Like all musical genres, the blues has its own particular set of conventions. Yet the seemingly infinite variations on the shuffle tempo and the AABA lyric format derive from the unique personalities involved. Such is the case with JJ Grey & Mofro's new album. Country Ghetto feels like everything that is the blues while mostly sounding nothing like it.
While Mofro boasts a somewhat unconventional instrumental lineup no bass guitaristthe low registers nevertheless permeate the music almost like a subliminal tone on such songs as "Circles. "On Palastine works much the same way, as organ weaves in and around the other instruments in the arrangement. The latter track further illustrates JJ Grey & Mofro's take on the bluesa soulful style just this side of gospel musicas the leader uses his voice to engage in understated intonations that are hypnotizing. Make no mistake though, this whole band cooks from top to bottom.
The one truly conventional cut on this CD is the guitar-dominated "Mississippi. Thanks, no doubt, to the presence of producer Dan Prothero, who has helmed each previous Mofro album, nothing is overproduced. The horns on "Tragic are redolent of sadness, and their entry behind Grey's world-weary vocal is quietly dramatic. The twang of guitar and wail of harp on "Turpentine recall, in turn, both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tony Joe White while aping neither. And the spirit of New Orleans emanates from within the statuesque horns on "A Woman (a tune originally written for singer Cassandra Wilson).
The band shifts into gear effortlessly and imperceptibly on "War, the topical slant of the lyrics suggesting that, for all Grey's Southern provincialism, he is not insular. Like so many of the dozen tracks here, this opener is over almost before you know it because Mofro generally makes its points, musical and otherwise, without belaboring them. "Goodbye then, is a logical choice as a closer, but the CD as a whole could've benefited from a more upbeat conclusion since this cut extends the solemnity of "The Sun Is Shining Down a bit too long.
The music Mofro makes is as deeply felt as the heated atmosphere it conjures. It's anything but flashy so that the slight sequencing faux pas at the end may be exactly that which dissuades some listeners from fully investigating Grey & co. Which will be their loss because, based on Country Ghetto, this is a group with a grasp on its identity so sure, it could move in any number of directions and still remain true to its roots and itself.
War; Circles; Country Ghetto; Tragic; By My Side; On Palestine; Footsteps; Turpentine; A Woman; Mississippi; The Sun is Shining Down; Goodbye.
JJ Grey: vocals, keyboards, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, twelve-string guitar, harmonica, bass; Daryl Hance: guitar, slide guitar; Adam Scone: organ, organ bass; George Sluppick: drums; Ian Hendrickson-Smith: baritone and tenor saxophone; Cochemea Gastleum: tenor saxophone; Dave Guy: trumpet; Batya MacAdam-Somer: violin;
David Medine: violin; Hayley Neher: viola; Jessie Marino: cello; Liza Oxnard: background vocals; Hazel Miller: background vocals; Linda Lewellyn Harley: background vocals; Shirley Higginbotham: background vocals; Elena Higginbotham: background vocals.
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