If there's one musician who can cover James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” on banjo, it's Tim O'Brien.
Tim O’Brien is best known for his technical virtuosity on stringed instruments—especially for playing bluegrass fast and clean. Sometimes, too fast and too clean. He’s so talented that he can be faulted for taking the soul out of the music. That’s not true. O’Brien’s slowed things down. The songs here move at more moderate pace that swings more than runs headlong down the track. And to prove he’s got soul, O’Brien covers James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” and transforms it into a banjo concoction!
And damn, if it doesn’t work. Getting some up to dance translates well into almost any musical language, and O’Brien understands the urgency of the message and knows the importance of not breaking into a sweat. He concentrates on keeping the rhythm like Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. O’Brien may not be funky. He doesn’t have to be. He lets his fingers do the talking. His updated lyrics don’t really add anything, but the sound his voice adds a human touch to the proceedings. Dancing is more than just a physical activity; it’s a physical activity with another person.
When words matter, such as on his cover of Dan Reeder’s “The Tulips On The Table”, O’Brien frames his music with the instruments but largely keeps them in the background as he sings about a married couple with kids who find themselves no longer in love. Like the title flowers in the vase, feelings have faded. And there’s O’Brien’s rootsy cover of the Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie tune, “Go Down to the Water”. The track conveys what it feels like to watch the tide, feel the breeze, and be with someone who is as much a mystery and comfort to you as the natural elements.
In addition to banjo and vocals, O’Brien plays fiddle, mandolin on guitar on Pompadour. His self-penned tunes are fine, but they aren’t as good as his co-written ones, which include the bluesy Gary Nicholson collaboration, “Gimme Little Somethin’ Take Her Off My Mind”, O’Brien and John Hadley’s laconic “Whatever Happened To Me”, and especially O’Brien and Sarah Jarosz’s ode to life’s journey, “The Water is Wise”. These three songs are worth the price of the album by themselves. This is O’Brien’s first solo record in more than four years, and it is clear that he does better with partners to play and collaborate with.
O’Brien is not particularly introspective, nor does he really stick to traditional forms despite the mostly acoustic folk style he employs. The songs have a minimalist feel. There is a sparseness to the arrangements and lots of silence between notes. The densest song here, O’Brien’s other co-write with Hadley “I Gotta Move”, uses more instruments to give a sense of the crowded place from which the narrator needs to relocate from. He does this with a sense of fun. Moving can liberate one through the downsizing from one’s possessions—even if that may involve acquiring someone else’s.