First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Thu October 4, 2007, 06:40 AM CDT
Since the beginning of his career, Curtis Stigers has had as much love for pop, rock, and soul music as he has had for old jazz standards. It’s the manner in which he so effortlessly has picked songs from the former camp and placed them in the latter framework, however, that has garnered the most attention for him. His cover of Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding? put him on the map; everything since has been about perfecting this formula. Not surprisingly, his latest effort Real Emotional finds him, once again, strolling down this path, and this time, he goes even further. Save for a cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, everything else on the endeavor was drawn from contemporary times, and for the most part, his approach is solidly successful.
Stigers fares best whenever he fully commits to making the songs on Real Emotional sound as if they were plucked from the smoke-filled jazz and supper clubs of a bygone era. Both Bob Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Stephen Merritt’s As You Turn to Go, for example, are given arrangements that would have been well suited to the repertoires of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Elsewhere, Stigers versatilely appears to be as comfortable settling into the old-time swinging blues of Dan Zanes’ Night Owl as he is navigating between the stinging bite and swirling headiness of the trumpet and organ accompaniments that grace Mose Allison’s Your Mind Is on Vacation. Real Emotional’s finest moment, however, is also its simplest. Framed only by the pensive, melancholy piano patterns painted by Larry Goldings, Stigers’ vocals on I Need You reek of desperation and heartache, and the sorrow that emanates from the words he sings hangs heavily in the air.
On the other hand, Real Emotional falters whenever Stigers fails to grasp the material fully. His cover of Paul Simon’s American Tune seems to beg for a Ray Charles-style arrangement, but instead of turning the song into a gospel-soul spiritual, he resists his own impulses and winds up with something more akin to an overwrought performance by Neil Diamond. Likewise, there are parallels to be drawn between his funky, soul-infused interpretation of Emmylou Harris’ I Don’t Wanna Talk about It Now and anything tackled by Joe Cocker in 1970. For a moment, his approach works, but without a full band to support him, the track begins to meander before it frustratingly slips out of reach. A different sort of problem plagues his interpretation of Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade. Although Stigers delivers it with the sort of convincing, Charles-esque power that was missing from American Tune, his rendition of the cut is unable to escape the towering shadow of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind.
For certain, Stigers slowly but surely has taken steps toward finding his own distinctive flair, and his ability to pen a song has matured considerably since he issued his self-titled debut in 1991. His is a struggle that is not all that different from the one that Harry Connick, Jr. only recently began to conquer. If anything, Real Emotional paints Stigers as a talented performer with a lot of promise who remains unable to put enough of the pieces in place to fulfill it.
Real Emotional is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box