Joe Cocker: Sheffield Steel [Bonus Tracks]

[30 April 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

Joe Cocker has one of those voices that you love or hate, there is virtually no middle ground. From his Woodstock phase as the front man for Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Cocker has created a body of work that has seen its share of ups and downs. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Cocker continued touring where and when he could. But by not having the aid of a record label, it wasn’t the easiest road traveled. After conversing with a member of his backing band, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell sought Cocker and invited him down to record with the famous reggae duo of Sly and Robbie. The result of three sessions between globetrotting is what you have here. And 20 years later, it’s still one of his better albums.

Mainly void of a dated ‘80s synthesized sound, Cocker gets down to business early and effortlessly on “Look What You’ve Done”, a blues tune that the gravel-tinged voice nails from the beginning. Sounding similar in parts to what Eric Clapton has recently offered up with Pilgrim and From the Cradle, Cocker loses control near the conclusion and it’s worth the risk. “Shocked” reverts back to a high-school prom slow dance tempo, as Sly Dunbar’s snare drum weaves its magic for all the three minutes. One of the assets that makes the album work is that Cocker isn’t drowned out by an over-bearing horn section, something that can be his undoing both on albums and in concert. “I’ve been told, there’s a thorn in every rose”, he sings rather smoothly before an abrupt ending.

“Sweet Little Woman” relies mainly on a reggae beat and arrangement. But it tends to be too lightweight for Cocker’s powerful voice. While he does strain in places, it’s quite tame for his standards. Adrian Belew’s (King Crimson, David Bowie) guitar solo isn’t bad here, but does little to bring the song up to snuff. One of the oddest songs here is the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Seven Days”. Here Cocker comes off a bit like a latter day Sting, but the song works for some reason. The number also has a spacious feeling to it, especially during the homestretch. The track listing sounds like it’s out of order in some spots, as the change of pace into the downbeat “Marie” is an extreme contrast. The tune, penned by Randy Newman, has Cocker coming across like its author. Some subtle keyboards and even a triangle is thrown in for good measure.

A great moment on the album comes in the form of “Many Rivers to Cross”, a song whose backing arrangement meshes perfectly with Cocker’s voice. “It’s such a drag to be on your own”, he sings, resembling the ideal that former Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson tried on New Earth Mud. If there’s one drawback, it’s the fact that it fades far quicker than it needs to. What follows is a slow romantic funk during “So Good, So Right”. The chorus could do with the Hall & Oates-like high harmonies, but it has a nice groove working for it. The odd track is the early new wave sound emanating from “Talking Back to the Night”. Coming off as the answer to Robert Palmer’s “Looking For Clues”, the song loses its luster in the middle.

Ending the original album was Jimmy Webb’s “Just Like Always”, another shining moment that sounds like it was done in one or two takes on a late afternoon. Four bonus track here are included, two of which are seeing the light of day for the first time and two others on compact disc for the first time. Prior to releasing the album, two 12” mixes were released as the back and front of a single. The first, “Sweet Little Woman”, is lengthy but has the necessary tools to make it an enjoyable six minutes. But it’s not as funky or feel good as “Look What You’ve Done”. The two previously unreleased tracks aren’t bad despite sounding like cutting room floor material. “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love)” sounds a tad routine with an off-kilter drumbeat. “Inner City Blues”, originally done by Marvin Gaye, is okay at best. Overall though, this is one album you would have a hard time knocking.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/cockerjoe-sheffield/