Monday, November 29, 2010

Wilson Pickett's Final New Album: It's Harder Now Comes About Twenty Years Too Late.

The Good: Good vocals, Some memorable lyrics
The Bad: Instrumentally predictable, Short, Thematically questionable
The Basics: With a very average album more toward soul and funk, Wilson Pickett closes his career with an album years behind that sounds like he is desperately trying to keep up.

So far in my immersion in the works of Wilson Pickett, I have been more surprised than impressed. Granted, before I picked up It's Harder Now, I had only listened to The Very Best Of Wilson Pickett (click here for that review!) and In Philadelphia (click here for that review!). But even so, I'm finding myself more surprised that Wilson Pickett remained commercially viable for thirty-five years to get It's Harder Now released in 1999. This album seems out of time, especially at a time when the black community was educating itself about safe sex and the HIV epidemic in music as well as in every other major medium (as well as in schools).

But It's Harder Now was Wilson Pickett's final album of new material and it seems like a throwback - thematically - to the 1970s as opposed to something truly fresh and different. Moreover, there are no songs which resonate with a timeless quality. Instead, this seems like Wilson Pickett's last attempt to cash in on his reputation as The Wicked One (one of his nicknames according to the liner notes) and he is doing it in a market that is considerably more graphic than when he last charted. As a result, his lyrics turn from love, charm and the power of desire to just in-your-face sex and infidelity. For the first time - at least on any albums of Wilson Pickett's I've heard - Pickett swears and there is a charmless quality to songs like "Taxi Love" and "All About Sex."

With only eleven songs, occupying 42:46 on c.d., It's Harder Now is a soul or rhythm & blues album featuring quite a bit of Wilson Pickett's talents. Pickett co-wrote five of the songs and he provides all of the lead vocals on the album. The songs are not performed with Pickett on any of the musical instruments and Pickett was not involved in the production of the album. Even so, one suspects this is what Wilson Pickett wanted to have the album sound like given that producer Jon Tiven gushes about working with Pickett. At this point in his career, it seems like Pickett would have been the guiding influence for his music.

Sadly, that is an erratic final album, even vocally. While on earlier albums, Pickett taps into something primal with his screams and roars, he sounds like he is gargling his way through "Stone Crazy World." And while he opens the album well with smooth, classic soul vocals on "Outskirts Of Town," he loses that articulate, sensual voice rather quickly on the album. Indeed, when my wife came in during the angry vocals on "Stomp," she looked at me and asked "What are you listening to?!" I promised her most of Wilson Pickett's other works are better.

Instrumentally, It's Harder Now is very much a classic R&B/funk album. Pickett sings over heavy bass on "Outskirts Of Town" and there is a prominent percussion section employed throughout the album. But more than having brass accents, the electric guitar dominates the album underneath the drums and percussion. Songs like "Taxi Love" sound far more like rock and funk than they do like a classic R&B song that Pickett fans might be used to. And while instrumentally, the album does seem like Pickett trying to keep up with the times, songs like "It's Harder Now" (the single) do manage to sound like Wilson Pickett more than Pickett trying to be badass.

The problem most listeners to classic R&B or funk are likely to have is more with the lyrics Wilson Pickett is singing on this album than anything else. From the blandly promiscuous "Taxi Love" to "What's Under That Dress?" the album is a celebration of infidelity, sex and outright lust as opposed to anything classy. When Pickett sings "Used up all my best lines in my own youth / All I've got to give you, girl, is the honest truth / I'm attracted to you girl, as I must confess / Only one thing I gotta know; what's underneath that dress" ("What's Under That Dress?") this is the closest to classy he gets on the album and considering how classless the lines are, it is a harbinger for the rest of the album.

That said, album is almost completely redeemed by the struggle detailed in the songs "It's Harder Now" and "It Ain't Easy." Following the melancholy "Soul Survivor" about all of the R&B comrades of Pickett's who were no longer recording (or alive), Pickett sings about the struggles of aging and this is a rare topic for a rhythm and blues or funk song. But he makes the struggle sound sensual when he presents the lines "It used to be there to mess up my mind / But it's harder now / Used to be there to take up my time / But it's harder now / I used to be an open book / Anyone could have a look / You just took all that you took / But it's harder now" ("It's Harder Now"). The jazzy sound is smooth and it sounds like a struggle and with Pickett's vocals, the song sounds like the years have laid a heavy toll, which makes for a musically interesting presentation.

There is a sense of irony on "Better Him Than Me," though, which is about relationships that is actually funny. Wilson Pickett sings about seeing how the next man in his ex's life treats him and concludes that he'd rather the new guy take the brunt of his ex's wrath than him. The song is surprisingly funny and it is a relief after songs about infidelity and the world beating the musical protagonists down.

Honestly, I consider this an "average" album probably only because of Pickett's stature and history. Even so, it is hard to recommend to anyone; those who like classic soul, funk or R&B are likely to be disappointed by the fairly vulgar themes on It's Harder Now, while fans of contemporary hip-hop, rap and R&B are likely to say it doesn't go far enough.

The best song is "Better Him Than Me" and the low point is "All About Sex."

For other works by prior Artist Of The Month artists, please check out my reviews of:
Opiate – Tool
Simply The Best - Tina Turner
Any Day Now – Joan Baez


For other c.d. and singles reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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