by Jon Garelick
Sear Sound on West 48th Street is a clean, well-lighted place, and big as a hotel ballroom. Which might seem like no big deal unless you've cut a record lately. In which case you're used to grungy, cramped space untouched by the light of day, just big enough to hold the necessary equipment, and where the musicians themselves - the "artists" - function like little more than pieces of equipment.
Walter Sear - bespectacled, gray haired, with a gray vandyke beard - presides over his domain like a luxury cruise ship captain, courtly, deferential. As Peter Wolf offers a guided tour of the studio, where he's just recorded "Fool's Parade" (Mercury, due in stores this Tuesday), he refers to its owner as "Dr. Sear".
Every detail of the studio has been personally attended to by Sear. A massive control board is housed in a dark antique wood cabinet. The gain knobs and VU meters of his vintage, tube amplified compressors gleam. When a pieces of electronics breaks or wears out, he and his staff personally rebuild it. It's difficult to tell the new from the vintage.
Wolf's guided tour leads to the giant main recording studio. "When we got here, it looked really familiar, and I couldn't figure it out. And then I realized : this used to the the Hit Factory, where the Geils Band recorded "Give It To Me".
Peter Wolf has come a long way to find Sear Sound, and to record "Fool's Parade". It's a homecoming in a lot of ways. The R&B element has been key to his music from his very first album with the J. Geils Band - and, so it's said - with his previous band, the Hallucinations. But as Woofuh Goofuh himself might say, something musta got lost somewhere down the line.
As his solo career sputtered, Wolf was beset by overproduction, strained post new wave attempts at sounding "contemporary". With 1996's "Long Line", he took a step back, began retooling his music from the inside out, working on a more personal content to his lyrics. But the new spare, direct approach sometimes left his voice stranded. He hadn't yet found the music to fit his new lyric viewpoint. On "Fool's Parade", he's found that fit.
The first Geils album, in 1970, drew on Albert Collins and Smokey Robinson and Otis Rush; the new album - though it's almost all originals - draws on the spirit of O.V. Wright (whose "I'd Rather Be (Blind, Crippled And Crazy)" gets covered) and Don Covay and Dan Penn, writers and singers from the heart of the R&B tradition. Wolf also allows that Penn's 1994 "Do Right Man" was an inspiration. On that album, the author of "I'm Your Puppet", "The Dark End Of The Street", and "Do Right Woman Do Right Man" was bathed in a warm ambiance of horns, B-3 organ and guitars.
Producing with Kenny White, Wolf gets the same warm sound here, from the first slow trickle of electric piano on "Long Way Back Again", Wolf's wheezy Dylanesque harmonica paraphrasing the melody and Wolf himself singing over wisk broom brushes - "Woke up, such a lonely feeling / Got so high, had to peel me off the ceiling." The album was produced live, for the most part, and though the subject matter is often serious and soulful - loss, broken dreams, and most of all the passage of time - the music maintains its relaxed feeling, even on the most driving rockers.
On "The Cold Heart Of The Stone" (an elegiac trip that starts on Central Square's Green Street), there's a Springsteen-like wall of ringing guitars and keyboards, but it never strains. Working over his memories, joining past and present in his lyrics, Wolf keeps the atmosphere intimate. In a pop world dominated by synthed-up divas, crunchy sampled beats, and guitar power trios, he works with ensembles that are big and deeply detailed but never cluttered.
It's not just Wolf who gets to speak personally on the album, it's every player. One of the pleasures of repeated listenings to "Roomful Of Angels" is Taylor Rhode's abiding rhythm guitar, which keeps Wolf company in his solitary plight - in fact, Rhodes might be the angel. On "I'd Rather Be (Blind, Crippled And Crazy)", Wolf cues the great session guitarist Cornell Dupree, "Cornell, let me hear ya", then hums along softly on the second phrase of the solo. At moments like this, "Fool's Parade" has the assurance of what jazz musicians call swing.
The relaxation is there too in Wolf's vocal delivery - the care in giving each word a meaning without overselling it. His voice has never had Penn's natural warm glow or Dylan's existential menace - it's the voice of a great showman. But there's soul in the very care he lavishes on his vocals here.
When he feels the shiver of time on "Long Way Back Again", he tosses off the line "Button up tight, baby / It's chilly when the wind blows", and he eases into the consonants like buttons through the eyes of a familiar overcoat. During the afternoon at Sear Sound, Wolf mentions a few times the importance of "credibility" - the need for his words, above all else, to be believable.
He flips through a travel packet of CDs, asking the engineer to throw one after another on the CD player - Penn, Webb Pierce, Sinatra singing "Saturday night is the lonliest night of the week", Arlene Smith of the Chantels and her hair raising cry "Maybe!" ("What is she, 14 there?" Wolf asks in wonder). And there's his old friend from his Green Street days, Van Morrison. One of Wolf's big inspirations has been his work as MC on the touring Royal Soul Revue during the summer. "Being out there working with all these guys who have influenced me - Jerry Butler from the Impressions and Ben E. King, and just putting together rehersals and working with these guys when they'd come in and loosen up and go through soundchecks.
I learned a tremendous amount about these guys who've been doing it for so long. Basically they're singers, they're soul men. They're sort of like master preachers. And each one had his own technique. There was a very primal sensibility. No one came in with all sorts of charts. It was just a very emotional, gutsy, primal approach to the music.
Even the demands for the band were like 'Hey man, here's where I'm going to bring it down and talk to the people'. There was a certain vulnerability and a delicacy that really affected me. It's funny, because even though this album was made in New York, I tried to make it the way the records at Muscle Shoals and a lot of the other records that I love were made."
So we've got really good players, it's really intimate, very few effects, and pretty dry.\ No big echoes or reverb on the voices. It's pretty much in your face. And so that was the sort of thing in my head that I tried to keep in touch with as we kept going."
Wolf wrote most of the songs with Will Jennings - an old friend and experienced songwriter who's worked on movies, with folks like Burt Bacharach as well as Roy Orbison and the Waterboys. "He's a very soulful guy, and we spent a lot of time just really hanging out together at his place up in northern California and focusing on what's going on in my life and talking philosophically about thigs, which led to a lot of the songs. The first song that we wrote together was "The Cold Heart Of The Stone" which I explained to him was about Boston and innocence and Van Morrison and all of us hanging around and going to clubs.... That and "Long Way Back Again" started some of the thematic stuff of what we were trying to get to."
The thematic thread holds throughout the album - even the heartiest party numbers feel personal. Now Wolf is getting ready to face the vagaries of the contemporary marketplace. "The scary thing after all is said and done is that you hope people will get to hear it, because things are so fragmented now, and in such a state of turmoil where you don't know."
He remembers in particular a time when radio operated on a more spontaneous, personal level, when a personal relationship between a band and a single DJ could make a difference. But at least in creating "Fool's Parade", Wolf feels he was able to avoid the influence of the marketplace on his decision making. Although the album is ridiculously hooky, there's never a moment that feels calculated. "I really tried to avoid any confusions that would sidestep me from the direction that I had in my mind's ear. Sometimes you can get a good track and start doing too much to it or losing it in the mix. So with this, there was a good team that was also working with me, but basically I really was far more focused on what kind of painting I wanted to paint, as opposed to letting the paint take over."
"Fool's Parade" proves you can paint a museum quality piece that's as vital as life on Green Street.