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Picks and Pans Review: Playing to Win

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Rick Nelson

Nelson, once the paragon of middle-class rock, has been confronting the plight of his genre’s senior citizens more forthrightly than most. (The specter of Chuck Berry boogeying off into eternity chasing Maybellene may be scaring him.) His sardonic 1972 hit Garden Party was a de facto announcement he didn’t plan to be singing Be-Bop Baby for the next 30 years, and he has, in his choice of material, acknowledged that even rockers reach a point where, as Hamlet pointed out to his mom, “the heyday in the blood is tame.” Nelson, who’ll be 41 on May 8, backslides a little on this, his first album since 1977. It is painful to hear him sing to his “pretty baby” that “You’re goin’ steady with nobody else but me.” But that tune, Believe What You Say, was written by Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who wrote for Nelson in the ’50s, and it at least shows loyalty. A couple of others, Don’t Look at Me and Graham Parker’s Back to Schooldays, are more jarring in their New Wavey frenzy. Nelson puts his by-now-husky voice to better use on his own The Loser Babe Is You and Call It What You Want, a mild rocker. And, backed by facile guitarist Bobby Neal, he is most effective on Do the Best You Can, a reflective, easygoing piece co-written by Ry Cooder. Remembering other singers who have errantly reached even further back for lost passions and attitudes—Frank Sinatra’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown comes to mind—it’s easy to forgive Nelson, who at his best is still a most congenial and unpretentious performer.