[3 April 2006]
Bonnie Bramlett has a long history that etches a line between rock and soul that has run from ‘60s up until today. She started as an “Ike-ette” with the Turners, made a decent splash with her husband (long ago ex-) as “Delaney & Bonnie” recording for Stax, and then went on to collaborate and record with the likes of Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Little Feat. You disrespect that kind of history and her kind of voice at your own risk.
The voice is all raspy soul power. Ms. Bramlett is now based in Nashville, and she came up as a blue-eyed soul singer around St. Louis. Particularly when she’s singing choruses backed by an impressive passel of background singers (including her daughter Bekka Bramlett, recently a member of Fleetwood Mac), Ms. Bramlett sounds like a vintage soul shouter—all strong flavor like barbeque and smoke and spicy goodness. There are moments on Roots, Blues & Jazz when it does comes together in a rush of honest soul power.
But, mostly, Ms. Bramlett’s interpretations on this record have the tang of a singer reaching all the way down to her soul toes and overwhelming the songs themselves. While the band here, an outfit called “Mr. Groove” laying down perfectly fine tenor/organ soul/jazz, holds its own, Ms. Bramlett colors every line, every word and every syllable in hues too bold for their own good. She growls, twists, shakes, distorts, chokes up, and generally sings too hard for the material. I hate writing this because I respect Ms. Bramlett’s art, but this record is oversung by a considerable margin, coming off like an unmeasured American Idol performance by someone trying to convince a dial-in audience.
The opener is Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” in a gospel vein, and maybe it got me off in a bad mood. Ms. Bramlett smears and growls the verses with mad abandon, pretty well ignoring the lyrics, setting up the band for a big chorus, sure, but making a mess of the tune itself. Another gentle tune of an older vintage, “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You”, is given a jazz treatment, but Ms. Bramlett again colors her singing so much that the performance has more of a Phyllis Diller vibe than a Louis Armstrong vibe. (Younger readers: If you do not know who Phyllis Diller is, imagine the red carpet fashion commentator Joan Rivers doing campy Broadway singing.) The jazz standard “The Work Song” feels similarly sloppy and over-souled. Ms. Bramlett shouts “Yeah!” and “That’s what I thought you said” before and during the tenor solo and, well… I’m just not buying it. I know that Bonnie Bramlett is a real soul singer, but on this record she sounds too much like someone who is pretending to be a soul singer. The raw effort is audible too often.
The stuff here that I like is sung more subtly, with hints of power and color making for a better overall canvas. Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” is given a cute stop-time jazz treatment that is gentle for a half and then Dinah-Washington-piquant in the second half. The Sam Cooke tune “A Change is Gonna Come” is sung broad and strong but without so many vocal affectations and tics, so it works. Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” is rarely given a vocal treatment, and the swagger of Ms. Bramlett’s singing here has gospel nerve, particularly in combination with her background voices on the chorus. And “Harlem Nocturne” has a late-night 1950s feeling that lets Ms. Bramlett fulfill her jazz diva needs without going all gah-gah with the mannerisms.
A few other tunes are just plain peculiar. “Carefree” sounds like it’s from another session, a late ‘70s pop confection with more subdued singing but little substance. The original “I Can Laugh About It Now” is so over-juiced, uber-growled, and (literally) laughed-through that you want to give Ms. Bramlett a lozenge directly through your living room speakers. I understand that “laugh” is in the song’s title, but the constant hilarity in the singing itself is a stand-in for my problem with the whole disc: it sounds like a forced good time, a put-on of soul rather than the real thing.
Bonnie Bramlett is the real thing. This disc, however, makes it seem as if she’s trying to fool you.