You’ll have to forgive me if I seem a bit cynical about this release. Everywhere except the US, I’ve been told, Zucchero is huge. But if he’s to conquer the world, it’s time for him to break into the States. So how to do it? Well, how about following the Grammy-laden trail blazed by Ray Charles and his Genius Loves Company, and releasing a collection of duets on Starbucks’ Hear Music label? The label is dedicated making music to sell lattes to, and the CDs are sold in a cafe-setting that encourages background music consumption. This is a label whose promotion for a Sly and the Family Stone album begins with this phrase: “Influential… and funky!” So, as I said, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t come into this with the right attitude.
But I’ll be open-minded, and if I weren’t, I’d be quickly won over by the opening track, “I Lay Down”, which features John Lee Hooker. Immediately Zucchero puts his voice on the line, matching it against one of the blues’ most recognizable and influential vocalists on a track recorded in Tupelo, Mississippi, right in the heart of the Delta blues. [Note: these tracks were all recorded over a number of years, and sometimes re-mixed or even re-sung for the collection.] Zucchero is up for the challenge, blending perfectly with the master, and while the music is too smooth, the singers nail the emotional center of this song.
Those smooth arrangements haunt the album, however. Even appearances by Eric Clapton (and his late ‘80s guitar tone) and Jeff Beck (also with Clapton’s late ‘80s guitar tone) can’t seem to scatter any grit onto this disc. Okay, so Clapton’s track is from 1989 (I didn’t know—honest), but Beck has no excuse. I’m guessing he was too distracted by Macy Gray struggling through her vocals. Although the disc’s slogan ends with “In Blues we Trust”, the musicians never really present that spirit.
If you’re willing to stretch the meaning of the blues, though (as you should), you will find a few killer tracks. Solomon Burke adds his Bishop vocals to “Diavolo in Me—A Devil in Me”. The band throws an almost disco accompaniment into the mix, and the track bounces from field holler to dance-rocker yet never looses the heart and fear of the lyrics. Burke’s performance shows a willingness to stretch himself, and Zucchero yields, but without being overshadowed.
The kind of flexibility shown by Burke also serves Zucchero a great deal. Zucchero covers a variety of styles on this compilation, and he seems able to write and sing in a manner that fits whatever mood he’s in, or whatever tone set by the artist who joins him. It’s especially nice to hear Dolores O’Riordan (from the Cranberries) again, and Zucchero helps push her up an artistic level. B.B. King, Mexican rock group Maná, and even Miles Davis (!) add their own sounds and grooves to Zucchero’s compositions, and he matches them all the way, in their own world. Well, except for Davis, but Zucchero’s undone as much by his own arrangement and production as he his by Davis’s blowing.
Not all the tracks are going to win Zucchero fans, though. The Sheryl Crow collaboration “Blue” sounds inane, and while placing it after Hooker’s track hurts this song, at least it’s done and out of the way before the album gets flowing. “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” with Vanessa Carlton and Haylie Ecker suffers from melodramatic production and the cloying strings.
Indeed, Zucchero stumbles most when he becomes too operatic, with one exception. On the closing track, “Miserere”, he’s joined by Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli. The singers deliver a robust performance. The only trouble with this song is that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the disc. Some of the arrangement works (the slightly overbearing nature of it, anyway), but vocally, it’s a world removed from what’s preceded it. We can cut Zucchero some slack, though—he’s friends with these guys and more or less discovered Bocelli. Plus, they push records for a certain demographic.
Oddly enough, this perfect made-for-Starbucks disc was originally a UK release with a different sequence and four additional tracks. A few of those artists who didn’t make the US cut make sense—Ronan Keating and Mousse T aren’t going to sell records on this side of the Atlantic, and eliminating Tom Jones helps drop the dangerously high cheese factor. But Brian May? Why not Brian May? Since I couldn’t hear those four tracks, I couldn’t say if their cutting works well, but “trimming this fat”, so to speak, seems to have increased the skim-latte nature of the disc.
Zucchero’s a big international star, and now he’s got his Hear Music duets album all set to push him toward money, trophies, and groupies here. The guy can undoubtedly sing, but I get the feeling that I’m missing something, here. In the genius of Zucchero’s chameleon performance, I can’t help but think that he’s catered too much to his company, and not given enough of himself. Maybe that’s so we’ll buy one of his solo albums after this one. See, I liked the album, but you’ll have to forgive me if I’m still cynical about it.