Album review: JJ GREY & MOFRO – Ol’ Glory

Provogue [Released 24.02.15]

‘Ol’ Glory is JJ Grey & Mofro’s  7th album and their first for Provogue and perhaps because of the label change they’ve quietly dropped their soul swamp rocking and embraced the current shift towards Memphis soul and the mainstream.

Of course you could argue that JJ himself has always occupied an integral if not eclectic part of that movement, but where previous album’s like ‘Georgia Warhorse’ stretched out deeply entrenched grooves and celebrated the moment with burning riffs, ‘Ol’ Glory’ reigns in the excesses and places JJ’s white boy soul style in a retro Stax influenced sound that aims for greater accessibility.

The result is a slightly smoother album that still reinforces the potency of JJ’s soulful vocals,  and the veracity of his songs as a language.

Dan Prothero’s busy production works hard to overcome the partially unresolved tension between album’s overall vision and the need to capture the band’s exuberant spark and grooves. This leads to a few forced moments most notably on ‘Light A Candle’, which places an unnecessary emphasis on the horns.  A less cluttered arrangement would let the song breathe a bit more. As it is, JJ’s soulful intensity single handedly carries the song.

‘Ol’ Glory’ blends his trademark soul, funk, blues, r&b and country influences with traces of Stax. The music evokes the likes of Sly Stone, George Clinton, and even Rick James, but ultimately its JJ’s own heartfelt lyrics and white boy soul that triumphs.

At 7 minutes 32 seconds, ‘Ol’ Glory’ is the longest track on the album and comes closest to nailing the style he’s best known for.  It’s a tightly spun web of gospel tinged call and response vocals over a funky back beat, punctuated by a punchy horn arrangement and typically evocative lyrics that reflect the contradictions of life: ‘In a heartbeat our world’s are born, in a heartbreat our world’s collide’.

It’s also the perfect balance of JJ’s heartfelt vocal style and Mofro’s intuitve interplay and the moment when they throw off the shackles to provide an uplifting moment deep into the album

‘Everything Is A Song’ is a throwback to Memphis soul with an expressive vocal and nuanced horn parts. JJ embraces the narrator’s path to spiritual enlightenment in a celebration of the here and now.  His lyrical sentiments are never anything less that deeply entrenched, even if the album is notable for its commercial reach.

Where previously he translated his lucid spiritual moments into jammed out grooves, this album focuses on tight arrangements and hooks.

In short, ‘Ol’ Glory’ is a soul album with more of bite than say Robert Cray. Musically it’s more of a concept album that reflects the glory of the here and now, as evidenced by ‘Every Minute’ which features Derek Trucks on slide, on a celebration of life that gently beguiles you with its lyrical message, swaying soulful rhythm and subtle dynamics.

The booming soulful horns of ‘A Night To Remember’ cleverly evoke the song’s title and colourfully rapped out lyrics: A leather jacket that said, boy I’ll whip your ass’.  JJ slips into one of his intense stream of consciousness workouts, as he warms to his theme of being on the pick up: ‘I flipped up my collar on me, I went ahead and put on my best James Dean, And you’d have thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke, oh baby upon the big screen’,

He’s gets contemplative over Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar on the stripped down ‘The Island,’ and reprises the style on the gentle harmony outro of ‘The Hurricane’.

‘Turn Loose’ is a tightly arranged funky groove that sounds like Sly Stone,  before the spacious Brave Lil’ Fighter’ gives him the kind of clarity that might have benefited the slow building ‘Light A Candle’.

Significantly the horns and funky keyboards play a more supportive role as the song flows into the harmony drenched hook.

The commercial imperative rears it head again on ‘Home In The Sky’ which is a wah-wah sculpted piece of soulful dynamics that makes a pitch for the Mayer Hawthorne neo soul territory. It drops down to evoke the lascivious lyrics with a call and response vocal on which the clever use of space again emphasizes his lyrical intent.

Curiously, for an album that aims for the current soul market, ‘Ol’ Glory’s doesn’t immediately hit the spot like some of its predecessors. Shorn of deep building grooves and immediately catchy riffs, ‘Ol’ Glory’ relies on JJ’s emotive phrasing to make its mark.

The fact he ultimately triumphs is testament to the integrity of a song writer who rarely ventures beyond what he knows and feels. Scratch a little deeper and ‘Ol’ Glory’ reveals itself as the inspired sum of its soulful parts. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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