Doyle Bramhall ll
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Unless you are Steely Dan, waiting 15 years between releases isn’t an advisable tactic to grow a career. That doesn’t seem to bother Texas’ Doyle Bramhall ll, whose work supporting, touring with, producing and/or writing songs for artists as varied as Eric Clapton, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Roger Waters, Sheryl Crow, and Norah Jones (who provides harmony vocals on this disc’s meditative ballad “New Faith”) has kept his name at least in the small print throughout that decade-and-a-half time span.
Although Bramhall is at least partly known for his fiery blues-rock guitar skills, he downplays his six-string talents on Rich Man. That’s especially noteworthy on a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train a-Comin’,” the only track that he doesn’t have a hand in composing, where he forgoes guitar acrobatics to concentrate on a swampy, humid approach, entirely in keeping with the song’s overall vibe.
There are bluesy undertones bubbling under these 13 tunes that roll out over a generous hour and a quarter. But Bramhall stays on low boil even as the funk percolates on the opening “Mama Can’t Help You” and the riff-based “Keep You Dreamin’,” the latter a hot, sexed-up slice of steamy soul where he sings “Move with me baby/ Can’t you see it’s where you belong” like he’s preparing to understudy for Lenny Kravitz.
There’s a mystical groove both in lyrics to “My People” (“Break it down to the bones and you’ll see now/ All people are my people”) and the overall approach which, in this track, includes instruments such as sarangi (a North Indian classical bowed string instrument) and harmonium. Bramhall’s dusky voice complements these soulful rockers, and after a few spins his low key delivery becomes intoxicating. He’s also in no hurry as each selection takes its time to unspool, culminating in the nine minute “The Samanas,” an epic with three sections that represents “a personal journey through different musical influences and a spiritual journey back to the truth,” as he explains in the album’s comprehensive press notes.
As you can tell, this isn’t easy listening. Bramhall’s tunes are often dense though always melodic, even if those melodies slither and snake their way through the music. The soul-rocker “November” even has backing singers, horns and chamber strings resulting in one of the set’s most commercial moments. Still, at five minutes, this would take some judicious editing to get on the radio. The wah-wah guitar that provides “The Veil” with its hook seems to have been borrowed from the soundtrack to Shaft.
It may take a few spins to sink in, but when it does Rich Man connects. While it’s hard to justify the extended wait for its arrival, this is an ambitious, beautifully crafted project that feels as centered and focused as its spiritually-influenced frontman.