Early on in his career Rod Stewart established himself as one of rock's great interpretive vocalists, which made the flatness of his Great American Songbook series a bit puzzling. If any classic rock veteran of the '60s should have been able to offer new spins on old standards, it should have been Rod the Mod, who was turning Elvis' "All Shook Up" inside out on Jeff Beck's Truth and turned the Rolling Stones' defiant "Street Fighting Man" into a folk-rock lament, all before "Maggie May" turned Rod into a star. But none of the Great American Songbook volumes strayed from the tried and true, which may have been part of the reason they were big hits -- after all, familiar songs are always warmly received when they're performed in a familiar fashion -- but they were filled with undistinguished performances that bordered on laziness. It was possible to make excuses for his performances, chief among them that Stewart was simply not rooted in this material, so he simply chose the easiest route out of the song, but it didn't change the fact that all three records were deadly dull, even if they were enormous successes one and all. It's hard to give up that success, particularly for a veteran who was so desperate for a hit a few years back, he foolishly attempted the clunky modern R&B album Human, so it's not surprising that when he moved on from the Great American Songbook, he chose a related project: Great Rock Classics of Our Time, which is the subtitle of 2006's Still the Same, his first new record since GAS, and one that shares the aesthetic of that respectful and commercial trawl through the past. Still the Same finds Rod singing 13 songs that more or less could be called rock standards, every one of them hits since Stewart himself was a hitmaker, most of them dating from the '70s, when he was a superstar (roughly ten, if you count "Love Hurts" as a hit for Nazareth, which in this context you should).
Not a bad idea at all, at least on paper, since this would seem to return Rod to his strengths: singing rock & roll and pop, influenced by soul and a little bit of country and folk. This theory has a bit of a problem, however. It's made under the assumption that it would be the Rod of the '70s singing songs from the '70s instead of the Rod of the new millennium singing songs of the '70s -- and the latter, of course, is what is featured on Still the Same. That means instead of Rod the Interpreter you get Rod the Karaoke Star, singing over arrangements that aren't merely familiar, but nearly exact replicas of the original hits. This isn't far removed from The Great American Songbook, which never offered a surprise, but those at least had the excellent work of Richard Perry, who was faithful without being slavish. Here, almost without exception, the arrangements deliberately recall the original hits, right down to grace notes and throwaway fills. This doesn't necessarily make for a lousy record, since Rod does indeed sound more comfortable fronting a rock band than he did singing with a big band, but Stewart makes no attempt to stamp these tunes with his own personality. Nowhere is that truer than on "It's a Heartache." Bonnie Tyler's delivery on the original was a downright homage to Rod, so close to his raspy phrasing that it was (and is) often mistaken for Rod himself. So what does he do on his version? He copies it, right down to the inflections. It's not bad; it's just pointless, because Tyler's original sounds more like classic Rod than Rod's does here. And while that sentiment may hold true for only "It's a Heartache," the rest of the album follows suit. The title Still the Same is all too true: these are the same versions of the same old songs you know and love, only they're now sleepily sung by Stewart. It's not the worst album he's done, and it's an improvement over The Great American Songbook if only because it plays to his strengths, but it aspires to be nothing more than pleasant and it achieves nothing so much as being just that.