Music

Blind Boys of Alabama: Take the High Road

Few surprises, but there's no moment of this album that doesn't sound good.


Blind Boys of Alabama

Take the High Road

Label: Saguaro Road
US Release Date: 2011-05-03
UK Release Date: 2011-05-09
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010, roughly umpteen million were gospel tributes. Patty Griffin, Lizz Wright, Mavis Staples, and the duo of Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman all cut NPR-friendly albums that notably included old hymns and spirituals. Their gospel covers tended towards well-performed curios, though occasionally the musicians managed to do something genuinely new with their source material. (Not surprisingly, none of these albums equaled the thrilling 2009 Tompkins Square gospel compilation Fire in My Bones, cherry-picked from 60 years of obscure recordings.)

The Blind Boys of Alabama have plenty to do with this gospel glut. Last decade, the group, which formed in 1939 (!), released a string of high-profile albums full of old gospel chestnuts and covers of young hipsters like Tom Waits and Prince. They hired famous guest stars and big shot producers, won a string of Grammys, and added musical credibility to TV shows The Wire and Lost. Even if you don’t listen to much gospel, you’d probably recognize their craggy, impassioned vocal harmonies.

Take the High Road is their country gospel album, and it checks most of the boxes we’ve come to expect from the Boys’ late-career resurgence. The famous guest stars include the Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, Jr. rocking his pappy’s “I Saw the Light”. The big shot producers include broad-minded traditionalist Jamey Johnson; he also drawls “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and contributes the original tune “Lead Me Home”, which closed his debut album. The Blind Boys’ band gets help from hard-working country session players like Cowboy Eddie Long on pedal steel and Moose Brown on keyboards. They’re top-notch like you’d hope Nashville’s finest would be -- personable, modestly virtuosic, and instinctively able to stay out of the way.

That’s good, because the vocals here are pretty great. When you get chills from Vince Gill (!!) swinging the heck out of the Bible's woman-at-the-well story, you know you’re listening to a fine vocal album. Lee Ann Womack sings a tough countrypolitan version of “I Was a Burden”, denouncing her past burden-ness and demanding repentance like she’s running Jesus’ 12-step program.

At center stage, the Boys themselves sound as great as ever. Founding member Jimmy Carter and his mates have perfected a blend of passion, good humor, gentleness, shouting, rhythmic acuity, and mile-wide vibrato that seems to deliver songs as naturally as plain speech or breathing. Somehow all the vast enormity of the Christian walk resides in their voices.

Aside from the guests and the concept, there are no gimmicks on Take the High Road. The instrumental arrangements wouldn’t sound out of place on country classics radio. The Boys don’t attempt any secular-gospel reclamation projects like their previous covers of Prince’s “The Cross” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”.

Nope; just 13 gospel oldies or oldie soundalikes, sung with passion and produced with charming looseness. (The studio patter and bass intro to “Jesus, Hold My Hand” sound like holdovers from Johnson’s shaggy The Guitar Song album.) If there’s a downside to this straightforward approach, it’s that there’s little here that’s surprising -- apart from some incongruous drum bashing on “I Saw the Light”. But there’s no moment of this album that doesn’t sound good.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.