« Someday / Somehow »
(Porcara Musica – 2016)
After nearly forty years of career, Toto’s discography is full of many gems and would deserve many written lines but that is not the central subject that motivates me to put my fingers on the keyboard. I am actually doing so with lucidity since I am well-aware that someone on this planet does much better than me in that domain. An author that would be more talented than me ? You must be kidding ! I was only alluding to Steve Porcaro and his synthesizers whose music provides a much nicer and richer sound than the tapping of my fingers. I fully accept that fact to the point of listening to his new album Someday / Somehow with the headphones on so that my actions do not interfere too much with my immersion in the universe of the member of the Californian band’s original line up. That release is truly a great surprise and makes me want to present a detailed review that may not necessarily be the established truth, but my vision and my most sincere interpretation of this musician.
After so many years spent composing, programming and playing the keyboards with Toto but also on movie soundtracks and for various artists, it seems logical that one would try to understand the reasons for that choice of a first solo album. But what are the artist’s genuine motivations behind the project ? Through the presence of his brother Mike on most of the tracks on the album, one can feel the will to honor him, a little over a year after his sad passing. Many tracks recorded with the late bass player enrich this new album, just like a family book, especially since Jeff Porcaro, who died in 1992, also distinguishes himself on drums on one of the tracks. But we shall have the opportunity to discuss it later on. What we can see here is the continuation of the Porcaro Brothers project with the title « Young At Heart » (Featuring Joseph Williams), the theme of the Champions League final game between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus F.C. in May 1997 with a curtain raiser event performance and a release as a single. Steve and Mike had repeatedly raised the idea of resuming their work together but failed to materialize it, alas, lacking time and compatible schedules. Years have passed as if time had become an enemy and that reflection may have motivated Steve to take the step, as he realized that life is short and precious and it is good to beautify it with music that will forever be eternal. Approaching the record as an illustration of the Porcaro family’s musical talents predominates in this first solo album, as Steve is legitimate to keep his brothers’ musical heritage alive. The presence of the new generation fully confirms this feeling : Samuel (Mike’s son) played bass on the title track while Heather, the composer’s eldest daughter, is involved in the booklet’s graphic design and photos.
Indeed the young woman inspired the first verse of the album. Steve tells about that June morning when he became a father which necessarily changed his life by giving a new meaning to it. Technically, the programming in the intro remains brief but solid. Actually this is also a task he often performed with Toto in the studio, even when he was not officially a member of the group (on « King Of The World », for instance). It remains short because the personal and intimate theme of « Ready Or Not » requires a simple start with the sounds of the unaffected piano and the acoustic guitar, just like the lead vocals provided by the author of the text. While guessing the reference to Heather in the first lyrics, the text also addresses Dominic and Micki, his two other children. The composer has reached maturity and the perspective needed to deliver this message. He is aware that he was unable to dry their tears while going around the world, he sets out all the questions he would like to get answered. A very touching theme that appeals to every mother and father who has experienced a divorce preventing them from witnessing their offspring growing up day by day. The artist’s arranging talent allows him to really emphasize the intensity that gradually rises in the course of the notes. The programming then supports the words and provides all the power needed at the appropriate times. As if, despite all the multiple cables and connections, it is the heart of a man that speaks out and calls the tune anyway.
I barely have time to get over my emotions that « Loved By A Fool » starts off and it is clear that only drummer Robin Dimaggio and Lenny Castro (needless to say he plays percussions) accompany the songwriter-performer of the song. For that theme about unrequited love, Steve called fewer musicians than on most of the tracks on the album. It has to be said that he puts the emphasis on his synthesizer through the sampling of a guitar sound like he did on the track « You Are Not Alone » by Michael Jackson. These are not acoustic sounds like in 1995 but a furious solo, as a demonstration of the pleasure he takes in that practice. Everyone who has attended a Toto concert may have in mind seeing the artist in a trance, possessed by his instrument and being one with it. I clearly have this image in mind while listening to that effective track, as if Steve Porcaro’s sounds had no limit, as if the keyboard keys were saying that anything is possible.
It is time for the title track « Someday / Somehow » and while listening to it one can legitimately wonder whether it is another autobiographical text or not. The author refers to a relationship getting out of breath and directly addresses the person concerned. Music expresses the inescapable acknowledgement that the best is behind them and remains full of sobriety in order to make us understand that there will be no tomorrow for this story going through its final moments. I then have a feeling that the artist expresses himself in an intimate setting and I can easily imagine him playing at a small concert hall, far from the stadiums and artifices, like a way to better express his art.
Police sirens, yet subtly mixed, then emerge to lead me to a new destination. I do not know where yet but the first notes are guiding me on this new journey. Still the clues are right here : Steve Lukather on guitar, Mike Porcaro on bass, Lenny Castro on percussions… Of course ! That old school sound makes me feel like I am on the West Coast, and with Michael McDonald on lead vocal, doubt is no longer permitted. I then imagine myself in a convertible, hair flying (and a flowered shirt on) on a Los Angeles road… I can see myself in this « Swing Street », and never mind if it is a sin place when these sounds make me feel that nothing bad can happen. This is a must-have song on the album that quickly becomes addictive to me as I play it in a loop during my short drive to work. Anyway, this track fits like a glove to Michael McDonald – his voice reflecting the 80s West Coast sound so well that its choice seems obvious. One must remember that Steve Porcaro considers himself more as a songwriter than a singer, giving way behind the microphone when it is necessary in order to serve his song better. Don’t forget that despite his talents for composition, Steve remained unproductive in the vocal field with his Toto friends. He felt that his work did not match the different voices of the band and even did something quite rare : performing the lead vocals on « Takin’ It Back » and « It’s A Feeling », the only songs for which he has been credited alone as a songwriter since the group’s debuts in 1978. Joseph Williams’s joining the band in 1986 as a singer would enable him to avert this fate. The son of composer John Williams will make a beautiful rendition of Steve’s song « Lea ». Three decades later, Steve performs seven of the thirteen songs on his first solo album. Not that he is a big fan of his own voice but the audience likes to hear him and rightly encouraged him on this path. It is in the role of producer that he makes choices, including that of alternating other performers and himself. Another facet that shows how he follows the process of his album from A to Z, a versatility that is not necessarily a routine in this field and that says a lot about his involvement in this opus.
As a matter of fact a new voice can be heard on « She’s So Shy » and it reminds me of Michael Jackson’s. In fairly close tone and diction, Jamie Kimmet offers an interesting performance. One needs to know that I recently interviewed Steve Porcaro for my book « Let’s Make HIStory » and he said that at least three songs he had submitted to the King of Pop would be on this album. So I had the desire to identify those tracks and now I realize Jamie’s voice is an excellent hint. My sudden curiosity about the latter allows me to discover that he comes from Kilmarnock, a small town in Scotland. I then become fascinated by the journey that led him to Los Angeles and to the Toto member studio. A voice similar to that of MJ was required not to distort the composer’s original vision, a bit like the presence of Tevin Campbell was relevant on the « Back On The Block » album by Quincy Jones. Truly, Michael who was reputed to be shy was fit to immerse himself in the atmosphere of « She’s So Shy ». Falling in love with someone as shy as oneself can look like a dead end road, and that’s all the drama of those three minutes and forty-nine seconds. Shyness necessarily implies questions that will forever remain unanswered since it prevents from asking them, and when it comes to love it inevitably becomes more traumatic. At first Jamie goes through an observation period, subjugated by the one that crosses his path. Innocently, he cannot help mentioning her like a distant dream just lying before him. Sobriety imposes itself through the acoustic guitar. The bridge of the song gains intensity with the keyboard solo concocted by Yada (the nickname given by Michael to Steve !) which sounds to be willing to help overcome that shyness in a formal way. This encourages Jamie to utter more explicit words, saying he would be there if she’d ask. Still, it seems clear that he will never take the first step and that this story is over before it even began, through the final that seems deliberately shortened.
Yet, I don’t have much time mulling over since the next song has already shot off at top speed. It must be said that the drums are no less than effective, all the more as it is certainly familiar to all Toto fans. Of course I am alluding to Jeff Porcaro’s technique that brilliantly distinguishes itself on that track and makes one draw back to the 80s. As far as I’m concerned a good album review develops through two actions : optimal listening with the headphones on and careful scanning of the booklet. That’s how I noticed the only picture illustrating a song as if it had a special status. This photograph of the three brothers together brings us back to 1983 since Mike had replaced David Hungate on bass the year before to join his two brothers’ band. The « Isolation » album sessions thus symbolize the beginnings of the Toto line up with the three Porcaro brothers that would last until 1987. It was precisely during those sessions that Steve wrote a demo of « Back To You » after a domestic dispute. One could easily go on the theme and lyrics related to SP’s famous partner at the time but that’s not the point. What must be remembered is this brotherly musical meeting for which, unlike the majority of the tracks on the album, Steve is the only one credited to the composition. The magic of technology allowed him to finalize his song as he had initially imagined it : a perfect mix of his demo and the Toto master version including tracks recorded by his brothers. Included halfway through the album this is undoubtedly a highlight, both emotionally and musically speaking.
As the first notes of Track 7 can be heard, I immediately enjoy the effective percussions by Lenny Castro reminding me of « The Hurt » from the « Victory » album by The Jacksons. Still that brief allusion to an old composition by Steve Porcaro is not the only hint echoing back to Michael Jackson while I listen to « Face Of A Girl ». I instinctively try to find similarities with the arrangements of « Stranger In Moscow » but they’re not really obvious in my opinion. Regarding a similar type of sound, I could also have mentioned « Beautiful Girl » but that song remained a demo and, except for the King of Pop fans, its release in the Ultimate box set remained confidential (still it features a beautiful acoustic solo by Steve Lukather). Finally, it is essentially that new vocal performance by Jamie Kimmet that confirms the track was originally proposed to MJ. Again Jamie is involved in a melancholic composition, much darker than his previous performance where he played a role full of innocence on the edge of naivety. It’s almost as if the British guy was moving from the torments of adolescence to those of adulthood. Indeed, he faces such a sharp break that it becomes obsessive. This woman’s face he misses so much comes to haunt him over sleepless nights. The lyrics fully express a deep distress but the music does the rest through the percussions pounding the beats of a broken heart. Steve’s keyboard is not left out through a masterful flight over the chorus, and what about that gorgeous guitar solo that symbolizes a scream full of rage and tears, the pain being so deep. Before listening to this album I did not know the name of Jamie Kimmet and it’s a nice surprise. Michael Jackson’s music made me discover the name of Steve Porcaro and now it also brings new names to my musical circle. Still one shouldn’t caricature Jamie’s part to that of a King of Pop’s voice impersonator since he was also involved in the composition of four tracks on the album. As a result I immediately send him a friend request on Facebook…
On the introduction of « To No One » Steve’s voice is only accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Again this is a configuration with a minimum of musicians just like on « Loved By A Fool. » The comparison between those two songs doesn’t go any further because the artistic process is fairly different. Indeed the songwriter goes for a more solemn and spiritual inspiration in his programming of diverse sounds, to such an extent that strings supporting his voice and bringing a special atmosphere to the whole track can be heard. Truly that task is not much difficult for him after he supplemented a symphony orchestra with his keyboards on the track « Little Susie » by Michael Jackson. Like a real conductor Porcaro features a theme related to despair and must bring in the ingredients especially when it goes against the flow of established codes. Faith is so inspirational for many artists that it may seem appropriate to write a text questioning the existence of God. Naturally, through the use of characters, Steve avoids standing out in that position. He simply tells the story of anonymous people losing hope after their numerous prayers remained unanswered, and while we listen we somehow find ourselves in this dark room with them wishing they could use a little comfort but they can’t hear us, as some kind of fatality…
The next track is starting but it still feels like I am in that dark room… Yet the atmosphere has changed and it’s rather like I was double-locked in a much more heavy atmosphere, in a state close to claustrophobia, as if we were prisoners of our own existence, a feeling that prevails while listening to « Make Up ». We all try to make up our daily lives to escape a reality that is too heavy but it always comes and catches us up… I’m keeping my spirits up though by taking the time to enjoy and discover Michael Sherwood’s vocal talents. The latter is not an unknown guy since he has worked with Steve Porcaro for many years. I have in mind their sumptuous « For All Time » written for Michael Jackson during the « Dangerous » album studio sessions in 1990. Unfortunately, the song never made it to the final track-list though it eventually featured on an official support with the reissue of « Thriller » for its 25th anniversary in 2008. Nevertheless it remained unfairly limited to the world of fans and unknown to the general public. This collaboration between the two men was confirmed to me with Sherwood’s participation in the Toto project « XIV » on the track « Bend ». His recent involvement in that new album is even more significant for their complicity. Michael Sherwood takes on the role of coproducer and is credited with the composition of 11 of the 13 tracks, and it is undeniable that he is Steve Porcaro’s closest collaborator. He brings his talent to « Make Up » that can be seen as a dark four-minute-and-twenty second-tunnel through which one tries to find the light…
I’m on my way to reach it with the first notes of the song « She’s The One » that seems more optimistic than the previous tracks. Surely a good album must propose a consistent track-list alternating different themes so that the cocktail is not too explosive. A sort of welcome glimmer of hope so that the record does not fall completely in a too much dark atmosphere even if it’s totally accepted. Through his vocal performance that reminds me of « It’s A Feeling » (on the « IV » album, 1982), Steve mentions a woman who has a crush on him. Everything is not perfect, far from it, since he is not sure that this feeling is mutual, as he is confused in his own feelings. But as I said above, it is indeed a glimmer of hope for a better future, something that seemed so inaccessible in the previous tracks. We may content ourselves with it and take a breather while we recover faith in humanity all the more when the musician concocts a great keyboard solo (sounding like it’s from a Toto studio session) for the final. We shall also pay tribute to drummer Shannon Forrest (present during the « XIV » tour) that will hopefully have a long story with the Californian band. While listening, we finally manage to feel with certainty that after rain comes sunshine in spite of a few clouds. Yes, life is beautiful!
This statement is all the more valid when Michael McDonald’s voice delivers his second performance on the album with the track « Night Of Our Own ». Steve Lukather’s guitar, full of keenness and sobriety, ideally accompanies it. A solo could have been expected from him as this technique is part of his legend, but that’s not the case since the virtuoso came to support his soul brother with the project and chose to stay in the shadow. I previously had a similar feeling during « Sweet Thing » and this is a confirmation : all these studio sessions musicians are part of a big family. Having pleasure in meeting and playing together is the most important thing and if every human being felt a similar solidarity, no doubt that the world would be a better place. Michael McDonald’s rendition fully illustrates this fact and we can feel his enthusiasm is intact in those appearances on other artists’ albums, just like it was in the 80s with Christopher Cross, Toto (ah, those backing vocals on « I’ll Be Over You »…) and so many others… We can not remain indifferent to this group cohesion as the track gains in intensity over the seconds under the influence of a dream team that drives us away from our daily lives. Indeed that is the subject of that composition dealing with a couple trying to escape the prevailing monotony. Again, this is a reminder that the passing of time can become an enemy and that we need to know how to preserve special moments, just like in the first days of the relationship. We can feel such maturity and experience in those texts throughout the album that it can be seen as a school of life. It is in this context that Michael, at the end, delivers quality ad-libs that only he knows.
The following vocal performance is no less interesting since Mabvuto Carpenter gives us a beautiful rendition of « Painting By Numbers ». Steve Lukather had already invited Jory Steinberg and Jenny Douglas Foote on his two previous albums and we can only be delighted with that new invitation of a Toto backup singer on a member’s solo project – especially as he handles that lead vocal from start to finish, unlike Jory and Jenny who remained in the role of backup singers with Luke. Mabvuto, who has taken part in every Toto tour since 2010, had also sung the introduction of « Orphan » on the « XIV » album but here we can best appreciate his vocal talents through a first-rate performance. So that I also remember his enthusiasm while rehearsing the song « Human Nature » with its author for a live performance with Toto. It is true that the shadow of this song hovered in my mind when I first listened to the album. It is so symbolic and representative of Steve Porcaro’s musical world that I was dreaming of hearing a new track in the same vein. My wish is fulfilled with this programming that makes us feel like we’re taking off to heaven. The comparison with the « Thriller » album hit seems inevitable, but I could not make a greater compliment. Thus I feel that this track was meant for Michael Jackson, as if Steve Porcaro’s music served Mabvuto’s falsetto transcending it into another galaxy. We are then drawn back to a melancholic topic when it comes to support the loved one sinking into depression, but still we feel soothing as if we were transported to heaven and thus were immunized against the pain experienced on earth. On a more general level, it is a great satisfaction to see Steve outing all his previous works. This is especially true for me since I can get a glimpse into what other collaborations with Michael Jackson might have been. In our previous discussion related to my book about the « HIStory » album, the Toto member had shared his memories of one of their common compositions : the song « Chicago 1945 ». No doubt it would be logical to hear that track with the King of Pop’s vocal takes, so let’s just wish it will happen someday.
The last act of the record appears as a sort of recall at a concert. It is true that the artist offers a performance where he raises his voice with only a piano, reminding me of those farewell moments to the audience. A Toto fan would not necessarily think of Steve Porcaro for that type of performance but rather of David Paich. Still « Yada » shows us that he does not need to program sounds to demonstrate his talent. A bit like « Bend » was the postscript of the « XIV » album, « More Than I Can Take » is in a similar role especially as this is a new tribute to his late brothers. Just like on the song « Back To You » he is the only person credited to the composition, alone with himself to give life to this vibrant tribute. He could not have ended that album some other way…
Sometimes I was in Steve Porcaro mode, going straight to track 7 of the « XIV » album to listen to « The Little Things » and immerse myself in this unique and special musical world. Today I can listen to this artist in a loop without having to pick up tracks. Many thanks to him…