Dunham Records, progeny of producer/guitarist Tommy Brenneck and imprint of Brooklyn retro-soul label Daptone, has gone back to the formula employed by classic soul record labels like Stax and Motown: House band + arranging producer + signature vocalist. And what a signature. After being ‘discovered’ in a Brooklyn bar following years of peripatetic work and a frustrating musical career, Charles Bradley arrives with more than enough raggedness and resolve to imbue in his 12 heartfelt, exactingly-performed tunes about love, perserverence and, y’know, livin’ in America.
The Menham Street Band realizes the vision of No Time For Dreaming, with Brenneck at the helm. More Memphis than Detroit, they’re always present but never pretentious, from “Telephone Song’s” easy afrobeat hand-drum groove and woozy, sliding guitar part to the strident horn flourishes of “Lovin’ You Baby,” which build to impressive heights alongside Bradley, who sings, “I’m gonna love you, baby/ No matter what it takes/ It’s you and me/ All the way.” Like the best classic R&B, No Time’s lyrics are light as a feather, until Bradley delivers them. On “In You (I Found a Love),” (three guesses why they added the parenthetical), he insinuates and accuses all in one breath “You said you loved me/ And you’d always be around,” and he just sounds so wronged, so unspeakably hurt. “America, please hear me/ Make this wrong right,” he sings on the horrifyingly stark “How Long.”
On No Time, when betrayal ain’t personal, it’s national. Bradley’s desperate earnestness delivering those lines seems to play off the song’s cool, mocking horn interlude. Although the social commentary doesn’t really get much more insightful than a “coexist” bumper sticker, “The World,” “How Long” and “Why is it so Hard?” all deal with inequality, and given Bradley’s background, you can bet it’s personal too. The political dimension to the album extends to more than just the songwriting — the weird, minute-long instrumental number “Trouble in the Land” leads off with a police siren. And the album’s closer, “Heartaches and Pain,” besides sounding like it’s culled from Otis Redding’s back catalogue, doesn’t end with hopes, just observations: “The world is full of heartaches and pain.” It’s less about change than empowerment.
One wonders if Daptone digs up seasoned vocalists with interesting backgrounds (Sharon Jones was a prison guard) just to make their retro-soul sound a less sepia-fied… or authentic, or soulful, whatever. Regardless, the band’s experience playing together and the all-analog wizardry of Daptone and Dunham are all crucial factors to No Time’s immediate, warm sound. And I may not be hearing this right, but is there a little winking irony in the extra twang of “do your thaaaang” during “No Time For Dreaming?”
Although Bradley’s songwriting and vocal gusto are the album’s high points, Brenneck’s contributions are at least as significant. His thoughtful arrangements of Bradley’s songs keep them from falling too deeply into James-Brown-impersonation territory. The Godfather is definitely the closest vocal and stage-persona referent, and his sometimes-coiffed but always-upright hair definitely begs the comparison, but after so long and with songs this good, Bradley deserves his due. Although I’m sure he wishes his break came sooner, all factors in the equation of No Time For Dreaming bring experience and a unique voice, and for him that means springing onto the scene a fully-formed soul frontman.