Despite his obvious talent, it was very easy to pass Jonny Lang off as a kid-star talent when he first appeared on the scene a decade or so ago. Coming right around the same time as the Spice Girls and Hanson, and right before the big teen boom of Backstreet Boys and the rest, Lang, despite being a prodigy, got kinda left in the shuffle. Sure, he had some serious guitar chops—a fact confirmed when icons like B.B. King and Buddy Guy sought him out to work with, but who knew that his music would get better with time, or that he’d prove himself not only as a talented guitarist, but as a solid songwriter and vocalist?
The tide started turning in that direction with his third album, 2003’s Long Time Coming. With an aged, husky voice that belies his twenty-something years, Lang created a set that was equal parts rock, blues, and soul. The fact that he had a song co-written with Anthony Hamilton prior to Hamilton’s blowing up is what hooked me initially, but the rest of the album drew me in. With Turn Around, his latest effort, he solidifies himself as a pure soul vocalist, evoking some of the masters of classic R&B and gospel while also retaining his blues credentials and dipping a toe into the worlds of folk and country.
The collaborators on board for this album spell out where Lang is headed. His producers include Shannon Sanders, who’s been India.Arie’s right hand for most of her career, while among the musicians is Michael Bland, who backed up Prince during the New Power Generation era. The result is a set that sizzles with righteous soulfulness.
The set has a very obvious spiritual bent. While I’ll stop just short of calling it a gospel record, the folks who dig Kirk Franklin and Shirley Ceasar will probably find much to love here. While songs like the frenetic album closer “It’s Not Over” call to mind a church revival, it’s authentic enough to make you give praise yourself. The gently pulsing “Thankful” matches socially conscious lyrics and an ebullient choir with the guest vocals of Michael McDonald, easily one of the greatest blue-eyed R&B singers to walk this Earth. The end result is yet another song that will have you raising your hands in praise.
The set’s title track has a woodsy, earthy sound that will conjure up memories of Marc Broussard’s minor hit “Home” from last year, complete with a falsetto that would make Prince jump out of his heels. “Last Goodbye” is a spare, jazz-tinged ballad that slightly recalls Lang’s idol Stevie Wonder (another track, “On My Feet Again”, jumps feet-first in the gentle, horn-inflected sound that marked Al Green’s early hits). “Bump in the Road” takes a somewhat opposite tack, with a pronounced bottom and a danceable groove. “That Great Day” is straight-up acoustic folk, while “One Person at a Time” matches a heartfelt message with a strolling rock groove that smoothes out breezily for the chorus. Much like Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”, Lang pleads to the radio in the hopes that they’ll play his positive message. A similar message is found on “Anything is Possible (Don’t Let ‘Em)”, a song that stops just short of cloying (and also includes snippets of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). Although this album definitely has a socially conscious bent, Lang manages to make most of it go down easy. You don’t feel like you’re being preached to here.
As albums by folks ranging from Hanson to Justin Timberlake have revealed, it’s quite possible for teen stars to build on their initial talent and create viable music as adults. While Lang definitely isn’t going the pop route favored by most of those artists, Turn Around still deserves your attention, and it might more so because it’s off the beaten path. Resting somewhere in between a soul album, a roots album, and a gospel album, it’s one of the surprise great records of the year. Sounds like all that hanging with B.B., Buddy, and Stevie has paid off.
// Notes from the Road
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