Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL Recordings)

He’s one of the great soul men. As far back as the early Sixties he was writing and singing (w/the Valentinos) timeless songs like “Lookin’ for a Love” and “It’s All Over Now.” Yes, you students of white guys playing the rock ‘n’ roll, those tunes were further popularized by the J. Geils Band and the Rolling Stones, respectively.

He’s Bobby Womack. Dude moved in on Sam Cooke’s widow before the greatest soul singer of all was cold in the ground. Yeah, he’s bad. His songwriting skills were undiminished, but by the late Sixties Womack’s performing career had little traction. The he surfaced in the Seventies in a big way. With a string of classic releases, including Communication, Understanding, and Facts of Life, Womack solidified his place in the soul firmament. His songs from the soundtrack for the flick Across 110th Street, featuring the era evincing title track, represented, along with Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, the transcendent musical statements of the Blaxploitation genre of the Seventies.

Womack also made some fine records in the Eighties, chiefly The Poet and The Poet II for the short lived Beverly Glen label. The man has staying power. Nonetheless, a recurring combination of drug issues, personal problems and career cul de sacs kept his profile low. Now 68, and on the rebound from his demons, Womack is back with The Bravest man in the Universe on XL Records, home to bands like The XX, Sigur Ros, Jack White, and Adele. The label’s one effort at soul resuscitation was the late Gil Scott-Heron’s We’re New Here (not a bad start). Bravest is stone, classic soul in composition and spirit, utterly contemporary in arrangement and production. And the synthesis of classic and current elements is successful in ways that make Bravest Womack’s best record in forty years. 

 Bravest is co-produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc. – for those of you who have spent the last twenty years under a rock) and XL label honcho, Richard Russell. Albarn’s eclecticism and openness to adventures in sound is well documented. Russell, now sole proprietor of XL, was one of the label’s three original founders. XL initially emphasized music associated with dance and rave culture. All of these histories impact Bravery. This is not your father’s rhythm ‘n’ blues record. The kind of electronic rhythms and programming associated with acts like Massive Attack, XX and the trip-hop genre generally are consistent throughout Bravery. The contrast between these rhythm tracks and Womack’s gravelly, gospel derived singing is stark, but the synthesis is seamless.