First Appeared at The Music Box, July 2003, Volume 10, #7
Written by John Metzger
Steve Winwood began his career as a teenager, singing blue-eyed soul with the Spencer Davis Group. Though he took a detour through psychedelic pop, British folk, and freewheeling jazz while fronting Traffic — not to mention the edgy blues-rock he explored with Blind Faith — it was to the R&B scene that he returned when he launched his solo career in 1977. By this point, however, R&B had been transformed by its own popularity from something organic into something manufactured. Producers and record labels held a heavy hand in determining an album’s final sound, often forcing artists into a cookie-cutter mold. Since then, Winwood occasionally has shown signs of his old self — it popped up sporadically throughout the Traffic reunion that yielded Far from Home — but overall, each outing he released also sounded slicker than the last. Although Winwood managed to reinvigorate his songs in concert, where he was free to veer into jazzier terrain on a whim, the record business clearly was sucking the life from his work.
Indeed, the pressure to craft hit singles and commercially successful albums forced Winwood to part ways with Virgin Records in order to recapture the artistic control for which he yearned. He set up his own label (Wincraft Music) and proceeded to begin writing a new batch of songs, centered around the sound of his Hammond B-3 organ. The result is About Time, Winwood’s first release in six years, and, while it’s one of his better — if not best — solo outings, there are still moments that are downright disappointing.
Granted, it can be a nerve-wracking experience for an artist to step out on his own, and that undoubtedly leads to the tentativeness that surfaces throughout About Time. At 70 minutes in length, the album is also far too massive for its own good. Several tracks, such as the humdrum Domingo Morning and equally tedious Silvia (Who Is She) — both of which go absolutely nowhere during their collective 16 ½ minutes — should have been left entirely on the cutting room floor, thereby streamlining the release to a more manageable length. Then, there is the issue of the glossy production values that have pervaded all of Winwood’s solo outings and are at least partially retained on this disc. What is, perhaps, most puzzling about this is that the sessions that formed the basis for the album were recorded live, and while no loops or modern techniques were utilized, the rhythmic grooves frequently fold together to form what essentially is a percussive loop. In other words, it’s Winwood’s inability to let go completely of his past solo recordings that gives the album its hesitant air. It’s as if the smooth sound of R&B has become so ingrained in him that he can’t move past it, or possibly, that he fears doing so will cause him to fall even further from the public eye than he already is.
That’s a shame, too, because there are some extraordinarily brilliant moments on About Time. Far from being a dud, the album contains some of the loosest material Winwood has offered his fans since his days with Traffic. The first four tracks are all gems: Different Light and Cigano (for the Gypsies) each glide over simmering percussion as saxophone (courtesy of Karl Denson), guitar, and the full-bodied sound of Hammond B-3 organ take turns reaching toward the cosmos; Take It to the Final Hour slips into a slight reggae lilt before exploding into a organ-driven jazz extravaganza; and Why Can’t We Live Together — penned by Timmy Thomas, who scored a hit with the song in 1973 — comes off as Marvin Gaye pulled through the contemporary sound of Los Lobos by way of the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t fair nearly as well: Horizon cops the stateliness of John Barleycorn, and Phoenix Rising is a significantly funked-up Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (particularly Karl Denson’s flute accompaniment). While both are good, neither, quite understandably, achieves the level of greatness of its predecessor. On the other hand, Now That You’re Alive steals from Freedom Overspill, adds a bit of Santana, and blossoms — despite its satiny surface.
In other words, throughout About Time, Winwood often doesn’t go far enough in peeling back the layers that have long-surrounded his songs. When he does, great things happen, and given a chance, he shows that the sparks that first drove him to create such masterful music in the late ’60s and early ’70s are still there, their embers still glowing brightly. If anything, About Time proves that Steve Winwood is back on the right track, having escaped the confines of the major label machine. The question, however, remains: Where does he go from here? Hopefully, the world won’t have to wait another six years to find out. ½
About Time 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 © 2003 The Music Box