A stumble from a master still has plenty of rewards on it, but isn't essential.
Otis Taylor's career used to have a nice, linear narrative. He started in music, quit music, and returned to music. He made solo albums driven my his rhythmic acoustic playing and powered by his resonant voice. He gradually expanded his aesthetic, including other musicians, new sounds, and an increasing amount of experimentation. Thematically, he stretched himself more, not abandoning the dark and political songs, but adding some brighter moods. It was a good narrative.
Over the last few years the direction has been less precise. Taylor's continued to release nearly an album a year, as he's done since 2001's White African, and he's been looking around. His jazz influences have been more prominent at times, and he even detoured to take the banjo back to Africa. His stylistic explorations have felt more like restlessness than vision. For someone of his artistic talent, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and at times the results have been impressive. He's maintained his precise lyrics and assertive vocals, meaning each album has sounded like an Otis Taylor record no matter where he wandered.
His new album Otis Taylor's Contraband continues that trend to some extent, but there's less searching here. By now, throwing together a cornet and a pedal steel and maybe adding his daughter on bass isn't a challenge – it's just what he does. It may be a testament to the success of his last five or six albums that this one sounds almost mundane, but even if the comparison to previous explorations is unfair, it's apt. Contraband too often sounds comfortable; it plays like an album Taylor could have thrown off without too much effort.
The facts of the recording speak otherwise, though. Taylor recorded a considerable number of his parts just days before having a softball-sized cyst removed from his spine. He was in pain and has suggested that you can hear that physical pain on the record. Always an expressive vocalist even in response, Taylor doesn't get more hurt out of these tracks than he ever has, but neither do the vocals suffer from either the illness or a listener's imagined malaise.
There's plenty of energetic playing on the album. “Banjo Boogie Blues”, a basic plea for compassion, skips across a rolling banjo part and brings in needy back-up vocals from the Sheryl Renee Choir. Taylor wrote “Romans Had Their Way” decades ago but still attacks it. In this case, though, it's a little unclear to what end, as its silly meditation doesn't deserve the excitement. The opening and closing tracks consider lying in different contexts while the band delivers a driving groove. “The Devil's Gonna Lie” sets the mood for a world in which disaster is not just possible, but imminent. “I Can See You're Lying” calls out a bride for still loving an ex, at least allegedly, as the narrator might not be too trustworthy.
The slower cuts don't always maintain the necessary focus. “Blind Piano Teacher” meanders for far too long and the payoff is far too little. Likewise the bland seduction of “2 or 3 Times” doesn't reward a patient listen; the slight humor doesn't make up for its lack of energy. “Lay on My Delta Bed” picks up the tempo and adds some nice texture, but it never grips the way it should. The album's emotional centerpiece, “Contraband Blues” never makes the impact it should. Despite the heavy subject matter (runaway slaves held as contraband), it trades its teeth for atmospherics.
Aside from Taylor's earlier albums, Contraband would stand as a unique work, but it's not up to the standards set by reasonably similar records. It's still clear that Taylor is one of the most important artists in the blues right now, but this new one neither has nor inspires enough vigor. A stumble from a master, the album has plenty of rewards on it, but it doesn't stand as an essential part of a remarkable discography.