A.J. Croce is enjoying himself on his new album, By Request, and he invites us into his living room to join him as he sings, rocks and rolls, and reflects wistfully with this collection of songs. Croce applies his deeply soulful vocals to covers of 12 songs from soul, rock, pop, and jazz, and he’s so attuned to the emotional force of each genre that he artfully, and joyfully, captures the musical essence of the songs he covers here.
The album kicks off with a funky, rollicking version of Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing,” which opens with the slow slide of New Orleans-style horns out of which Croce’s jaunty cascading piano chords burst with a high volt of energy and raucous rumbling that never lets up. After being fueled up with Croce’s high-octane version, Preston’s original sounds as if its running on empty. Croce turns Neil Young’s already somberly pleading “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” into a stately, measured, gospel-inflected number, reaching the ethereal heights with the transcendent background vocals on the chorus. He turns Solomon Burke’s soul burner “Can’t Nobody Love You” into a pop-country-soul number, replete with an introductory phrase — which floats through the entire song — from Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.”
Croce’s take on Rod Stewart and the Faces’ “Stay with Me” lacks the gritty funkiness of the Faces’ version, coming across, by comparison, as bright, with a kind of innocence, a contrast to the original’s celebration of misogyny and blissful mistreatment of women. Guitarist Robben Ford fuels the skiffling, shuffling soul gospel of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s “Better Day” with his bright lead runs, while blaring horns float under Croce’s faithful version of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child,” carrying the song high into the musical stratosphere.
By Request showcases Croce’s gift of getting inside a song, living within it, and imagining ways to deliver new meanings. Let’s hope he’s taking more requests very soon.