Recording of January 1992: The Commitments
MCA MCAD-10286 (CD only). Paul Bushnell, Kevin Killen, Alan Parker, prods.; Kevin Killen, eng. AAD. TT: 46:54.
1991 was the Year Of The Soul: James Brown's epic Star Time! box set, the monumental nine-CD Stax/Volt singles box, Rhino's Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time? series of super-bad '70s blaxploration, Atlantic's CD reissues of complete Stax/Volt albums, and finally the release of the movie/soundtrack, The Commitments (footnote 1). If you haven't seen the movie yet, SEE IT! It's loud, ballsy, and probably the truest film about the absurdities of putting (and keeping) a band together yet (footnote 2); one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen in a long time.
Amazingly, the soundtrack is just as cool. I say "amazing" for several reasons: first, I'm no great fan of movie soundtracks, most of which seem to lose much of the oomph of the film without the accompanying footage, especially when the songs are classics remade for the movie, as they are here. Second, the kind of soul music that drives The Commitments has historically been squeezed through an Aphex De-Souler whenever it's been redone—I don't care how broke the guy was after he got out of jail, man, I don't even care that he drummed behind Jimi on Band Of Gypsies, either; may Buddy Miles fry in hell for a thousand millennia for fronting the California Raisins.
No, the Commitments are for real. Think it amazing that a major studio made a movie about a bunch of poor Irish kids who put together a soul revue without starring McCauley Culkin? The soundtrack's doubly amazing; not only is the music played with the proper reverence for the original tracks, but the kid they got to sing lead is impossibly great! Sixteen years old at the time of the recording and uncannily resembling the early Joe Cocker in physical and vocal style, Andrew Strong is far and away the best young soul singer, white or black, I've seen in a long time; toad-boys like Simply Red's Mick Hucknall and Paul Young can't carry Strong's do-rag. Strong shines on every track he sings, but especially kicks butt on the Reverend Al Green's "Take Me To The River," Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," and the disc's strongest cut, the best-ever remake of Otis's "Try A Little Tenderness."
While Strong has more than enough authority to steer these towering songs, it's when the other vocalists take over the lead that you're reminded that this is supposed to be a band of kids. Backup vocalist Maria Doyle (real-life singer for alternative band Hothouse Flowers) is a babe through and through, but she really doesn't have the soul to cover Aretha's "Chain Of Fools" and "I Never Loved A Man," although the latter did make my tongue swell in the darkened theater. And although the music's killer, Robert Arkin (who plays the band's manager) turns in a pretty lame caricature of Roy Head on "Treat Her Right." These criticisms are minor, though; the music on this disc is cool man cool from start to finish, and only a pathetic soul purist like me would ever have the nerve to complain about such details. I'm ashamed of myself, I am.
And the sound, cats 'n kittens? GREAT! Deep, full bass, shimmering B-3 organ swirl, REAL DRUMS IN A REAL ROOM INSTEAD OF A DRUM MACHINE TRIGGERING SAMPLES OF GUNSHOTS AND CAR CRASHES, great greasy Southern scrit-scrat rhythm gi-tar, Heinz thick'n'rich horns; it's all right here waiting for you to take it home, you lucky DOG you! U2 producer/engineer Kevin Killen must save his good stuff for bands that matter, because he gets a butt-shakin' groove thang goin' on this disc that's kept it humming in my transport (footnote 3) for weeks now. Until Krazy Kat hurls a brick at Delbert's head so he comes to his senses and starts making records like he used to, The Commitments is as fine and funky a piece of work as the '90s have yet produced; buy it or stay white and slow.—Corey Greenberg
Footnote 1: I'd mention Michael Bolton, but despite the fact that he has derived most of his current pop chart success from covering classic soul tunes like "Dock Of The Bay" and "When A Man Loves A Woman," he's still just a crossover wimpoid whose own songs blow, and thus should be ridiculed in august journals such as this one which strive to help you, cherished reader, make the best-informed choice at the checkout line. And if you already own any Bolton discs, scrape off the green paint and take 'em down to your local CD hut to exchange for some real soul music: Johnny Adams's Reconsider Me (Charly CD 89) and Ann Peebles's Greatest Hits (MCA MCAD-25225), for starters.
Footnote 2: It should be pointed out that my brother Mark emphatically disagrees, having walked out of the movie in disgust 40 minutes into it. If, like him, you eschew stylish footwear for stolen bowling shoes, you may put more stock in his opinion than mine.
Footnote 3: I wanted to say "spinning on my platter," but the times they are a-changin', gramps. Kinda depressing, isn't it?