When the legendary Stax label was rescued from oblivion by Concord Records in 2007, it was unclear whether the new label leaders would show respect for the incredible Stax history or simply use the recognizable imprint as a means of uniting a series of modern adult soul stars such as Lalah Hathaway, Angie Stone and N'dambi. The label played its hand early, re-signing Stax veterans Isaac Hayes and Steve Cropper and inking deals other soul legends such as Leon Ware. And while the economics of modern major label music would call into question the wisdom of releasing the music of artists three or more decades past their commercial peak, from a critical standpoint the new Stax brass has hit a home run with its recognition that there are 50- and 60-something artists who still have a lot of great music left within them and there are niche audiences who will want to hear that music.
First up from the semi-senior circuit is Nudge it Up a Notch, a collaboration between Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding) and one of the most recognizable voices of 60s pop, Felix Cavaliere (the Rascals). Brought together by producer Jon Tiven for weeks of songwriting and recording in Nashville, the two have put together an A-Team band, including drummer Chester Thompson (Frank Zappa, John Fogerty) and bassist Shake Anderson (Curtis Mayfield). Working under a less is more philosophy, the group has created an album that, while paving no new ground, provides a series of well played, soulful pop songs that could find an audience in adult fans weary of the electronics-laden, McProcessed music that dominates modern hit radio.
The good news is that both Cavaliere and Cropper sound great. Now in his fifth decade as a pop singer, Cavaliere's voice is indistinguishable from when he was fronting such seminal hits as "Groovin'" and "How Can I Be Sure." He comes out smoking on the chugging lead single, "One of These Days," his expressive tenor wailing and pouting like he's a twenty-five year old. And Cropper takes the lead midway through the cut, giving it his immediately recognizable Southern soul treatment without showing off. Cavaliere then replicates his classic Rascals sound on the midtempo "If It Wasn't For Loving You," maybe the best pure pop entry on the disc, and on the darker, blue-eyed soul number, "Without You."
Nudge It Up loses a bit of direction on the second half of the disc, with some less memorable pop ("Impossible") and an ill-advised rap cut ("Make the Time Go Faster"). But Cropper's instrumental showcases here have enough meat to be memorable. His guitar work on "Full Moon Tonight," "Cuttin It Close" and the excellent, upbeat album closer, "Love Appetite," are all terrific.
It is unlikely that Nudge It Up A Notch will make any new fans among the under-40 crowd for Cropper and Cavaliere. But more, uh, experienced music listeners will find a lot to like in this album of hook-filled, excellently performed songs by two artists who show they've still got the chops forty years after they first hit the national music scene. Kudos to Stax for releasing this album, and bigger kudos to Cropper, Cavaliere and Tiven for creating a fine disc of Summer music that sounds as good in 2008 as it would have in 1968. Recommended.
By Chris Rizik