BY JENNIFER KELLY
The “Screaming Eagle of Soul” cut his first album at age 62, after a lifetime of hard knocks, homelessness, brushes with death and a long-standing gig as a James Brown impersonator. Here, on his second, Charles Bradley branches out with his sound, wrapping his raspy, growly, velvet-rubbed-the-wrong-way voice around classic Stax horn ballads (“Strictly Reserved for You”), Barry White-esque hormonal croons (“Victim of Love”) and Farfisa-infused, slapped-and-popped funk a la James Brown himself (“Where Do We Go From Here”) and one blown-out trip into psychedelia (“Confusion”). Bradley sounds most like Otis Redding, in his “Dock of the Bay” down-tempo moments and his “Try a Little Tenderness” squawks, yelps and howls, but you can also hear echoes of Marvin Gaye, James Carr and, most particularly, O.V. Wright, whose “Drowning on Dry Land” is the only old-style soul song I can think of this with level of desperation and release.
Bradley’s voice may be the focal point, but he is very ably backed by the Menahan Street Band, whose letter-perfect reading of 1960s and 1970s funk is allowed to predominate in “Dusty Blue,” an orchestral, flute-and-brass embellished vamp. The band is somehow superlatively tight and laid-back at the same time, executing syncopated riffs and lush flourishes with practiced ease and maybe one hand tied behind the back.
It’s true that Victim of Love will win no great prizes for originality. Nearly all the songs remind you of some late 1960s classic, sometimes uncomfortably so. For instance, “You Put the Flame on It” swaggers and sways in a very particular “How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You).” And “Strictly Reserve for You,” to me, is redolent of early 1970s Dramatics (they of the monster hit “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”). Yet Bradley and his band are such great interpreters and expanders of the soul tradition that you don’t mind the nagging feeling that you’ve heard these cuts before. It is, ultimately, part of the charm of this album that it feels like it could be coming in faintly on AM radio during some late-night, two-lane trek through the rural south.
Bradley does make one spectacular reach on Victim of Love into the wildly psychedelic brand of soul explored by bands like the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix (loosely soul but definitely psychedelic) in the 1970s. His “Confusion” is a bass-pounding, churning, chaotic deep dive into the subconscious (complete with cuckoo clock sounds), and the reverb on Bradley’s voice gives him an unearthly authoritativeness. It’s like god talking to you over a James Brown vamp, and you don’t know whether to drop down on your knees or dance. Hard to do both, but maybe now’s the time to try.
DOWNLOAD: “Confusion” “Dusty Blue” “Victim of Love”