Old guys revisit pop music classics

Guitar heaven, Motown hell
Review by Mark Lyndersay
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian, September 17, 2010.

Guitar Heaven: The greatest guitar classics of all time - Carlos Santana
Going Back - Phil Collins

It’s kind of surreal, but two respected practitioners of very funky rock music have reached back to pop music’s recent past to create brand new albums this month.
Phil Collins, formerly of Genesis and allegedly in retirement, strapped drum sticks to his injured hands to anchor the sessions on “Going Back,” a collection of soul and R&B hits from the sixties and seventies mostly drawn from the Motown catalog.

His partners in this particular crime against classic singles are no less than the remaining practicing musicians from the legendary Funk Brothers, the band that played on virtually all of Motown’s hits during their prime and whose musicianship embellished the arrangements of those songs with unforgettable riffs and flourishes.
The trio, guitarists Eddie “Chank” Willis and Ray Monette and bassist Bob Babbit are long past that kind of groundbreaking inventiveness, but they capably replicate the “Sound of Young America” as Motown described their music.

Sadly, that’s all that the album aspires to, a note for note replication of songs from an unprecedented pool of talent reduced to the vocal capabilities of Collins and needlessly constricted carbon-copy arrangements.
Phil Collins has, during his career, been a startlingly original musician and composer, as his debut album “Face Value,” powered by the baroque angst and powerful drum hits on the song In the air tonight, proved.

He has also slummed with great enthusiasm, lifting Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section and that band’s driving progressive funk style overwhelmingly during later solo outings.
Still, he never could be described as lazy, despite some of his more maudlin efforts, and that’s exactly what he ends up delivering as a performer on Going Back.

Where he intends reverence, he delivers embalming, where he tries for homage, he ends up in embarrassment.
Across the entire 29 songs that Collins offers on the deluxe version of this album, only one question need be asked to sum up the pointlessness of the whole exercise. Who in their right mind would try to do a straight reading of Smokey Robinson’s plaintive falsetto lead on Tears of a Clown?

Carlos Santana, after three albums recorded with a quite amazing collection of collaborators, has clearly acquired a taste for matching his keening guitar tone and capable band with guest stars.
The latest premise of this successful run, which began in 1999 with Supernatural, is a revisit of great guitar songs christened with a title that makes it sound like some unfortunate collection of songs jammed onto a bargain bin compilation.

But, where Phil Collins’ album seems like a respectful visit to pop music history and ends up sounding like a skilful wedding band, Santana’s outing offers respect and hard rocking on an agreeable selection of air guitar inspirations.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t misses on Guitar Heaven. Chris Daughtry’s version of Def Leppard’s Photograph barely musters the moussed intensity of the original and Jacoby Shaddix’s take on Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water is only lifted by the energy of Santana’s take on the famous guitar riff.

While several songs are listenable takes on well-known songs, the whole exercise is lifted to another level by Chris Cornell’s wailing revisit of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. Things continue to improve with Joe Cocker’s surprisingly appropriate turn on Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing, complemented by Santana’s rapturous guitar weaving around his gravelly vocal while the spare axis of Yo-Yo Ma, Santana and India Arie on George Harrison’s Beatles’ era While my guitar gently weeps is so delicately beautiful that it’s hard to muster a breath while it’s playing.

Guitar Heaven succeeds on its best tracks by harnessing inspiration to respect. Going Back should never have been inflicted on the public.
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