the 1960s and ‘70s. He was guitarist with Stax house band Booker T. & the M.Gs. He’s produced Keith Moon and played with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Levon Helm, Aretha Franklin, and scores of others. The man co-wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “In the Midnight Hour”. Cavaliere’s name may be less well known, but he made a significant contribution to early rock ‘n’ roll as singer and keyboard player for the Young Rascals. Both Booker T. & the M.Gs and the Young Rascals are members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. By this point, anything either Cropper or Cavaliere does is padding on a legendary career.
That factor works both for and against Midnight Flyer. The album is Cropper and Cavaliere’s second collaboration, following 2008’s Nudge It Up A Notch. Both albums feature nearly all original compositions, and are played and sung with a verve and spirit that belies the fact both men are within peeking distance of 70. That they are still writing and playing music that’s alive and original, rather than appealing to nostalgia or re-recording old hits, is an accomplishment in itself. In light of these fairly modest expectations, Midnight Flyer is an overwhelming success. Cropper’s jazz-inspired guitar lines are as clean, tight, and smooth as ever. Cavaliere’s velvety yet meaty croon and impeccable phrasing don’t sound much removed from the man who belted out “Good Lovin’” and gave Van Morrison a run for his charisma on “Groovin’”. Many monumental performers have pulled off late-career embarrassments, and Midnight Flyer is far from one of those.
Yet, it’s far from essential, too. Aside from a couple standout tracks, it comes across as, well, padding on its creators’ legendary careers. It’s hard to doubt it was a lot of fun to make, and that comes across occasionally, too. Co-producing along with drummer Tom Hambridge, Cropper and Cavaliere give Midnight Flyer a crisp, meaty sound that concedes nothing to the current trend of dynamics-sapping compression. The more uptempo numbers actually work best. The galloping, chugging rhythm of the title track gives Cropper a forceful backdrop for his mean riffing, and he lays down a scorching solo, too. And is that a drum machine under the danceable breakbeat? That sure is one on “When You’re With Me”, giving an odd tilt to an otherwise winning bit of soul. On tracks like this, Cavaliere’s voice can still make the sun rise, and the keyboards lend to the effect.
If anything on Midnight Flyer approaches essential status, it’s “Early Morning Riser”. An effortlessly rolling piece of old-school funk-soul, it’s anchored by Cavaliere’s warm organ chords and Cropper’s chicken scratch guitar. Over this, Cavaliere sings “I don’t listen to the news/But I always check the weather/‘Cause that’s something I can use/To plan our next together”, and the effect is truly timeless. Some tracks, though, are merely retro in a less intentional, less-successful way. Ballads like “You Give Me All I Need” are schmaltzy in a 1980s way. The attempt at an all-out rave-up, “Move the House”, features some equally dated compressed drums and Cavaliere’s utterly unconvincing exhortation to “Move your arms and let me hear you shout”. It’s as forced as “Early Morning Riser” is natural.
In Midnight Flyer, Cropper and Cavaliere have made an album that does nothing to tarnish the legacy of the (re-activated) Stax label that has released it. It would sound great coming from a blues club or storefront on Beale Street in Memphis. You might expect a bit more from artists of this stature, but then again, their very presence makes the world a better place.
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// Notes from the Road
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