Monday, October 11, 2010

Unlikely Collaborations that Work Well Part 1- Robert Randolph

Once in a while you come across a wonderfully unexpected combination of things that actually work together.  Last year I wrote a brief review of one such item called Mo’s Bacon Bar, a chocolate bar with smoked bacon.  I was inspired by this idea and tried dipping crispy bacon in Nutella and it was crazy enough that it actually worked!
In the last few weeks I have stumbled across a 3 albums that fit into the category of crazy combinations that actually worked out quite well:  1. We Walk this Road by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, 2. You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples and 3. Band of Joy by Robert Plant.  While each of these albums are by amazing artists in their own right it is the collaborations with the producers that make each of these projects truly remarkable.  I’ll start off by reviewing The Road We Walk by Robert Randolph and the Family Band and then post separate reviews on Mavis Staples and Robert Plant.
Robert Randolph

My favorite of the three albums I came across recently is Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s We Walk This Road.  I have been a big fan of Robert Randolph since I first heard his patent sacred steel on The Word, a collaboration album with the North Mississippi Allstars and John Medeski.  From that moment I was hooked.  While I have had the opportunity to catch Robert Randolph in concert on one occasion and have all of his albums I have to say that he struck me as someone who was still searching for a sound, an artist who still needed to come into his own.  That moment has arrived on this latest project produced by T-Bone Burnett.  Burnett’s production has a way of bringing Randolph’s pedal steel back to the spiritual roots of gospel music and yet in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a typical retro kind of album.  The album is firmly rooted in the past but very much in the present.  
T-Bone Burnett

This album isn’t simply a major point of growth for Randolph and Company but for T-Bone Burnett as well.  One can hear how the many recording techniques Burnett has been experimenting with over the years from his work with the Coen Brothers on the Ladykiller’s soundtrack to his own solo project The True False Identity has finally developed into a solid sound that is subtly beautiful, soulful, and colorful.  The production is patently low attack eschewing hi-hats and cymbals for shakers and muted drums.  In the end it is hard for me to imagine exactly how this sound would translate into a live show because this definitely strikes me as more of a studio production, yet at the same time T-Bone has really helped Randolph and Family strip their sound down to the bare essentials, the soul of what they have been doing for years.  This could be one of those albums that actually begins to define their sound for the coming years and that would not be a bad thing.

While I find the whole album enjoyable even after repeated listens there are a few stand out tracks - I Still Belong to Jesus is a beautiful song of God's faithfulness even when we stray.  It strikes me as a statement of one who in the last 10 years has jumped headlong into the music business and seen some the vanity of it all and who finds himself drawn back to the love of God that has always held him.  Other standouts include If I Had My Way with special guest Ben Harper, and Traveling Shoes which emerges right out of an archival recording of a blues spiritual (probably something Burnett came across when putting together the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou).

Randolph's previous album Colorblind was a bad case of a producer making a band into something they were not.  The soul and grit of Randolph and the Family got squeezed out in a slick R&B style production that was obviously geared at breaking into the mainstream.  The Road We Walk is just the opposite.  T-Bone Burnett has found what makes this band great and built an album around that.  While I would have never put Burnett with Randolph it turned out to be a great paring.

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