Concord [Release date 15.02.19]
‘Signs’ is the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s 6th album and it finds them unwittingly embracing middle age with mature songs, deep emotion and intricate playing.
What it lacks is a sense of equilibrium, as there’s surfeit of mid-tempo outings and an occasional tendency to try and incorporate too much many musical ideas into the arrangements. As a result ‘Signs’ is a song-led album that reveals its best musical bits fleetingly.
‘Signs’ draws on the band’s strengths as a musical family for its focus, direction and lyrical inspiration. The solos frequently emphasise a mood or feel, but only occasionally provide a defining flourish, as on the nuanced strings and gospel feel of the soulful ‘Im Gonna Be There’.
The recent passing of Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman hangs heavily on an album shot through emotional honesty, introspection and reaffirming love songs such as ‘Walk Through This Life’. Then there’s the resilience of tracks such as ‘I’m Going To Be There’ and ‘Strengthen What Remains’.
Special guests include Warren Haynes, Oliver Wood and Doyle Bramhall II and this album seems to have drawn from Bramhall ‘s well of introspection and perhaps the search for the spiritual.
It’s a strong and at times complex rootsy musical journey, with well crafted and meaningful songs full of old school r&b. There’s musical nods to Al Green, Bobby Bland style horns, and they even evoke Sly Stone on the gospel tinged, big pumping horns of the opening ‘Signs, High Times’, on which band members impressively trade vocal lines.
And when the emphasis moves to harmony vocals there’s splashes of Motown and plenty of soul, funk, gospel and understated blues.
It’s all topped by the soulful lead vocals of Susan Tedeschi, who explores the full range her timbre to get inside the lyrics, before letting the band naturally bubble up and take over. Her vocals are often tastefully flanked by cooing harmonies and gospel bv’s ,and everything is glued together by a nuanced production.
Her mid-range expressive soulful phrasing is the natural focal point on the funky horn-led groove of ‘Walk Through This Life’, as she bring heartfelt expression to the lyrics: “Chasing our dreams together, well keep on chasing them forever, if the whole thing falls apart, there’s till you and me.”
She’s versatile too, on the stop-start dynamics and percussive ebb and flow of ‘Shame’, which includes some horn-led bluster, intense guitar work and supportive bv’s.
The band fills out the rest of the musical canvas with different hues and colours on arrangements that veer from the laid back to the occasionally complex.
They slips into mid-number tempo changes on ‘When Will I Begin’ and explores sudden shifts in musical emphasis on the ascending chorus of ‘Still Your Mind’, before a sudden intense guitar break transforms the mood of the song.
‘Signs’ has much to impart, but it doesn’t necessarily do so in a linear fashion. The sequencing takes a back seat to the overall organic feel and a plethora of mid-tempo outings in keeping with the lyrical meaning.
Tedeschi’s phrasing draws us into several evocative moods, but someone must have noted the need for variety in her attack, because on ‘Signs, High Times’ she swaps lead vocals with Trucks in the middle of a line. They then reach for the chorus on a song that builds irresistibly with a belated guitar break, flanked by bv’s.
This opening track sets the template for much of the intricate detail of an album that is dominated by moods and feels.
Tedeschi’s vocals works best on tracks such as I’m Gonna Be There’, where her Bonnie Rait style benefits from plenty of space, deft strings and a slow build towards a gospel filled hook.
The introspective feel of ‘All The World’ also evokes early Jackson Brown, particularly the way the harmonies dominate the soulful track and lead into a brief slide break.
Brown often struck an emotional chord, but sometimes struggled to escape a feeling of languor. Happily the Tedeschi Trucks Band explores enough musical variety to overcome such pitfalls. And when they do step things us, as on ‘Hard Case’, the husband and wife duo explore an almost celebratory Motown feel – albeit with a slide guitar part that mirrors the melody line.
The track has a Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell influence, while the early hook would surely bring a smile to veteran Motown songwriter Barrett Strong, a disciple of the early chorus in a song.
The album moves towards a gentle close with the funky undercurrent of ‘They Don’t Shine’, which makes good use of a dynamic gospel tinged hook and some understated rhythmic power. A combination of Tedeschi’s vocal and acoustic and slide guitar bookends an album on which the melodies linger. The emotional void at the end of the sudden fade is akin to an unresolved ending to a romantic movie.
‘Signs’ is a lyrically earnest, musically rich and very soulful album that leaves much to digest as different nuances reveal themselves with repeated plays. But unless they get radio play for the potential singles, it will probably struggle to expand their fans base, which would be shame as there should always be room for a mature roots album that seeks to engage us emotionally. ***½
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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