By: Kevin Clifford
Charles Bradley, a now well-known purveyor of soul power, released his most recent recordings, reinvigorating the power of music and spirit in a stressed out America. His work on Changes defies popular music norms in production, arrangement, and message. It offers blessings to those disillusioned by their experience of the racial, economic, and political state of America as well as celebrates his journey of triumph through faith. Throughout the album his ‘no frills’ delivery, reminiscent of a gospel sermon, invokes a perpetual Sunday morning feeling. The opening number, “God Bless America,” begins his stream of consciousness, namely, an acknowledgement of how his trials and tribulations have led to a fervent appreciation of freedom. Listen for its potential as a plea for everyone in need to remain steadfast believers of a loving god – a scarce notion in a mostly secular, materialistic pop-culture.
After praising the United States in the organ-laden “Good to Be Back Home,” and homaging Al Green with the down-and-out love song, “Nobody but You,” he dives into the most engaging song on the record, “Ain’t it A Sin.” Opening with a Hendrix-inspired riff, a duel of righteousness vs. revenge ensues. After trying to, “talk to the lord most every day,” he admits a sinful life swayed by emotion in a chorus proclaiming, “If you ain’t gonna do me right, I might just do you in, ain’t it a sin.” Here, Bradley is in call-and-response mode, conjuring the spirits of both James Brown and Otis Redding with cheers and shouts from the in-studio audience adding to the gospel atmosphere. While the opening portion of Changes discusses blessings and commitment, “Ain’t it A Sin,” contrasts with shades of frustration and defiance.
Producer Thomas “Tommy TNT” Brenneck and a team of tape savvy engineers recorded the album in analog format resulting in the warm, smoky tones that Bradley’s backing bands, Menahan Street Band and Budos Band, have so tastefully reintroduced into the modern listener’s ear in recent years. Artists like Alabama Shakes, Jim James, Vulfpeck, and D’Angelo have followed in the vintage footsteps laid down by the likes of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, The Band, The Meters, and James Brown. Without sounding outdated in the slightest, Changes follows suit by making the Menahan Street Band feel 50 years old. Think drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarist Cornell Dupree, and bassist Willie Weeks with an Allen Toussaint horn arrangement, all now seasoned or deceased veterans of the studio. One instantly hears remnants of the late 50’s/early 60’s R&B tradition that is currently trending. However, most can’t seem to yield as authentic a performance as Bradley’s band. Drums dry and distant, horns warm and tight, and a crisp guitar cutting through the waves of an organ, the soul man’s voice croons and soars according to his will.
Similar to his first two albums, No Time for Dreaming and Victim of Love, Changes disguises a pop structure within original, gritty, and brutally honest songwriting. The message in “Slow Love,” is a refreshing departure from the often misogynistic and impatient “love” songs of today which are meant more for libido at the club rather than taking time to love.
With the recent loss of his mother, he includes the Black Sabbath cover, “Changes,” a tribute to her spiritual presence in his life. He introduced the song during a live performance at South by Southwest 2016 as one that “fit his soul,” and commemorates her last wish for him to, “go all over the land and sing it from the heart.” Within it, Charles Bradley honors the struggles of adapting to change, for better or worse. From jubilation to mourning and back, Changes inspires the transformation of spirit and circumstance. The world doesn’t seem to be holding Charles Bradley back from anything.
Featured photo from Daptone Records
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