The Staple Singers. Fantastic Negrito. Pink Floyd. The Black Keys. These are not, as a rule, names you might associate with pedal steel guitar. Pedal steel guitar is not, come to that, an instrument for which I usually have much of a hankering – its sickly sweet, swooning contribution to a heap of country music lingers in the mind.
In the hands of Robert Randolph however, pedal steel guitar becomes a whole different proposition. For one thing, he ain’t no proponent of the schmaltzy Nashville sound, he’s a black guy who took up pedal steel because of its use in gospel music. And for another, he plays that thing like he’s a modern day guitar slinger, pedal board and all.
|Robert Randolph - just a sedate young pedal steel player|
So if The Black Keys had been in the mood to add pedal steel to the mix for a song on their latest, guitar-driven album ‘Let’s Rock’, for instance, there’s every chance it might have turned out sounding like the opening track on Brighter Days, ‘Baptise Me’. It’s a big, chunky soul/gospel sound, with a vaguely retro riff, great gospel backing vocals, funky bass – and Randolph’s weapon of choice squealing away like Dan Auerbach has just unearthed some new effects pedal.
There’s a heavy gospel angle to the following ‘Don’t Fight It’ too, a stop-start choon that combines passages of ra-ra-rapido rhythm with slower, anthemic sections of “Na na a na” vocals that drag it into some kind of less screwed up Negrito-ish domain. Not sure what the business about “If you want some lovin’ take the biscuits in the oven” in the middle eight is all about, but whatever, it packs a whole heap of energy into three and a half minutes. There’s a Negrito undercurrent to ‘Second Hand Man’ too, with a hip hop sensibility to Marcus Randolph’s drums – and a second hand piano motif that recalls Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘It’s Your Thing’, while Danyel Morgan’s bass alternates between deep groove and syncopation, and Randolph chucks in handfuls of squelchy licks.
Bearing in mind the gospel roots, it’s scarcely surprising to find echoes of The Staple Singers, and sure enough they’re there in ‘Simple Man’, ‘Have Mercy’ and ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’. ‘Simple Man’ is a Staples cover, and a slowie with a good tune, but this is an instance where the ‘sacred’ nature of the lyrics eventually leaves me cold. “Watch where you’re going, remember where you’ve been” is an okay line, but when Randolph comes out with “Tell you what’s wrong with the world today, people done gone and put their Bible away”, I head for the secular hills. ‘Have Mercy’ though, is a cracking soulful affair with marvellous ensemble vocals, and Randolph producing a reflective, Dave Gilmour-like intro over chiming piano chords. And ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’ is something different, a great little song with a tough, assertive sound that brings to mind ‘Respect Yourself’, and a slithering, sliding bobsleigh ride of a solo from Randolph.
|It's a Family Band affair|
There are a couple of lightweight moments in the fuzzy, helter skelter ‘Cut Em Loose’ and the smooth, Commodores-like ‘I Need You’. But there are two other peaks to compensate, in the forms of ‘Cry Over Me’ and the closing ‘Strange Train’ respectively.
‘Cry Over Me’ opens with weeping pedal steel tones from Randolph, bluesy and soulful, as a prelude to a terrific vocal from his sister Lenesha Randolph, delivering a classy melody. And then it takes off, with soaring, choral harmonies aspiring to anthemic levels, until delicate piano lays the foundations for Randolph to deliver an exemplary, ‘Layla’-esque solo. ‘Strange Train’, meanwhile, closes the album in boisterous fashion, with a rattling bluesy riff from Randolph, and rhythmic “Hey you” vocals creating a shoutalong refrain if I ever heard one. There are bursts of speeded up Bo Diddley drums, and a neatly funky slow section, before it bolts for the finish in runaway fashion.
Full credit to Randolph and the Family Band for delivering such a rounded ensemble sound, and to producer Dave Cobb for capturing it – especially those vocals, and especially those of Lenesha Randolph. I do believe Brighter Days is an album that could make pedal steel guitar cool – as long as Robert Randolph is playing it.
Brighter Days is released by Mascot Label Group on 23 August.