Marc Cohn, Listening Booth: 1970, Saguaro Road Records
Turning a song by Bread into something so soulful it sounds just this side of Al Green is no easy feat. But that’s exactly what Marc Cohn does on this intriguing concept album of songs which were originally hits in 1970. A lot of the kudos should also go to producer John Leventhal, because the music stays in such a backtown groove it’s almost impossible to resist.
But Cohn’s voice carries the load, from the opening track, Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” to the closer from Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Long as I Can See the Light.” Marc Cohn’s biggest hit, “Walking in Memphis,” should have let us know he is capable of finding a groove to work the mojo on these songs. The way the tempos are slowed down into a near-languid strut, with the electric guitars left in the closet in favor of acoustics, is an instant tip we’re in the presence of deep feelers.
All involved must have known that instead of a heavy hand, luring us into submission is going to make these songs saturate our spirits. And they do, never mind most of them come from the pens of the masters, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Smokey Robinson. Still, Listening Booth could easily have been a wash if it weren’t for the room the music is given to glow. Blue-eyed soul is in short supply these days. Maybe it’s that the style is just written-out, or possibly perfection is the true culprit, when studio expertise has made singing from the inside a pursuit of the past. Let’s hope not, because listening to “Tears of a Clown” reminds us what a voice and lyric are capable of.
The one slight misstep, a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” is more about subject matter than talent. Instead of romance, Robert Hunter’s lyrics artfully deal with the aftermath of the tragic Altamont concert, and just feel out of place. No matter, really, because the following track, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” turns the goosebumps back up full tilt.
The question now is whether Marc Cohn’s follow-up is 1969 or 1971, because he’s definitely onto something.
Bill Bentley is a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director. He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins.