Bill Toms‘ blue-collar, blue-eyed soul rattles and glides like the great horn-driven soul music of days of old. Loaded with energy, the 11 straight-ahead songs on Good for My Soul, the new album from Bill Toms & Hard Rain, say their piece, then wave goodbye with a slap on the back and a wink. Think Stax Records. Think Randy Newman (“Devil’s Train,” one of my favorites here, reminds me of Newman’s “God’s Song”). “Nothing Like My Baby” recalls the hits of Sam and Dave, with a hint of Elvis Costello in the bridge. And Toms’ raspiest vocals remind me of Dr. John.
Thank the great producers Will Kimbrough and Rick Witkowski for the bright, homespun production. Together with the horns, it brings dimensionality to these hearty, rough-edged but smoothly crafted songs. Tenor saxophonist Phil Brontz gets credit for most of the ice-sharp horn arrangements and plays several killer solos, as in “Workin’.”
Toms is a powerful and deceptively versatile vocalist, calling on his New Orleans-style gospel chops for “I’m Sad No More” and breaking out the woe-is-me humor in “Into the Storm.” Though the lyrics dip too deeply into cliché at times, there are no weak songs, no filler. It’s 11 straight tracks of gritty soul goodness. Sure, it’s retro, but it’s full to bursting with lively energy. There’s plenty of life in the old tropes yet, as long as a singer-songwriter and band have the dedication that Bill Toms & Hard Rain bring to this collection.
“I found peace in the glory / I’m going home,” Toms growls in the penultimate track, “Going Home,” diving again into images of salvation to expose the raw meat of the heart. By the time the album does take us home, with the weirdly uplifting “Desperate Times,” he and his ace band has almost convinced us that the times may not be so terribly desperate after all. Amazing how music can do that.