I thought I’d kick off here with a review of the most recent album I’ve purchased: Jerry Lee Lewis’ Mean Old Man. Released in September 2010 in the US and October 2010 elsewhere the album was recorded the intervening years since the release of Last Man Standing in 2006 and marks the 75th birthday of the Killer!
For those that don’t know, Jerry Lee Lewis is an American singer/pianist and is most famous for his late 1950’s hits: Whole Lotta Shakin’ and Great Balls of Fire. His career has tracked a rocky road since then but he is now one of the few (if not the only) original rock’n’roll star to still be recording and releasing in the 21st century!
Mean Old Man
Since the release of the four track ep this album has been controversial amongst the Lewis faithful. There are many who love the new album and defend it to hilt but on the other side there are those who claim that Lewis is too old, just going through the motions and is muddied by the duets.
I fall somewhere in the middle. When I first heard the four tracks on the ep I’ve got to admit I was a tad disappointed. Three out of the four tracks were recuts of songs Jerry had recorded earlier in his career and (unlike Before The Night Is Over) didn’t need re-recording imho! The sound is patchy – Jerry’s vocals are clear for the most part across the album but in places, such as the chorus on Sweet Virginia, support is brought in to beef up the sound. Sound-wise, I have one real complaint regarding the album – the piano. Many of the tracks do not feature piano at all, and where it does appear its often murky and pitches in and out – even in solos e.g. Roll Over Beethoven. The performances are varied, some such as I Really Don’t Want To Know still have a sense of genuine emotion about them, others, such as Here Comes That Rainbow Again, sound comparatively flat to my ears. The choice of material is again patchy in my view, some, such as Mean Old Man, were inspired choices and Jerry really shines, others like Sunday Morning Coming Down must have sounded like great ideas at the time but fail to deliver, and then there are the re-cuts: at least half of the 20 released tracks (including bonuses). I’ll now go on to review the songs on the album before finishing off with a score out of 10.
Mean Old Man (Feat. Ronnie Wood) – A brilliant single and superb opener for the album. This track has attitude in abundance in both the lyrics and the performance. There’s no piano on this track but Jerry’s commanding vocal performance more than makes up for it. The piano version performed a few times in 2008 was also superb and its a real shame this was not used more to promote the album in September. My only request would be to cut Kris Kristofferson’s baby talk off the end!
Rockin’ My Life Away (Feat. Kid Rock and Slash) – One of the tracks that first made it out on the four-track ep. It’s an acceptable version and you can’t fault Kid Rock for enthusiasm and energy. However it inevitably can’t live up to the cuts by a younger, stronger Jerry Lee.
Dead Flowers (Feat. Mick Jagger) – The first of the two Stones country cuts. The performance here is pretty good and Mick gives some good strengthening to the vocal in the choruses. I do wonder if the lyrics about needles and spoons really suit Jerry though! No piano here.
Middle Age Crazy (Feat. Tim McGraw and Jon Brion) – The next of the unnecessary re-cuts for me. The performance here isn’t bad in isolation, the piano features throughout and McGraw seems to find mileage in the song. However, like Rockin’ My Life Away, I don’t think it adds anything at all to the original cut.
You Can Have Her (Feat. Eric Clapton and James Burton) – A pretty good cut. Its a shame that there is no piano on this track but both Clapton and Burton ensure that there is plenty going on on guitar! Clapton also supplies some backing vocals in the choruses. A lively, rockabilly-feeling, track.
You Are My Sunshine (Feat. Sheryl Crow and Jon Brion) – When this track first appeared on the ep I wasn’t particularly keen on it. However, it has grown on me ever since! It’s a strong performance from both Lewis and Crow and probably has some of the best piano on the album – you can really hear Jerry’s left hand boogie-ing during the solo.
Hold You In My Heart (Feat. Shelby Lynne) – One of the slower country tracks on the album. It’s fairly good and the piano features well throughout. Other than the ‘ooohs’ in the background, I’m not really sure what Lynne is doing to make this track a duet!
Swinging Doors (Feat. Merle Haggard and James Burton) – Like many of the recuts, this track again shows the weakness in Jerry’s voice and possibly piano playing compared with the man from yester-year. However, both Haggard and Lewis seem to be enjoying the cut and its a fair performance. Its nice to hear Haggard paying tribute to Jerry in the track.
Roll Over Beethoven (Feat. Ringo Starr, John Mayer and Jon Brion) – This track originated as an impromptu while Lewis and Starr were recording for Last Man Standing. It’s a rocking performance and representative of the way Jerry plays the track live. The guitars are overdubbed onto the track and feature strongly without. The piano solo is good but seems to vanish in the middle.
Sweet Virginia (Feat. Keith Richards) – To my ears one the strongest tracks on the album. Jerry’s vocal performance is a little clouded with a chorus being present for most of the track. However, the performance is positive and I find the song to be generally uplifting. It also features Ken Lovelace on fiddle, a rare sound these days!
Railroad To Heaven (Feat. Solomon Burke) – A strong track which I feel is spoilt by Burke’s overdubbed vocal. I don’t blame Burke though because I get the impression he was asked to dub onto what was already a complete track laid down by Jerry and so struggled to find any space to perform.
Bad Moon Rising (Feat. John Fogerty) – To my ears the worst track on the album. Lewis’ performance is slow and uninspired – some of the words are barely intelligible; he is largely drowned out throughout by Fogerty struggling to give the track a lift. No Piano here.
Please Release Me (Feat. Gillian Welch) – A fair performance by both Lewis and Welch. The guitar is clearly Ken Lovelace and receives a name check for his solo. A good track but the vocal duet style used makes a little too country for me – just my taste!
Whiskey River (Feat. Willie Nelson) – Another good cut. Its lively and right from Jerry running his hands up the keyboard to start the track, it has a live feel throughout. Lewis and Nelson duet well and the latter supplies a nice solo on what’s left of his guitar!
I Really Don’t Want To Know (Feat. Gillian Welch) – Possibly the best slow cut on the album. Jerry’s performance is strong and he conveys the emotion of the song well. Welch makes a good contribution without overshadowing the main man.
Sunday Morning Coming Down – A fair performance. In isolation its not bad but the comparisons are inevitable. I would have preferred Jerry to be piano to really help make the track his own.
Will The Circle Be Unbroken (Feat. Mavis Staples, Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofgren) – Another re-cut. Once again, the track in isolation is ok but I wouldn’t say and Jerry makes the most of the song. A real shame that he’s not on piano for this one as he’s played it so many times and it could really do with a piano solo.
Miss The Mississippi And You – A track left over from Last Man Standing. A piano and voice only re-cut of the track originally released on Young Blood in 1995. A pretty good performance, although not that different to the 1995 version.
Bonus: Here Comes That Rainbow Again (Feat. Shelby Lynne) – On this track Jerry sings the first verse and Lynne the second. Possibly a bit fast in tempo but a pretty good performance throughout. I would have preferred for it to be a solo cut and to hear sing both verses because for me the song is about the story and I would like to hear Jerry tell it all.
Bonus: Money (Feat. Levi Krauss) – A cut especially for the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet sees Jerry duetting with the man responsible for playing him on stage! A superb cut, the tempo and the piano are both good and Krauss certainly seems to be enjoying trading blows with the Killer himself!
Overall I think the album is strong. Sure, its not the Jerry Lee of twenty or thirty years ago but I think its a huge testament to the man that he’s still pounding the keys well over fifty years since his first hit! I think the selection could be improved with the addition of some of mid-tempo rockers that shined so well on Last Man Standing in order to bring out the cockier side of Jerry’s character but overall a strong and varied album nonetheless.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Mean Old Man: 7/10