There was a delightful bit of one-take candor preserved on Solomon Burke's previous release, 2006's NASHVILLE. After a blistering gallop through Bruce Springsteen's "Ain't Got You," Burke, marveling at the locked-in ferocity of the band's attack, and sounding amused and exhilarated and a little out of breath, barely waited for the playout to die down before exclaiming, "Y'all done went hog crazy here! What in the heck is goin' on in this place here? Has y'all got religion?!" Prolonged and raucous laughter could be heard from musicians and engineers as the smoke cleared, and Gillian Welch, who presumably had just arrived to contribute guitar and harmony vocal on her song "Valley of Tears" (the take of which immediately followed), joked, "Don't hang me out there, man!"
On the recorded evidence, it seems unlikely that any such surprises or outbursts took place at the sessions for LIKE A FIRE. This tepid follow-up to NASHVILLE is the shortest (39 minutes), the least energized, and by some margin the weakest of the four albums Burke has made since his gratifying rediscovery with 2002's acclaimed DON'T GIVE UP ON ME. The opening track/title song, penned by Eric Clapton, sets an all-too-representative pace and tone with its vague lyric, meandering midtempo music, and studiously mellow sound. Producer Steve Jordan gives slight songs such as "Ain't That Something" and "You And Me" a tasteful, gently cushioned R&B bounce (prominent organ over subdued bass and percussion) that calls to mind Al Green's lesser work. Nothing here is difficult to listen to, and almost nothing is easy to remember afterward.
The two left turns also fail to score solidly. Keb' Mo and Alan Dennis Rich contribute "We Don't Need It," a sentimental story-song about a father who dreads breaking the news to his family that he has lost his job, and then is surprised and touched by their loyal and self-sacrificing reactions (the wife suggests selling Grandma's china and silverware in a yard sale). Although this apparently was written with Burke in mind, the sextugenarian soulman seems strange casting for a domestic heartwarmer (40 years ago, George Jones might have have sold it). Speaking of miscasting: although the closing track, "If I Give My Heart To You" (previously associated with Nat 'King' Cole and Doris Day), has been singled out in some of the early reviews as the album's keeper, it hits my ear as more of a curio -- it has no logical relationship to anything that has preceded it, and the tinkly arrangement veers uncomfortably close to lounge kitsch.
In a weak field, one strains to find highlights. The foursquare ballad "Understanding" (the bridge of which Burke bawls out beautifully; this is not the Bob Seger song of the same name, by the way) and a second Clapton submission, a gentle singsong titled "Thank You" (on which Burke gets a rare co-writing credit), have a modest, nose-on-your-face charm. Ben Harper's "A Minute To Rest And A Second To Pray" is the toughest and most impassioned track; it comes closest of anything in this dainty, genteel lineup to vintage Solomon. The singer himself is in fine fettle throughout, and the sincere and engaging performances of a distinctive American voice caught in great autumnal shape are the album's major positive. But we have seen and heard too recently that, with stronger material, he can do more. Nothing here compares with the charge of hearing him put his stamp on Tom Waits's oddball anthem "Diamond In Your Mind," and challenge himself with the peculiar intervals and allusive wordplay of Elvis Costello's "The Judgement." No performance here is as biting and sardonic as "Honey Where's The Money Gone," as ripsnortingly loony as "Seems Like You're Gonna Take Me Back," as probing and thoughtful as "The Other Side Of The Coin," as exquisitely sensual as "Don't Give Up On Me," as forceful in its sheer conviction as "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul," as heartbreakingly vulnerable as "Up To The Mountain" or "'Til I Get It Right."
Burke and his collaborators deserve credit for refusing to define and hew to a particular formula, giving each new album a feel and sound different from those of its precedessors, but the title of this fatally bland collection proves unfortunately ironic. Despite the best efforts of this most incendiary of performers, the music simply never ignites.