Otis Taylor is a large but soft-spoken man, and in concert, it’s surprising to hear the rage and power in his performance. On his recordings, he’s been no less outspoken in tackling race problems and social issues. Taylor’s lyrics tend toward bluntness and simplicity, a style that enables them to strike with a powerful immediacy. As he’s developed such straightforward and aggressive thematic concerns, he’s worked out a smooth, rhythmic musical style. He builds his songs around a basic, repeat on guitar or banjo, augmenting the sound with cello, mandolin, and bass, while excluding any percussion instruments. Both live and in the studio, Taylor’s become adept at using a loop machine to keep the initial pattern going as he adds subtle work around it. He describes his music as “trance-blues”, and critics have also taken to the term “drone blues”. Rather than having an ambient effect, the music adds an urgency to his stories.
The first song on Double V, Taylor’s new album, marks a slight departure for him thematically even while reinforcing his general aesthetic. In “Please Come Home Before It Rains”, Taylor avoids the political issues examined throughout most of the disc. Instead, he tells the story of a sailor who has just received a letter from his wife asking him to return home. An electric guitar forms the foundation of the sound, and it’s a bouncy number in which Taylor stays off the beat. Taylor brings out a musical groove, but its repetition brings out the loneliness of the sailor and his wife. The pulse also serves as a counterpoint to the wife’s pointed plea. Taylor’s song focuses on a personal issue, but he uses the same techniques to evoke emotion as he does when approaching social concerns.
In “Mama’s Selling Heroin”, Taylor uses his own experience to shed light on a type of life. Taylor’s mother spent a year in prison after her conviction for dealing heroin. The song contains few lyrics—most of them being variations of the title—but the bluesy banjo part establishes the danger of the situation. Taylor also gives a cackle that reveals both the horror and the ridiculousness of the situation. “Mama’s Selling Heroin” marks an adult’s return to a terrible experience of his youth, but with no sense of forgiveness, sadness, or bitterness—just a naturalistic depiction. When your mother sells drugs, she goes away and you don’t get to see her. Taylor leaves it to his listeners to make sense of that world.
The mother in “505 Train” doesn’t have it any better. She’s beaten by her husband and needs to hop a train to escape this life. The song’s narrated from the point of view of a girl who sees the father’s violence and understands the mother’s wish to flee. The song’s rhythm is set by a clean electric guitar, but Taylor uses a slightly distorted sound for the subtle lead part, which increases the nervous tone of the song. The sense of displacement in this song shows up throughout the album. “Took Their Land” tells of the various peoples who have been imprisoned, relocated, and enslaved in the United States. The minimal sounds of vocals and harmonica force direct attention on the lyrics. “Reindeer Meat” reveals a homeless girl maintaining dignity through the Christmas season, even at the cost of her own satisfaction.
“Buy Myself Some Freedom” tells the tale of a Southern African-American girl from the ‘60s looking for another place, and another life. Taylor’s daughter Cassie, who has sung back up throughout Double V as well as on 2003’s Truth Is Not Fiction, handles both vocal parts and plays bass on this track, and three of the album’s four cellists appear. The sound here differs from the rest of the album with the inclusion of Ron Miles’s trumpet, which adds a jazz feel to this song, one of the most slowly-paced on the disc. Cassie Taylor sings of a life that she desires, where she can swim where she wants to and live as a free person. The song’s title comes from the moving opening lyric: “Wish I could go down to a department store, buy myself some freedom.” It’s a beautiful and sad ending to Double V; on an album where so many people are forced into an alternate life, we’re left with a person who dreams of something different. It’s a trap any way you turn, and Taylor knows it.
On this album, Taylor continues to explore his concerns with isolation, violence, loss, crime, and poverty. He has a harsh view of the world, but he uses that view as a means for confrontation rather than rejection. He turns transparent words and basic riffs into powerful statements. For Taylor, music is an ongoing crusade, and he shows no sign of giving in.
// Notes from the Road
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