by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Soulbook (2009, J)
Rod’s sixth consecutive covers album finds him focusing exclusively on songs from R&B artists. It’s an idea that makes more sense than The Great American Songbook series but not nearly as much as that of Still the Same …; not that Rod is without his R&B influences – namely Sam Cooke – but he’s more of a rock singer than a soul singer, and he’s never sounded quite at home covering the likes of Marvin Gaye or the Four Tops as he does covering Dylan or Tom Waits or Cat Stevens. The disc ends up falling short of being as entertaining as its predecessor for two primary reasons: we really didn’t need another version of any of these already-much-too-ubiquitous songs (i.e the O’Jays “Love Train,” the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears,” the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” etc.) and the special guests (including Smokey Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and Stevie Wonder) seem entirely unnecessary and feel like little more than a marketing ploy to help sell the album. Rod does a fairly good job on many of these tunes (especially on Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”), but whereas Still the Same … had a slight air of integrity and inspiration about it, this disc just feels too much like product for the sake of product to have the same appeal.
Fly Me to the Moon: The Great American Songbook, Vol. V (2010, J)
Just when you thought he was done with the Great American Songbook franchise, Rod returns for one more installation. Rod never actually embarrasses himself here as he did on Stardust or Thanks for the Memory, so there are no particularly cringe-inducing tracks (it helps considerably that Rod avoids duets entirely here, the duets having plagued the last several installations in this franchise), and Rod also sounds more at ease here as a vocalist than he has on nearly any of the other discs in the Great American Songbook series. But Rod makes one crucial mistake here that prevents this disc from having quite the same appeal as It Had to Be You had: most of the standards here, aside from being quite ubiquitous, are also largely identified with one particular legend, such as “Beyond the Sea,” which will forever be linked to the great, late Bobby Darin. Rod even goes so far as to fill a significant portion of the disc with songs associated first and foremost with Frank Sinatra, such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Fly Me to the Moon” – all good songs, of course, but ones that no modern-day vocalist can arguably ever top Sinatra’s renditions of, so the move ends up feeling rather self-indulgent at least, if not narcissistic. There are highlights – “That Old Black Magic” is a charming opener and “September in the Rain” as silky-smooth as can be, while Rod’s rendition of “My Foolish Heart” is arguably the most appealing ballad in the Songbook series since the first volume – but it’s a real shame, especially how much Rod has improved as a standards singer over the course of the franchise, that the track selection is just so unimaginative and relies so heavily on well-known songs that are likely to remind you of – if not have you reaching for – more famous, superior versions.
Time (2013, Capitol)
Leaving Clive Davis and J Records behind for a new home at the legendary Capitol Records, Rod also – finally – sheds himself of the Great American Songbook franchise and is back to doing original material again for the first time since he was with Warner Brothers. [In fact, there’s only one cover on the entire album, a remake of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame.”] “Can’t Stop Me Now” is pretty terrible, and the disc nearly derails entirely towards the end due to the back-to-back misfires of “Sexual Religion” and “Make Love to Me Tonight,” but otherwise this is a surprisingly decent set of material. The Stones-like “Finest Woman” is great fun, the opener “She Makes Me Happy” and the heavily orchestral closer “Pure Love” are both solid, the title cut has a first-rate hook, and “Live the Life” will remind you of his earliest and most critically-beloved work. There’s nothing quite as deliriously fun here as Human’s “I Can’t Deny It,” but as a whole, this is Rod’s most solid album from start to finish since When We Were the New Boys, even if it’s not nearly as great as that disc.
Another Country (2015, Capitol)
No better but no worse than Time, Another Country largely repeats the formula of its predecessor. Like Time, it has its misfires – the shameless “Love Is” tries way too hard to capitalize on the new folk boom ushered in by acts like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, and “Batman, Superman, Spiderman” is so sappy, it’s cringe-inducing – but it also has its redeeming songs, namely the wildly catchy “Walking in the Sunshine” (easily the most memorable melody here) and the driving rock of “Please,” though the ballads “Way Back Home” and “A Friend for Life” (the latter a Steve Harley cover and the only cover song on the entire album) are fairly good as well. Unfortunately, Rod has diverted two of the better cuts from these sessions to the deluxe edition of the album, and the fun “Every Rock’n’Roll Song to Me” and the horn-laden “One Night with You” would have made much stronger substitutes for some of the weaker songs on the standard edition. [For some unbeknownst reason, the deluxe edition of the disc also includes the Python Lee Jackson single “In a Broken Dream,” featuring Rod on vocals, which dates back to 1972. Go figure. The inclusion of the cut here makes absolutely no sense at all.]
For listeners exclusively or primarily interested in Rod’s early work, you have a couple rock-solid options. The double-disc vinyl packages The Best of Rod Stewart (1976, Mercury) and The Best of Rod Stewart, Vol. 2 (1976, Mercury) – both available as single-disc CD reissues – compile nearly all the best material from his years with Mercury, but if you buy one package, you really need the other as well, as the second volume includes quite a few essentials that the first volume skipped over, like “Reason to Believe,” “Mandolin Wind,” “True Blue” and “Lost Paraguayos.” Better yet, buy the tremendously-well-done triple-disc CD package Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings, which includes his first five albums in their entirety, along with some great stray non-LP cuts (“Oh! No Not My Baby,” “Jodie,” a remake of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard”) and several fine previously unreleased tunes. Make a point of avoiding Downtown Train: Selections from the Storyteller Anthology (a poorly-compiled single-disc distillation of the Storyteller boxed set), which is much, much too brief and excludes far too many major hits but tries to lure you in by offering the new cuts (both Top Ten hits) “Downtown Train” (a Tom Waits cover) and a newly-rerecorded remake of the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine.” Rod’s Warner Brothers-era material is best anthologized on 2008’s The Definitive Rod Stewart. It’s not a perfect package – it would have been more appealing had non-hits like “Two Shades of Blue” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)” been replaced with actual Top 40 hits – and much underrated ones, at that – like “Ain’t Love a Bitch” or “Ooh La La,” which are both sadly missed here. [“What Am I Gonna Do (I’m So in Love with You),” “Lost in You,” “Crazy About Her,” “Having a Party,” and “Broken Arrow” are all missing in action here as well, while the #1 hit – and all-star duet with Bryan Adams and Sting – “All for Love” is also missing, likely due to licensing issues.] But The Definitive Rod Stewart does compensate for some of the absent hits by including four Mercury-era sides (“Reason to Believe” and “Handbags and Gladrags” also pop up as ‘90s-era live recordings) and, surprisingly enough, the Faces’ “Stay with Me,” and it’s quite delightful to have so many of his Warner Brothers-era hits – especially such delights as “Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me),” “The Motown Song,” and “Have I Told You Lately” – all on the same package at long last. Say what you will about Rod as an albums artist in his post-Mercury years, but this compilation proves that, at the very least, Rod remained a top-drawer singles artist.
Oddly enough, neither Rod nor the Faces have ever issued much in the way of live albums, and what has been released is mostly terrible, and Rod’s 1982 live disc Absolutely Live is one to especially avoid. Rod’s best live album by far is 1993’s Unplugged … and Seated, taped for an episode of MTV Unplugged and prominently featuring old Faces bandmate Ron Wood on guitar. It’s heavy on material from his first four albums, including such non-singles as “Handbags and Gladrags,” “Mandolin Wind,” “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and, surprisingly but pleasantly enough, “Cut Across Shorty.” [The 2009 reissue of the disc adds “Gasoline Alley” to the mix.] There are also some unexpected inclusions, like the Faces’ “Stay with Me” and a cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” a song that Jeff Beck had a minor hit with in the mid-‘80s with Rod back behind the microphone again. But Unplugged … and Seated is most notable for giving Rod three sizable radio hits: a live rendition of Every Picture Tells a Story’s “Reason to Believe,” a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party,” and most memorably of all, a stripped-down cover of Van Morrison’s devastatingly gorgeous ballad “Have I Told You Lately” that bests the studio version Rod had recorded for Vagabond Heart.
If you’re a diehard Rod fan up for a particularly tough but fun challenge, try seeking out a reasonably-priced copy of Rhino’s 2010 archival disc Once in a Blue Moon: The Lost Album. Creatively released – at the time for $19.99, though even used copies typically trade for well into three figures these days – in a long-box package just like the kind Rod's earliest CD releases were packaged in back in the '80s and early '90s, the disc is an officially-sanctioned belated issue of an album that Rod had recorded in 1992 and had intended to be the official follow-up to Vagabond Heart but was allegedly shelved at the last minute in favor of the live disc Unplugged … and Seated to capitalize on the MTV Unplugged craze. If true, from a business standpoint, it was certainly the right call; Unplugged … and Seated arrived at just the right time and moved like hotcakes, whereas Once in a Blue Moon might have been a harder sell if the sales and radio airplay performance of A Spanner in the Works are any indication. Whether or not Once in a Blue Moon is actually worth the price tag really depends on your budget, but the all-covers disc is nearly every bit as good as Vagabond Heart and is arguably a more appealing affair than A Spanner in the Works. (Rod would actually end up revisiting three of the songs here for the latter album, including his delightful covers of Chris Rea’s “Windy Town” and the Blue Nile’s “Downtown Lights,” both of which sound more at home here than they do on Spanner.) Rod’s in fine form vocally, the arrangements are creative, and the material is well-chosen. [Actually, many listeners may not even realize it’s an all-covers disc at first since Stewart incorporates so many relatively obscure songs; the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” should be familiar to most ears, but the other songs here – including the Contours’ “First I Look at the Purse,” Tom Waits’ “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” The Call’s “Let the Day Begin” and the Bob Dylan B-side “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” – are left-field enough to not even be identifiable as covers to the casual music fan.]
There are also plenty of delightful sides from Rod that have never surfaced on a studio LP. A fun cover of the Beatles’ “Get Back” can be found on the soundtrack to All This and World War II, while the soundtrack to The Three Musketeers contains a Number One hit duet with Bryan Adams and Sting, “All for Love,” that rarely ever pops up on American hits packages for Rod (though you can find it on the 1996 compilation If We Fall in Love Tonight). Rod’s also recorded covers of Elton John’s “Your Song” and Carole King’s “So Far Away” that garnered a fair amount of adult-contemporary radio airplay and can be found, respectively, on the tribute albums Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin and Tapestry Revisited: A Tribute to Carole King. The third album from the sadly-long-forgotten Canadian rock band Glass Tiger, Simple Mission, boasts a fun duet with Rod called “My Town” that was a U.K. Top 40 hit that went completely unnoticed on American shores. The underrated soundtrack to the 1982 film Night Shift (which also boasts songs from Marshall Crenshaw, Al Jarreau, Talk Talk, The Pointer Sisters, Quarterflash, and Chaka Khan and Rufus) also boasts the Rod-sung, Burt Bacharach-penned ballad “That’s What Friends Are For,” which Dionne Warwick would cover years later as a duet with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Gladys Knight and take all the way to Number One. (Bet you didn’t know that Rod was actually the first one to do that song!)
Of course, Rod fans are also urged to check out his two albums as lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group, Truth and Beck-Ola (the former is the better of the two), as well as the Faces albums First Step (the weakest of their four studio albums together but still quite good), Long Player (which boasts a killer cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”), A Nod Is as Good as a Wink … to a Blind Horse (their most famous album and the disc where you can the band’s lone U.S. Top 40 hit, “Stay with Me”), and Ooh La La (the disc sporting “Cindy Incidentally” and the much-beloved title cut later immortalized on the big screen in the film Rushmore). Do yourself a favor and skip the Faces live disc Coast to Coast: Overtures and Beginners, which isn’t anywhere near as good as you would expect it to be and has understandably been more or less disowned by the band.