Gentle Steel

Idiosyncratic disco artist rides train, mourns canine, accepts loss, and sticks to his guns

"The liner notes are very different from my earlier albums. I didn't turn into a New Age wimp. I still have my guns. I did adopt a Taoist Attitude to life." So said Bob Rosenberg in a handwritten message that accompanied the promo copy of Spirit Warrior, the first Will to Power album in 14 years. But actually, Rosenberg's a disco guy, and his talent has always been for melody, tone, and timbre. Combativeness is not in his sound and only occasionally in his lyrics (mainly the quasi-libertarian rap in "Koyaanisqatsi" back on his second LP; though the liner notes went: "What is worse than a knee-jerk liberal? A kneecapped conservative—that's what. Forever groveling before the rich and powerful"). His voice is self-effacing, except sometimes it's not even that, but plain, affectless. And nothing about this album addresses the issue of strength vs. wimpiness one way or another. Not that it should, and I don't see any reason that someone who's not a wimp can't be gentle in his voice and go for beauty in his music. It's just that you expect people who feel the need to declare themselves nonwimps to choose aggression. (This LP's liner notes: "Life has many losses. Losing well is freedom.")

Spirit Warrior's most gorgeous riff by far is in the remake of "Dreamin'," a dancefloor hit Rosenberg came up with 16 years ago, shortly before scoring number one on the pop charts with a "Baby, I Love Your Way/Free Bird" medley. But he manages to pull in beauty from a variety of other sources as well: two versions here of "Hava Nagilah"; also two versions of Gil Scott-Heron's alcoholism warning "In the Bottle." And he creates beauty where I hadn't heard it previously, e.g., in his cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow," which had been a tedious lament back on the "folk music" albums I'd listened to at age nine, boring the fuck out of me amidst the murder tales and sea chanteys that I was listening for. (Sorrow, woe, die on this train, choo choo, who cares.) Will to Power's version, strangely enough, steers clear of plaintiveness: It's got a bouncy dance beat, Rawhide-type western guitar, romantic violin (more gypsy than country). So, with nothingunderscoring the lonesome beauty of the melody, it's actually far more beautiful than I remember it. Fabulous, the way the vocalist's hick twang provokes a black gospelish response from the backup singers, though this being a dance track the gospel shrieks and melismas simply mix into the ongoing groove rather than reaching towards the sky.

In the "Dreamin' " remix the beat has a ringing clank to it, gentle steel. Rosenberg runs his voice through a vocoder, giving it a scraping echo, metal against metal, as if the echo rather than the voice itself were the real personality. A female singer adds soul-gospel shouts, but again, they're not meant to sear you; they mix rather than transcend, and the abrasions in the background actually determine the mood: a pretty riff amidst wispily pretty bric-a-brac.

Rugged interpreter of Skynyrd, Frampton, Soggy Bottom Boys, and bar mitzvah songs
photo: Rod Dickinson
Rugged interpreter of Skynyrd, Frampton, Soggy Bottom Boys, and bar mitzvah songs

He covers "Summertime," giving it something of a New Orleans or Caribbean feel, and throwing in the famous "pump pump me up" sample from Trouble Funk. It doesn't cohere emotionally, but this is my least favorite Gershwin classic, anyway, so I like how the island/T-Funk interpolations take me away from the song.

He's got a smooth jazz track about the death of a friend (a dog, actually, that once saved his life), death here being a passage rather than an ending, so the sound is lite but chipper. I find this disconcerting, though that was not the intent.

I'm disappointed that, of the album's two best melodies, one was written years ago by Rosenberg and the other by a long-passed fellow named "Trad." And Rosenberg's disco moves are probably too far out of time, and his sound too idiosyncratic and low rent, for him to ever score another hit.

But then, you could say a theme of this CD is acceptance (eternal recurrence more than will to power, perhaps, if you want to stay Nietzschean), though that's like saying the theme of "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" is love. Such lyrics as "Spirit inside wants me to come home," "Time is runnin' but I don't know why," and "Here's a little sunshine to clear up the rain" are too ordinary to set the mood of their respective songs, so the mood is up to the music. The music's "message," I suppose, could be that Rosenberg is not a man of constant sorrow. Sorrow is only one ingredient, not the whole enchilada. It doesn't necessarily follow that the twangs and beats contribute to a Taoist theme of letting go of outcomes. But a message you can get from any music is that no theme is the whole enchilada; there's always more.

 
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