Steve Cropper  
Fire It Up

4/5 reels

On Fire It Up, guitarist Steve Cropper shows swagger, building surprisingly danceable grooves with a joy that makes you see what he must have sounded like as a teen coming up in rock and roll. It's the wild energy of a debut through tree rings of expertise and experience. It's also an unexpected approach for an artist whose name conjures mental images of tasteful accompaniment, his trademark, most notably in the Stax Records house band and with Booker T. and the M.G.'s, which came out of the Stax support work.

In another era, music like this might have been called adult contemporary, a euphemism for the beloved rock stars of our youth aging along with us. Eric Clapton perfected the genre in the 1980s, with albums that rocked in a very controlled way, almost as if to not to wake the kids who were, no doubt, sleeping upstairs. On the one hand, those albums, like Clapton's 1989 Journeyman, felt a little disappointing, like watching a once-great pitcher lose their command. However, there was something reassuring about seeing someone slow down, as people tend to do as they age.

The beauty of Fire It Up comes from Cropper showing his age, but not being limited by it. Helping this is singer Roger C. Reale's worn voice, which also has charm and personality, meshed against Cropper's high-energy rhythms. There's tread on the tires and no one is trying to hide it. It feels more like it's displayed with pride. As the album title promises, Cropper comes in hot, like a younger person trying to grab the listener's attention. He's not assuming that his name is enough to woo anyone; he's desperately trying to close the sale as if he's not a soul/blues legend. But at the same time, he's got decades of mastery that makes it easier for him to earn our attention.

"I'm Not Havin' It" is a huge beat, horns, and organ, all of it oversized, yet Cropper's rhythm guitar, often subtle within the mix, controls the song, steering everyone where they need to go, until he finally emerges to provide some up-front guitar stabs that could almost be punk. But the groove makes you sway. While I'm not the type of person who suddenly gets up and starts dancing when a good song comes on, because I don't live in a romantic comedy, it's easy to see how this track could get a bar floor moving.

"Out of Love" has a "Mustang Sally" tilt. Here Felix Cavaliere's organ holds the song together, freeing up Cropper to solo in his classic style of short, soulful bursts, almost like he's afraid to interrupt—even on his own solo album—so, as he always has, he crams all of his genius into four bars increments. The lyrics, by Reale, are also straight-forward. "The Go-Getter is Gone" is oddly confessional, talking about depression. But the topic also grounds the album in the present, even as some of the sounds are more of a 60s vintage.

Those classic 60s sounds are Fire It Up's beauty. Cropper crafts familiar sounds, but with a modern sensibility. The drums are loud. The horns punch. There's nothing laid-back about the album. Cropper and his band are pushing themselves, but are still working within the soul blues parameters he helped define.