Otis Taylor: Double V

Justin Cober-Lake

Otis Taylor

Double V

Label: Telarc
US Release Date: 2004-04-27
UK Release Date: 2004-06-07

Otis Taylor is a large but soft-spoken man, and in concert, it's surprising to hear the rage and power in his performance. On his recordings, he's been no less outspoken in tackling race problems and social issues. Taylor's lyrics tend toward bluntness and simplicity, a style that enables them to strike with a powerful immediacy. As he's developed such straightforward and aggressive thematic concerns, he's worked out a smooth, rhythmic musical style. He builds his songs around a basic, repeat on guitar or banjo, augmenting the sound with cello, mandolin, and bass, while excluding any percussion instruments. Both live and in the studio, Taylor's become adept at using a loop machine to keep the initial pattern going as he adds subtle work around it. He describes his music as "trance-blues", and critics have also taken to the term "drone blues". Rather than having an ambient effect, the music adds an urgency to his stories.

The first song on Double V, Taylor's new album, marks a slight departure for him thematically even while reinforcing his general aesthetic. In "Please Come Home Before It Rains", Taylor avoids the political issues examined throughout most of the disc. Instead, he tells the story of a sailor who has just received a letter from his wife asking him to return home. An electric guitar forms the foundation of the sound, and it's a bouncy number in which Taylor stays off the beat. Taylor brings out a musical groove, but its repetition brings out the loneliness of the sailor and his wife. The pulse also serves as a counterpoint to the wife's pointed plea. Taylor's song focuses on a personal issue, but he uses the same techniques to evoke emotion as he does when approaching social concerns.

In "Mama's Selling Heroin", Taylor uses his own experience to shed light on a type of life. Taylor's mother spent a year in prison after her conviction for dealing heroin. The song contains few lyrics -- most of them being variations of the title -- but the bluesy banjo part establishes the danger of the situation. Taylor also gives a cackle that reveals both the horror and the ridiculousness of the situation. "Mama's Selling Heroin" marks an adult's return to a terrible experience of his youth, but with no sense of forgiveness, sadness, or bitterness -- just a naturalistic depiction. When your mother sells drugs, she goes away and you don't get to see her. Taylor leaves it to his listeners to make sense of that world.

The mother in "505 Train" doesn't have it any better. She's beaten by her husband and needs to hop a train to escape this life. The song's narrated from the point of view of a girl who sees the father's violence and understands the mother's wish to flee. The song's rhythm is set by a clean electric guitar, but Taylor uses a slightly distorted sound for the subtle lead part, which increases the nervous tone of the song. The sense of displacement in this song shows up throughout the album. "Took Their Land" tells of the various peoples who have been imprisoned, relocated, and enslaved in the United States. The minimal sounds of vocals and harmonica force direct attention on the lyrics. "Reindeer Meat" reveals a homeless girl maintaining dignity through the Christmas season, even at the cost of her own satisfaction.

"Buy Myself Some Freedom" tells the tale of a Southern African-American girl from the '60s looking for another place, and another life. Taylor's daughter Cassie, who has sung back up throughout Double V as well as on 2003's Truth Is Not Fiction, handles both vocal parts and plays bass on this track, and three of the album's four cellists appear. The sound here differs from the rest of the album with the inclusion of Ron Miles's trumpet, which adds a jazz feel to this song, one of the most slowly-paced on the disc. Cassie Taylor sings of a life that she desires, where she can swim where she wants to and live as a free person. The song's title comes from the moving opening lyric: "Wish I could go down to a department store, buy myself some freedom." It's a beautiful and sad ending to Double V; on an album where so many people are forced into an alternate life, we're left with a person who dreams of something different. It's a trap any way you turn, and Taylor knows it.

On this album, Taylor continues to explore his concerns with isolation, violence, loss, crime, and poverty. He has a harsh view of the world, but he uses that view as a means for confrontation rather than rejection. He turns transparent words and basic riffs into powerful statements. For Taylor, music is an ongoing crusade, and he shows no sign of giving in.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.