Aaron Neville – I Know I’ve Been Changed

January 01, 1970

(EMI Gospel)




There’s a reason Aaron Neville became an easily
parodied pop culture character. Though he made records for decades with true
musical imagination and emotional resonance, he eventually shifted into a
gentle, unthreatening, consistent brand identity in which his trademark
quivering melismatic falsetto was applied indiscriminately on every song he
sang. Not that it wasn’t pretty, but one can be forgiven if there came a time
when it no longer seemed necessary to check out what this largest Neville
Brother was releasing to the public.


It’s going to be an uphill battle to convince those
who dropped him from their listening habits, but I Know I’ve Been Changed is a genuine gem. Producer Joe Henry doesn’t
allow his charges (including in recent years Solomon Burke, Aimee Mann, Bettye
LaVette, Loudon Wainwright III, Mose Allison, Mary Gauthier, and Allen
Toussaint) to coast on their reputations. Whether Neville sought him out or
Henry came up with the idea of putting that voice to work on Gospel and
spiritual material, there is a vibrancy and a fresh sense of exploration
throughout this new record that is testament to a perfect match between singer,
producer, musicians, and songs.


It does appear to have been Henry’s idea to bring
Toussaint on board as pianist – Henry has practically single-handedly
revitalized Toussaint’s career in recent years, producing the Elvis Costello /
Allen Toussaint collaboration, The River
in Reverse
in 2006, and Toussaint’s astounding jazz album from 2008, The Bright Mississippi. Also on board
from that latter record are bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose; with
this rhythm section in place, there was little danger of simply aping
traditional Gospel approaches to any of the songs. Toussaint is way too
individual a pianist to limit himself to the admittedly exciting chords of
Gospel, and Piltch and Bellerose are too playful and inventive in their rhythms
to stick to the rules of any given genre.  The band is rounded out by a very talented
Chris Bruce on guitars, and the always welcome presence of Greg Leisz on dobro.


Armed with a selection of songs pulled from the
Civil War era (“Oh Freedom”), great acoustic blues sources ( Mississippi Fred
McDowell’s “You Gotta Move,” also known by the Rolling Stones; Big Bill
Broonzy’s “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is”), country folk (“I Am a
Pilgrim”), and of course, the Staple Singers songbook (“I Know I’ve Been
Changed”), Neville sounds confident and engaged with his material for the first
time in decades. The falsetto is used sparingly, the quiver brought out for
emphasis when needed. The rest of the time, Neville falls back on what he used
to know about singing  – he delivers the
melody, plays with the rhythms, and connects with the meaning of the words.


It’s been a great year for Gospel music in the
secular world. Patty Griffin’s Downtown
, Tom Jones’s Praise &
, and Mavis Staples’ You Are Not
have in various ways updated classic Gospel songs into something that
can be enjoyed whether or not one believes in the deity at the heart of the
songs. Aaron Neville can proudly take his place among these talented singers.
They may intend to praise God, but in the process, they are praising music


Know I’ve Been Changed,” “Don’t Let Him Ride,” “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus

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