Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Robert Palmer 1974-2003

Palmer was a consummate English soul crooner with a smooth voice and an attitude to match. His career can be divided in three rough "periods": his early Caribbean-influenced work, his harder-rocking eighties work, and his later dilly-dally about period, where anything could happen, some of it darn good.

His 1974 debut, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, was a fair record overall, but some of the material didn't live up to the rest. Still, the medley of Sailing Shoes, Hey Julia, and Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley is worth the price of admission. Backed by members of the Meters and Little Feat's Lowell George, it's a fine start.

1975's Pressure Drop is as good a make-out record as you'll find anywhere, and a whole lot more. Palmer's blend of Reggae, other Caribbean styles, as well as the soul of New Orleans and Memphis, provides a humid mix of rhythm and rock steady that Marvin Gaye would have been proud of. Give Me A Inch, Back In My Arms, and Here With You Tonight provide the romance, while Trouble, Fine Time, and Which Of Us Is The Fool explore the dangers of the heart. His early masterstroke, and not to be missed. It might even be the only one you need if you only need one.

Following the same formula with almost as much success, Some People Can Do What They Like 1976 contained the classic One Last Look, a romantic plea for one last chance, as well as Man Smart, Woman Smarter, an excellent and hilarious Island-flavored track. The title cut began to rock a little harder, and foretold of his future success.

Double Fun 1978 was another fabulous blend of rock, reggae and soul that finally found Palmer an audience. Several songs carried a positive message, including the top-twenty single Every Kind Of People, and the record climbed higher up the charts than the first three. Best Of Both Worlds, Night People (an Allen Toussiant classic), You Overwhelm Me, and the seductive hard rocker You're Gonna Get What's Coming are all excellent.

Too Good To Be True, with it's reggae backbeat and In Walks Love Again with another Caribbean/African rhythm, are highlights from 1979's Secrets. Possibly rivaling Pressure Drop in the consistently good material department, Secrets' Mean Old World, What's It Take and the romantic trance of Remember To Remember are all excellent. Covers of Moon Martyn's Bad Case Of Loving You and Todd Rundgren's Can We Still Be Friends climbed the charts, and Palmer was on a roll.

In 1980 Clues was something of a departure, and the record took on a more electronic "eighties" sound. The record has it high and low points, but Looking For Clues, and especially Johnny And Mary are highlights. The African polyrhythms of Woke Up Laughing make it a killer song, and the lyric is excellent, both funny and strange.

Maybe It's Live 1982 was respectable product, but the live tracks don't better the studio versions, and the studio cuts are fairly weak compared to his better work. A good version of Some Guys Have All The Luck (later ruined by Rod Stewart) is the only highlight.

1983's Pride was a mixed bag, but the strong songs are well worth the ride. You Are In My System, Pride, Kool And The Gang's You Can Have It (Take My Heart) and What Are You Waiting For, were all excellent. The record sounds very much like a precursor to what is about to explode the charts. It should have done better, but it was a weird time, 1983.

1985 saw the first Power Station record, 331/3. Some Like It Hot was a huge smash hit, and a cover of T Rex's Bang A Gong made the charts. Lonely Tonight and The Isley Brothers Harvest For The World are also excellent. Who would have thought that Robert Palmer fronting a band made from members of Duran Duran and Chic would work? It did work, but it didn't last.

Power Station members also assisted Palmer with Riptide 1985, and helped it become one of his biggest sellers. Of course it contains Addicted To Love, made famous by the great video with the fashion models playing the "band" behind Palmer. The record is one of his best, and deserves the honor of his highest chart position, both for the album (#8) and the single (#1). Hyperactive, Trick Bag, and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On were all good, and Discipline Of Love had the heavy sound of Power Station in spades.

Looking to continue the success of Power Station and Riptide, 1988's Heavy Nova just didn't have quite the strength of material to match Riptide. Simply Irresistible was a smash, and it's a good use of the Some Like It Hot/Addicted To Love formula of big guitars and crunching, pounding drums. Tellingly, the best cuts are furthest from this sound. The tricky rhythms and intricate structure of Changes His Ways and She Makes My Day stand out from the crowd.

In 1988 Palmer also wrote and sang the theme song for the movie Sweet Lies, and the track is included on the Addictions Volume 1 1989 compilation. One of the many reasons to own the Addictions CDs. In fact the two Addictions Volume 1 and Volume 2 1992 are a pretty good way to hear much of his best material. There's too little of the early records, but what can you do? Several of the remixed/rerecorded versions included on these compilations improve on the originals.

And so we come to the ninties. Things get a little odd at this point, and Palmer explores a number of different sounds, from jazzy crooner to soul man, all the while throwing in some of his harder rock and pop styles and anything else he can think of. 1990's Don't Explain is a perfect example, as it is all over the stylistic map. His cover of Dreams To Remember is great, all slow motion soul and aching heart. History is another of his African rhythmic excursions, and it's good. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, with UB40, is nicely reggae-fied Dylan, and Palmer is in fine voice. Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You has Palmer playing Marvin Gaye, as he will do to wonderful effect in 1999. Mose Allison's Top 40 gets a killer treatment. So that's jazz, reggae, soul, and African-infused pop, all in one place. More of a buffet than a record, but many of the cuts are strong.

1992's Ridin' High is Palmer's "jazz" album, with most of the songs coming from the great American songbook. It's good, but it doesn't really stand up to his better work, and while he can certainly sing these songs, the arrangements are not quite what you might get from a great jazz arranger. Aeroplane and Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me are excellent, and there's plenty of good songs.

Honey 1994 feels like a return to Heavy Nova, but the record can't quite get the old feeling back. Honey B, Know By Now, Honeymmon, and the mid-chart hit of You Blow Me Away are all killer, but the record also has it's weaker spots, especially Wham Bam Boogie, a lame attempt at the Power Station formula.

1996 brought the return of Power Station for Living In Fear. A dense record that's not easy to get into, it's a weak point in Palmer's career. Scared is a rocker with a cool hook for a chorus, and a cover of Taxman knocks the heavy-hitting Power Station sounds out of the park, almost. Definitely not on the buyer's guide list.

In 1999, when almost no one thought Palmer had much left to say, he released Rhythm & Blues. A remarkable record, both because it sounds different from everything he's done, and yet it also seems to encapsulate everything he's done. True Love is a classic dance romance, and No Problem is pure Marvin Gaye whispering and moaning in your ear. Of course so is Let's Get It On 99, and if anybody can cover Gaye, Robert Palmer's the man. Stone Cold continues the loverman theme, and Palmer really takes to this material. Similar to the slow grind romance of Pressure Drop and Some People Can Do What They Like updated with synths and the big drum sounds of hip-hop, the record is very strong this late in his career. The record closes with Lowell George's Twenty Million Things, a return to one of the important influences on his very first record, and a great song.

Live At The Apollo 2001 was a good recording of a hot band at the end of a tour, and it smokes. I saw Palmer live several times, and he was always very good. I don't know quite why his live recordings don't work that well, but this is as good as you'll hear him live. There is a really good version of Riptide among all the usual suspects.

Shortly before his untimely death from heart attack at age 54, Drive 2003 was released. A mostly blues record, it is an interesting twist for Palmer. Although this music is not as well-suited to Palmer's singing, he gives it his soul, and most of it works pretty well. The most different record he ever made. Why Get Up? is fun, and Palmer turns in a scorching I Need Your Love So Bad.

One of my long time favorites, and a heck of a career. And on most of his last twenty years of records, you get Donny Wynn, Palmer's longtime drummer extraordinaire, and one of the reasons his records and live shows were so hot.

Best single records:
Pressure Drop, Secrets, Riptide, Rhythm & Blues, and Addictions Volumes 1 and 2.
Hardest to like:
Ridin' High, Honey
Don't bother:
Maybe It's Live, Living In Fear

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