Joe Cocker

Luxury You Can Afford

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Luxury You Can Afford was Joe Cocker's only album for Asylum Records. Released in 1978 and produced by Allen Toussaint, it had all the pedigree to be a great recording. With Cocker's trademark wounded, Ray Charles-derived vocal style and Toussaint's genius with fluid, soulful horn charts, it really should have been another high-water mark in Cocker's career. That it only partly succeeds is the disappointment, but with this reissue from Wounded Bird Records, a reappraisal seems in order, and with hindsight, Luxury You Can Afford was much more solid an outing than it first appeared to be. Cocker's version of Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow" is a perfect cover, and Toussaint's horns give the arrangement a solid swing, and some swagger and punch as well. "I Can't Say No," written by John Bettis and Daniel Moore, could stand in as an autobiography of Cocker's early years, and lines like "I can't say no/I never could" sung in Cocker's woozy, world-beaten voice carry the ring of absolute truth, as does the soulful and wounded resignation of Cocker's signature rasp on "Wasted Years," a song written by Phil Driscoll. The lead track, the wonderful "Fun Time" (penned by Toussaint), was hyped as a disco track at the time of the album's release, but now appears to have been really more of a New Orleans dance and party cut, and it rocks smoothly and firmly without ever tipping over into Donna Summer territory. What mars Luxury You Can Afford, though, are two covers that must have looked good on paper, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and Norman Whitfield's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," most notably done in a for-the-ages version by Marvin Gaye. Both songs would seem tailor-made for Cocker's vocal approach, but the arrangements on Luxury sink them immediately. "Pale" is paced too slow, a critical problem for a song that depends on its hazy ennui to work in the first place, while the arrangement for "Grapevine" come across as disjointed and blustery, a situation that plays to Cocker's weaknesses rather than his strengths. Without these two serious missteps, Luxury You Can Afford would have the coherence of tone to be resurrected as an underappreciated classic. With them, unfortunately, it suffers from a sad musical schizophrenia.

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