CD Review: Flying Blind with Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere

Steve Cropper & Felix Cavaliere – Midnight Flyer

This new album by Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere answers the musical question of what happens when one of the most original, soulful and popular guitarists of the ’60’s and ’70’s teams up with an equally original, soulful and popular keyboardist of the same era with one of the most recognizable singing voices in the history of rock and roll for an duo album. Cropper is best known for being one of the main lynchpins of Stax Records, handling guitar duties for Booker T and the MG’s, writing a ton of soul hits and playing guitar on more of them than just about any guitarist in the history of music. Cavaliere is best known as the keyboard player for The (Young) Rascals who had a plethora of hits in the middle and end of the ’60’s and who ultimately became a pioneering cosmic soul band with several great concept albums at the end of their hitmaking run. This, their second album together (the first, Nudge It Up A Notch, was one of the best albums released in 2008 according to many critics, including your’s truly) shows the aging duo still mining the same soul grooves in which they’ve toiled their entire careers. Though their hit-making days were essentially over by the early ’70’s as The Rascals disintegrated and Stax went belly-up, both remained relatively active in the music world, especially Cropper.

In fact, the solo careers of Cavaliere and Cropper are almost mirror images of each other. While Cavaliere sought to claim solo success and released several fine, if unappreciated, albums including the gorgeous Castles in The Air from 1979, Cropper sought to stay behind the scenes, producing many artists and only begrudgingly releasing one solo album in the early ’80’s. Though Cropper produced plenty of albums and did a lot of session work, had his songs recorded by other artists etc., the soul scene never quite regained its’ footing and Cropper was either unable or unwilling to go after the disco or modern R&B markets to transition his career. Cavaliere probably had it rougher. Though his work with The Rascals is beloved by many, aside from people covering his old songs (most notably Pat Benatar with You Better Run) Cavaliere was mostly forgotten, his new releases ignored and that glorious voice off the radio more due to the passing of time than any decline in musical prowess.

For this new record, the second of their collaborations, Cropper and Cavaliere find themselves just as much in a rut as in a groove. While hearing Cropper’s slicing, jagged guitar work and Cavaliere’s vocal and organ stylings in a new framework are incredibly cool, the songs are only half of what they should be and seem like Memphis soul pastiches than actual soul songs. While not terrible, it teeters on being lifeless and the pair may want to think about taking more time to work on their own songs before their next release or grab a more talented songwriter with a fresher approach and collaborate. Other than that, the album is what it is, though it could obviously have been so much more.

Since I have always loved ’60’s-style soul music and Cavaliere’s work with The Rascals in particular, I have to say I wish I adored this record. While his voice has obviously altered a little with age, Cavaliere is thankfully still Cavaliere while Cropper still burns up the fretboard as he always did, burning at just the right time and making his point with an economy of notes and a plethora of soul. In Hollywood, they would no doubt call the teaming of these two musical titans “inspired casting”. I just wish they would have been inspired to either write or record a better batch of songs. While whoever or whatever made these two soul titans decide to work together deserves much, much credit if they want to make this partnership work they’re going to have to come up with a better batch of songs. Their last album worked because of the novelty of hearing these two tear it up in a big way after so many years. Now, without that excitement, the execution is all that’s left and it is lacking. I would get their first pairing, Nudge It Up A Notch, and forget this one.