Charles Bradley Black Velvet

[Dunham/Daptone; 2018]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: soul, funk, r&b
Others: Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, Baby Huey, Otis Redding

Charles Bradley might’ve been keeping the flame for a sound that time and ears have grown to eschew, but his exhortations of and pledges to love retain an assailing vitality. To love is ever a high-stakes affair. One feels inclined to write “more than ever,” but it has been a piercing constant of existence, whatever travails that humanity as a whole is undergoing. It’s never easy to love, and when it is, we know better than to take that ease for granted or get minced up for our foolishness. Despite his limitations with them, Charles Bradley didn’t fumble for the words. He never scrutinized emotion to the point of setting it aside. He doggedly toiled to be there, open and shuddering in love’s blistering midst. He left trend/novelty aside, using an indelible strain of American music to infuse the word “love” and all its neighbors (heart, soul, god) with unwavering passion. Despite making his musical bones as a James Brown tribute act (going by Black Velvet, the name gracing this collection), one need look no further than his music to see that his JB-led impulse to perform was far more communal than imitative. Additionally, there’s a heroically raw sadness there, arguably peaking with his shattering 2016 rework of Ozzy’s vulnerable piano ballad, “Changes.” The man came through the other side of an undeniably hard life, marked with grief, homelessness, parental neglect (followed by the arduous forgiveness of the same), and illiteracy. But his tears, as gleaned in performance and in interview footage, seemed to come most immediately from a deeply abided gratitude for receiving so much love and support so late in his life.

This may be a posthumous release in the traditional sense, largely comprised of outtakes and singles, but it amply goes beyond the obligatory with its well-curated, beautifully packaged presentation. This “Screaming Eagle” of soul music may have arrived late in his life and left us too soon, but he poured so much of himself into every performance that gratitude should overtake any notion of regret. The consistent quality of his output could even lead one to question the value of longevity in music, beyond keeping that money train rolling. When artists remain a touring concern, after decades have reduced them to (in many cases) a handful of earworms, it can feel like some dusty ‘ol re-deification ritual. It becomes more about significance than experience. Far more than an inherently forgiven flaw for a faded icon, the 60-some years in Bradley’s shredded vocals were an essential asset. Whether buoyed by the pitch-perfect swells of Menahan Street Band or just a guitar, Charles Bradley never wasted a syllable, let alone phoned it in. He seemed incapable of doing so.

As his recorded output goes, his 2011 debut No Time For Dreaming easily stands out as his strongest, start to finish. Nevertheless, 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes showed both expansiveness and an in-the-cut growth as a recording artist. The same goes for Black Velvet. The dire brood of lead single “I Feel A Change” shows what could’ve been a thrilling direction for the singer. The instrumentation recalls the most chilling of Budos Band compositions, and Bradley slays on it, answering those mournful horns on the chorus as though he’s beating back demons with all his strength. The title track is similarly swept up in producer/guitarist Tommy “TNT” Brenneck’s haunted deep-funk elegance. Slated for the singer to work on, the tune is marked by Bradley’s absence. Along with the winning, more uptempo numbers (including an irresistibly sweet rendition of the Rodriguez track “I’ll Slip Away”), these two make it awfully tough to not to get stuck on the A Side, loving it all more and more with every listen.

Even if it frontloads the strongest and newest material, Black Velvet provides a largely engaging second side. The one exception being his cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” originally released as a single in 2011, which feels somehow more gimmicky than the (solid, even if it highlights how cloying Cobain’s lyrics could be) Nirvana cover preceding it. The sentiment is clearer and truer to Bradley, and he finds his way home with the material. But the affair as a whole fails to distill or elevate what time has shown to be a stale, plodding, and utterly overrated Neil Young tune. The “Tracks of My Tears” backing vocal allusion off of the chorus only seems to stress how “just sitting there” of a composition Neil gave us. That a Sabbath ballad makes more sense, let alone stands as one Bradley’s best recordings, is kind of a shock. The stripped-down, drum machine-led “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” and its subsequent, charmingly lo-fi inversion are the main attractions of the second half. The former contains a wonderful little detail worth mentioning: Conversationally transitioning into a couple verses of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” Bradley sings “Scary pictures of the smiles we left behind.” It’s likely a misread that never got fixed, but the moment is all the better for it. Scattered may make more sense, but scary speaks more to the frayed, wide-eyed awe the singer seemed to bring to all he experienced — even reminiscence.

I can’t write it, so you (or the greater “you” that’ll never see these words) will feel it. Certainly not like this man sang it, anyway. But we all need to push past our bitterness, justified or otherwise, and have a cold hard think about this simple notion. We need to do it now, or what was once struggle will become utter defeat, and all will be lost. In a tough moment in Poull Brien’s lovely 2012 documentary, Soul of America, Bradley confesses to sometimes wanting to tap out altogether under the strain. And you can tell it took a lot out of the man to acknowledge as much out loud. That someone like Bradley could soldier on against all odds should shame us into doing better. And we most certainly can do better than cleaving to whatever relative despair we’re in the throes of. Love demands it, as it very well should.

Most Read