Music

Al Kooper: Black Coffee

Steve Horowitz

This disc harkens back to the days when black coffee was a warm cup of joe at the diner served by a waitress named Betty, not a steaming Starbucks brew made by a barista.


Al Kooper

Black Coffee

Label: Favored Nations
US Release Date: 2005-07-12
UK Release Date: 2005-08-22
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

Al Kooper's rock pedigree has few equals. He played with the Royal Teens ("Short Shorts") back in the '50s and penned Gary Lewis and the Playboys' big hit record "This Diamond Ring" in the midst of the British Invasion. Kooper was there when Bob Dylan went electric and performed the famous organ solo on the recently voted best rock song of all time, "Like a Rolling Stone". Then he went on to record with the Rolling Stones (on French horn!), Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and other musicians in the pantheon of classic rock. Kooper co-founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, played super-sessions with Steven Stills and Mike Bloomfield, and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose first record Kooper produced.

Despite his impressive resume, the prolific artist's musical productions have declined over the years. Currently, he's got a new CD out called "Black Coffee", but it's not because Kooper covered the famous jazz standard of that name (although that song would not sound out of place on this record). Playing the roles of producer, arranger, keyboardist, and lead vocalist, Kooper wanted a title that would express the bracing quality of the disc's R&B-style rock and roll.

The album's title may in fact fit Kooper's idea of a cup of java as he's old enough to remember when black coffee arrived lukewarm and didn't carry much of a kick. Appreciating these textural qualities requires an adjusted sense of priorities. The same can be said of Kooper's latest effort. The record's best features involve subtle nuances of formula, with the old school master using tried and true methods to put a song across. The results are predictable, but Kooper and his band, the Funky Faculty, make listening an enjoyable experience.

Two of the five songs Kooper covers best reveal the overall sound he's trying to capture: Smokey Robinson's Motown classic "Get Ready" (made famous by the Temptations and Rare Earth) and Booker T and the MGs' soul instrumental masterpiece "Green Onions". Kooper's version of "Get Ready" splits the difference between the Temptations' sweet pop and Rare Earth's more mannered effort. Kooper keeps the hooks, speeds up the tempo and emphasizes the bluesy nature of the material. "Green Onions" closely resembles Booker T's version, and the performance comes off as homage (as if saying the original recording cannot be improved upon).

The strangest moment on the disc occurs during Kooper and the band's live rendition of self-penned "Comin' Back in a Cadillac", recorded in Norway during 2001. Kooper instructs the Norwegians on how to put their hands together in rhythm, and then he gives the crowd an A+. Grading seems an appropriate activity as Kooper and his group all teach at the Berklee College of Music (hence the band's name). "Comin' Back in a Cadillac" does have its musical roots in gospel so Kooper's invocation of a church service does make sense.

Kooper's voice bears the signs of age; his growl masks his limited vocal range, and his expressiveness and phrasing take precedence over hitting the high or low notes. He's not always successful or on key, (the nightclub stylings of "Just for a Thrill" don't work as Kooper does not have the chops to sing the deeply emotional lyrics). Kooper's voice sounds better on the more straight-forward blues efforts, such as "How My Gonna Get Over You". As he gets in a groove and stays on track, Kooper pays more attention to the silences and lets the words fill the spaces like a horn in a jazz combo.

"But now I feel like most people just ignore me / I got one foot in the gutter and another one in the ground", Kooper croons smartly on the Memphis Soul of his and Dan Penn's co-written tune "Going, Going, Gone". Although the song was written when Kooper was many years younger, the lyrics have more meaning now that the singer has aged. He knows that he and his contemporaries are relics of the past, and in some ways are playing out the streak. Even though his peak has passed, what does Kooper want to do? Well, the evidence here suggests that he still wants to rock.

Not a bad effort from an old cat.

5

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image