Provogue Records [Release date o5.10.18]
Doyle Bramhall II’s ‘Shades’ is an eclectic album with real musical and spiritual depth. It’s a song-led album with interwoven vocal harmonies, sculpted guitar parts and plenty of emotive lyrics.
It’s a musical tableau in the sense of an artistic grouping, in which he brings together related themes, intricate rhythms and subtle guitar parts to create an essential flow to a slow burning album that demands patience and trust.
Everybody it seems is searching for a new musical direction and after some 16 years with no solo releases, ‘Rich Man’ and ‘Shades’ suggests musical ideas are pouring out of him.
And while ‘Shades’ doesn’t have the immediacy of tracks such ‘Rich Man’s ‘Mama Can’t Help You’ and the pull of ‘My People’, he still draws us deeper into his psyche.
‘Searching For Love’ for example, gathers it’s weight from being a thematic core of a heartfelt album that digs deep for feel, grooves and lyrical meaning.
He opens with ‘Love And Pain’, with a characteristic stuttering rhythm on a song intrinsically bound up with its lyrics. He almost groans his vocals on the hook in between layered sounds and a psychedelic guitar line interwoven with significant backing vocals.
There’s a lot going on, but all is resolved on the unifying hook which brings together all the interlocked elements.
If ‘Love and Pain’ is a good barometer of what to expect on the album, he further explores an intricate rhythm pattern on ‘Hammer Ring’. The nuanced guitar squalls and an uplifting psychedelic guitar break allow the track to breathe, before being rounded by gospel bv’s on the hook.
The lines between artist and producer sometime blur, as one role feeds into the other. The single ‘Everything You Need’ for example, features an emotive defining solo from guest Eric Clapton, as all the parts fit together perfectly on a white boy soul outing that could be Michael McDonald.
Then there’s his duet with Norah Jones on ‘Searching For Love’, a reprise of the successful pairing to be found on ‘Rich Man’.
The MOR ballad acts as an anchor to the album, with a blend of vocal, guitar and organ which gives him his signature sound. As on this song, his music is an extension of his words, and the two coalesce beautifully on a track that finishes with a lovely jammed out finale.
‘Live Forever’ with special guests Austin’s Greyhounds is different again, with a discernible retro west coast feel, lush harmonies and a guitar led drone on the fade out
However, not everything works so fluidly. On ‘London To Tokyo for example, we’re taken on a seamless funky sway with gently echoed voice and harmony vocals, before a sudden waltz time tempo change on a chorus that evokes a fairground ride.
It’s a slow burning track that heads for a wall of sound in which the guitar and strings weave their way back to the hook, before a delicate finish that could be the final brush stroke of a painting.
‘The Night’ is an awkward stop-start soul outing, with echoes of early Todd Rundgren. A combination of the opening sludgy tempo and the fact that it’s one laid back track too many robs it of its impact.
The album cries out for an uplifting track, while what we get is a sudden change of tempo with harmony vocals. It sounds a little too busy and doesn’t breathe until it belatedly hits a groove with the ‘la la’s on the outro.
You sometimes get the feeling Bramhall is trying to balance his heartfelt narratives with musical twists and turns that are sometime just too oblique.
That said, he finds more of an equilibrium on ‘She’ll Come Around’, another vocal-led love song which opens with a heartfelt narrative: “Always feel your hear with me, even though you’re gone, I keep this fire burning righteously until you come home.”
It’s a good example of the way he threads his guitar work with rich harmony vocals to emphasize a line or a mood.
Then there’s a refreshing simplicity of ‘Break Apart To Mend’, a piano-led love song with gently strummed guitar, delicate bv’s and more thoughtful lyrics.
When he sings “We had to work hard for the things we love”, it’s almost as if the subtext is that he’s diving deep for a spiritual journey that ebbs and flows in the way his emotions do. His guitar parts further mirror this feel, as he colours different tracks with an engaging array of tones
‘Parvanah’ opens with an early Floyd meets Radiohead feel, on a spiritual track with a lovely drum pattern and a sinewy guitar line mixed in with the hook and a big wall of sound that spirals into the ether.
‘Shades’ may or may not be a reference to the subtle crossover from a musical melange to a spiritual quest, but it certainly makes the most of some musical sophistication and an imposing production. What it lacks in dynamics, is counter-weighted by subtle harmonies, guitar parts and hooks that pull everything together.
‘Shades’ is a meandering musical and spiritual journey undertaken by a multi-tasking artist who in his best moments brings insight and clarity, but who on other occasions could probably eschew a sense of languor.
Happily, by the time of the climactic book-ending gospel ‘Going Going Gone’ with special guests Tedeschi Trucks, we are swept up in his emotional gospel tinged maelstrom, as patience bring rich reward.
Review by Pete Feenstra
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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