One has to hand to it to Edwin McCain. Ten years after his big hit, "I'll Be," appeared on Atlantic's Lava imprint, he's been all over the map and all but lost musically. Yet, he's consistently recorded and toured no matter the economic or critical circumstances. He's also played many different kinds of music, from rootsy, jam-based rock & roll, to introspective solo acoustic shows, to barnstorming Southern R&B dates that are big on covers and crowd-pleasers. In fact, McCain and his band are diverse enough to be able to pull 500 songs out of the hat at any given time. Nobody's Fault But Mine is his first all-covers record and it's solid top to bottom. These covers come from the roots of McCain's raising in Greenville, SC: Southern soul and funk. McCain used most of his road band and some ringers for the date, including the nearly ubiquitous drummer Eddie Bayers; Ivan Neville on various keyboards such as the B-3, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, clavinet, and backing vocals; and Doug Moffett and Quentin Ware on horns. Guitarist Steve Cropper and singer Joan Osborne both make guest appearances. Produced by veteran Tor Hyams, the approach and mix are loose, dirty, and woolly; the sound Hyams gets here is very immediate and present, nearly live sounding -- and yes, that's a very good thing. It's raw on the edges and warm in the middle.
As to the song selection, one can simply say that McCain has cajones: anyone can cover any song, but to be able to take classic soul tracks that have been well defined already and interpret them as if they were your own and/or new songs, while bringing out what made them special in the first place, takes a special kind of audacity, and his song choices are remarkable and terrific. The set opens with a Southern gospel take on Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Can I Get a Witness," which feels like something Delaney Bramlett would have recorded and arranged in his prime. Ike Turner's "Grits Ain't Groceries (All Around the World)" contains all the driving, greasy funk of the original, while McCain's vocal touches on both Ike's and Joe Cocker's, yet remains firmly his own. The horns are killer as they move up against the whomp of chunka-chunka guitar chops. The reading of Carolyn Franklin's "Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)," with its female backing chorus, is right up there in the red; it's got the elegance and exuberance of the original, but McCain's gritty approach takes it to another place. It's more desperate -- every minute counts in this singer's universe and the determination in it is based on survival instinct as well as resolve. Another killer is the steamy, nasty rock guitar in the fabulous "I Can't Get Next to You," by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield (famously recorded by the Temptations) that brings out the blues element in the tune; though it's slower, it's smokin'. The set closes with Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember," featuring Osborne. This ballad reveals the strength and vulnerability in McCain's voice, and though Osborne's vocal was recorded elsewhere, it feels live whether she's singing in call and response or in the backing chorus. It is simply stunning. Covers albums are risky, but McCain pulls this off with swaggering confidence. There isn't a dud in this 15-song set. It seems weird that a covers album might define an artist; time will tell. But this one surely comes close.