The first reaction of many on hearing that Robert Palmer is releasing an album of blues covers will be negative. This is largely due to the fact of his slide from 80s pop star into relative obscurity was heralded by a similar “focus” project – one based around orchestral music – and also because who can swallow the idea that the man who sang in the Addicted to Love video can sing the blues?
However the new album Drive is a different kettle of fish to his orchestral attempts and to the world of guitar-playing MTV models. In many ways Palmer is returning to his roots by taking on the Blues, as before Power Station and Addicted to Love he was actually more of an R&B man than anything else.
Drive very much focuses on the B in R&B, with 15 of the 16 tracks being Blues standards or ‘bluesy’ cover-versions, and only one of the tracks being written by Palmer himself. This original piece, Lucky, with its mid-tempo accordion pop, blends neatly into the album thanks to some traditional sounding instrumentation.
And instrumentation is a major attraction across all of Drive. Palmer found a number of quality musicians such as Carl Carlton, Franco Limido, Dr Gabbs, and his own son Jim and he let them do their thing. It is a pleasure to hear some classic arrangements played skilfully and produced to a modern level of clarity and quality, while still keeping the essence of that ‘bluesy’ feeling. No crackling records or white noise here!
A key instrument in this sort of music is of course the voice, and believe it or not Robert Palmer can sing the Blues. Right from the start, where his gutsy voice rips its way through Mama Talk to Your Daughter, it is clear that Palmer is not holding back on going for the full Blues vocal. And he pretty much pulls it off, with other great performances on TV Dinners, Hound Dog and Crazy Cajun Cake Walk Band.
Further interpretations worth watching out for here are Who’s Fooling Who, Am I Wrong, I Need Your Love so Bad, and 29 Ways (To My Baby’s Door), but one to avoid is Stellar, the low point of Drive. Here Palmer takes the whole thing a little too far, trying to sing over the steel drums with a Caribbean voice – not a good idea.
Despite Palmer’s ’80s pop image and the high production values on this album, Drive has a real sense of integrity and unity. In fact, if anything, the high production values help to re-illuminate some well-loved songs, and Palmer’s profile will help to introduce a wider audience to the joy of classic Blues.