Though crowned King of Rock 'n' Soul by a discerning Baltimore DJ in 1964, Solomon Burke lacked major crossover hits--a fact that has forced him to rule over a diffuse shadow kingdom of vintage soul mavens. The vocal and emotional range Burke displayed on his influential early-Sixties sides remains in evidence on Don't Give Up on Me, on which Burke performs mostly new songs by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and other heavyweight oldsters. With its sparsely produced, rock-star-spawned songs performed by a sexagenarian genre architect, the album brings to mind Johnny Cash's American Recordings. Like Cash's 1994 comeback, Don't Give Up should delight loyalists like a well-turned postscript while giving the curious a nice primer.
Recorded live under the tasteful guidance of producer Joe Henry, the album has a roomy sound that evokes prototypical soul without getting mired in nostalgia: It avoids ersatz-Stax/Volt horn charts and other facile trappings in favor of restrained, Hammond-organ-led support. Burke's deft, affecting singing is allowed to dominate the album. He lends yearning gravity to Henry's "Flesh and Blood" and Dan Penn's title track, and winking levity to Waits's playful "Diamond in Your Mind" and Dylan's 12-bar "Stepchild." The album peaks with "None of Us Are Free," a Bible- and Sixties-based anthem already tapped by Ray Charles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Spurred by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Burke silences cynics (with their "hippie platitudes") and stakes a grammatical stand ("none of us is free") with evangelistic passion.
Classic soul, as Burke helped define it, is most typified by its secularization of gospel's probing pathos and infectious ebullience. Don't Give Up on Me consistently nails the pathos but suffers a bit from an ebullience deficiency. Henry, whose own work leans toward the moody and midtempo, subdues Burke's screaming, sure-footed way with fast songs. A sample of the rock component of Burke's rock 'n' soul--perhaps in place of Costello's overwrought "The Judgment"--would have provided a more rounded picture of Burke's talent. But even if somewhat restricted by the album's leisurely pace, Burke's interpretive skill and inspired vocal improvisations ably argue for the continuance of his quiet reign.
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