THERE IS A LONG and established tradition of British rock 'n' roll singers making the best of their resemblance to particular American soul singers. When Rod Stewart started off for instance, he was essentially an imitator of the late Sam Cooke; late he acquired several David Ruffin mannerisms.And then there's Joe Cocker, who has always had a great deal of Ray Charles in his voice.
So it's no slight on Frankie Miller to say that he sounds an awful lot like the late Otis Redding throughout most of Full House (Chrysalis CHR 1128). The similarity is there, as plain as the nose on your face, and Miller would be a fool not to take advantage of it: he's got the same hoarse, pungent quality in his voice, the same tendency to use horn lines to punctuate his vocals, the same sense of urgency and unbearable emotion in his phrasing.
That in itself should be enough to establish Miller as the most important and naturally talented new voice to come out of Britain since Paul Rodgers, once of Free and now with Bad Company. But for his fourth album, newly released and one of the funkiest records of the year, Miller has taken pains to make sure that everything is right: he's put together his best band ever and has gone looking for material that challenges the range and flexibility of his extraordinary voice.
Much of the original material on Full House is in the familiar Stax-Volt groove that proved so congenial to Redding - especially Miller-Robin Trower composition "This Love of Mine," where Chris Speding's guitar work evokes Steve Cropper just as surely as Miller's voice evokes Redding's The Memphis Horns, who played on nearly all of Redding's hits, chip in here and elsewhere, so "The Doodle Song" and "Down the Honkytonk," two tunes in which Chrissie Stewart's jumping bass lines energize the music even further, seem cut from the same cloth.
But "Searching," a number written and arranged by Pete Knight and Robert Johnson of Steeleye Span, forces Miller to adopt another style altogether. He sings here to the accompaniment of a string quartet and an organ, building on the sense of hurtful yearning conveyed in the previous song, a dramatic, soulful remake of John Lennen's "Jealous Guy," while adding an unexpected touch of restrained melancholia.
The real test of Miller's mettle, however, comes on "Love Letters." It's been said that a great singer is one who can make the listener believe in a bad song, and that is exactly what Miller does here, caressing the lyrics and injecting great feeling into this impossible piece of '50s pop sentimentality. Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, whose solid piano work underlines Miller's vocal, deserves a little of the credit, but the performance, like most of the rest of Full House, is primarily a vocal tour de force.
Other new releases from Britain include:
Dave Edmunds: Get It (Swan Song SS 8418). There's no one in pop music today with as much affection for the rock 'n' roll styles of the '50s as studio ace Dave Edmunds. Hero he evokes memories of everyone from Chuck Berry ("Get Out of Denver") to the Everly Brothers ("Here Comes the Weekend"), showing a special fondness for rockabilly. His dazzling revivals of "Let's Talk About Us" and "My Baby Left Me" illustrate his familiarity with that genre, but the best example of what he can do is "I Knew the Bride," a new tune written by former Brinsley Schwarz bassist Nick Lowe. The lyrics are simply wonderful, and Edmunds's guitar work and superb production make it even clearer that this is the best rock 'n' roll song to appear thus far this year.
Kevin Ayers: Yes We Have No Mananas, So Get Your Mananas Today (ABC AB-1021). This is the most commercial effort yet from the man who was once the guiding light of Soft Machine. It's as sardonic in tone as anything else he's done - just listen to "Mr. Cool" or "Ballad of Mr. Snake" - but the songs themselves are a shade more accessible, mostly because of the band Ayers has assembled. They're particularly aggressive and rocking on "Star" and "Help Me," easing off a bit for "Yes I Do" and an updated version of "Falling in Love Again." The "special thanks to Ollie Halsall for amazing guitaring" are, by the way, well deserved.
Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind (Atlantic SD 18216). Three previous solo albums have established Roxy Music's lead singer as a quirky but brilliant interpreter of some of rock's best-known standards. Here the material, all written by Ferry, isn't nearly as strong, but the perverse appeal of his coolly detached singing style largely overcomes that. The plays the role of the world-weary romantic to the hilt on "One Kiss" and "Love Me Madly Again" and opts for tongue-in-cheek exoticism on "Tokyo Joe," but it's a surging horn section and Chris Spedding's slide guitar that are most responsible for the success of "This Is Tomorrow."