Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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***

RAY CHARLES
Genius Loves Company
Concord

Duetting fans like Norah Jones help Brother Ray go out in style

The late Ray Charles's 2002 record Thanks for Bringing Love Around Again was the weakest album of a career that generated its share of dross. His daunting vitality appeared to have evaporated, probably because at 72, he was already ailing. So be thankful his farewell CD, 12 duets with a few of his admirers, is his strongest collection since the '70s.

Thank especially producer John Burk. Not only do Burk's sleek, snappy arrangements deliver Charles from the massed strings and choral excesses he can no longer overwhelm; they also bring him into the present more effectively than the hesitant synths of Richard Perry and Jean-Pierre Grosz did in the '90s. The tasteful traditionalism Burk favors can be pretty bland when applied to run-of-the-mill pop-jazz troupers. But Charles was never run-of-the-mill, and so he sounds like his old self--only older.

Thank Charles, too--for focusing his savvy and wit on what he must have figured would be his farewell. Would that Frank Sinatra had lavished as much intelligence on his phoned-in Duets and Duets II. And thank Charles's stellar partners, all save Norah Jones and Diana Krall past their commercial primes, but most in excellent voice (let's hope Willie Nelson was having a bad day).

Charles no longer had the stuff to dig new veins of color and power out of his thorax. But with such fans as Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Van Morrison spurring and covering for him, he husbands his diminished color and power with grace, humor and, you bet, soul.

A few familiar titles sound better the second time around, including the well-loved "You Don't Know Me," redone with Krall. And at least two--the sly R&B classic "Fever," with Cole, and the spontaneously interactive "Crazy Love," with Morrison, who wrote it--will stand high in Charles's canon even after he isn't the most influential pop singer of his age.

Blender, Sept. 2004