Blind Boys of Alabama: Duets

RIYL: Temptations, Mavis Staples, Al Green

Long revered in gospel circles but never more than teetering on the fringes of popular appeal, the Blind Boys of Alabama opt for a strategy not unlike others in the same predicament, namely, to co-opt some popular names and join forces in a series of duets. While such a stance often diminishes the artists in question, here they find some favorable symmetry even though they’re mostly forced to take a supporting role in the proceedings. The mesh is especially ideal when they’re paired with reggae great Toots Hibbert (“Perfect Peace”), Solomon Burke (“None of Us Are Free”) and Ben Harper (“Take My Hand”), each of whom possess the power, conviction and singing style as their musical hosts. Likewise, its no wonder that Lou Reed’s “Jesus” is the most stirring song he’s offered since his days with the Velvets.

Unfortunately, handing the spotlight to guest stars does have its drawbacks; when lumped in the company of other eloquent voices – Susan Tedeschi on the powerful “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” Bonnie Raitt with the eloquent “When the Spell Is Broken” and Timothy B. Schmidt on the ballad “Secular Praise” – it’s hard not to shake the impression that the Blind Boys are merely along for the ride, relegated to the role of hired hands on their own album. Wisely, the producers confine most of the material to an inspirational context, those soaring gospel harmonies being at their best in the service of faith and belief. Here’s hoping that by linking their fortunes to these marquee names, the Blind Boys of Alabama not only rally their faithful but rouse non-believers as well. (Saguaro Road 2009)

Blind Boys of Alabama website


Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson: Break Up

RIYL: Aimee Mann, Mark Geary, Nicole Atlkins

When most people wake up from a deep sleep with a sudden strange and creative urge, little ever comes of it. Then again, Pete Yorn isn’t most people. As he tells it, Yorn awoke just needing to make a duets album, and lucky guy that he is, he’s a personal friend of the beautiful Scarlett Johansson, who proves to be a true chanteuse. Together they recorded a nine-song set of ingenious lo-fi pop, simple in their beauty and deeply resonant on the personal side, and Break Up was born…in 2006. Why this sat for three years gathering dust is beyond us. Yorn described the process of this album as one of the most intimate and controlled on his part, so it took the urging of friends to get him to revisit and release it. We should all send those friends a note of thanks, because this album is like nothing else out there.

Opening with the single “Relator,” you immediately hear the uncharacteristic synth line that bee-bops along until Johansson’s smoky, almost husky vocals hit the ear like a fine shot of bourbon hits the throat. It sounds like some kind of effect was used, but Yorn insists that it is Scarlett au natural. She blends perfectly with Yorn’s classically pained and scratchy growl, and the chemistry between them is obvious. It infects every song with an emotional immediacy. “I Don’t Know What to Do” takes a slight, very slight, country tinge where Johansson is unfortunately relegated to back up, because when she sings, the whole song lights up.

It really is Scarlett’s addition that pushes this album from good to great. “Blackie’s Dead” starts out like something right off of The Day I Forgot until the harmonies of Johansson transform it into something ethereal, carried along by an a haunting steel guitar riff. This kind of song redeems Adult Contemporary because it is grown up, without being safe or boring. A perfect example is “Clean,” which features a more R&B sound, just enough to make Johansson simply ooze through the headphones with a subtly hollow sadness brought forth with the echoing production. This is mature songwriting that loses none of the passionate impact of Yorn’s earlier work.

As the second release of 2009 for Pete, he has completely redeemed any missteps he may have taken with the earlier solo album, Back & Fourth. Both that and Break Up are his self-proclaimed attempts to be more personal and direct with his music, but the latter succeeds far beyond the more prosaic Back & Fourth. Working with Johansson, Yorn has created a a gorgeous album, far beyond anything one would normally expect from a hazy, sleep inspired creative whim. This is art. (Rhino 2009)

Pete Yorn MySpace page


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