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Christmas in the Heart
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Playing for Change
It seems as though we forget too easily just how vital Steve Winwood is. His release rate is sporadic, and as the saying goes, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Nevertheless, he’s been providing us with great music since the British Invasion (yeah, it’s been that long) as a member of the Spencer Davis Group, then with Traffic, then Blind Faith, then the revised Traffic, and finally, as a solo artist.
His music has always been relaxed and reflective, but with a strong rhythmic drive and a timeless quality that keeps his music relevant through all sorts of stylistic changes. He may not make a lot of records, but he always makes good ones, so it shouldn’t surprise me to learn that “Nine Lives” is as good as it is. The surprise is that it’s even better than I had any right to expect.
“Nine Lives” sounds a lot like second-generation Traffic, with less noodling and more focus. The songs build on blues riffs, jazz, and folk-rock, all coupled with African and Latin influences. There is precision and elegance to virtually every track on this album, without a single extraneous note. It all makes perfect sense, from the nailed down rhythmic grooves to the song lengths, which linger only long enough to make you want more. “Nine Lives” hearkens back to an era when good music defined our culture, but it doesn’t sound the least bit dated or forced. In the best sense, this album could have been released in 1972. With nine tracks passing by in approximately fifty minutes, it’s even the right length for a classic vinyl album.
From a topical perspective, Winwood is still relying on the imagery that has served him well in the past. There are lots of metaphors here – flying, drowning (or more specifically, not drowning), raging seas and struggling to find higher ground. He’s not a lyrical genius, but the songs are so strong that his words take on a sense of import, and most importantly, he sounds like he really is trying to convey something honestly. Apparently, he still feels as though he’s struggling to hang on to something (Relevance? Sanity in a world without pity?), yet the music is never less than relaxed and confident.
Is “Nine Lives” as good as his previous solo albums? Definitely. It is certainly his best record since “Arc of a Diver,” maybe even since “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” There is no filler here, just 100% vintage Steve Winwood, and that is better than good enough for me.
Buy it now! -