On October 26th, Rod Stewart will drive another stake into the hearts of long-suffering true believers. After an album of rock covers, Still the Same, and his gazillion-selling Great American Songbook series, he will now make us feel like suckers all over again by singing "My Cherie Amour" together with Stevie Wonder, among other atrocities, on his not-so-great American Soulbook. Ugh. After three decades of dreadful music -- music that has lined his pockets with enough money to slurp cognac, collect Ferraris, and bang models from Beverly Hills to San Tropez for the rest of his existence -- when will it end?
First things first: a quick defense. Rod Stewart, whose rock lineage goes back to the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces, had the greatest voice of all the British Invasion frontmen. And it's OK to be sympathetic to the motivation behind a lot of his dodgy career moves, because back in the late-1960s when Stewart worked up his country-fried-soul sound on sides like "What Made Milwaukee Famous," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "It's All Over Now," and his brilliant Stones cover, "Street Fighting Man," it was still no sure thing he would make it. The era is strewn with great talents who didn't quite get there. Check out Terry Reid for a taste of one particularly interesting case -- such was Reid's stature at one stage that he was the original choice as vocalist for Led Zeppelin and is clearly the guy Robert Plant was emulating. And yet Reid never made it. A lesson perhaps not lost on young Rod Stewart, who bounced through a lot of bands early in his career.
And sure, we now consider the Faces a seminal Brit rock act, but they weren't doing that well, either. (It's no surprise Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood bolted for the Stones when he had the chance.) So once Stewart managed to harness his pipes to something able to generate cash, he can hardly be faulted for continuing to look for hits -- even if, as he strayed into disco and '80s balladry, they came at the expense of his rock legacy. To make three nearly perfect rock albums is a rare accomplishment, and Stewart deserves more credit for pulling it off with Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story and Never A Dull Moment.
But here's where the frustration comes in for Rod Stewart apologists. Unlike, say, Mick Jagger, who has been gutting it out since the mid-1970s, Rod can still sing. So for those of us who still hold a special spot in our record collections for his near-perfect trio of early-1970s albums, every dashed glimmer of hope that he will abandon his by-the-numbers, account-manager-friendly moves and make some music we can get behind (or at least listen to) continues to make us grind our teeth. Take his maddeningly up and down Still the Same rock covers: why include "Missing You," a 1980s ballad likely to remind Faces fans of what in their eyes went wrong with Stewart's career? Why, why, why?
Rod is wrapping up a summer and fall tour here, capitalizing on a year of releases -- reissues of Atlantic Crossing, A Night On The Town, and the Storyteller box set, a deluxe edition of his MTV Unplugged performance, a rarities collection issued last month called The Rod Stewart Sessions -- all culminating with the drop of Soulbook. On stage as on record, it's difficult to know what to make of him. He is a consummate showman, but largely without pretensions. Unlike Roger Daltrey or Jagger, Stewart clearly isn't bothered trying to be cool. He isn't pretending to be young, doesn't wear dandyish clothes and makes light of the few foul-ups he makes. He performs, takes a "wee refreshment" now and then, grabs a Glasgow Celtic scarf from a fan and waves it in homage to his favorite soccer club. And when he reaches for older material, like "Maggie May" or "The First Cut Is The Deepest," he kills.
You could conclude that Rod Stewart just does not give a fuck. And, really, what could be more rock and roll than that? There is perhaps one thing: taking a chance. OK, Rod wants to record covers because -- as he himself explains it in interviews -- older artists can't get traction with originals anymore. Fine. Make an album of loose rootsy rock covers drawn from the hipster canon arranged like Every Picture Tells A Story -- with acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, pedal steel and organ -- produced by Joe Henry or somebody else able to keep it simple, and recorded with sloppy spontaneity instead of the slick studio sheen of the past three decades. For Christ's sake, man, throw us believers a bone, would ya?
There's reason for hope right now. The goopy, overproduced Soulbook notwithstanding, Stewart's production instincts seem to be getting marginally better. After all, he almost recorded it in Brooklyn with house players from Daptone, only to be thwarted by a break-in at their studio. There's also reason to believe he might be open to some left field tunes. For one thing there's his 1998 Britpop covers album When We Were the New Boys (though the song choice on that was a bit crap); the Sessions box that came out in September also revealed Rod taking a tilt at the Oasis b-side "Rockin' Chair."
So, with an eye towards rehabilitating his standing among those who lionize his early work, below are some proposals for potential tracks. Please help save Rod Stewart and donate a favorite song of yours today.
Mike Ness's solo arrangement of Social Distortion's "Ball and Chain"
The Waterboys, "Fisherman's Blues"
The Soundtrack of Our Lives, "Nevermore"
Cerys Matthews, "Chardonnay"
Ocean Colour Scene, "The Day We Caught the Train"
They recorded an acoustic version of this song that would be the right model for a Stewart version--get loaded with Keith Richards and a bunch of punters and do a single-take sing-a-long.
The Kooks version of Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks"
Bring in Nina Persson from the Cardigans to sing the female part.
The Levellers, "One Way"
Watson Twins version of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven"
Mando Diao, "Song For Aberdeen"
Sultans of Ping, "2 Pints of Rasa"
Ballboy, "All The Records on the Radio Are Shite"
The Replacements, "Skyway"
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