Provogue [Release date 20.01.17]
‘Times Have Changed’ is an aptly titled album that sees Ronnie Baker Brooks refreshing his own brand of blues with a dip into the best of Memphis as he veers into a more soulful direction.
His first album for nearly ten years is not quite what you might have expected from the Chicago blues man, but it’s an interesting departure that promises him career fresh input.
He’s always been known for his self penned narratives, stinging guitar chops and emotive phrasing. And while his recording career has always been an effective bridge building exercise between classic blues and the present, this album is more of the same, but with a soulful take on the blues.
Producer Steve Jordan is the catalyst for a soulful, funky approach that cleverly aligns itself with the current American blues scene’s predilection for the rediscovered joys of soul.
He’s joined by an A-team of southern musicians on 11 tracks that includes a posthumously released gritty contribution by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland on ‘Old Love’, a characteristically fiery guitar break from the name-checked Steve Cropper on Joe Tex’s Show Me’, a sensuous vocal from Angie Stone on ‘Give Me Your Love’ and guest appearances by Big Head Todd and Lee Roy Parnell alongside members of the legendary Hi Rhythm Section, who get deep inside the grooves
The opening track ‘Show Me’ is more of a signifier of things to come, rather than an essential choice of cover, though it does its job in levering the listener in.
‘Times Have Changed’ is full of unexpected inspirational moments that bubble up surreptitiously, as on the cool, but soulful Grover Washington style ‘Give Me Your Love’. The mesmerising 8 minute plus, groove has all the essential elements of a killer rhythm section, Angie Stone’s sultry vocal, nuanced horns, subtle string washes and Brooks’s own whispered vocals, which take us back to the days of Creed Taylor’s CTI label.
Remarkably he follows that track with another laid back slice of percolating funk on ‘Give The Baby Anything The Baby Wants’, which sounds like a late night studio blow. Introduced by Brooks exclamatory: ‘uh, feeling good’, it probably had producer Jordan leaping out his seat to press the record button
There’s a further James Brown style yelp, as the track gets incrementally stronger, as it builds up a funky stop-time tension with a stream-of-consciousness vocal attack over shimmering guitars.
Producer Jordan excels in capturing a push and pull groove full of intensity, on a track that is as mellow as it is pulsating. The combination of the right players and a pristine production helps nails every last ounce of feel.
In truth, the album takes a while to spark, for having laid the soulful foundations with a cover of ‘Show Me, the following ‘Doing Too Much’ is a slice of pedestrian funk which Brooks belatedly counter-weights with a ripping guitar solo to resolve the track with a perfect outro.
The uplifting party vibe of the instrumental ‘Twine Time’ featuring his dad Lonnie, also feels a little forced, as if the album is searching for a direction.
But the album quickly find its equilibrium on the heartfelt title track, full of socially conscious lyrics with a universal message and voiced with some Robert Cray style phrasing that emphasises lyrical weight.
Brooks revisits that soulful vocal styling on ‘Wham Bang (Thank You Sam’) – complete with a significant guitar line and punchy horns – and also on the closing When I Was We’.
‘Long Story Short’ is another song that searches for social meaning, as the mid- section evokes Ann Peebles’s ‘I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’, before settling for a repeated call and response sequence over which his solos fiercely.
‘Times have Changed’ is a slow burner that reveals more of itself with repeated plays. And if that’s a familiar observation with rock albums, it isn’t necessarily so with blues related music.
Put simply this album doesn’t quite have the ebb and flow that brings an immediate sense of familiarity, but it does have, some mighty grooves, Brooks’s signature guitar, arguably his best ever vocal performance and a production that always captures the spark and brings it to the front of the mix of an engaging album. ***½
Review by Pete Feenstra
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