As the saying goes, don’t judge a book – or an album – by its cover. Though the largely monochromatic photo and graphics that serve as the cover of Stuff I’ve Been Through is pedestrian and has the feel of a rush job, the music contained within is something completely different and far superior.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a fertile period for symphonic soul, a style of music that combined the street-level emotional intensity of classic soul with the sophisticated (and expensive) values of the modern recording studio. With the record industry of that era awash in cash, recording sessions often spared no expense employing top-level session players to deliver sweeping, ambitious arrangements. The results were often breathtaking, occasionally transcendent.
These days, the process of making an album is much closer to the bone, and recording budgets are modest. But listeners might forget all that upon hearing Stuff I’ve Been Through. The soaring, clear vocals of Alabama Mike (born Michael Benjamin) is out front where it belongs, but there’s a powerful sound supporting him. Kid Andersen – who produced the album at his Greaseland USA studio – is on hand to provide searing guitar work, and the other musicians are all superb, too. But what really elevates Stuff I’ve Been Through to the level of something truly special and remarkable is the “big” instrumentation. Thick and emotionally evocative strings, tight and fulsome brass: those are some of the secret ingredients that make Stuff I’ve Been Through more than just a very good record.
Another strength of the album is its variety. “Fat Shame Pt. 1” answers the unasked question, “What might Sly Stone sound like in 2023 if he hadn’t drifted off into the ether?” The tune is stuffed with humorous lyrics that underscore Alabama Mike’s skill as a songsmith. In between the laugh lines (“I’m fat / I’m lit / and you can’t tell me shit”) is an important message. If all that weren’t enough, the tune is musically alluring, too.
Jazz textures and sexy backing vocals enliven the simmering “This Ain’t No DizneyLand,” and the tune’s rapid-fire lyrics suggest that in a different life, Mike could have found great success as a rapper. The swaggering “King Cock” is as boastful (but not quite as racy) as its title suggests. The big band swings for the fences on the slow talking/singing blues of “Pine Bluff, Arkansas (Big Fine Woman).” While elsewhere on Stuff I’ve Been Through, Mike sticks to vocals, here he lays down some tasty harmonica as well.
There’s a tiny bit of unnecessary sonic stereotyping on “Woman on the Warpath,” but the song itself is effective. Alabama Mike slips effortlessly into a ‘70s soul crooner persona on “Damage Control,” and the track’s subtle instrumental and vocal backing is excellent. “Fat Shame Pt. 2” is about as essential as “part two” type tracks ever are, but it’s harmless enough, and doesn’t interrupt the album’s flow.
The record wraps with a pair of live tracks that demonstrate that for all the virtues of the studio and its players, Alabama Mike is an effective onstage performer. On Mississippi, he’s joined by Rick Estrin on harmonica (and seemingly by the entire audience on chorus vocals). And he closes the set with a benediction for that crowd, the soulful and heartfelt gospel of “God is With You.” The experience of listening to Stuff I’ve Been Through is something well worth going through.