Solomon Burke Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum/Epitaph) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Once you get past the initial shock of the regal Reverend Solomon Burke making a comeback bid with the Fat Possum label -- the gutbucket blues subsidiary of the Epitaph punk operation -- the choice of singer/songwriter Joe Henry as producer is another startling surprise.It's quite possible that the North Carolina-raised Henry has a couple of R&B records in his collection, maybe even a few of Burke's churchy classics like Cry To Me and Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, but the sensitive strummer isn't really the first person who comes to mind when you're thinking of deep soul.
He certainly doesn't head the list of appropriate producers for the reigning King of Rock 'n' Soul. Henry wouldn't even crack the top 200. But what's even more shocking than the choice of Henry is that it actually works.
Don't Give Up On Me is a powerful return to form for Burke, with the instrumental backing stripped to bare essentials to show off the many facets of his captivating voice.
Henry wisely takes a hands-off approach, leaving Burke in control to testify with pulpit-tested passion while the rhythm section hangs on his every breath.
"When Andy Kaulkin, who runs the label, told me he was getting Joe Henry to produce the album," recalls Burke from his Los Angeles office, "I said, "Great! Who's Joe Henry?' Heh heh. So Andy suggested that before I decided about working with him we should meet for breakfast, which was a good idea, because I'm a food man.
"As we were sitting together at this wonderful deli, I was thinking, "Hmm, just another L.A. dude with Hollywood hair and a leather jacket.' Then he ordered: scrambled eggs with cheese, hash browns and sauteed onions and fried pork chops with gravy. That's my kind of producer! I said, "Son, you're in!'
Burke left the song selection up to Kaulkin, since it was the label boss's idea to solicit material from Burke's famous fans, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, who each came up with tunes they thought were right for Burke.
The first time Burke saw any lyrics was in Hollywood's Sunset Sound Factory with the band plugged in and the clock ticking. Four days later, the album was done.
"One by one, each new song would come to the studio -- just like a gift. I'd look over the lyrics and sing it with the band, and we'd go on to the next one. This was the real deal, just like back in the day where you stand in front of a microphone facing the band and say, "OK, fellas, follow me. Here we go.' All the parts were left to the discretion of the players. If there was a second or third take, it was only because someone missed a change."
It may not be immediately apparent, but the spontaneity of the recording process is largely responsible for the intimate appeal of Don't Give Up On Me. Even when Burke gets the urge to sermonize, it still sounds more like pillow talk than preaching.
Really, the only instance where the magic fails is The Judgement, Elvis Costello's belaboured attempt to bring closure to the tale of destructive love Burke outlined in The Price.
Apparently, when Costello heard that there was some difficulty navigating the song's quirky changes, he made a special appearance at the studio to sing a quick guide vocal.
"This guy came into the room where we were recording, just a regular-looking guy, and I said, "Does anyone have a credit card? I think the pizza's here.' He introduced himself with that fabulous English accent of his: "Hello, I'm Elvis Costello.'
"Once he started singing The Judgement, I could suddenly hear where the tympani should come in, the cello, the viola, the trumpets, French horns -- it all made perfect sense."
True enough, the Judgement sounds more like something out of an opera than a typical soul ballad, but such distinctions don't matter to Burke. "Soul music isn't about the song," he explains. "It's the part of yourself that you bring to the music that makes it soulful." email@example.com