Album Review: Burton Cummings – Above The Ground (2008)

I am thinking of putting myself forward as a non Canadian ambassador to Canadian music as I seem to be forever extolling the virtues of Maple Leaf muso’s. In my eyes at least though, Burton Cummings is the musical King of Canada despite all the other undoubted talent that has come from there. For the unitiated he was the main protaganist behind The Guess Who, a band who in their own way were as influential to the success of rock music in Canada as The Beatles were in England. Cummings is still thought of as a musical God and songwriting genius in his homeland but unfortunately the rest of the world can’t see past his Guess Who hit ‘American Woman’. Cummings delivered numerous hit solo albums in the back end of the seventies but has, like most of his kind, been a bit sporadic in the recording department over the last two decades or so. So this 2008 offering of nineteen completely new tracks was much anticapted by his hard core followers.

When I finally managed to get my hands on a copy it was with some trepidation but a great deal of faith that I put the cans on and settled down to listen. I needn’t have bothered with the trepidation bit though because from the first note of the opening track ‘Crazy If You Mess With The Gods’ it is clear that Cummings has lost none of his talent. The clever lyrics, the catchy riffs and the instant stickability of his hooks shine like a beacon high above the offerings of some of his so called musical betters.

Seriously this album has a little bit of everything and with its length it could easily pass as a ‘best of’ for people unaware of the artist. The aformentioned opener is a great foot tapping uptempo track which would not have been out of place on either his earlier solo albums or even a Guess Who album. Things don’t let up either on the second track ‘Junior Won’t Behave’ which has a great heavy riff but a lyric which only Cummings could get away with being as it is about the restrictions of parenthood. Not exactly the most obvious  rock ‘n’ roll lyric to put over such a heavy riff. ‘TPOS’ then follows which has some really good rock ‘n’ roll piano.

Cummings moves the bar up a notch again with ‘Any Minor Miracle’ which is one of those songs that just gets you straight away. It has one of those lyrics and melodies that just hits you from the very first time you hear it. Brings a lump to your throat and a smile to your heart at the same time. The quality never really drops on the album and even the more ordinary songs are an enjoyable way to spend three or four minutes. ‘Ponderlust’ has a similar type of feel as the opening track and even the albums possible lowlight ‘Rollaway’, a throw away campfire almost comedy song doesn’t fail to leave a smile in its wake. ‘We Just Came From The USA’ has another classic almost tongue in cheek Cummings lyric over a stomping rhythm before we get surprised again by the almost reggae calypso of ‘Pretty Pictures’ which again like the earlier ‘Any Minor Miracle’ just hits the spot and becomes an instant favourite.

The next surprise isn’t far away either as ‘Look Out Charlie’ follows which is just full of swing like melody and another great lyric which you find yourself singing to within a couple of listens. ‘Kurt’s Song’ and ‘Richard’ with its in places menacing vocal don’t let the quality drop either before we launch into another one of Cummings almost chocolate box love songs ‘Dream’ which again like ‘Pretty Pictures’ has a nice calypso undertone. ‘Up In The Canyon’ conversely has a really jerky almost stoccato like keyboard sound to it with Cummings delivering a jazzy vocal which couldn’t be as far removed from the previous track if it tried. The jazz theme continues with ‘A Touch In The Morning’ even if it is in more of a swing cabaret shuffle style. ‘ Revelation’ is up next and is a perfect example of Cummings genius as a lyricist. His storytelling within a lyric is streets ahead of any of his contemporaries yet he always manages to keep the melody and rhythm intact and never loses sight of the fact that the songwriters job is to entertain and not preach. Something which is also evident in ‘Invisible’ another song which just grabs your heart and wrenches it down to your stomach with his ability to mix feel good, heart wrenching, thought provoking and identifiable feelings and emotions over a great melody which even the most stone hearted listener couldn’t fail to be moved by. ‘Retribution’ sees the tempo move up again and this once more veers into Guess Who territory and is to all intents and purposes a straight up rock song. The album ends with the title track another classic Cummings composition over a great stomping jazzy rock piano rhythm.

So to conclude then this is an absolute must for anyone who has any appreciation of Burton Cummings for one but also for anyone who just loves good songs, well played and well sung, good melodies, clever catchy lyrics and plenty of variety. In the space of this album you can imagine you are in a sweaty rock club, on a beach in the West Indies, on a cruise ship or in a jazz cafe somewhere in Canada. Even the albums length, over 75 minutes, doesn’t let it down as at no point do you find your mind wandering mainly due to the continual changes in style and the continually clever and thought provoking lyrics. In fact I have only one complaint about this album ….. why did we have to wait so long for it !

(© Martin Leedham. Originally published on RYM January 2010)

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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