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White Chocolate

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Album Review

Coming just three years after Black Coffee, his first solo studio album of new material in three decades, White Chocolate (what's next, "Green Tea"?) is quite possibly the most satisfying solo release of this veteran's 50-year career. The title is the giveaway: Kooper has always championed classic soul music above all else, but now he's graduated from paying homage to his heroes of the '60s and '70s to absorbing their essence and personifying the music's most attractive qualities himself — maybe this release falls short of equaling the best of Stax, Hi, or Philadelphia International (Kooper would no doubt admit to that), but not by much.

Kooper has always made his best music when he holds the reins and here he not only self-produced and arranged, and of course sang the lead vocals, on some tracks he also played every instrument — while Kooper's skills as a keyboardist are well established and his guitar work long underrated, he also puts down mandolin, percussion, string sounds, and more. Of course he did have help: several brass teams (including the Uptown Horns) and a vocal trio (including the great Catherine Russell) provide ace support. Various additional guitarists, bassists, and drummers flesh out the tracks but the focus never strays from Kooper himself. For starters, if he's ever enjoyed making a record this much before, you wouldn't know it: Kooper seems so at home here (and not just because most of the album was recorded at his Somerville, MA. home studio). His voice, at 65, has naturally weathered, but he can still hit the notes he needs to hit and never tries to sound like the brash twenty-something kid who recorded Super Session or Child Is Father to the Man. Yet despite the maturity of the music, there's an oversized quality to this recording and a set of instantly memorable melodies and hooks that make it Kooper's most blatantly radio-friendly album in years — that is, if radio was anything close to what it was in 1968. Hear these songs a couple of times and you will swear you've known them all your life.

But all of this is not to suggest this is a retro affair — White Chocolate is exactly where Al Kooper should be right now. That's made clear from the first notes of opener "Love Time," as pure a slice of Southern soul/pop as the early 21st century can hope to produce. As the record unfolds, it becomes clearer that the lead track is no fluke: "I Love You More Than Words Can Say," penned by Booker T. Jones and Eddie Floyd back in the day, boasts some seriously funky chops and a tough guitar solo by Bob "Dyno" Doezema. A new take on Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)," which Kooper and Michael Bloomfield cut on the classic Super Session album 40 years previously, is presented here as a rolling, brassy, souled-up shuffle. And Kooper had to love cutting his song "Staxability," a tribute to the legendary Stax Records of Memphis, with no less than Steve Cropper on guitar and Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. & the MG's on bass. Kooper gets to shout "Play it, Steve!," a line familiar to any fan of vintage soul, and actually gets to hear Cropper do just what he's asked.

In addition to his blue-eyed-soul pedigree, Kooper has always possessed a sharp sense of pop songcraft (he wrote "This Diamond Ring," the huge hit for Gary Lewis & the Playboys), and the chance to co-write two tunes for the album with Gerry Goffin (as in Goffin & King) had to be another dream come true for him. Those two are among the album's highlights: the smooth "You Make Me Feel So Good (All Over)" may not have more than a simple message to offer, but sometimes that's all that's needed to make the connection. And "No 1 2 Call Me Baby," with its phalanx of layered instruments and vocals, is almost Spectorian in its grandness. Other key tracks include the semi-autobiographical "Cast the First Stone," a statement on the politics of our times (of all times?) and how we all fit into those games; a gutsy, bluesy cover of Fred Neil's "Candy Man" (made famous by Roy Orbison); Kooper's interpretation of the Leiber & Stoller/Ben E. King perennial "I (Who Have Nothing)"; the set-closing, gospel-fied "(I Don't Know When But) I Know That I'll Be There Soon" (complete with Farfisa organ and accordion); and "Hold On," a tune of hope and self-determination that offers vocal thrills a-plenty when the powerhouse Russell takes lead on a verse and Kooper counters in his finest falsetto. White Chocolate can serve as a primer for Social Security-age rockers who still think the spandex fits. News flash: it doesn't.


Born: 05 February 1944 in Brooklyn, NY

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Al Kooper, by rights, should be regarded as one of the giants of '60s rock, not far behind the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in importance. In addition to co-writing one classic mid-'60s pop-rock song, "This Diamond Ring" (though it was written as an R&B number), he was a very audible sessionman on some of the most important records of mid-decade, including Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Kooper also joined and led, and then lost two major groups, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears....
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White Chocolate, Al Kooper
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