Sound — 8
Three months ago, rock music lost one of its few remaining living legends. The cascade of guitar notes that opens "Johnny B. Goode" has become ingrained in the minds of music fans as a melodic figure on the same order as the four-note motif that opens Beethoven's 5th Symphony, something so immediately identifiable with the century it comes from that nearly all music after it owes at least a part of its lineage to it. Certainly, if you're a guitarist playing rock music or any of its derivative forms, you're at least in part influenced by Chuck Berry, even if you don't realize it. While he certainly didn't invent the rock and roll guitar solo, nor was he really the first guitarist who was recognized for his skills in the genre (check out Sister Rosetta Thorpe's music for an example), it can certainly be said that Berry was the one who revolutionized the guitar, and may have certainly been one of the first rock guitar heroes.
Chuck Berry's life and career have been as controversial as any other artist's, from some lackluster albums and tours (including his most recent up to this point, 1979's "Rock It"), legal issues, allegations of sexual misconduct... all of the prerequisite controversies for rock stardom. Despite his most recent album of fresh studio material being older than most of us reading this review, Chuck has remained busy in recent years, touring and working on material for a new album, but he would pass away before any of this music would actually see the light of day. With some tracks in the works since 1991, one would expect the album to be of mixed sonic and musical quality, but Chuck hasn't lost any of his rock and roll fire.
The first single from the album, "Big Boys" is as classic of a Chuck Berry tune as you'll find (and even includes the signature Chuck guitar lick in the introduction), and features the talents of guest guitarists Nathaniel Rateliff and none other than Tom Morello. This is not to downplay Chuck's contributions on the instrument, which are numerous and great throughout. The album's sole live cut, and one of two covers, "3/4 Time (Enchiladas)" by Tony Joe White, features some really good lead guitar playing, toeing the line between taking front and center in the song and providing an accompaniment. The piano playing of Robert Lohr is another central feature of tracks such as opener "Wonderful Woman" and "Darlin". Chuck experiments with styles such as reggae ("Jamaica Moon") and a bit harder rock with spoken vocals, in the vein of ZZ Top ("Dutchman"), but still delivering songs in his classic rock and roll boogie style, including a sequel to his major hit "Johnny B. Goode", this time titled "Lady B. Goode". "Wonderful Woman" also features a guest appearance from up-and-coming blues-rock star Gary Clark Jr., and shows that Chuck is still willing to give a helping hand to current musicians.
His guitar tone is as exquisite as ever, a very vintage sound that's as pure as any guitar tone you'll hear these days, but with his late-70s productions marred by poor drum and bass production values, it's all the more refreshing to hear that Jimmy Marsala's bass guitar and Keith Robinson's drumming sound particularly fine on "Chuck". All in all, the production is very nice on this record, a very vintage sound missing from modern music.
Lyrics — 8
It seems in many ways that Chuck Berry had intended this album to be a celebration of his life and career, and of rock music in general. Lyrically, love songs abound here, and perhaps as a bit of an antithesis to the lyrical content of many more modern bands and artists today, his lyrics seem to have a much more positive, respectful air to them than the generally disaffected and angry lyrics you'll find in even the lightest of softer rock acts these days. On tracks like "Darlin", Chuck seems to also show an air of maturity and awareness of coming to the twilight of his life, writing these lyrics for his daughter Ingrid (whose vocals and harmonica are present on some tracks on the album): "Darlin' your Father's growing older, each year/Strands of gray are showing bolder, come here/And lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear/The time is passing fast away/There has been many sundown that I have seen, come by/Since you were just sweet sixteen, and I/I have played these same songs of yesterday, oh my/How the time has passed away". In his sequel to "Johnny B. Good", "Lady B. Goode", deals also with the issue of a musician being so far away from their loved ones while on tour: "She wondered if he's ever coming back someday/The brighter lights and glory may just keep him away/But then he wrote and told her "Do not be dismayed/The love you have for me will never be betrayed/They want me do a movie about my livelihood/And I want you to play the part of Lady B. Goode"
Chuck's vocals have also remained undiminished in his studio work in his advanced age, though the raw vocals on the album's live cut, "3/4 Time (Enchiladas)" do show that he's not the young man he used to be. He shows a bit of vocal versatility on this record, as well, singing in a Caribbean accent on "Jamaica Moon", singing in a bluesy spoken style on "Dutchman", and alternating from more powerful rock and roll vocals to soulful blues crooning. While his live vocals may not be up to par compared to his studio work, it is kind of refreshing that this album had the honesty to keep the slightly out-of-tune singing on "3/4 Time" intact, giving the fans a bit of a taste of what his live performances were like closer to the end of his life.
Overall Impression — 8
Overall, "Chuck" seems to be a veritable last will and testament to one of rock and roll's greatest artists. His contributions to 20th century music are timeless and unforgettable, and blazed a path for nearly every rock artist that came afterward. While his life and career have never been perfect, his body of work has come to be quite revered, and it seems fitting that this album seems almost to be a fitting celebration of his life and artistry. It's not a perfect record, and there are some moments where it feels more like a bit of nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, but with 38 years passing since his last album, I'm glad that he decided that before he left this world, he'd give it another go, and overall, this is a good, fun rock and roll record. Will it produce a song as highly-revered and classic as "Johnny B. Goode" or "Roll Over Beethoven"? Chances are, it won't. But for fans of the classic rock and roll style, this package is as good of a tribute as it gets.