Monday, February 19, 2024

JJ Grey & Mofro - Olustee

I’m all for artists stretching the envelope, throwing a curve ball, tossing something different into the mix, and JJ Grey & Mofro do a good job of that with ‘The Sea’.  Opening a blues’n’soul album like Olustee with a dreamy, piano-led reverie may be a surprise move, but when it’s as elegant and imaginative as this, featuring falsetto vocals from Grey, rippling acoustic guitar, and swatches of strings, it works just fine, thank you.
Mind you, my favourite track on the album is something from the other end of the spectrum.  'Olustee' is a tale of a wildfire that swept parts of Florida in 1998, and it captures the drama in some
JJ Grey, sans Mofro
Pic by Steve Rapport
style.  It’s urgent and gutsy, bristling with a stiletto sharp guitar riff, throbbing bass, and squeals of harp, topped off with a fiery, attention-grabbing guitar showcase from (I’m guessing) Pete Winders that does the story justice.
There are several more songs in low key styles, which work to varying degrees.  ‘Waiting’ is a soul ballad about the frustration that comes with not giving it your all in life – which is ironic when Grey’s vocal impresses big time with its passion and personality.  The closing ‘Deeper Than Belief’ is another success, a solemn meditation on “all space and time and thought and mind” that references a Zen saying about “chopping wood, carrying water all day” – miracles being grounded in everyday life.  Whether the lyrics really make their point is up for discussion, but the subtle colourings from piano and flute, and the strings that arrive to provide extra elevation, all hit the mark.  Adding three more downbeat tunes seems excessive though, especially when neither ‘On A Breeze’ nor ‘Starry Night’ really do enough to stand out.  And while ‘Seminole Wind’ is better, with its slow-slow-quick-quick-slow melody and a tasteful, low-moaning trumpet solo, I’m still not sure it’s worth six minutes plus.
Upbeat soul songs like ‘Top Of The World’ (not the old blues classic) and ‘Wonderland’  are pleasing enough without being head-turning.  ‘Free High’ is in a similar vein, with a funky Memphis vibe à la Otis Redding, and if it’s nothing mould-breaking or profound it still gets a satisfying groove on, punctuated by some punchy horns.  But ‘Rooster’, a slice of low-slung funk with ticking guitar, stuttering bass, cool semi-spoken delivery from Grey, and sassy female backing vocals, is more focused and convincing.
When Olustee is good, it’s very good.  Several songs are deserving of high marks, no question. But some tracks are merely middling, and for me the balance of the material leans too heavily towards the reflective.  A bit less navel-gazing and a bit more wildfire would have been welcome.
Olustee is released on 23 February by Alligator Records.

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