Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise: Out of the Wilderness

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Out of the Wilderness
Quarter 2 Three

Over a solo recording career spanning 15 years, Robert Bradley has consistently proven himself to be one of the greatest living purveyors of soul music you’ve probably never heard of.

1996’s Blackwater Surprise introduced a handful of listeners to a singer-songwriter and musician of tremendous range, emotional depth, and raw talent. The album featured exhilarating all-out rock jams (“Trouble Brother”), heartbreaking soul ballads (“Way Back” and “California”), and emotional blues romps (“Shake It Off” and “Burn”). On his next three studio albums, the Detroit-based singer and pianist continued to expand his sound, adding elements of gospel, folk, country, and hip-hop to an already-diverse repertoire. It wasn’t so much that Bradley was breaking any new musical ground, but that he was able to embody in his music the last 40 years of American rock, soul, and R&B.

With each recording, Bradley briefly flirted with commercial success — consistent high praise from critics, a duet with Macy Gray for the 2005 film Lackawanna Blues, a video that was in moderate rotation on MTV, and a handful of songs that were featured in small films. Yet, for some reason, the buzz never seemed to reach the masses.

Now, at age 59, with his first studio album in nearly six years, Bradley is poised to gain the exposure he’s long deserved. Out of the Wilderness isn’t quite Bradley’s best album (that accolade belongs to 2000’s smooth and subdued Time to Discover), but it does serve as an excellent summary of his career to date, and is the best place to start if you’re a member of the deprived masses who has never heard Bradley on record before.

In general, Out of the Wilderness is more of the same. Immediate reference points include the electric soul-blues of Robert Cray, the urban folk of Ted Hawkins, the Americana of Alejandro Escovedo, and the southern rock of the Black Crowes. Bradley’s achingly ragged voice sounds as powerful as ever; he continues to craft solid, soulful pop songs; and his lyrics are still beautiful and deceptively simple. Despite such attributes, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bradley is his ability to surround himself with, connect to, and lead a revolving collection of backup musicians and producers, most of whom are half his age. Indeed, the Blackwater Surprise is one of the main reasons Out of the Wilderness is so wholly enjoyable. In particular, the bluesy guitar playing of Matthew J. Ruffino — who co-wrote all the songs on the album with Bradley — and Zachary Throne proves an excellent complement to Bradley’s big piano power chords and rough-around-the-edges aesthetic. Bruce Robb’s production, too, is spot on, accentuating the album’s big drums, thunderous organ, and, most importantly, Bradley’s raspy tenor (think a more subtle version of Seal or Joe Cocker).

The first highlight on the album is “Beautiful Girl”, a mid-tempo soul stirrer which Bradley wrote to serve as both an ode and a message of parental caution to his daughter. “Go on girl and hold your head up high / You can make it as long as you try / Before you leave home / You better wake up young girl”, he sings. It’s more of Bradley’s urban realism, with lyrics that manage to sound universal without coming across as cliche.

A recent Time magazine article lamented the effects that Auto-Tune, the digital doohickey most recording studios use to make a singer sound perfectly in tune, has had on modern music. Thankfully, Robb left his Auto-Tune in hock. On “Alabama”, a country-tinged blues ballad, Bradley’s wistful yearning for his birth state is palpable as his voice trembles in and out of key. It’s this imperfection, which might otherwise have been erased by Auto-Tune, that makes the song so touching and makes this music so distinctive.

Bradley, who has been blind since birth, spent his formative musical years playing street corners and back alley bars. The toughness he developed from these experiences is still evident in his music. With uptempo rock songs like “Good Times in My Life” and “Everybody Wanna Party”, Bradley has crafted hook-filled, bar-room singalongs that are as raucous and strident as they are tender and touching.

If Out of the Wilderness is deficient in some way compared with its predecessors, it’s in its scope. With only 10 succinct songs, Bradley barely has enough time to touch on all the subjects and musical styles that usually fill his work, and he foregoes some of the extended-yet-accessible jams that made his other albums so infectious. Still, such deficiency only serves to leave the listener wanting more.

According to a press release for Out of the Wilderness, Bradley plans to shoot a cameo for the upcoming biopic Sweetwater, based on the life of Nat Clifton, the first black player in the NBA. With Sweetwater, perhaps Clifton will get the recognition he has long deserved. And with the aptly-titled Out of the Wilderness, perhaps Bradley too will finally get some long overdue and sustained attention.

RATING 8 / 10