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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

4-disc set shows Rod Stewart's good side

No one has had a music career more maddening than Rod Stewart.

In his early years he made some of the greatest blue-eyed soul and boozy hard rock ever. He was as good as the Rolling Stones, the Who, or just about any other great early '70s band you can think of. Then he became more interested in fame than his work, and by 1975 he was doomed to 30-plus years of producing overly-commercial yawners.

This four-disc box set attempts to rewrite a bit of the past, offering alternate takes, rarities, and demos to piece together an alternate history of Stewart.

Not surprisingly, the first two discs that cover his early years yield the most fun. Stewart was an amazing soul singer, and versions of "I'd Rather Go Blind," "To Love Somebody," and "Rosie" are jaw-dropping good. Stewart's secret weapons back in those days were Ronnie Wood and Martin Quittenton, both of whom laid down a bed of guitars that gave the music grit and passion.

Discs three and four are intriguing for oddities like the piano version of the Beatles' "In My Life" and other strange covers, but they also reveal the creative paucity that marked Rod's '90s years.

The liner notes with the package are exceptional, providing a chronology of Stewart's creative process and rightfully pointing out that he was an underrated arranger of great pop/soul songs. If only he'd stuck with it.

- By ROD LOCKWOOD

Fire It Up! opens with the rockin' "Nothin' But the Blues'•" featuring a sparkling piano, bass racing through 12-note blues progressions, a well-tempered drum kit, and the stellar lead guitar licks and vocals of Laurie Morvan. ("It ain't nothin' but the blues, can make you feel this good, and I think everybody should - feel this good.")

If you sit still through this bundle of joy, see the doc about adjusting your meds.

Hard-working, talented Morvan wrote a dozen tunes that are lyrically refreshing, musically diverse, and have cross-genre appeal. Her fourth album in 12 years, it celebrates her strong voice and guitar work a la Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"Come On Over to My BBQ" - the requisite food-as-metaphor-for-romance song, is blue-eyed soul with a couple of female back-up crooners and plenty of sauce.

- TAHREE LANE

The idea behind "Your Songs" was to select so-called classic songs, both older and new-ish, that are then performed and orchestrated in the style of the Great American Songbook. The project is an unqualified commercial success, already high on the charts.

This being Connick, it's all done with style and panache. He makes it sound effortless. He makes it sound cool. But can even his suave approach rescue Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" from a sprightly, piano-bar treatment?

In a word. No.

So this is really two discs. The one is when he assays standards like "All The Way" or "The Way You Look Tonight." They are gracefully swinging, with his voice so expressive. Just the way they should be.

And even some not-so-standards sound great. Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love With You" is swaddled in strings, swaying smoothly, ambling along, an invitation to a saunter around the dance floor.

The Beatles' "And I Love Her," with a lightly Latin treatment, moves along nicely, while "Close To You" has long been right at home in repertoires that otherwise feature songbook classics. Connick's version has a pleasant groove to it.

On the other hand, "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is less successful, possibly because the arrangement tends to iron out the intense emotion inherent in the song. And taking Elton John's "Your Song" at a swinging pace is horrendous, denuding the song of its soul and leaving it trite.

Let's not dwell, however, on what doesn't work. Instead, let's listen on the majority of the 14 tracks to a master at work as Connick sashays through "Some Enchanted Evening" or picks exactly the right tone and mood for a soft and gentle reading of "And I Love You So."

- RICHARD PATON



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