Sophisticated Sounds of Jazz-Inflected Country
Al Anderson is most famous as the rip-it-up guitar player of the legendary live band NRBQ, where he served for more than 20 years, but he left that group more than a dozen years ago to pursue a career as a Nashville songwriter and sideman. Since leaving NRBQ, Big Al first put out one solo record that featured his rockin’ side. His latest disc, After Hours, offers a different spin on his talents. The new Anderson effort showcases his mellow side. The man indulges in the sophisticated sounds of jazz-inflected country fare, and the results show Anderson’s considerable gifts as an able interpreter of his own compositions, as well as his talent as a great songwriter.
Or co-writer would be more accurate. Big Al co-wrote all 13 songs on the album with noted talents like Jeffrey Steele, Delbert McClinton, Tia Sillers, Sharon Vaughn, and Gary Nicholson. Anderson is a master of the subtle pun and clever wordplay. He suggests the absurdities of everyday life and love with silly lines that make one think instead of groan, like “I’m gonna make a resolution / Not to make another one”, “The word of today is ‘mañana’”, and “You committed the crime / But I’m doin’ the time”. Writing wry lyrics has been one of Anderson’s best qualities through out his 48-year career.
Anderson has a conversational baritone voice, and he tends to phrase in rhythm more than sing his songs. He knows how to let words breathe and sigh so that their meanings seem a natural extension of their sounds. While he might not have much range, he rarely strains, and when he does its to stress the emotion implied by the language. His guitar playing on this release mirrors this technique. Big Al takes no fast or long solos. He just fingers his acoustic guitar with a cadenced picking style.
Most of the material here is of recent vintage, but Anderson does reach back into the NRBQ grab bag and pulls out a heartfelt rendition of “Better Word for Love”. He delivers this romantic ode—the song’s conceit concerns the question of whether there is a stronger and more appropriate term for “love” than the word “love” itself—in a gentle tone with slow tempo. Big Al’s sense of timing gives the maudlin tune a sense of urgency. He’s also smart enough to keep the disc flowing. He follows this song with the catchy Western swing of “Blues About You Baby”, with McClinton helping out on vocals. The cut simply bounces along like a person drunk on homemade wine.
Big Al is smart enough to let the two female songwriting co-conspirators take over lead vocal duties on a couple of cuts. Sillers (who co-wrote Lee Ann Womack’s monster hit, “I Hope You Dance”) has a wispy voice with a twang. Her take on the road song “What’s a Thousand Miles” works by emphasizing the disparity between the desire of the narrator and the denial she expresses about her wants. The narrator is willing to drive all night in the rain to get to the one she loves, while saying the feat is no big deal. Sillers’s delicate vocals contrast with the strength of her emotions for a complementary effect. Vaughn, who co-wrote three tunes here, does a deadpan version on the irreverent “Do Nothin’ Day” that sounds gloriously lugubrious in a manner right out of the Peggy Lee stylebook. The spoiled protagonist just wants to laze around all day. It’s not enough to make her a cup of coffee. Be prepared to add milk and stir the brew and be grateful that she deigns to lift it to her lips. Big Al shows his generosity and taste by having these ladies contribute their vocal talents as well as their musical ones.
Austin songbird Kim Richey also joins Anderson on one cut, “Trip Around the Sun”, which was a Top 20 Country hit for Martina McBride and Jimmy Buffett. It’s a lovely song about celebrating one’s birthday and reflecting on life. Richey and Anderson emphasize the richness of existence because of one’s very mortality. Yeah, each year brings one closer to death. Bummer. Let’s party! Anderson’s years of experience has taught him to enjoy himself. Big Al may have mellowed, but like good wine, this has only enriched his sweetness.