[21 February 2006]
Somewhere in a bar in the Land of the Delta Blues, there is a group of wildly intoxicated tourists on a midnight prowl to hear some genuine Memphis funk. They bounce from club to club, getting drunker and drunker, until finally they stumble into an after-hours joint called, I don’t know, The Urine Sample, where through a miasma of cigarette smoke they spy onstage the four members of the Gamble Brothers Band, along with whatever supporting cast of Memphis pros they happen to be employing on this particular evening. The tourists are mesmerized. Yes indeed, this is some real live Memphis funk right here; those sultry saxophone solos, those Rhodes pianos buzzing tunelessly like dentist drills, the overemphatic lead vocalist bellowing four-word phrase after four-word phrase that he seems to be drawing at random from the Rhythm-N’-Blues-O-Matic Starter Kit. It’s 2:30 in the morning, everyone’s drunk, the music’s loud, and Memphis is alive and well; these are the type of people that justify the fact that bands like the Gamble Brothers Band have record deals.
The Gamble Brothers Band’s latest, Continuator, is a comprehensive exercise in calculated mediocrity, a dose of pre-packaged Memphis Lite in the first degree. It’s rich with all the elements of things that define big city rhythm ‘n’ blues, and if you’re willing to sacrifice character for professionalism, then this is the record for you, but for all of you Stubborn Sammies out there, you’re going to forget this record as soon as it parts ways with your CD player, if you don’t manage to relegate it to background noise while it’s still in there.
Credit where credit is due: The Gamble Brothers Band are probably a blast live. Its members are unquestionably proficient at what they do, the arrangements are as tight as a bowler’s shoelaces, and on the right night, there’s probably as much booty shakin’ goin’ on at a Gamble Brothers show as there is at any dance club in New York City. But there’s always the morning after, when the guy who attended the concert wakes up at 11:45 A.M. with a skull-crushing headache, pops in the CD he bought at the show, and looks around the room in bemusement. “Eh, they’re not as good as they were live,” he thinks, at which point he flips the disc back into its case, downs a few Advil, and goes back to bed.
The problem with Continuator is this: everything sounds so slick and professional that it causes nothing to sound remarkable. Lead singer Al Gamble has some decent pipes but no idea how to enunciate words genuinely; when he encounters a word like “I,” he pronounces it as “ahh,” and over the course of a forty-seven minute compact disc, Gamble begins to sound like a cartoon character. Melodically, his favorite compositional trick seems to be to lift a melody from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales and remove the hook from it, leaving his vocal statements flashy and meandering but never resolving themselves anywhere comfortably. When a decent tune does turn up, as it does on “Overboard” and “Heart’s Not In It,” Gamble’s voice seems unable to respect the melody—you hear the notes, but the tune doesn’t stick, because it sounds like the singer cares less about what it sounds like and more about how much spin he can put on the phrase.
This would be a forgivable transgression if the phrases were remotely interesting, but alas, this passage from “Vinyl” is pretty representative of the lyrical substance of Continuator: “Come at it from a different place/ You’re heading nowhere fast/ Slow down, man, it’s not a race/ Don’t have to crawl across cut glass.” The Gamble Brothers seem to have a grating obsession with tossing together mundane clichés to form a series of incongruent phrases that curiously ends up totaling less than the sum of its parts (I understand that this is mathematically impossible, but if we can’t credit the Gambles for their musical innovations, at least we can praise them for their breakthroughs in number theory).
The horn sections are well-arranged, but add nothing. Sax blower Art Edmaiston comes from the Clarence Clemons School of Saxophone, a discipleship that owes much to Charlie Parker and the 52nd Street alumni but comes off on record sounding more like Bleeding Gums Murphy from The Simpsons. His sound is big, loud, and full, but void of any personality, and as a result his soloing becomes background noise almost as soon as it starts. Al Gamble’s Wurlitzers bounce and buzz with precision, starting off novel but ending up prodding your ears like repeated shots from a taser gun. A major problem with the album as a whole is, well-structured as it is, by the time it reaches track thirteen, you’re so damn sick of it that you’d sooner eat your blue suede shoes than ever hear another Rhodes piano solo again, and by the time that last note rings out, you’re already rerouting your summer vacation through the Midwest so that you completely bypass Memphis altogether, instead settling on an alternate journey down some poorly maintained two-lane road, far from the bedlam of the Delta Blues, where the sound of no Wurlitzer shall travel. W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me, indeed.