You could fry an egg to perfection on Wilson Pickett's new album. Hell, you could even make a full-course dinner on it - fast boil, low simmer, deep fry, slow sizzle; any kind of cooking you want.
Wilson's music has been so consistently strong for so many years that one can only marvel at the depth of his energy. Even though he has left Atlantic, his back-up is still almost as excellent as it was when Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd were running his sessions. Surely a great deal of credit is due Brad Shapiro, Wilson's co-producer, co-arranger, and co-author on Miz Lena's Boy. But the settings are so characteristic that it seems now that Wilson himself has always had a large, even definitive, part in production; at least after he was tutored in the magic arts at Atlantic.
The single flaw here is Wilson's version of "Never My Love," a ballad that calls for a delicacy and precision that he simply doesn't possess. Still, the interest of the band tracks is almost enough to deflect attention (in this one instance) from the singing. In fact, the balance of restraint and power in the rhythm section throughout the album is outdone only by the tasty flair of the horns; punching, swelling, bending, without a trace of excess. The burning wheel of the ensemble behind Wilson's stabbing, textured voice is marred solely by guitar soloing of the hard rock, dirt-tone variety. Ironically, the rhythm guitar parts seem to be played by another, cooler guitarist, whose pure tone and agility, even in the most fleeting fills, easily surpass el screamo's anxious frothing.
The most inventive cut on the album is a Latin treatment of Chuck Berry's "Memphis." The success of the arrangement is evidenced by the tasteful use of electric piano as the dominant rhythm instrument. So hackneyed has electric keyboard become in the last few years that its mere presence usually means phony funk. Indeed, "Memphis" itself is more often than not an emblem for the overworked classic. And yet, in spite of the skeletons, Wilson and Shapiro have managed to give the tune fresh life.
It's hardly news to note, too, that Wilson Pickett still has the best scream and grunt in rhythm and blues.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, November 6, 1973