|Steve Winwood - Nine Lives|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by K L Poore|
|Tuesday, 01 July 2008|
After getting beyond the almost unforgivable cliché title I was happily surprised to find some really good songs and a lot of good music on this nine-cut CD. Nine Lives. Nine tracks. It sounds like some dork record company exec came up with that beauty and wouldn’t let go.
I really loved Traffic, I think Blind Faith was much better than history gives it credit for, and “Gimme Some Lovin’” is classic rock at its finest. But Steve Winwood’s solo efforts have always been hit and miss with me, mostly the latter. Nine Lives continues that run, although I’ve got to say that I like it much more than his big sellers, Back in the High Life and Roll With It, which I found to be slick and (incredibly enough) somewhat soulless.
At its best Nine Lives evokes memories of Traffic, such as on the standout cut “Secrets.” Latin rhythms. Propulsive bass. A flute solo. This cut would easily fit into The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. His voice is in fine shape, organ licks tasty, and you find yourself wishing the 6:41 length was more like 16:41.
But there are many low points on Nine Lives and they seem to dip even lower each time the saxophone enters the picture. “Fly,” the second cut, comes right out of the gate sounding like smooth jazz and even Winwood’s singing can’t save it. Couple the ‘80s “CFM” arrangement with a lyrical cliché or two, “I give it all to you, you give it all to me,” and “I gave my word to you, you gave your word to me,” and you have a song that sidetracks all the momentum built by the opener “I’m Not Drowing,” which is a compelling acoustic number held together entirely by the majesty of Winwood’s singing.
There’s been a lot made of Eric Clapton’s participation on “Dirty City,” which is another of the songs that sounds Traffic-y/Blind Faith-ful. It’s moody, swampy, and has a harder edge than anything Winwood has put out in years, but Clapton’s contribution is wildly over-rated and almost seems an afterthought. His playing is fiery to be sure, but sounds as if it’s a one take overdub on the outro and doesn’t really add anything to the song other than the buzz associated with their “reunion.”
I don’t want to give the impression that Nine Lives is a bad album because it isn’t, and it’s miles and miles better than most of what’s being force-fed to us by the highly homogenized music industry. On “We’re All Looking” Winwood sings “We’re all looking, sometimes we’re blind” and infuses it with way more meaning than it probably deserves. As I was listening to him sing this throwaway line from one of the middling songs on the CD I reflected on the horror I’d witnessed the night before in the shape of Madonna & Justin’s “4 Minutes” video (henceforth known as “The Screeching Death of M&J”).
I learned two things: One, Steve Winwood could burp up more music than is on display in TSDoM&J and two, said horror is the first scientifically verifiable sign that humankind is devolving at an extremely high rate. With repeated listens, dolphins will surpass us in intelligence by mid-August and we’ll all be without opposable thumbs within eight months. This will have a deleterious affect upon talented and gifted musicians, such as Winwood, but will the leave participants of “4 Minutes” unharmed as their phalanges will remain rooted firmly up their asses.
I really wish that I was more than lukewarm on Nine Lives, because at its best it is everything I love about music. Soulful, rhythmic and intelligent. As its worst it sounds like music made to sell, which I guess is the point of the music “business,” but I’ve always believed that making music that happens to sell and trying to make music that sells are on opposite ends of the music spectrum. Trying too hard (going for the gold) rarely achieves anything creative and eventually you lose listeners in droves because they don’t hear the things in your music that they loved. By mixing in stunning musical interludes reminiscent of Traffic with others that sound like the big money music of the ‘80s, Winwood has pulled them all onto the same creative level, which I think does a disservice to his talent and genius.
I really have no idea what it would be like to be as musically talented as Steve Winwood. Whether he’s playing organ or guitar or singing with that incredible voice that hasn’t changed much since we first heard him ask for some lovin’ at 16, he seems to get better as the years go by and you can’t help but be awed by the sheer talent. I also have no real clue as to what it will take for him to harness that talent and assemble a release that is as musically ageless as Revolver, Music from Big Pink or Nevermind. I still believe he has that record in him, and it may eventually happen but I’m just not sure he can make it by himself. His voice can hold any song together, but not an entire CD.
I purchased the CD version of Nine Lives because it was actually less expensive for me than the download (that doesn’t happen often). It is wonderfully produced, recorded and mixed, although at times it takes on the worst aspect of many modern recordings, a highly assembled sound. After spending a few days debating the subject with my friends I’ve reached the conclusion that I’d really like to hear more “set up in the studio and play” recordings. The perfection is getting irritating and I’ll take “Yer Blues” over cut and paste any time.
The low end on Nine Lives is just that, low, and it sounds as if Winwood played it all with his left hand on a Hammond organ. The mids are crisp but the high end seems to lose something everywhere but in my car. I imagine that someone out there could explain why and I’ll be happy to listen to any theories. His vocals are amazingly warm and there aren’t many people who can double track themselves better than Steve. He deserves a lot of credit for a sterling production, and is there anything musically that he can’t do better than most? This final line was written on his 60th birthday so, “Happy Birthday Steve, many more!”