Monday, November 22, 2010

The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett Opened My February Artist Of The Month Exploration!

The Good: Good vocals, Some very cool sound (even now)
The Bad: Becomes instrumentally droll upon multiple listens, Short
The Basics: Instrumentally rich, vocally diverse and lyrically all over the board (but focused on desire), The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett opened my exploration of Wilson Pickett’s music!

[Because my blog is still pretty new and I’m moving things over from the review site I used to write for to here, it is worth noting that when I get back to actual reviewing, I make a real effort to alternate the musical artists I review and frequently, I celebrate Black History Month by picking an artist who was influential in r&b, soul or even rap. February 2010 was my Wilson Pickett month and this was my first review from then! Enjoy!]

I come from a family filled with people with post-graduate degrees. My parents have Masters degrees (yes, plural!) and I’m pretty sure my father pulled of his Doctorate in Divinity, so I’m something of a black sheep in the family as I just have my Bachelor’s in English. But whenever the topic comes up about why I do not pursue anything beyond, I am quite happy to defend my lifestyle choice with the following two facts: 1. I don’t need any more certifications to do what I am most passionate about (writing novels) and 2. I never stop learning, so it’s not like my lack of further degrees is an indicator of stagnation. With that second concept, I gladly introduce my February Artist Of The Month: Wilson Pickett.

Wilson Pickett is a musical artist who I thought I only knew a single song from before I picked up The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett. I had seen a music video from the 1960s for the song “In The Midnight Hour” and I was astonished by it. In addition to having a very cool sound and feel to the song, the music video upset my public school education with the idea that at the height of the Civil Rights movement, during race riots, protests and jailing, there would be a music video which featured a black performer singing and dancing with an ethnically mixed group of women. The music video I saw had Pickett dancing at a campfire with women of all colors and the notion that ethnic inequality was so embedded in the American society in the 1950s and 60s is pretty much turned on its head by such video evidence! As it turns out, I actually had heard the song “Land Of 1000 Dances” on an episode of Once And Again where one of the fathers tries to show his daughter he’s cool with her black boyfriend by singing and dancing to the song. Either way, my de-ignorancing of the works of Wilson Pickett has begun with my immersion into his albums, starting with the Rhino release The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett.

With sixteen songs taking up 49:02 on a single c.d., The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett might be the best of the singer and songwriter, but his career has surprisingly little to show for it. Pickett is credited with co-writing seven of the songs. He provides the lead vocals on each and every track, but does not play any musical instruments. He is also not involved in the production of the album or the songs on it.

Wilson Pickett, as I am learning, is a classic Rhythm & Blues singer-songwriter. His responsibilities seem to be almost equally split between writing and performing his own works and performing the works which the studio handed to him or he selected. For those unfamiliar with classic R&B, the sound is what became funk in the 1970s and laid the bedrocks for hip-hop and rap. If rock and roll is primarily characterized by the guitar (or piano), bass and drums and Country is characterized more by pedal steel, banjo, and fiddles, then classic R&B would be the style of music dominated by brass (primarily trumpets and saxophone), guitar and percussion (not just drums). Wilson Pickett brings these very rhythm-oriented songs to life with robust vocals backed by trumpets, electric guitars and heavy beats.

The percussion element is one that surprised me coming into The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett. Songs like “Engine Number 9” include guitar riffs and maracas that keep beat and make the song very danceable. The use of the guitar and bass to help keep time is something pop-rock seldom does, at least anymore. As well, songs like “She’s Looking Good” use bass to help keep time more than to create a harmony and that lends a strong sense of movement to a song that has very little in the way of melody. Accents with the trumpet are also quite common in the songs on The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett and this might be the jazz influence on the genre, but it sounds funky, surprisingly fresh and always energetic.

Vocally, Wilson Pickett is a vocalist who has a pretty extraordinary vocal range. He oscillates from baritone to tenor in “Hey Jude,” with his voice getting a little raspier in the lower ranges. But when he is in the tenor range, he has a smooth, sexy sound which is perfectly melodic. Songs like “I’m In Love” remain enduring romantic songs because his vocals have a sensual and fluid quality to them which is exceptional. Even so, some of his longer notes, like at the climax of “Hey Jude” collapse into little more than shrieking, which makes it a little harder to listen to over and over again. When Pickett begins shouting over his boisterous instrumental accompaniment he sounds unfortunately noisy. Fortunately, the balance of the songs are more like “In The Midnight Hour” where he is crystal clear with his lines, funky with his delivery and has a cool sound. Often, like on “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)” he is backed by female vocalists and that accents the masculinity of his sound and vocals.

Oftentimes, The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett is characterized lyrically by desire. Pickett’s version of “Sugar Sugar” is slower, funkier and has emotional heat; the song sounds sexy in his interpretation instead of a beach-blanket surfer song. And while virtually every R&B artist seems to have done “Mustang Sally” at some point (Pickett’s version is on here and bears a strong resemblance to James Brown’s), what stands out are the songs Pickett seems to have done on his own. Songs like “She’s Looking Good” have a great resonance because they express the strength of desire very well. There is a dangerous quality to the way Pickett sings “When you wear your wigs, baby, you wear your dresses tight / You wear your 44, baby, when you step out late at night . . . Mama get your mojo, papa get your gun / I'm gonna steal your daughter, I'm gonna be your son / She's lookin' good, ah lookin' so good, look here / She's lookin' good like I knew that she would” (“She’s Looking Good”). What struck me about the lyrics was that Pickett isn’t just singing about getting it on. He’s singing about making a commitment and basking in the love for a lifetime. I suppose this is something which modern R&B has diverged from.

That said, the freshness of desire is well characterized by the only song I knew before listening to this album, “In The Midnight Hour.” Despite the simplicity of the lines “I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour / That's when my love comes tumbling down / I'm gonna wait till the midnight hour / When there's no one else around / I'm gonna take you girl and hold you / And do all the things I told you / In the midnight hour” (“In The Midnight Hour”) the song rocks even today and part of that is certainly the statement being made in it. It has both a primal and classy aspect and it sounds amazing. This is a nice foil to “Engine Number 9” which is repetitive beyond belief and just becomes noisy as it progresses.

I wish I had more experience with Wilson Pickett to say authoritatively that this truly is the very best of Pickett’s works (I will by the end of the month! I already have the next album ready to cue up!), but what I can say is that it is easy to listen to, mostly enjoyable and makes for a nice blend of known works and lesser known hits from one of the more impressive singer-songwriters of the 1960s. Anyone looking for a good R&B album, this seems like a great place to start listening to R&B (and less obvious than James Brown).

The best track is “In The Midnight Hour,” the low point was the repetitive and derivative “I’m A Midnight Mover.”

For other works by former Artist Of The Month artists, please check out my takes on:
Foreign Affair – Tina Turner
Opiate - Tool
Any Day Now – Joan Baez


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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