Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Robert Palmer Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Power Station (1984, Capitol)

A

Actually, I’m cheating a little bit; this isn’t technically a Robert Palmer album per se, but it’s hard not to include this one in this feature because it’s the album that put Palmer back on the musical map after years of dwindling chart success and every decent Palmer hits compilation out there includes at least one, if not several, cuts from this album. This self-titled supergroup outing – produced by Bernard Edwards from the disco/funk group Chic – features Palmer collaborating over the course of an entire album with Andy and John Taylor from the band Duran Duran and Tony Thompson, the criminally underrated drummer for Chic. (This full lineup would only perform a single live date together to promote the album, a memorable appearance on SNL.) The whole disc is a joy to listen to, but three cuts in particular stand out: the Top 40 hit “Communication,” the Top Ten hit (and still a radio staple to this day) “Some Like It Hot”, and the group’s fun, fractured new-wave reworking of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” also a Top Ten hit, and one sporting a fairly addictive opening, stuttering drum solo from Thompson.

Riptide (1986, Island)

A –

This album was the one that truly turned Palmer into a mega-star and made him ubiquitous on MTV for the remainder of the decade, and while it is a much stronger disc than his last solo outing (Pride), it’s also not quite as good as his run of albums from 1975’s Sneakin’ Sally through 1980’s Clues, and it’s mildly overrated for that reason. Where this album pales in comparison to that initial six-year run of albums is that Palmer largely downplays his love of R&B/soul here, focusing primarily on arena rock. Sometimes it works (as on the fun and very underrated Top 40 cut “Hyperactive” or the Number One hit “Addicted to Love”), and sometimes it doesn’t (“Discipline of Love”), and Palmer continues to be more consistent when it comes to his more R&B-and-soul flavored excursions, like on his cover of Earl King's “Trick Bag” or his deliciously skittering remake of Cherrelle’s Jam-and-Lewis-penned R&B hit “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” The latter sounds like a really bizarre choice of covers on paper, but somehow, Palmer makes the song all his own, and it proves to be the album’s most irresistible cut.

Heavy Nova (1988, EMI-Manhattan)

A

Some might call this album unbelievably schizophrenic, but that’s a large part of what makes it so incredibly fun. Palmer tries on even more styles than usual here – but, as always, to generally successful results – and he sounds like he’s having an absolute ball here. For those who like Palmer’s arena-rock side, you’ve got the Number Two smash “Simply Irresistible.” If you prefer his R&B/funk outings, there’s a first-rate, Top 40-charting cover of the Gap Band's dancefloor-filling “Early in the Morning.” If you like Palmer, the smooth, silky crooner, there’s the lovely multi-layered ballad “She Makes My Day,” which boasts one of the prettiest melodies he’s ever written. If you like his even more left-field ventures, you’ve got the Indian-flavored “Casting a Spell” and the incredibly playful “Change His Ways,” which unexpectedly features a yodeling solo from Palmer.

Don’t Explain (1990, EMI)

A –  

The songs are just a tad less catchy this time out and the production is rather dated, but, gosh, does Palmer still know how to make a fun album! Just like Heavy Nova, Palmer is all over the place here stylistically and almost seems like he’s on a mission to prove there’s no genre he can’t tackle with winning results – and there probably isn’t! For fans of arena-rockers like “Simply Irresistible,” you’ve got the gritty guitar crunch of cuts like the Top 40 hit “You’re Amazing,” “You Can’t Get Enough of a Good Thing,” “Your Mother Should Have Told You,” and “Light Years.” For people who prefer lighter pop, there’s the fittingly-titled “Happiness.” Like Palmer’s reggae excursions? Check out his surprisingly good reworking of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with reggae legends UB40 assisting him. Like his more soulful side? You’ll want to hear Palmer’s very clever (and Top 40-charting) medley of the Marvin Gaye classics “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “I Want You.” Like standards? He covers “You’re My Thrill,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain.” Palmer’s always the most fun when he catches you completely off-guard, though, and the best surprise here is the full-blown merengue excursion of “Housework,” a smile-inducing tribute to the joys of house-cleaning.

Ridin’ High (1992, EMI)

B –

Perhaps it was inevitable, but Palmer takes a sidestep here from his pop career to make a full-blown covers disc of standards. It was a somewhat dubious move professionally for a man coming out of the best commercial streak of his life, and his career never really covered. (Palmer’s run of Top 40 hits would sadly end after Don’t Explain.) The good news, though, is that this is still a lot better than other albums of its ilk, which just helps prove how wildly versatile the man was. Palmer also mixes in a couple of originals here – “Want You More” being the best in the bunch – but they all sound right at home amongst the other classy and jazzy fare here. It’s not really an essential purchase – nor is it one of his easier albums to find these days – but it makes for surprisingly excellent late-night listening.

Honey (1994, EMI)

B

Having got the somewhat self-indulgent but surprisingly good standards project Ridin’ High out of his system, Palmer returned to his pop career with Honey, which unfortunately stiffed commercially. Palmer always seemed to take delight in surprising people, and he pulls that off again by recruiting, of all people, Nuno Bettencourt from the funk-metal band Extreme to play guitar on the more rock-oriented songs here, an experiment that works better than you think it would. “You Blow Me Away,” in particular, is one of the most devastatingly pretty ballads Palmer’s ever penned and starts off quite softly, but it takes an unexpected turn a minute into the song into arena-rock territory, adding muscular drums and crunchy guitar to the mix and a rather unbridled guitar solo; it sounds like a bad idea on paper and is a bit jarring upon first listen, but after another listen or two, it’s hard to imagine the song any other way! The cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want” is a little too rock-oriented and guitar-heavy to be as good as you would think it would be (particularly if you’ve heard his new-wave album Clues), but there are other cuts here that more than make up for it, especially the twitchy “Nobody But You” and the intricate but gorgeous “Know By Now,” which is arguably the prettiest single Palmer ever made.

Living in Fear (1996, Guardian)

C –

In theory, a Power Station reunion was a cool idea. Unfortunately, this album really doesn’t sound anything like the Power Station’s first album. It’s nearly the same configuration of players – though Chic’s Bernard Edwards has taken the place of John Taylor, who had to drop out, while Edwards himself passed away before the album was released – but they’ve largely abandoned the pop and funk influences that figured so heavily into their debut and just made an arena-rock album with lots of distorted guitar. This might not matter so much if the songs were still strong, but there’s nothing here quite as alluring or as catchy as “Some Like It Hot.” The band fares better here when it delves into more R&B/funk-flavored territory, as they do to great results on the fun “Fancy That” and “Life Forces.”  

Rhythm & Blues (1999, Pyramid)

D  

Palmer’s last outing of the Nineties is unfortunately also his weakest solo album by far. It’s also not nearly as R&B or soul-tinged as you would expect it to be from its title, though there is a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” that unfortunately pales wildly next to Palmer’s medley of “Mercy Mercy Me” and “I Want You” that appeared on Don’t Explain. There are also inexplicably re-recordings here of Pressure Drop’s “Work to Make It Work” and Pride’s “Dance for Me” that seem both unnecessary and wildly out of place. Palmer’s originals here are actually fairly good – “True Love” really had the potential to be a knockout – but the production of the disc is mind-blowingly bad, trying to recast Palmer in a more distinctly ‘90s-flavored R&B/hip-hop setting and consequently being heavily reliant on programmed drums. Palmer is a great soul singer, but to cast him in a setting that is anything but organic makes for a really jarring juxtaposition, and it makes the songs difficult to listen to. The album’s lone saving grace is its closer, a wonderful cover of the Lowell George-penned “Twenty Million Things,” which refreshingly is recorded in more organic fashion than the rest of the disc.

Drive (2003, Compendia)

B –

Sadly the last album Palmer would record before he passed away, Drive is thankfully also a fine note for him to have gone out on, and it’s also, fittingly enough for a man who loved to flirt with different styles, another stylistic excursion, this time a largely blues-oriented affair. It doesn’t quite have the same appeal as his pop albums, but it’s still an awfully fun disc and it’s clear Palmer is enjoying himself here. There’s sadly only one original cut here, but it’s a great one (“Lucky”) and easily one of the best songs on the disc. (Palmer was always quite underrated as a songwriter.) The covers vary a bit in quality, but they’re generally well-done, and Palmer fares better with the more obscure material, “Am I Wrong?,” “Stella,” and “Dr. Zhivago’s Train” being especially fun.

Compilations:
Most of Palmer’s hits packages unfortunately consist of some truly, truly terrible remixes that attempt to update the drum tracks from the original versions, only to suck all the warmth and life out of the songs. Go instead to the excellent 2005 package The Very Best of the Island Years. Because of the disc’s limited scope, it doesn’t include any studio cuts from 1988 or beyond, which means that “Simply Irresistible” is presented only in the form of a live recording and such excellent overlooked later-era singles as “Know By Now” and “She Makes My Day” aren’t present, but as a summation of Palmer’s first twelve years as a solo artist, it’s fantastic, rounding up all the hits and incorporating such underrated sides as “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming,” “Jealous,” “Sweet Lies,” and “Some Guys Have All the Luck”; best of all, all the songs are presented in their original versions.