In recent years, we’ve seen a number of wannabe Rick Rubins try to grab a hold of an iconic artist from the past – someone whose career had stagnated commercially and creatively – and helping bring them back into the spotlight with an updated sound and a few well-chosen covers.
The latest is XL Recordings head Richard Russell who, after staking his place in the world of indie music by bringing M.I.A., Vampire Weekend and others to worldwide acclaim, has decided to coax jazz/soul/proto-hip hop poet Gil Scott-Heron out of his self-imposed, self-inflicted hiatus (although he has been performing, the 60-year-old has been in and out of prison of late, mostly on drug charges), and introduce him to the rapacious blogosphere.
The choice of a collaborator is an inspired one, but what Russell does with him is, unfortunately, less so. He treats the proceedings like a remix project, following Scott-Heron’s singing along with lumbering trip-hop beats that are 10 years behind the times and stray treble-y bits of sonic fuzz. It works slightly better when Scott-Heron chooses to read his poetry aloud, but the impact of his words would hardly be lessened if they were left alone.
It is only when Russell pays tribute to Scott-Heron’s past efforts that the album starts to make sense. The title track, a cover of a Smog song, features nothing more than a hand-picked acoustic guitar and Scott-Heron’s well-worn voice stretching itself over Bill Callahan’s dusty lyrics. And the downright stirring “I’ll Take Care Of You” is a Brook Benton-written soulful sentiment (“You won’t have to worry…for I’ll be there beside/to dry your weeping eyes”) that is matched with a restrained arrangement of strings, piano and one solitary kick drum beat.
It’s great to have a new Gil Scott-Heron record on the shelves. It’s just unfortunate that it isn’t the bold return to form that we were hoping for.