Unless you’ve got the interest to do some searching, it’s easy to become dismayed with the current state of blues. Corey Harris is bouncing around the globe for his inspiration and the hill country blues players are digging inward for a direct and affecting sound, but beyond that (even accepting the solid work of people like Robert Cray), the blues haven’t been striking home. Fortunately Otis Taylor’s been releasing a good album annually for four years, and his newest, Below the Fold, shows new streams of innovation open to navigation.
The album opens with “Feel Like Lightning”, one of the few songs to give me actual goosebumps in the past year, and it does so by building on Taylor’s usual style. He’s noted for his use of trance-blues, laying a repetitive foundation with guitar or banjo and working around that, sometimes without changing chords. On “Lightning” he starts with a rolling banjo, but then drums (drums!) come in. Add a fiddle, cello, bass, and slide guitar and we’ve got a genuine chamber-bluegrass band. But Taylor’s delivery is blues through and through, as he elucidates plainly the strength needed for black Americans to speak out during the Civil Rights Movement. “I feel, feel like lightning / Feeling mighty strong”, he sings, and there can be no doubting that strength. As the song builds to its crescendo—country fiddle encouraged by electric guitar, and both supported by that insistent banjo—the shivers set in and Taylor keeps wailing, eventually breaking his vocals into a few grunted syllables before the banjo comes back to the fore, turning the drone into a brief solo.
In three minutes, Taylor has knocked away any expectations we had coming into Below the Fold, by expanding his instrumentation, adding percussion, and doing his best production work. His vocals still have an edge, and he knows how to present a feeling and a message. For most artists, moving on from here could be futile, the rest of the album being a let-down to an astonishing introduction. And while nothing matches the inventiveness, intelligence, and fire of “Feel Like Lightning”, nothing falls short either.
On the next track an old man tells of his lifelong love for his mandolin. The song’s driven—you guessed it—by a jazzy trumpet. First drums, now a trumpet? Taylor keeps expanding what he does, but continues making it work. Ron Miles’ horn-work fills out the reflective mood on the piece, and Taylor does play mandolin, gently but steadily. The number has emotional weight (I’ve yet to find the fluff in Taylor’s catalog), but it actually works as a rare chance for a listener to catch a breath.
Taylor usually succeeds because he chooses such demanding topics for his lyrics, frequently taking on race or class issues. Some titles give it away: “Hookers in the Street” and “Government Lied” are about as cheery as you’d expect, taking on dead women, silent children, and the official denial of black US soldiers. Other tracks sound safe, but their titles mislead (well, serve as an emotional juxtaposition to the lyrical content). “Your Children Sleep Good Tonight” seems like a lullaby, but its narrator actually reflects on the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which women and children were killed when the National Guard destroyed the tent community housing striking mine workers. Taylor sings, “Mr. Rockefeller, I know your children sleep good tonight”, growling a threat as much as a protest; when he compares that situation to the one of children “sleeping in the ground”, and then cries that “the ground is burning” (from the camp destruction), horror, rage, and sadness merge over the restrained music.
When Cassie Taylor (Otis’s daughter) takes on lead vocals, she offers relief, if for no other reason than for the more traditionally beautiful sound of her voice. On “Working for the Pullman Company”, her only lead on this disc, Cassie sings as a child waiting for her daddy to come back home from his train ride. On the surface, it’s a simple song of childhood longing, told somewhat nostalgically, but in the middle of an album like this, you have to wonder if her daddy’s going to make it back. It’s a tribute to both the songwriting of Taylor that he can so vividly portray a world that even a sweetish song (co-written with Cassie) can hold such a complex emotionality.
Of course, the album won’t rest on such a sentiment. If “Working” offers release from the troubling childhood question of how a mother actually relates to her female pal in “Mama’s Got a Friend”, it also adds to the tragedy of “Your Children Sleep Good Tonight”, which in turns fosters the hurt of “Didn’t Know Much About Education”. Taylor has assembled the album as carefully as he as each song, and it pays off in cathartic emotional turmoil.
“Went to Hermes” provides the disc’s sparsest music, just Taylor singing along with his guitar. He sings, “Oh, what a wonderful day” as he lies next to his beloved. It’s such a strikingly gorgeous moment that it could bring tears if you haven’t been inured by the album’s first seven tracks. The slow acoustic groove continues right into “Government Lied”. Go ahead and relax. It’s just a little ditty about black soldiers killed and then denied in WWII.
Feeling down? Taylor throws in a harmonica-trumpet-drums number with almost ragtime roots to close the album. Feels better, but he matches it with simple yet inscrutable lyrics about a man who professes love for his best friend, but runs off. We’re left wondering if he’s looking “to find true love” (as Taylor claims in the liner notes) or if he’s afraid, and if we should feel happy at his romantic ambition or sad at his damaged relationship. It’s an oddly complex ending, but one that works given the challenging nature of Below the Fold. Taylor has done so much exploration on this record without ever swerving from his strengths, and without exposing any weaknesses. With lyrics, music, and production all well-conceived and delivered, he’s created a modern blues masterpiece.