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Monday, June 16, 2014

JEB LOY NICHOLS: Now Then (Bongo Beat; 2006)

Track Listing: 1) Sometimes Shooting Stars (2:56); 2) Really Together (3:23); 3) Lelah Mae (2:46); 4) Painted My Dream House Blue (3:26); 5) Bad Fruit (2:31); 6) Let's Make It Up (2:49); 7) Morning Love (3:13); 8) Black Water Road (3:25); 9) Don't Dance With Me (3:26); 10) Ever Feel Like Leaving (3:20); 11) When Did You Stop Loving Me (3:54); 12) Sweet Tough and Terrible (3:47); 13) Love Me Too (2:59)

Collective Personnel: Jeb Loy Nichols (guitar, vocals); Shaila Prospere (vocal duet on "Really Together"); Dan Penn (vocal on "Ever Feel Like Leaving"); Tony Crow, Clayton Ivey (keyboards); Jennifer Carr (piano); Terry Baker (drums); Simeon Baker, Wayne Nunes, Andy Hamill (bass); Tony Williams, Mark Nevers (guitar); Paul Burch (guitar, bass, vibes); Fiona Hibbert (harp); Rebecca Hollweg, Loraine Morley, Roy Cousins, Struggle, Knowledge (backing vocals); Lloyd Barry, George Chambers (horns); Nashville String Machine (strings); Lloyd Barry (arranger- strings and horns)

"What kind of music is this?" said I, holding up the CD. "He's a white Al Green," replied the record seller. Good enough for me.

One of the detriments of diving for cheap records is that you're unlikely to keep abreast of new music. To be sure, there is probably a lot out there today that I would enjoy, but I have difficulty in learning about it. So for me, finding a fairly recent record of this magnitude is a godsend. The man selling this for a pittance surely undercharged himself. I've listened to this album in its entirety four or five times in the past twenty-four hours, and now I think I've stopped blubbering enough to able to write a proper review. Also, let me say that this album clocks in at a mere forty-one minutes. At last, an artist who decides not to fill a CD with eighty minutes of music just because they can. This collection of thirteen songs is just enough to keep you wanting more- indeed, after several spins, I just can't get enough of it.

Some have called this album a combination of country, reggae and soul. I'm not sure of the reggae aspect, but the other descriptions surely apply. This melange is not revolutionary, yet quietly unique. The songs are beautifully understated cries for love which recall the soul singers of yore, as well as haunting snapshots of rural life that befit any high lonesome epic. Nichols' lyrics are clever metaphors emphasizing the regrets, uncertainties and yearnings of their protagonists, who constantly surrender to fate and others' acceptance (or not).

And despite the large cast of musicians assembled in the personnel above, especially with horns and strings, the sound never feels overproduced or cluttered. If anything, Nichols' words are carefully, subtly coloured by the instrumentation-- it happily plays in the meadows of these isolated landscapes of verse. "Bad Fruit", a lamentation of an unhappy familial history ("seems like only bad fruits grows on my family tree" an appropriate metaphor) is accompanied by the sparse phrasing of an electric piano.

The instrumentation mostly offers an interesting counterpoint to the somber lyrics. The bouncy horn section in "Morning Love" (one of the best tracks) properly offsets the verse of a man pleading for the affection of an indifferent other. Likewise, the blackly humourous lyric "If you ever feel like leaving, take me with you" in the tenth track is subtly bracketed by mournful brass. In most of these songs, the characters are happy to hang on to whatever they have to get by. As heard in "Let's Make It Up", another song with jaunty horns, "there's nothing for me on that train out of town".

The feel of this album is timeless: perhaps only a number like "Sweet Tough and Terrible" (opening disarmingly with Nichols thanking his bandmates, making this feel like a live session) feels like it was taken from the early 1970's, with its strings evocative of an Al Green record, and thumping bass line recalling Sly Stone's THERE'S A RIOT GOING ON.

Despite the sadness in the lyrics, HERE NOW is absolutely beautiful to listen to. The production is sharp, colourful and never baroque. (Another highlight is the marvellous duet in "Really Together" in which two people decide to give their indecisive relationship a shot.) Each song is a masterpiece of mixed emotions, perfectly reflecting the unrequited desires in the prose, and accentuated by the conflicting tones in words and music. A phrase in the final song, "Could you find it in your heart to love me too?", is emblematic of the yearning for affection that permeates most of these tracks. But my answer to that question is yes, indeed.

Rating: *****/5


(Note: this review first appeared in my long-abandoned, barely started blog of record reviews. Since I'd like to commence with music reviews as well on Gee Whiz G Man, I've ported it to this new home.)

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