If this were a just world, Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me (ANTI-/Fat Possum) would do for his status what being on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack did for Al Green's. No, wait — at least Al was huge in his heyday: If there were justice in the world, none of you out there would be saying "Solomon who?"
Described as "the King in exile" by writer Peter Guralnick, Burke never achieved the success of his peers Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, et al, even though legendary producer Jerry Wexler (who oversaw Atlantic Records when it dominated the soul world) called him the best soul singer of them all. Maybe Burke was too proud to make white audiences feel comfortable, but maybe he just didn't have the right tunes at the right time. On this new Joe Henry-produced disc, half a dozen of the world's finest songwriters have addressed the latter problem — Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, and other luminaries wrote songs especially for the mighty one to sing. (See if you can match writer to tune without looking at the back cover! It's fun.)
The lineup emphasizes the plaintive and reflective sides of Burke's voice. The title track (one of the best here, written by Muscle Shoals veteran Dan Penn) lets him do what soul music always does at its best: He convinces the listener that his plea for one last chance is coming from the heart, that it's not just some words somebody wrote for him to sing. On Joe Henry's "Flesh and Blood," the producer coaxes the vocalist into the sonic landscape that has made Henry's last few records so tantalizing; the saxophone and organ in the background have minds of their own, leaving Burke as alone as the character the lyrics paint: "All I ever wanted was ... something of my own to love enough to hate to lose."
The record is short on bring-the-roof-down wailing; "The Judgement," which mines the old courtroom metaphor, comes the closest, and even here the passion is in the service of something in the past tense, a case that has already come to trial. Like Johnny Cash on his comeback American Recordings, Burke has the weight of legend on him now, without the nonchalance stars sometimes get when they don't have to try any more.
Maybe it's pride that makes Van Morrison include both the songs he wrote for Burke on his new Down the Road (Universal). The record finds Morrison digging into the past even back beyond Burke's Atlantic prime, to the Pop-friendly laid-back R&B of the '50s, the music he grew up on. If the result isn't as entrancing as Morrison's best work, it at least has little of the bitterness that has been off-putting to some lately — and characteristically romantic numbers like "Meet Me in the Indian Summer" outweigh the tunes like "Hey Mr. DJ," where retro backup singers push a good-natured number just over the border into quaint territory.
WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN
And while the Current's deadlines don't permit a timely tribute, music lovers everywhere should mark the July 19 passing of Alan Lomax. Lomax followed in his father John's footsteps, showing America its soul through tireless documentation of unknown rural musicians. On the dozens of CDs in Rounder's ongoing Alan Lomax Collection, listeners find the first recordings of artists from Woody Guthrie to Lead Belly. Countless others were never recorded by anybody else. Forget the traditional moment of silence — put on a Jelly Roll Morton recording and celebrate the man.