Rosco Gordon

Dualtone

Rosco Gordon, the overlooked piano wizard whose playful rhythmic sense helped shape R&B and ska, spent his final days worrying that he had lost his music-makin’ mojo. Even sadder, the lethal combination of poor production and sappy sentiment on the new No Dark in America confirms this minor legend’s darkest fears. Equal parts failed comeback effort and hackneyed attempt to dispel post-9/11 gravitas, this posthumously released swan song is neither revelatory enough to make you appreciate Gordon’s talent anew nor joyful enough to make you, as the then-74-year-old sings in the opener, “Dry your eyes/Face tomorrow/Give strength to America.” Though the Memphis, Tenn., native had seen the rights to much of his music sucked away by the Elvis-industrial complex, battled a laundry list of health problems, and buried a wife and a girlfriend by the time he recorded these songs in the late ’90 and early ’00s, his voice and playing remained intact. So the raw material was there. And if Gordon didn’t want to make the dangerous, subversive, sex-driven music he was known for well into his eighth decade, fine. He just shouldn’t have made this hollow-sounding soundtrack to a Twin Towers telethon. To be fair, Gordon wasn’t the only guilty party: America is infused with the old-guy-meets-new-technology vibe that is the downfall of rock ’n’ roll’s senior elite, and for that the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of one-named producer Lij and his collaborators. Because the pianist was ailing, the album was thrown together with overdubs at no fewer than nine studios. Though this might work when someone rediscovers Aphex Twin in 2050, the Pro Tools–y artifice spoils otherwise strong tracks such as “Girl in My World” and “You Don’t Care About Nothing.” If Gordon and his band happened to be in the same room, as on the lyrically suspect “No Dark in America,” the pianist’s distinctive drunken backbeat proves him a worthy inheritor of Thelonious Monk’s rhythmic crown. If not—well, only the solo gem “Love on Top of Love” and one or two others are free of the square drumming and cheesy string and brass arrangements that crowd Gordon’s performances elsewhere. The liner notes bend over backward to acknowledge the out-of-tune piano on “You Look Bad When You’re Naked,” recorded in Gordon’s apartment, but it’s clear that Lij & Co. miss the point: This was an artist who sounded best when he didn’t try too hard. Indeed, the warts-and-all title track might be America’s best: a snapshot of a musician singing one of the stupidest songs you’ll ever hear, not giving two shits about what anyone else thinks, and loving it. —Justin Moyer