Roll With It

Steve Winwood

Virgin Records, 1988

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I admit it, I gave Daily Vault Grand Poobah Christopher Thelen a pretty hard time when I noticed recently that the Vault had NEVER once reviewed a Steve Winwood album.

I mean come on, the guy's a legend… joined the Spencer Davis Group at the age of 15 in 1963… scored (and co-wrote) a huge (immortal, even) hit in "Gimme Some Lovin'" in 1966… was admired early on by the likes of Eric Clapton, whom he later joined with as the twin towers of supergroup Blind Faith… joined with drummer Jim Capaldi as one of the principal creative forces behind late 60s-early 70s progressive stalwarts Traffic… and as a solo artist, scored big with six Top Ten hits and three Grammys for his 1986 smash hit album Back In The High Life.

That, of course, is the good news about Steve Winwood.

The bad news is that for every high point in his catalog there seems to be an equal and opposite low. Part of this is directly traceable to Winwood's unfortunate fascination with synthesizers. He was a dynamo tearing into rhythm and blues tunes on the old Hammond B-3 organ, but during the 70s and 80s wrung the life out of a lot of his music by overusing electronic keyboards and percussion.

Roll With It is more or less a classic in the category of "missed opportunities." In 1988 Winwood had just scored the biggest hit of his career in the brilliant, highly melodic Back In The High Life album, and was poised to consolidate the status as a solo superstar that had largely escaped him since Traffic disbanded in 1974.

You can tell that's what's on his mind by the artwork -- a Herb Ritts glam-rock portrait in leather jacket with WINWOOD superimposed on it -- and the songs, a slick, formulaic set of largely mid-tempo blue-eyed soul numbers co-written by top industry lyric doctor Will Jennings. Winwood wanted to grab the brass ring, and how.

He missed.

The music that makes up the bulk of Roll With It is so pallid it barely manages to go in one ear and out the other. Too slick for rock, too pop for fusion, too heavy for r&b, too progressive for pop, and too bland for progressive, for the most part it ends up nowhere… and nowhere is not a happy place to be.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Not that it isn't without some charm -- the album actually starts off strong with the title track (a #1 hit), a tight, horn-heavy r&b number. This is Winwood at his most appealing -- focused, singing soulfully, and relying principally on piano and Hammond organ from his keyboard rig. "Holding On" is solid, as well, with a beefy rhythm section and nicely arranged horns and synths. Both incorporate the Memphis Horns to good effect.

Too bad it's largely downhill from there… "The Morning Side" desperately seeks to create a glimmering, twilight feel with its brittle electric piano trills, looming synth washes and chirpy electronic percussion, but in the end it's all atmosphere and no substance. The mood may be there, but the song lacks any emotional payoff.

Worse yet, next comes the low point of the album, the improbably plodding "Put On Your Dancing Shoes," whose cheesy synths and sterile drum machine are capped by a truly embarrassing lyric. Winwood seemed to have realized at some point that the song was barking at him like the dog it is, because he ends up throwing in every trick he can think of to salvage it. There's a bridge that shifts in odd but uninteresting ways, a weak faux-blues guitar solo, and the tried-and-true but here totally unsuccessful call-and-answer vocals at the end. It's a groaner.

Winwood kicks off the second half of the album using the same tools, albeit executed with a little more flair, on "Don't You Know What The Night Can Do." Still, even a stronger melody, more interesting synth flourishes, and nicely arranged background vocals only bring the song up to the level of a memorable advertising jingle -- a fact quickly grasped by the musical geniuses in Michelob's marketing department.

Nothing kills a guy's musical credibility quite like making a beer commercial instead of a song.

Bouncing back yet again (inconsistency, thy name is Winwood), the track that follows creates the most excitement on this entire disc -- "Hearts on Fire," a driving dance track co-written with Winwood's ex-Traffic mate Jim Capaldi. They clearly had a good time putting this one together, as evidenced by its irrepressible bass line and the sly self-reference Winwood throws in: "She said no, but while you see a chance / You better take it" (harking back to his 1981 solo breakthrough single "While You See A Chance").

Closing out the album, "One More Morning" offers a sweet lyric (I'm a sucker for songs written "For Mom") well-sung, but otherwise barely registers musically. "Shining Song" likewise bounces along harmlessly without ever leaving a lasting impression. There's nothing bad about these songs; they're just so bland and full of sheen that they fail to connect with me as a listener.

Unfortunately, Winwood never really recovered from this album. He has managed only two solo albums since (with a short-lived Traffic reunion sandwiched between), and both have sounded like yet another try at the Roll With It formula.

The basic problems with the formula seem obvious in hindsight: Winwood is hindered throughout by lyricist Jennings' pedestrian approaches and cliché renderings, and doesn't help matters with his own propensity for slicking up r&b music whose very nature shouts for a looser, grittier approach. After all, what's left of a soul album -- blue-eyed or otherwise -- if you take out the soul?

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 1999 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin Records, and is used for informational purposes only.