on 26 August 2006
Jerry Lee Lewis
The Last Man Standing
Album Review: August 25th 2006
Last man standing is a more than appropriate title, for more than one reason; As the album publicity machine boasts, Jerry Lee Lewis is indeed the last man standing from the group of legends who graced the famous Sun Studios in Memphis, when Sam Phillips was going through talent like Elvis was going though girlfriends. The title of the album could also have been a challenge, set out to the loyal fans of The Killer, as if to ask which of them would still be standing when this album was finally released. Well the fans are still standing, and now the time is here to take a first look at the highly anticipated album, from Jerry Lee Lewis, his first since Young Blood in 1995.
Produced by Jimmy Rip and Steve Bingg, without a question this is an album produced by fans, for the fans. That just doesn't go for the producers; it goes for each and every one of the artists gracing the 21 tracks. Rip has been quoted as saying that the phone calls he made to the guest artists were some of the easiest he ever had to make. People were simply queuing up to get in on the action.
Whilst Jimmy Rip's persuasive powers might have been in 5th gear for this production, his ability to actually get the album onto disc, and in production, has barely stuttered into 1st gear. There have been more reasons given for the delay of this album, than there are tracks, and at 21 that's quite a feat. Firstly Jerry was in the midst of an unnameable split with his 6th wife, so financial reasons were regularly sited as the show stopper for the release. Once that was done and dusted we were told that the release would tie in with Jerry's lifetime achievement Grammy award, or perhaps his 70th birthday. At one point the fans were even murmuring that perhaps a studio was waiting for Jerry to sit at the piano in the sky and gain a free publicity drive. Whilst upon hearing the album, it cannot really be argued that any of the above have affected the release, it is a shame that we are not listening to an album with brand new recordings. Some of the material is now 4 years old and some of the guests probably forgot they even recorded for it. Comparisons are always going to be made between this album, and Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company', the irony being that `Last Man Standing' was an idea actually conceived before the Charles outing. Whilst Genius might have the edge in terms of notable guest appearances, the Lewis album can say in all honesty that each and every one of the performers is a fan, and has been influenced by the Louisiana Fireball's boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, styling. The album has gone through more than a few transitions already, with 3 name changes under its belt, most will agree that `Last Man Standing' says it all.
The overall sound of `LMS' is very much that it has been produced by someone who likes guitar. That isn't a criticism, that would depend on whether you like guitar or not. But more importantly, it's been produced by people who have ensured the dynamics of every tracks leaves Jerry Lee Lewis' voice, and more importantly his piano, at the forefront of every performance. Those who have witnessed a live Lewis performance anytime in the past 5 years will testify that these recordings are vocally very strong, and far superior to anything the ailing rocker has managed to portray from the stage in a very long time. There was a time when Jerry Lee's stage shows quite simply were `The Greatest Show On Earth', which simply couldn't be captured onto acetate. But now the body isn't really willing, and the mind doesn't really seem enthralled with the prospect of gigging, so what a joy to hear that these tracks have been laid down , at a time when many feel its time for Jerry to hang up his rock & roll shoes. Indeed if this album is anything to go by, I'd be included to agree that he should hang up his shoes, get back into the studio, and spend his time working on more quality productions like this. Its true his voice isn't as strong, but like many great performers, he is learning to use that to his advantage. At moments on this album, you almost feel that his timing of the lyrics, is based around the strength of his next breath. It's a much more thoughtful performance than we have witnessed in the past, but whilst conserving his energy for the important solos; his vocals are steady, strong, clear and hard hitting.
A criticism could be cited that for a duets album, there really isn't a great deal of interaction vocally between the star and his guests. One exception would probably be the most unlikely, as Jerry trades blows with Kid Rock, on a rocking version of Honky Tonk Woman. Kid Rock clearly must be a fan, and seems to know Jerrys music very well. Those outside of the USA will probably be unaware of Kid Rock's work, and in truth he probably wont appeal to very many Jerry Lee fans, but there can be no doubt that he has been slotted into this album nicely, and their duet sounds and feels as though it was a lot of fun to make. Despite what people may have thought about this pairing before hearing the album, I think this is one of the highlights.
Much of this album is `fun', and not dictated to by Jerry's somewhat colourful life. Whilst there are moments of reflection with That Kind Of Fool, Lost Highway or The Pilgrim, there are some very fun performances, and a revisited oldie `Sweet Little 16' provides Ring Starr with a not too demanding vocal section in the final track to be recorded, and allows Jerry to let loose a little with a very familiar Chuck Berry number. It must have been tempting to have Ringo Starr duet on Saw Her Standing There, but the correct decision was made and Little Richard does the Beatles number proud. Richard is a very dominant performer, and by hook or by crook, he doesn't dominate this track.... Its probably that the musical directors had him in a different room to the microphone, but either way, the Killer comes out on top of this particular Rock & Roll fisticuff.
Pink Cadillac, was one of the first songs to be recorded and Bruce Springsteen has already stated that it's his favourite cover version anyone has done of one of his songs. Quite a tribute from a much covered artist.
As with many of the tracks, Trouble In Mind is a performance which instantly oozes of Jerry Lee, from the very first second his hands touch the ivories. It's an instantly recognisable performance, as is the Eric Clapton guitar solo. It is a shame however that we do not hear the Clapton voice, as this much covered standard really doesn't get much zest added to it, in what sounds like a running through the motions kind of performance.
Rod Stewart is a performer you either love or hate, or from the way Jerry Lee introduces him at the start of `What Made Milwalkie Famous', a performer you have never heard of. Jerry declares that he will sing the song for `Rod...Stewart, which is all well and good until Rod decides to join in. This is a classic JLL track, and shouldn't have been used for a duet. One of the few low points of this album.
Hadacol Boogie was the first song JLL performed professionally, and it has had numerous live outings over the years, but this studio version has a steady beat, and subtle accompaniment by Buddy Guy, this track has the kind of beat which will leave all lovers of this album gagging for a follow up.
Evening Gown with Mick Jagger has a very intimate feeling about it. Sure, Jerry's voice sounds quite aged, but in a red wine kind of way. Jerry jokes with an unidentified female who enters the studio, jibing with her that she sneaked in this far, but if she sits at the piano he's leaving. The songs has some great lines, which could really have been written for Jerry, with Mick Jagger pronouncing lines like "people say you're a drinker', but what really comes across on this track is that Jerry seemed to be having a good time in the studio. `Evening Gown' is the foundation of the album, and once it was recorded the right people were simply willing to pay whatever it took to get this album made. Thank goodness they did.
Neil Young makes a very bluesy appearance on `You Don't Have To Go', something Jerry would probably describe as a Gut Bucket Blues song, provides a real feel of improvisation, and spontaneity. The mid section is either the result of some very clever editing from Jimmy Rip and co. or a moment of genius from the player, as the Lewis machine seems to totally separate from the rhythmic harmonies of the vocals and guitars, as he pounces down the keys in an almost Art Tatum style, and then eases his way back up with a typical Lewis style crescendo and a standard blues lick. Someone very special is driving this train.
Jerry is obviously very much at home with a couple of honky tonk numbers, in `Just Bumming Around' and `Don't Be Ashamed Of Your Age', the latter with George Jones. Both are very believable lyrically, and the sense of the atmosphere in the studio comes across strongly. The cutting room floor has decided to include some comments to and from Jerry at the start and end of most tracks, which gives the whole thing a greater sense of realism, in a day and age when duets are recorded thousands of miles apart, and piano solos are usually produced by a computer.
`Twilight' teams Jerry with Robbie Robertson on guitar, providing a perfect backdrop for a poetic song, whilst still providing room for the piano to set the tone. Vocally this comes across as the strongest track, and for once Jerry Lee hardy sounds like a man into his 71st year. Lyrically quite a demanding song is handled with great aplomb.
A more traditionally rocker style song with enough momentum to kick the album back into Rock & Roll gear is Travelin' Band Featuring John Fogerty. As with quite a few of the tracks this is a little too short, at just 2:03, leaving some people to question which of the songs could be released as singles. There surely cant be a better contender than the cover of Led Zeppelin's `Rock & Roll'. "It's been a long time since I rocked & rolled" are lyrics which might seem befitting to this singer, but throughout this album its quite obvious that whilst he might not have released an album for 11 years, he certainly hasn't stopped playing rock & roll.
The Killer covers one of his own tracks in `Before The Night Is Over', with BB King providing guitar backup. It would perhaps have been nice to hear some vocal sparring between these two giants, but there is a certain satisfaction from hearing the two stylists ply there instruments side by side. These two performers have incredible influence, and no doubt there is a mutual respect. Perhaps if the BB King portion had been recorded in a studio rather than on the road, it would have felt more like one performance than two performances put together.
This album is a big surprise, a really big, but good surprise. I'd have to agree with Ring Starr, that there's nothing wrong with old Killer's lungs. Given the wives, the drugs, the drink, the rehab, the serious health problems, the scandals... oh and the music, this album is a statement, its saying "keep it coming, and I'll keep throwing it back", for a guy that should have been dead at least 20 years ago we can only marvel that we have these tracks. Lets hope his next album isn't as long in coming as this one was, and lets hope the same people are around to help it get made.