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.