by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Human (2001, Warner Bros.)
If not for the closing three cuts, Human would without a doubt be the worst album Rod ever made. When We Were the New Boys had just given him his first Top 40 hit in years and fairly decent reviews, so you might expect Rod might try to do something similar for the follow-up. Instead, Rod has bizarrely and inexplicably decided to delve into the world of contemporary R&B and hip-hop, and it’s the most embarrassing experiment of his career. He dabbles in distinctly-Destiny’s Child-like beats on “Loveless” and the dreadful, “Say My Name”-mimicking title cut, which might be the single-worst song of his career and one that not even a guitar solo from Slash can manage to salvage. The lite reggae of “If I Had You,” featuring an unusually distortion-laden guitar solo from Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, the Macy Gray-written “Smitten,” and the Helicopter Girl duet “Don’t Come Around Here” fare no better, while Rod also veers dangerously close to rap territory during the breakdown of “Charlie Parker Loves Me.” Lest he completely alienate his existing fan base, though, Rod thankfully abandons the R&B/hip-hop makeover entirely after the first eight songs, switching over to more standard adult-contemporary-pop fare for the final three tracks, which are all quite appealing. “To Be with You” is a fine cover of the Mavericks tune of the same name, and “Run Back into Your Arms” is the kind of soul-pop that Rod does so well. Best of all, though, is the closer “I Can’t Deny It,” one of the most criminally overlooked singles of Rod’s entire career. The piano-driven rock song, written by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander (who also produces the track) with his “You Get What You Give” co-writer Rick Nowels and also featuring his bandmate Danielle Brisebois on backing vocals, is nearly the equal of any New Radicals song and is an absolute must-hear for fans of that band; Rod has seldom ever sounded quite as cool in the latter part of his career as he does on the track.
It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (2002, J)
Most critics recoiled in horror at the mere existence of this all-standards affair, but if you really stop and think about it, it’s a more logical career move than it might initially seem on paper. For starters, Rod’s days on Top 40 radio were sadly long past him at this point, so he had little to lose by experimenting with making a standards album. Secondly, Rod – dating all the way back to Tonight I’m Yours – had borrowed many a move, musical or otherwise, from his pal Robert Palmer, who had taken advantage of his own waning fame in the ‘90s to indulge himself and transition – rather smoothly, at that (hey, he always dressed like the Michael Bublé type, even when he was still making arena-rock) – into the occasional singer of standards on discs like Don’t Explain and Ridin’ High. Lastly, Rod’s audience had become increasingly female-oriented over time, and Rod’s sex-symbol status among those female fans had never really waned, either, and there are few roles quite as seductive as that of the stylish, suave jazz crooner, so what better way to play up your heartthrob appeal? Sure, it’s a bit calculating, but Rod’s always been a little calculating, even dating back to the Mercury years, so why did this surprise anyone? To be fair to Rod, if you can approach this disc with an open mind, this is actually a slightly more appealing standards album from a pop/rock artist than most – still self-indulgent and very much inessential, of course, but Rod’s ever-distinctive voice gives this disc more personality than your average standards disc, and his renditions of such classics as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “You Go to My Head,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “The Nearness of You,” and, best of all, “These Foolish Things” are actually quite lovely. Unfortunately, the album sold so well for Rod and his new label that Rod and J Records founder/president Clive Davis would proceed to milk the idea to death over the next several years.
As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Vol. II (2003, J)
A significant drop-off in quality from It Had to Be You, Rod’s second installment in his Great American Songbook series has its moderately appealing moments (“Time After Time,” “Crazy She Calls Me,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” “I’m in the Mood for Love”), but even the best tracks don’t quite have the same magic that highlights from It Had to Be You like “These Foolish Things” or “You Go to My Head” had, and the album also suffers a great deal from a handful of dubious inclusions, namely a weak cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and, much more problematically, a pair of duets that both stick out in a really bad way: a rendering of the Casablanca classic “As Time Goes By” with Queen Latifah – really! – and, on a somewhat campy note, a cover of “Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered” performed as a duet with Cher. [For a much more satisfying - and amusing - version from Rod of "As Time Goes By," check out his concert DVD One Night Only: Live at Royal Albert Hall, in which he performs the song with Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde. The hilarious false start alone makes the DVD worth purchasing.]
Stardust: The Great American Songbook, Vol. III (2004, J)
If Rod and Clive David hadn’t got quite so greedy and milked the Great American Songbook brand for all it was worth, they might have come up with a fairly solid sequel to It Had to Be You by taking just the best cuts from the As Time Goes By sessions and combining them with those from this third installation, as there are some relatively appealing moments here, namely “Embraceable You,” “Stardust,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “Blue Moon” (featuring Eric Clapton on guitar), and, best of all, a cover of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” a song usually associated with Louis Armstrong that actually suits Rod surprisingly well. But the bad stuff here is really, really bad, so much so that it ends up overshadowing the better material. Like As Time Goes By, the duets are the most problematic, and renditions of “Manhattan” with Bette Midler and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Dolly Parton make the album feel much more campy than Rod probably intended, and not even a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo can redeem a cover of “What a Wonderful World,” a song that just sounds all wrong being sung by anyone other than Louis Armstrong, frankly. Even worse than the duets are renditions of “I Can’t Get Started” and “But Not for Me” bearing lyrics that have ill-advisedly been rewritten to include references to Tina Turner, Hilary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey; would it really have been so terrible to leave the original lyrics alone, outdated though some of the references may have been? This isn’t just the worst album in the Great American Songbook series; this is arguably the most cringe-inducing album Rod ever made, period.
Thanks for the Memory: The Great American Songbook, Vol. IV (2005, J)
It’s not quite as embarrassing as Stardust, but Rod has evidently learned nothing from the past two albums and not only does this album include more duets than any of the previous three installations, it even opens with one, Rod teaming up with Diana Ross for a rendition of “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” It’s an odd match, and Chaka Khan makes a much more fitting foil for Rod, but Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is a tad too contemporary a song to seem as if it really fits in here, and the song doesn’t work nearly as effectively as a duet as it does a solo performance. But the most embarrassing duet of all here – and one that really should have been left on the cutting-room floor – is a rendition of, of all songs, “Makin’ Whoopee,” done with – I kid you not – Elton John. There are other special guests on this album, including jazz instrumentalists George Benson, Roy Hargrove, and Dave Koz, but they’re not nearly as obtrusive and their cameos are low-key enough to blend in a bit more smoothly. It’s not entirely without its moments – “My One and Only Love” and “Nevertheless” being the most appealing – but, overall, the disc is just barely better than its predecessor, and you can’t help but feel that Rod has milked the franchise for at least two discs too many at this point. And he wasn’t even done, either.
Still the Same … Great Rock Classics of Our Time (2006, J)
A far more natural and sensible idea on paper than the Great American Songbook series, this covers disc finds Rod abandoning standards in favor of remakes of well-known rock tunes, mostly from the ‘70s. The sequencing is rather weird – not in the least since the disc closes with Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” an odd song to end any disc with, never mind a disc with so many much more suitable candidates – and not everything here works, Rod’s renditions of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You,” Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” all being fairly disappointing. But his covers of Eagles’ “The Best of My Love,” John Waite’s “Missing You,” Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” are all quite suitable for him indeed and sound exactly like you hope they would sound in Rod’s hands. The most ingenious cover of all here, though, is Rod’s version of the equally-raspy-voiced Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” which doesn’t sound all that much different from the original, but therein lies its brilliance: Tyler’s original was mistaken by so many listeners for a Rod Stewart record that there’s perhaps no other song from the ‘70s (except possibly the criminally-underrated and heavily-Rod-influenced Kiss song "Hard Luck Woman") that it made more sense for Rod to have covered than that one, and he doesn’t disappoint at all on the cut. Like the Songbook albums, this isn’t essential by any means, but it is, however, one of his most fun and enjoyable all-covers affairs. It’s only the overt familiarity of the songs he’s chosen here that prevents this from quite rising to the level of When We Were the New Boys, which benefitted from at least sounding like an album of originals to those not familiar with the relatively-obscure source material.