Jim Capaldi’s first solo album owes as much to abdominal inflammation as inspiration. Steve Winwood had developed peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining, which effectively shelved the next Traffic project while he recuperated. In the interim, Chris Blackwell (never one to miss an opportunity to market Traffic) bankrolled a studio album by Traffic’s lyricist, occasional singer and tambourine player, Jim Capaldi. Oh How We Danced featured Traffic mates past, present and future as well as Free’s guitarist, Paul Kossoff. Despite the heavy Traffic presence, Oh How We Danced doesn’t sound like a Traffic record any more than Dave Mason’s albums did. In other words, if you’re expecting another “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone,” all you’ll be left is disappointed. Now, that said, a lot of people enjoy this album; I’m just not one of them. Ringo Starr’s records, for example, were a lot more fun than this. I came here expecting great lyrics and dark shadows, and all I hear are middle-of-the-road rock songs with very average (or worse) lyrics. Case in point: “Don’t be a hero, heroes are sad / Don’t be a hero, it’ll make you feel bad.” I’m not saying Capaldi wasn’t a great lyricist, I’m just saying you wouldn’t know it from this album. So if you’re wondering what’s really on Jim Capaldi’s mind, you won’t be any the wiser after Oh How We Danced. I guess that’s my main complaint with the album; it feels like Jim Capaldi trying to make a Dave Mason record rather than a Jim Capaldi record. Subsequent albums followed the same formula, though, so maybe it was just that Traffic’s lyricist didn’t have much to say on his own. I know, that’s not what you wanted to hear. Honestly, it’s not what I wanted to write. I would have loved to tell you that here was a hidden treasure, and maybe you’ll still discover one (if everyone had my taste, record stores would only carry Jethro Tull discs), but you didn’t hear it from me.
This was the first Jim Capaldi album I ever owned and, truth be told, I didn’t dig it much at first. I filed it somewhere between John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges and Ringo’s “with a lot of help from my friends” albums, but without the magical mystery of The Beatles. Since then, however, I’ve done a lot more digging in the latter-day Traffic albums and Capaldi’s first album looking for something of value, and find that none of them deliver the goods quite so much as Whale Meat Again. Recorded between Traffic albums and once more featuring the Muscle Shoals band, Capaldi’s second album is structured very similar to his first; “It’s All Right” even sounds like a breezy version of “Eve.” Whale Meat Again also feels like a weightier record. The seven-minute “Yellow Sun” and eight-minute “Summer Is Fading” invite comparison to Traffic’s longer tracks, while songs like “Low Rider” and “Whale Meat Again” return to Capaldi’s dark lyrical haunts (i.e., no bad/sad couplets here). The vocals on this album are better too, channeling John Lennon on “My Brother” and “Whale Meat Again” (the title track always reminds me a little of “Woman is the Nigger of the World”). Missing here is the scorching lead guitar work of Paul Kossoff and Dave Mason, replaced by the in-house artistry of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s Pete Carr and Jimmy Johnson. It could be Kossoff and Mason that tilt critics in favor of Capaldi’s first record, but I’d argue that his second is stronger. It’s also a nicely packaged record, with an illustrated lyric sleeve that recalls Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Again featuring contributions from Traffic members past and present, Short Cut Draw Blood produced the biggest hit of Jim Capaldi’s career with a discofied version of the old Everlys chestnut, “Love Hurts.” That song is a likeable but light number on an album that finds Capaldi stretching into everything from ska (“Johnny Too Bad”) to Dylanesque poetry (“Keep On Tryin’”). It’s his most stylistically varied album to date, although at its core it retains the percussion-propelled, dark musings of latter-day Traffic (“Goodbye Love,” “Short Cut Draw Blood,” “Boy With A Problem”). His last record was more consistent; this one is more surprising. As a bonus, the non-album single “It’s All Up To You” was included here; an outmoded lovesong that belongs somewhere between the British Invasion and Dave Mason. Short Cut Draw Blood does showcase Jim Capaldi’s range as an artist; the venomous “Living on a Marble” (one of my favorite tracks on here) and ethereal “Seagull” (a mini Traffic reunion of sorts) lie at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Of interest, Paul Kossoff plays on “Boy With A Problem,” a song written about Chris Wood’s struggles with alcohol that warns “Soon from this earth he will leave,” a warning Kossoff himself might have heeded. I would tell you that this record continues to make a case for Capaldi as the logical heir to Traffic’s legacy, but I say a lot of things in the course of a day and not all of it makes sense. He does seem capable of sustaining a solo career, which, in a world where Ringo reigned supreme, isn’t that surprising (“Love Hurts” was a ploy pulled directly from Ringo’s playbook). All in all, a bloody good record with a few cuts that would make my short list for the cream of Capaldi.
After a series of increasingly impressive albums, Jim Capaldi apparently had some sort of falling out with Island and his primary benefactor to date, Chris Blackwell, resulting in label limbo for a few years until he resurfaced under contract to Polydor/RSO. If you though love hurt, well, an entire album of disco-informed studio rock doesn’t feel any better. I’ve always seen the first two RSO records as weak links in a broken chain, but then I tend to be melodramatic where music is concerned, as if the globe spun on these things (which sets up this review from 2005 well enough). “Sometime around the mid Seventies occurred a great migration of psychedelic folkies from the fields and festivals into the dark, dank confines of the studio. There, without a window to judge east from west, they made directionless rock music that followed the tastes of the time. Rock, funk, country, disco, ballads and social criticism, filigree and filler all got mixed into this melting pot of mediocrity. It gained momentum under the boogaloo aesthetic of the ex-Beatles and found its highest expression in bands like The Eagles and Steely Dan. You could hear some of that creeping into Traffic’s music at the end, but Steve Winwood’s voice somehow elevated the end result. Jim Capaldi is no Winwood, not even a Don Henley. He’s not a flashy drummer, has an unremarkable voice and writes the sort of the pedestrian rock songs that other folks (Ringo, Roger Daltrey) pay to have written for them. High in the wood-panelled bungalows of Nice or Los Angeles (or wherever the beautiful people go to be groped and gawked at), maybe “White Jungle Lady” or “Wild Dogs” achieved a certain resonance. An impressionable listener could hear these songs, Bob Dylan’s Street Legal still fresh in their mind, and mistake Jim Capaldi as a resolute, solitary songwriter. But there’s no heart in the performance, no soul left to lay claim to after piffle like “Shoe Shine” has passed your lips. I’d actually toyed with giving this a critical pass (under the protection of past services rendered), with listening to it until I liked it, with going outside and playing in the snow, but there’s mostly fire in my belly this morning. Forget about Electric Nights. Forget about 1979. Go play in the snow instead. That’s where I’m headed.”
Kronomyth 7.0: DISCO IS DEAD, LONG LIVE ROCK. Finally, a fitting followup to Short Cut Draw Blood. Let The Thunder Cry is a similarly pleasant potpourri of pop/rock with a good dose of social conscience and a little romance thrown in good measure. The first side of music is especially strong; so much so that, when a rocking cover of “Louie Louie” rolls around, Capaldi has earned the good will to pull it off. Highlights include the title track (a sympathetic rocker about Native Americans), the lithe “Favela Music,” “Child In The Storm” and the slightly edgy “We Don’t Need.” The melodies are familiar; you get the sense that you’ve heard “Only Love,” “Dreams Do Come True” and “Anxiety” somewhere before, but you’re happy to make their acquaintance again. In the case of “Old Photographs,” it seems that Capaldi has updated the classic “No Face, No Name, No Number,” and the two songs reveal that not so much has changed in the last twenty years. Capaldi’s range on this record is pretty impressive. He can rock, stir things up or play it smooth. The disco years may not have produced many timeless hits, but they do seem to have given him more confidence as a singer. The performances on “Warm” and “Only Love,” for example, are those of a first-tier balladeer. As with the aforementioned Short Cut, there really isn’t a bad song on here. It’s a solid, intelligent record that isn’t too commercial or antisocial. Once again, Capaldi carves out a niche for himself as an intelligent middle-of-the-road rocker who isn’t afraid to throw in a few love songs in between trying to save the world. [When this album was released on compact disc, it featured two additional songs: an acoustic version of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and the nastier “Bathroom Jane.”]
Kronomyth 8.0: ARC OF A DIVERSE ARTIST. Co-produced with Steve Winwood, Fierce Heart is a conscious attempt to channel Winwood’s success with synthesizers into Jim Capaldi’s career. The result is surprisingly effective; in fact, this might be the best solo album he’s ever recorded. Capaldi doesn’t rely completely on synthesizers, but blends them into the approach taken on his last record, Let The Thunder Cry. The songs are once again reassuringly familiar; “That’s Love,” “I’ll Always Be Your Fool,” Living On The Edge” and “Runaway” use established rock motifs. Capaldi’s not trying to rewrite the book of rock, simply add his two cents to the conversation. The songs this time favor love over social change; the funky “Don’t Let Them Control You” (a rewrite of a Brazilian song, “Olhos Coloridos”) is the lone agitator in an otherwise smooth collection. The album—his first for new label Atlantic—was his highest charting since his debut, Oh How We Danced, and produced two hits in “That’s Love” and “Living On The Edge.” Although the year started off well enough for Capaldi and Winwood, it would end with the deaths of Chris Wood and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both of whom were also born in the same year, 1944). Still, Fierce Heart remains something of a high point in Jim Capaldi’s career and a sort of late-season fruition of his partnership with Winwood. It’s not as heavy as some of his other pop/rock albums, but it may be the best argument for his strengths as a singer/songwriter. If Winwood is your cup of tea, Fierce Heart is your capaldi. And that’s no bull. (You see, the cover has a picture of a bull on it and… eh, nevermind.)
Kronomyth 6.0: ROLLING IN IT. Winwood had been on a roll since BITHL. He had gone on tour, divorced his wife, won just about every meaningful Grammy, re-married, became a father, dumped Island for a shiny new multimillion-dollar contract with Virgin, turned 40 and topped the charts with another multiplatinum record, Roll With It. All the while maintaining that he didn’t feel the pressure to make a big hit record with Roll With It, which is likely a lot of hokum. Whether you believe him or not, Roll With It is the very modern model of a big hit record complete with all the trimmings including, this time, the Memphis Horns. The opening title track, which nicks Junior Walker’s “(I’m A) Roadrunner” (original songwriters Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland were later given a credit on the song) kicks the album off on a grand note. That track, “Holding On” and “Don’t You Know What The Night Can Do” gave Winwood three more big hits and continued to make him an 80s radio mainstay. Yet the album is in many ways an artistic step back from BITHL, favoring synthetic white soul over the exotic and uplifting music of his last record. Strip away the gloss provided by the hired studio hands and this is Talking Back To The Night part two. Of course, Virgin wasn’t paying him $12-$13 million to make an artistic statement; they wanted hits and they got what they paid for here. And so will you, provided you’re not expecting more than those three hits and a handful of warm ballads and pop songs delivered in the cool contrivance of late 80s studio frankensteinery popularized by Phil Collins, Howard Jones and others.
Just what I needed: ten framed photos of Steve Winwood. It’s as close as Refugees of the Heart comes to being a work of art. Despite criticism to the contrary, I don’t hear where this is any better or any worse than Roll With It. I’d tell you that Winwood sounds here like he’s on auto cruise, but he always sounds like he’s on auto cruise. You have the pristine arrangements, the warm and emotive mumbling, the sense that you’re hearing a hybrid of Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall after too many wine coolers. The hit is “One And Only Man,” cowritten with Jim Capaldi and featuring an instrumental workout for Steve. It’s no more and no less ferocious than Eric Clapton’s crossover love songs, which is something of an achievement for Winwood. The remaining songs are ballads (“I Will Be Here”), adult pop songs (“You’ll Keep On Searching”) and slightly funky entries (“Another Deal Goes Down”). The closing “In The Light of Day,” featuring the sort of intoxicating keyboard pattern last seen in “San Jacinto,” brings home the vision of Winwood as a sort of Peter Gabriel lite. Since Winwood arrived in the same place musically as Gabriel at the same time (Back In The High Life and So were both released in 1986), it’s not a question of Winwood following anyone. This is what he does: write love songs that make good use of synthesizers and employ a minimal groove from time to time. Maybe the formula was growing tired. After a string of platinum and multiplatinum albums, Refugees merely went gold. For this reason, Refugees often gets lumped in with the inferior Talking Back To The Night despite being a better record. It’ll find a home with Winwood fans, hits or no hits, simply because soulful adult pop songs like these are at the heart of Winwood’s appeal.