Al Kooper

I Stand Alone

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Listening to I Stand Alone for the first time is a lot like first hearing the Sgt. Pepper album, except that this album challenges and rewards the listener in ways that the Beatles' psychedelic classic never tried to or could have. Al Kooper's first solo album is a dazzling, almost overpoweringly beautiful body of music, and nearly as sly at times in its humor as it is impressive in its musical sensibilities -- specifically, the overture serves its function, and also pokes knowing, savagely piercing fun at the then-current vogue for sound collage-type pieces (most especially the Beatles' "Revolution #9"). Those looking for a reference point can think of I Stand Alone as a very, very distant cousin to the second Blood, Sweat & Tears album, as well as a much closer relative to the original group's Child Is Father to the Man, drawing on a few remnants from the tail end of his tenure with the group and a bunch of new songs and compositions by others that Kooper wanted to record -- one beautiful element of his career, that helped distinguish him from a lot of other talented people of the period, is that unlike a lot of other musicians who were gifted songwriters Kooper never shied away from a good song written by someone else, especially if he could throw himself into it 100 percent or so; and he jumps in headfirst, as a stylist, singer, and musician, all over "I Stand Alone." Stylistically, it's a gloriously bold work, encompassing radiant soul, elements of jazz going back to the swing era, classical, pop, and even rockabilly -- and freely (and masterfully) mixing all of them -- into a phantasmagoric whole. The sources of inspiration (and, in some cases, songs) include Harry Nilsson ("One"), Bill Monroe (and who else, except maybe Elvis in a really inspired moment, was even thinking of covering "Blue Moon of Kentucky" in 1969?), Sam & Dave ("Toe Hold"), Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff ("Hey, Western Union Man"), the Beatles, as well as Kooper himself -- he delivers a lost classic in "Right Now for You" (which sounds like a really good lost cut from the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle album), and a hauntingly beautiful McCartney-esque nod to the Beatles in the "Eleanor Rigby"-like "Song and Dance for the Unborn Frightened Child." And, yet, for all of its diversity of sound and its free ranging repertory, and the unexpected edits and tempo changes, the album all holds together as a coherent body of work, a sort of more ambitious and personalized follow-up to Child Is Father to the Man that still leaves one kind of "whited out" (like the bleached irises of astronaut Dave Bowman's eyes at the end of his voyage through the stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey) at the end -- not even Sgt. Pepper does that anymore. On the down side, the sound effects that Kooper dubbed in between (and sometimes during) the songs may seem strangely distracting today, but they were a product of their time -- this was the tail end of the psychedelic era, after all, and even Simon & Garfunkel had succumbed to the temptation the previous year, though it's hard to imagine too many people in the business keeping a straight face about such production techniques after hearing the fun this album has at their expense. I Stand Alone was a musical trip worth taking in 1969 -- thanks to a 2003 Japanese reissue (in 24-bit sound, with the original jacket recreated), the ticket is still there for the asking, and the value of the journey is undiminished decades later.

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