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CD Review: The Gamble Brothers Band – Continuator

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The Gamble Brothers Band is a collection of Memphis-based veterans who have been recording and touring since 2001. Members of the four-piece group (Al Gamble, keys and vocals; Art Edmaiston, sax and percussion; Blake Rhea, bass; Chad Gamble, drums) have done time with a dizzying array of fine soul, R&B, and blues talent: Bo Diddley, Irma Thomas, The Bar-Kays, Allan Toussaint, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Rufus Thomas, and the house band at B.B. King’s on Beale Street.

Moreover, the band is based in the very home of the blues and Al and Chad, the Brothers themselves, hail from a little town outside the most soulful place on Earth – Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Consequently, the Gamble Brothers have a fine legacy indeed to uphold. With its third album, Continuator, due out February 21, The Gamble Brothers Band seeks, in their words, to “further the heritage” of the classic Memphis sound rather than replicate its past greatness.

So does it work?

Let’s start with what’s good. Continuator was produced by veteran Jeff Powell at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis. The sound of Ardent Studios is a nice one – warm and roomy, with good separation. You can hear it on albums by Big Star, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, The White Stripes, The Reverend Horton Heat, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays, ZZ Top, and more. Powell himself has helmed the boards for dozens of albums by everyone from Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn to the Afghan Whigs. I’m not sure whether Continuator‘s warmly live sound owes more to Ardent’s house ambience or to Powell, but either way Powell makes the most of it.

So, Continuator sounds great. The thick arrangements leave plenty of room for everything to come right through – keys, sax, drums, bass and vocals. And rather than use ProTools to justify everything into perfect order, Powell lets the grooves slip a little into that classic Memphis behind-the-beat sound. You half expect the band to break at any moment into The MGs’ “Hip Hug-Her.” If there is one fault, it is that Powell’s production is a little too glossy too add mass to an album that turns out to need some heft behind it.

The group’s playing is top-notch too, with tasty work from everyone involved. On a few tracks, like the instrumental “Theme from ‘Little Champ'” the band comes across like an unstoppable force of dirty groove. Al Gamble’s organ work in particular is impressive.

However, all this fine playing and production ultimately goes a bit to waste, for Continuator is marred by generic songwriting and uninspired performances on many selections. Which is to say: five or six of the songs on the album literally sound the same and that same isn’t all that great.

Do you like Dave Matthews and Ben Folds? Do you think either of them are soul singers? If so, you’ll probably be hooked by Continuator, which for all its soul instrumentation and production owes far more to these two artists than to Memphis, Ardent, or soul music in general. Lead singer and keyboardist Al Gamble sings a lot like Folds, and the band’s textured arrangements and frequent reliance on a solo sax strongly recalls Matthews’ trademark sound.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this. I can’t condemn a band for not doggedly invoking the past when I can just go out and buy all the Bar-Kays records I want. They are doing the right thing in trying something new. But where Dave Matthews (whose music I personally don’t like) can sometimes write a sharp chorus and where Ben Folds possesses an anarchic spirit and keen melodic sense that sets his songs apart, the songs The Gamble Brothers Band wrote for Continuator are generally mushy and undistinguished with dull hooks, overwritten harmonies, and vague lyrics. In seeking to further soul music, the band has largely abandoned it in favor of fairly bland keyboard- and horn- based bar band rock.

Still, the best instrumental moments are pretty darn good. On the above-mentioned “Theme from ‘Little Champ'” and on “Durty Waltz” (which is not in waltz time), the band swing like a hybrid of the MGs, former James Brown sideman Maceo Parker’s crack unit, and Medeski Martin & Wood at their funkiest. But as engaging and full of personality as these two tracks are, the rest of the disk features uninspired (if competent) playing that results in flat and unexciting performances.

Given enough of the stimulant of their choice, it’s likely that The Gamble Brothers Band can bring the house down. But Continuator‘s shiny edges and undistinguished writing lacks punch, and doesn’t make the case that the group is ready for the big time.

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About John Owen

  • tito benitez

    First, “Durty Walt” is the correct name of the tune- not “Durty Waltz”. Maybe that explains the lack of triple meter. Secondly, you ‘get’ the music by the GBB or you don’t; clearly, John Owens does not.
    “Continuator” does not pretend to be a remake of some lost soul record. The Gamble Brothers Band does not waste time trying to rehash well-worn lyrical themes of “me and my baby” which pervades most soul records. I call this ‘fresh’. Stimulants or not “Continuator” is a new Memphis record written for a new generation. Time marches on. -tb

  • Jose Grijalva

    Yes. John.

    You’re sadly mistaken on this one. These guys are truly gifted. This CD ROCKS!

  • Travis Jonnihan

    Ditto.

    Did Mr. Owens listen to a different CD than I did? He must’ve.

  • Harley Funkwater

    This dude is on acid. For the LORD I hope.

  • Anon

    Are you crazy Mr. Owens?

  • Prip

    Thanks for the call and e-mail Harley.

    Apparently Christian Contemporary is WHERE IT’S AT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Mr. OWENS has produced some GREAT TUNES. Getting baptised tomorrow. I love the LORD.

    John – Thanks for SHOWING ME THE LIGHT!!!!!!!!!

    You’ve done your service here on Earth. You’re the MAN!

  • http://perfidy.org John Owen

    thanks for all the feedback!

    Regarding the typo in the title of “Durty Walt,” “Waltz” is what it says on my Itunes… I don’t know whether it was a transcription error on my part (if I entered the information into Itunes manually) or on the part of the person who submitted the ISRC codes to the RIAA for tracking the album information, but either way, I apologize for the error and respectfully retract the bit about waltz time.

    I’m glad the Gamble Brothers have found an audience, and from the comments I see that audience is devoted. I definitely agree with Tito that soul music really needs to leave behind the tired old “baby baby” stuff, and I also agree that the GBB can really play their instruments. But I respecfully disagree that this record shows them at their best. Like I said, where some of you are hearing rocking songs, I hear fairly rote bar rock with clunky melodies. I hope their future albums feature better writing, but personally I’m not hearing much from this batch of songs.

  • Johnny Richardson

    Bar band rock. Waltz. Dave Mattews. Generic songwiting. your review needs to be reviewed. hail to the chief.

  • Colby

    John – I respect your opinion. To each his own. i do think this CD is ahead of it’s time though. Listen to their last (first) two albums. Evolution is where it’s at. No two albums can be compared. These guys are truly chameleons.

    No better musicians on the PLANET!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    These guys can’t even be compared to any other act. They are truly OUTTA THIS UNIVERSE!!!!!!!

  • Bradli

    Yes this CD may seem insignificant at first. However, no man can deny the lyricism, and the musicianship on this CD.

    Having never listyed to these geniouses………you may be skeptical.

    Listen to their first TWO CD’s!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Cooride

    GBB is the greatest band known to ALLAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!