CHARLES BRADLEY – Changes (Daptone): I don’t know if it’s a distinctly 21st Century phenomenon, but as of late artists of every genre have been obsessed with mimicking styles gone by. I don’t mean just taking cues the way the Ramones dressed like greasers and played fast and dirty rock ‘n roll. I mean full-on aesthetic adoption to the point of being able to dupe an unaware party that a band that debuted in ’08 really was a contemporary of, say, the Beatles. You can see it in garage rock revival acts like the Strokes, disco demons like Daft Punk, country chameleons like Margo Price. You wind up reading reviews that are nothing but long lists of likenesses because identifying them along lines of their inspirations is easier than describing their novelty—if they even have any. There is, generally, the mistaken assumption that what made any of these styles interesting was first and foremost the apparatus, when in reality that is the least interesting thing about them. It’s the music itself that’s interesting.
So were I more cynical I’d put former James Brown moonlighter Charles Bradley alongside the likes of the fresh and sprightly soul semblable Leon Bridges, as both are so enamored with that era of soul slickers (Bradley’s a Brown/Pickett/Percy enthusiast, Bridges a Gaye man) that they replicate everything from archaic production practices to vintage album art to the point that they blur the line between “authenticity” and simulacra. But whereas my chief complaint about Bridges was that he used genre tropes to box himself in, Bradley has finally become confident enough to write tunes that benefit from soul dressing, rather than write songs that exist solely for the trimmings.
The best evidence of this is the complete transformation of Black Sabbath ballad “Changes,” which strips the song to its roots and builds it back up, the horns kicking in with the chorus, dragging that anxiety and torture Bradley imbues the otherwise innocuous lyrics with. Same on the opening “God Bless America,” where he takes a staid and tired traditional and offers an alternative interpretation—not of predictable patriotism, but of resilience and progress. Yes, everything here would have fit right in with that late 60s sound—the funk guitar and phat bass on “Ain’t It a Sin,” the involved choir and easy brass on “Nobody But You”—so much so that it’s largely indistinguishable to the rookie ear. But unlike mere imitators, Bradley is from that time, got his start doing covers of someone else’s work in an attempt to find his own sound. And even if his music isn’t the most original, it’s still damn good. Hey, James Brown essentially wrote the same friggin’ song twenty or so times, and I put that magic on repeat. B PLUS (***)