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JOE COCKER

Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Rating: 6
Squirm factor: 3
   This may be the quintessential 70s live album: it's a double record (natch), it includes a long blues medley, another song with a dramatic call-and-response middle section, and even a big political statement ("Give Peace a Chance" - not the Lennon version, but a new song that's better than the Plastic Ono Band because it doesn't have any boring verses between the catchier-than-Yoko choruses). Since this came out in 1970, I believe it served as a blueprint for all the big live double albums that stalked the following decade.
   However, it's hard to call this a Joe Cocker album. He seems like an afterthought to Leon Russell's vision of a gigantic R&B troupe. There are 10 people in the band, and ten more backing vocalists, and much of the time all the mess covers up whatever lead vocals might be occurring. I bet Leon Russell made more money off this record than Cocker did: there are three Russell originals here, and none by Cocker. What's more, few of the songs from Cocker's albums are here, so you mostly get covers - most are done well, but "Honky Tonk Women" seems to have been de-hooked, and if I never hear another Leonard Cohen song again it'll be too soon - and even showcases for other singers. Russell takes over "Girl from the North Country" and Rita Coolidge turns in a "Superstar" about 15 times less interesting than the Carpenters' version (you know that great moment when the verse transitions into the chorus, and the orchestra leaps in and the energy really increases? They don't do that), and she sings the whole thing flat.
   The whole "big band sound" gets on my nerves, too. "Superstar" is the most egregious example, simply because of comparison to a well-known superior version, but the whole album lacks finesse. It's just piles of keyboards, guitars and percussion, a sound that works fine for certain kinds of pop music but fails for R&B.
   That said, there are a few moments when the effect works: the double drumming break on "Space Captain" is powerful, and the massed vocals throughout Side Four really sound inspirational.
   When you do notice him, Joe is in fine voice throughout, and turns in very nice performances on "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," and "Space Captain" in particular.

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