Otis Taylor’s earlier recordings derived their force from the rolling strength of a single performer. Not that Taylor couldn’t write lyrics or melodies, but he stood out by driving home his style of the blues, and simply impressing the power of his songs onto a listener. The last few years, he’s been expanding his sound, with mixed results. He hasn’t stumbled, but he hasn’t nailed it yet either. But Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs comes very close.
The composition of the band is key here. Returning bandmates Gary Moore (lead guitar on a few tracks), Ron Miles (cornet), and daughter Cassie Taylor (vocals, bass) have the background to stay tight, building on their previous work. It’s the newcomer to the group that provides the pivotal change. Jazz pianist Jason Moran seems like an odd fit, but his avant garde leanings bring out new textures and atmospheres in Taylor’s writing (and Taylor’s arranging skills are up to the new challenges). Moran works against the band as often as with it, increasing tension when needed and releasing it when necessary. “Talking About it Blues” gets its chaotic push from Moran’s skittering keys.
The choice of bandmates would matter far less if the songs themselves weren’t quality. The 13 tracks here make a nice entry into Taylor’s body of work, which is powerful even if flawed. The highlight, “I’m Not Mysterious”, relies on several key juxtapositions. Taylor sets the track up as a typical song of two lovers held apart by their parents (“Mama tells me I’m too young to be in love”). Then, with a nod to Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”, he reveals the beloved to be a child, singing, “I’ve got a little red wagon”.
It’s not a “twist” song, however, because the real point of the song is that the children are kept apart because of their race; Taylor offsets the charm of a childhood crush with the horror of racial segregation. “I’m Not Mysterious” could read like a kid breaking the gender divide (“boys don’t have cooties”), but it’s the phrase that tries to break down racial lines. The danger in the boy’s insistence on following the girl home is heightened by Moran’s piano work, mostly hidden until it brings its ominous tone to the forefront. The boy keeps repeating that his mama told him he’s “too young to be in love”, either missing or evading the root problem, making the attempts to share ice cream even more affecting.
Taylor covers topics ranging from longing (“Looking for Some Heat”) to familial love and caretaking (“Silver Dollar on My Head”), to passion-driven murder (the solo “Dagger By My Side”). The songs essentially hang together around the theme of love, although the “Wars” from the album title is occasionally the more accurate word. Taylor hasn’t left the dirt and hurt he frequently deals with.
As strong as these songs are, Taylor has a tendency to overreach over the course of the album. The disc is just short of 70 minutes, with six of the tracks running longer than five minutes. The problem isn’t so much that none of the songs warrant that length (although that’s true of “Walk on Water”), but that Taylor’s structural idiosyncracies sometimes turn his drone into, well, a drone. The textures provided by the band, particularly Moran and Miles, usually prevent that downward shift from happening, but the complete set of songs don’t quite provide enough formal interest to warrant a collection of this size.
I’m closer than I’d like to be to suggesting that the record’s simply too much of a good thing, but these structural characteristics are noteworthy. That said, it’s still an impressive performance not just by a compelling solo artist, but by an intriguing band. It makes for Taylor’s best record in about half a decade, and a memorable development in his sound.