TThe Holmes Brothers’ Speaking in Tongues is gospel music with a raw force and down-to-earth-ness missing from most music of that genre. Formed over 20 years ago, the group’s three members not only sing with angelic and gritty souful voices, but they play tight bluesy funk and soul grooves. On Speaking in Tongues, aided by producer Joan Osborne, they’ve more fully captured their sound than ever. Here their music is danceable and spiritual; it conjures up the heavens and the darkest after-hours blues bar at the same time.
A cover of Ben Harper’s “Homeless Child” opens the album, introducing the theme of feeling lost and lonely, seeking guidance in this world. Their grooves propel the song forward with funky urgency, something the band does through most of this upbeat collection. Helped by a trio of backing singers who call themselves The Precious Three (Joan Osborne, Catherine Russell, and Maydie Miles), the Holmes Brothers match their voices to the music and the material perfectly, projecting depth and sincerity with a timeless sense for the human feelings beneath the words.
While much gospel music is more focused on the routine ways of expressing spiritual longing and praise (“Praise Jesus!”, etc.), the Holmes Brothers’ music gets at the bigger issues behind gospel music, finding them not only in traditional gospel songs and their own relatively traditional songs but also in a variety of pop songs of other genres. While previous albums have included jaw-dropping covers of songs from the likes of Tom Waits and the Beatles, here they take on three Ben Harper songs, one Bob Dylan song, and the O’Jays’ “Love Train”. The last is an especially inspired choice: Their blissfully slow version really emphasizes the message of universal love at the heart of the R&B classic (making up for the original’s use in television commercials).
From the title track to the country-folk tune “Jesus Got His Hooks in Me”, the Holmes Brothers do a good deal of giving praise to a power above; yet they also use their songs to get at the feelings of rootlessness that make people search for such higher powers. Their songs have at their heart a sense that feeling alone and longing for a bigger meaning in life is a universal human emotion. They use their gorgeous singing and dead-on musicianship to explore those feelings, to add musical accompaniment to the eternal searchings of humanity.