I was worried Otis Taylor was going to repeat himself. Since his return to music in 1995, he’s modified his sound, but it seemed possible that 2005’s brilliant Below the Fold marked not just the peak but also the stopping point of Taylor’s creativity. Pulling his style of blues-folk to an apparent extreme, it would have been simple enough for Taylor to stick to formula, or to drift back to basics. I shouldn’t have worried; his new release Definition of a Circle contains even further experiments in the sound. Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing.
The album begins strongly enough. “Little Betty” rides on a typical Taylor guitar loop and a subtle organ part, but Gary Moore adds somes hard electric blues guitar to give direction to the song’s rhythmic urgency. “Black’s Mandolin Boogie” likewise fits into the expected Taylor aesthetic, blending a repetitive rhythm with smart mandolin and cello lines. Taylor seems sold on a full band at this point, and it’s proving effective, especially as he continues his intense and unexpected lyrics, in this case about “the plight of the Gypsies in Europe”.
Those first two tracks set a comfortable mood for the album, but after that, Taylor and company don’t quite seem sure of their compositions. “They Wore Blue” epitomizes the problems the group faces. The track, written in response to Hurricane Katrina from the point of view of an African-American from the North, simply has too much going on in a faulty arrangement. The primary flaw lies with the lead guitar that runs throughout the song’s seven minutes, meandering incessantly without ever saying anything, occasionally throwing in some senseless double-picking, as if a bedroom noodler were in charge.
At four minutes the song shifts, building on a ‘60s-style organ part. The transition can’t save the song, though, as it still revels in excitability instead of excitement, commotion instead of intensity. There’s a bit of a jam band affect here, which doesn’t suit the song as well as simply following the bass’s boogie groove would have. The wildness of an earlier song like “Feel Like Lightning” has been weakened by the freer playing on this disc. Tracks like “Maharaja Daughter” commit the error less egregiously, but they still feature too many wandering lines. “Long Long Life” comes closer to success with its experimental piano work, and as a mood piece might work well outside an album that misuses free composition.
A few other tracks, while less chaotic, suffer from normalcy. Taylor and his band follow more traditional electric blues paths throughout the disc. Tracks like “Love and Hesitation” could have come from a mid-‘80s Clapton show. Given that Taylor’s greatest strength might be his personality—whether a soft or forceful intensity—this loss of idiosyncracy saps his music more strongly than it might that of another artist.
For all the problems with the performances on this disc, their existence is encouraging. Part of the frustration of listening to Definition comes in how closer Taylor comes. Taylor reaches for a more expansive, possibly even more expressive sound, but he can’t quite grasp it yet. Although it will take some time to know if this is the case, the album feels like a transitional record. If Below the Fold was a peak, this one’s a re-direction. Taylor’s working in a far more electric sound, and that sort of guitar, and the new organ textures, could allow Taylor to explore his visions in a new and fascinating manner. That he hasn’t fully succeeded on his first try shouldn’t be surprising.
Even with its shortcomings considered, Definition of a Circle is, at the very least, an Otis Taylor album, which means it carries much more potency than the average recording. Taylor still has his unique lyrics and distinctive grooves, and he still, when he comes to the fore, a captivating presence. With this release, Taylor just sounds in need of finding a true center, but his struggles still lead to some payoffs.