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Jerry Lee Lewis

Mean Old Man – 2010 (Verve/Universal)

Reviewed by Ken Burke

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CDs by Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis's 2006 guest-star glutted release "Last Man Standing" proved to be the legendary piano-pumper's biggest selling album ever. Seeking similar results, the Killer's new all-star album is less incendiary, but creates several indelible moments.

Produced by session drumming legend Jim Keltner, the disc was released in two editions, one containing 10 tracks, and the deluxe 18-song version reviewed here. Besides offering Lewis a powerful backbeat, Keltner mixed the guest stars and instrumental punch-ins more subtly than on the previous disc. In the process, he has also downplayed Lewis' distinctive piano playing, omitting it entirely on several tracks, which occasionally saps the disc of its intended excitement.

Occasionally, the Louisiana native sounds every bit of his 75 years (Bad Moon Rising) or like he is being propped up by guest artists (I Really Don't Want to Know). Tellingly, Tim McGraw completely outshines Lewis on his own 1977 hit Middle Aged Crazy. Fortunately, stirring compensations do exist. Aided by Kid Rock and Slash, Lewis turns in a spirited reworking on his 1979 hit Rockin' My Life Away. Ringo Starr and John Mayer help transform the oft-recorded Roll Over Beethoven into a fresh jukebox rocker. Sheryl Crow brings a sweet sunny quality to You Are My Sunshine and on another JLL staple, Eric Clapton transforms You Can Have Her into country-edged rockabilly.

However, the very best moments occur when Lewis is challenged by material not normally found in his repertoire. Indeed, he wrings both sorrow and callous fatalism from his country rendition of the Stones' Dead Flowers (Mick Jagger on harmonies), and with Keith Richards' help, Lewis imbues Sweet Virginia with an appealing sense of drunken revelry. The Kris Kristofferson-penned Sunday Morning Coming Down provides gut-wrenching sober reflection, but one can't help but wonder what he could have done with this song 40 years ago. Better still is the snapping, snarling title track, Mean Old Man, which offers enigmatic attitude in place of explanations, and teasing irony instead of expected wisdom. The 10-song edition is tighter and more focused and therefore better for casual fans. Longtime Lewis-philes and collectors may prefer the ups and downs of the 18-track version. In either case, one has to wonder when Lewis will be allowed to release discs without guest stars again.