Monday, April 19, 2021

Steve Cropper - Fire It Up

“I remember yesterday like it’s right in front of me,” goes a line in the track ‘Two Wrongs’.  Which sums up Steve Cropper’s new solo album Fire It Up rather well, as its effortless retro sound makes it feel like we’ve gone back to the future with a soulful mid-Sixties Memphis vibe.
The best songs on Fire It Up sound just like the kind of hits that poured out of Stax, Ardent and Royal Studios way back when – grooving R’n’B that wrote itself into the DNA of American popular music.  Take ‘One Good Turn’ for example – a great blend of horns, guitar, organ and
Genial soul wizard Steve Cropper
Pic by Michael Wilson
piano around a hooky melody that hints at melancholy, with a neat, relaxed guitar solo from Cropper.  It sounds like just the kind of tune from which Springsteen must have drawn ingredients for soul-pop excursions like ‘Hungry Heart’.
Or there’s ‘Far Away’, an infectious, strolling groove that also features a social commentary lyric that one of the more interesting pieces of wordsmithing on the album, to go with some more nifty guitar breaks from Cropper, a man generally known more as a rhythm guitarist, songwriter and producer than as a fully fledged axeman.  Not that his soloing ever sails off over the horizon here – with thirteen tracks adding up to a total of 39 minutes, Fire It Up is never an exercise in self-indulgence.  (Well, there are notionally 13 tracks – I’ll get back to that.)
‘Heartbreak Street’ and ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ are standouts.  There’s that positive feeling of déjà vu about the former, in the sense of a comforting familiarity like putting on a favourite pair of old slippers, and it benefits from a strong chorus that introduces a neat change of direction.  And ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ is another pleasing tune, with probably the most energy and brio on the whole album, with wit in the lyric, backed up by a classic horn riff and another vibrant guitar break.
There are a couple of problems though.  One of them is singer Roger C. Reale.  Yes, he sings with authentic soulful grit, and communicates all the melodies with ease.  But for me he doesn’t offer enough personality to bring distinctiveness to some of the songs.  And they need that personality, because over the piece too many tracks feel samey.  ‘Fire It Up’ itself, for example, is bright and jaunty over a lazily shuffling rhythm, but never quite achieves lift-off.  ‘I’m Not Havin’ It’ is more driven, with a pumping groove and something of a strut to it, but it doesn’t really develop enough.  And the same is true of ‘She’s So Fine’, a bit of bouncing R’n’B with a twinkling guitar motif that’s given a push and a shove from the drums, but really needed a stronger bridge to give it a lift, rather as a key change in the middle eight helps to perk up the slower, more reflective ‘Two Wrongs’.  ‘Out Of Love’ is better though, in spite of some perfunctory lyrics, with a laid back groove. a cool, pinging guitar solo, and further assorted licks to match, while all the while it swings like a Sultan.
The album closes with the instrumental ‘Bush Hog’, engagingly built on a rolling, revolving guitar line and staccato horns, with a descending turnaround that feels naggingly familiar.  It’s enjoyable – but I can’t help wondering what the two snippets ‘Bush Hog Part 1’ and ‘Bush Hog Part 2’ add to the equation, the first opening the album and the second preceding ‘Bush Hog’ itself.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s never a bad moment on Fire It Up.  It just feels like it could have done with a bit more wildness thrown into the mix.  A bit more fire in the belly, in fact.

Fire It Up is released by Provogue Records on 23 April.

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