Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum ’02) Rating: A-
Despite being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Solomon Burke (warning: here comes one of many quotes from the album's liner notes), who "embodies deep soul," remains a "mystifyingly under-appreciated figure." Producer Joe Henry and an awesome roster of songwriters (Dan Penn, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Nick Lowe, among others) mean to rectify that wrong on Don't Give Up On Me, which was recorded live in the studio over a mere four days. Most of these songs were written especially for Burke for this project, and Burke makes the most of his opportunity. "Just listening to Burke deliver a lyric is mesmerizing," as his vocals, "power undiminished, are nothing less than a force of nature." Recalling Ray Charles and Van Morrison (among others), Burke always sounds soulful, even when taking on a songwriter as vanilla white as Brian Wilson. Sure, not every song is a bulls eye, but there's not a track here that's not worth listening to, and when Burke connects the results are astounding. For example, the pleading Penn co-written title track can rival almost any Atlantic/Stax ballad from the late sixties, while the Joe Henry penned "Flesh And Blood," a phenomenal tour de force from Burke with a spooky late night vibe, is another instant classic, or at least it should be considered as such. The album consists mostly of ballads, and the musical support is sympathetic without ever being intrusive (Burke is clearly the star of every song, as well he should be). Plus, I'm a sucker for church organ sounds and gospel backing vocals, both of which appear here, while The Blind Boys of Alabama join Burke on "None Of Us Are Free," another standout song. Recorded the day after the Blind Boys' received a Grammy Award, Henry says the following about the session (even the liner notes are first rate): "the song lurched into a groove, and Solomon began to sing in a voice that was barely above a whisper. The Blind Boys fell in behind him like someone had dropped the needle on a record left ready and spinning in 1957. Afterward, I don't remember either Solomon or the Blind Boys discussing whether or not this was a "take." Everyone simply...departed, leaving the band, the engineer, and me." I love that anecdote - this guy's the real deal.
Make Do With What You Got (Fat Possum ’05) Rating: B
This somewhat disappointing follow up to Solomon Burke's excellent comeback album, Don't Give Up On Me, lacks the moody late night vibe of that album, largely because producer Don Was was as poor a choice to produce this album as John Henry had been perfect for the previous one. Was' predictably slick, glossy touch is ill-suited for these songs, a fact that's immediately apparent on "I Need Your Love In My Life," a bombastic album opener that rocks unconvincingly, or at least generically. Bob Dylan's "What Good Am I?" is far more fitting, but overall the song selection, encompassing all covers except for Burke's own sentimental ballad "After All These Years," is less inspired as well. This is best exemplified by "It Makes No Difference"; though Burke's version is good, Rick Danko and The Bandown this song, and its inclusion here therefore seems unnecessary. Fortunately, Burke is still in fine voice, and the album has some impressive songs, particularly "Let Somebody Love Me," originally done by David Ruffin but given a devastatingly emotional performance by Burke here. His version of Van Morrison's "At The Crossroads" (who he most reminds me of vocally - that's a major compliment as Van's one of my favorite singers) sees him in bluesy preacher mode, and his renditions of The Rolling Stones' "I Got The Blues" and Hank Williams' "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul" are also well done, as the album on the whole works best in its mellower moments. Unfortunately, songs such as "Fading Footsteps" and the Dr. John penned title track come and go rather unremarkably, despite the best efforts of a highly professional backing band (I do like the horns and guitar on the latter, with Ray Parker Jr. of "Ghostbusters" fame - or is it infamy? - leading the way on guitar). Anyway, there's some good stuff here, but both the songs and certainly the song settings could've been better. It's not all Was' fault, as there are still soulful keyboards, sharp Stax-like horns, and gospel backing vocals aplenty, but the spark, the magic that makes for great records (like Don't Give Up On Me) is largely absent, though Burke is such a terrific singer that Make Do With What You Got is still worth hearing.
Nashville (Shout! Factory ’06) Rating: A-
Solomon Burke isn't a songwriter, so the success of his albums often has much to do with who his collaborators are. Of course, he's such a pro, and he sings so well, that even poor pairings such as last year's Make Do With What You Got still wind up being worth hearing even though it was somewhat disappointing. Working with a more sympathetic producer in Buddy Miller, fine musicians such as Brady Blade, Byron House, Al Perkins, Garry Tallent, Mickey Raphael, David Rawlings, Sam Bush, and Phil Madeira, and duet partners such as Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, Nashville sees Burke's resurgent career hitting another impressive peak. The album was recorded in Nashville but unsurprisingly is not an outright country album; though fiddles, pedal steel guitars, and weepy strings do show up, Nashville isn't any more of a country album than a soul album, as the 66-year-old “King of Rock ‘n Soul” wears the “King of Country Soul” crown equally well. As per usual, he's particularly effective on ballads such as "That's How I Got to Memphis," "Atta Way to Go," "Millionaire," "Vicious Circle," and "'Til I Get It Right," but there are more up-tempo numbers as well to balance out the set. There are a few efforts that strike me as being a bit generic (at 14 songs perhaps there are a couple too many), but by and large these are striking renditions of songs from accomplished songwriters such as Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Gillian Welch, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Although Burke didn't write these songs, as per any great song interpreter it certainly sounds like he lived them, as his deep, pain wracked growl both dominates and breathes new life into even the most familiar tracks here. In contrast to the moody late night vibe of Don't Give Up On Me, the warm, spacious sound of Nashville seems tailor made for a front porch chill out session on a sunny day. Both are excellent additions to his Hall Of Fame career, as Burke continues to produce major work when most (if not all) of his contemporaries have long ceased to matter.