Rod Stewart’s glory days span several key moments in the evolution of post-Beatles British rock—from the rise of the white blues brigade around 1964 through the fashion fetishism of Mod, on to singer-songwriter introspections as the decade turned and eventually good-time, glam-tinged boogie of the Seventies. And it’s hard to argue with the grain of that voice as it wrapped its cords around Hendrix and Hardin, Motown and “Maggie May”, or as the husky incarnation of the Faces at their best.
A new century, a new album, but really the same old voice—the face may crease a little, the trousers may have to loosen a touch, but the sounds that Rod gargles on Human have an enduring appeal. One of the reasons for that is that Stewart was, and remains, a consummate interpreter. He isn’t Sinatra, he isn’t Bennett, but he has the ability to take good material and give it his own make-over.
The songwriting credits are a litany of journeymen tunesmiths—Steve Kipner, Andrew Davis and Kenny Thomas—bolstered by an up and coming generation—Macy Gray, Connor Reeves and ex-New Radical Gregg Alexander. But if Rod’s distinctive delivery is one constant thread in the machine, Rob Dickins’ exquisite production is the other co-star. There is a creamy sleekness to the set which lends an air of class to songs that might have been exposed as mere fillers in other circumstances.
And Rod, of course, has enough clout in this business to bring some star turns to the party with Slash lending his rock schtick to the title track, Mark Knopfler adding a twang to the Korgis cover “If I Had You”, and former Average White Band man Robbie MacIntosh and ex-Prince sideman Jesse Johnson weighing in along the way.
But it’s the gruff, shoulder-shrugging singing that takes centre stage, a counterpoint to those glossy arrangements, and on “Smitten”, on the Curtis Mayfield re-make “It Was Love That We Needed” and the delightful “Don’t Come Around Here”—in which Stewart trades lines withHelicopter Girl, a rising star with a similar rasping edge to her delivery—the formula is near perfect.
Yet the best is left for last with Gregg Alexander’s “I Can’t Deny It”, a kind of Eighties refugee of a song that could slot seamlessly into the About Last Night movie soundtrack, proving ideal uptempo fodder for the singer. A rolling piano track, an irresistible ascending melody line, and a mental vision of a younger, predatory Rod stalking the stage, mic stand as dance partner.
This is far from a great album, but it is a surprisingly good one. At a time when it makes sound commercial sense for a ageing white rocker to appeal to black audiences, too, blondes may not necessarily have more funk but this particular one proves that blue-eyed soul—from Len Barry and Daryl Hall onwards—remains an honorable tradition.
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// Notes from the Road
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