JJ Grey & Mofro have always gone their own way, climbing the heights and plumbing the depths of old-time soul music with a blue-eyed southern twist, resolutely ignoring music trends that come and go. “Everything is a Song,” the opening track of his new disc Ol’ Glory, bursts triumphantly from the speakers, heavy with horn-section goodness, setting an optimistic tone that holds through most of the album.
In the next song, the lyrical guitar ballad “The Island,” Grey’s rich voice is nearly free of the gravel he injects into louder numbers. Like the album as a whole, the recording is sonically crystalline and structurally unprepossessing.
On this album of timeless, confessional soul music with a remarkably positive attitude, some of my favorite tracks pop up halfway through. The pounding funk-soul number “Turn Loose” makes great use of funk’s empty spaces. Over the insistent minor-key four-on-the-floor of the Brel-ian and Bowie-esque “Brave Lil’ Fighter,” Grey lets loose with howls that suggest despair but never get around to declaring it.
The positivity continues in the excited swing of “A Night to Remember,” the intense rave-up of “Every Minute” (which features Derek Trucks), the emotional vocal power of “Light a Candle,” the sneaky “Hold On Tight,” and in “Tic Tac Toe” the dynamic contrast between the smoky undertow of the verses and the all-out blast of the choruses.
Grey has a trick, or a knack, of beginning a song with a simple riff and humble melody and building it over four or five minutes into a skyful of fireworks. It’s the sort of thing Janis Joplin did late in her career, inspired by the likes of Etta James. It also brings the late lamented Joe Cocker to mind, especially in songs like the extended title track with its shouted vocals, creaking wah-wah guitar, and thumping bass.
Impressively, unlike those legends, Grey writes his own material. Still, it’s as if the past four decades never happened. While the vocals and musicianship can be flashy, the production never is, remaining straightforward and solid instead.
The essential musical language and methods Grey and the band bring to bear haven’t changed much in a decade, and as long as he can stay on good terms with his songwriting muse, why should it? Ol’ Glory with its perfect fusion of sound and sensibility is up there with their best, and as bonus, it exudes an attitude more optimistic than some of JJ Grey & Mofro’s past soul excursions.