This River was unlikely to be a radical departure from Grey's signature style, and longtime fans will be pleased that he is still ploughing the same fruitful furrow.
Florida blues/soul/funk ringleader JJ Grey has been described as "an American treasure" -- okay, I described him that way myself, in my review of his 2011 live album/DVD release Brighter Days, but I'm not his only fan out there. His particular blend of Southern-flavored musical gumbo has earned him an army of devotees nationwide, as I experienced when seeing him perform live in Massachusetts in April. Fronting his band Mofro, a hefty collective of musicians that includes guitars, keyboards, backing vocalists, and a couple of horns, Grey brings a big sound to the stage that never overwhelms the soulfulness of his singing.
His new album, This River, was unlikely to be a radical departure from his signature style, and longtime fans will be pleased that he is still ploughing the same fruitful furrow. If that furrow is becoming a little tired, well, don't tell that to Grey -- he's too busy rocking it to notice.
Album opener "Your Lady, She's Shady" is the same kind of compulsively butt-shaking number as, say, "Country Ghetto" (from his 2007 album of that title), and if it's not quite as propulsive, it still gets the job done. Typically, Grey's warning to the man in this song about his cheating woman is couched in observation that it was the man who cheated first, and often, and so has nothing to complain about. Grey's twangy guitar line is buttressed here by rapidfire vocals, spot-on horns, and plenty of percussive bounce. It's a solid way to start the record.
Songs tend to alternate between uptempo stompers and slower, more introspective pieces. For the stompers, "Somebody Else" gets my vote as the standout, with its irresistible chord progression and clever lyrics about machismo gone wrong. "99 Shades of Crazy" is cut from the same cloth and only lightly less entertaining, perhaps because the general template is so familiar. The only real misstep is "Florabama", a party tune that comes off as generic and is one of the weaker songs in his catalog.
Where the album really excels are the slower tunes. "Write a Letter" is the best song here, a slow-burn of a number that builds to a crashing, transcendent climax. The subject matter may not be terribly original -- basically, he's gonna write a letter -- but in this day, even the act of writing a letter seems somehow quaint and old-fashioned, loaded with significance and gravitas. "The Ballad of Larry Webb" is a moving character study, an acoustic-guitar-driven tune that details a materially poor but spiritually wealthy man who, according to Grey's in-concert introduction, was a friend of his family while the singer was growing up. "All that is, all that will be," Grey intones in the song's chorus, "all we have, is each other." It's a simple message but a timeless one, and Grey delivers it with conviction.
Grey's spirit seems as timeless, not to mention indefatigable, and this will be a source of joy to fans. Newcomers to him and his band Mofro might do better with Brighter Days as a general introduction to his music, but This River would do just fine as well. A classic mix of heart-tugging tunes and pound-your-boots rave-ups, This River might not be groundbreaking, but it sure is awfully good at what it sets out to do.