I learned long ago not to write a review after listening to an album only once. I have penned plenty of reviews panning an album I later came to love. There are also plenty of reviews bearing my moniker where I professed my undying love for a record only to see it later lose some of its luster.
I have been curious about Robert Randolph for some time and was eager to take this assignment to listen to his new record. Upon first listen, I was regretting that decision. It was not that I did not like Colorblind, I just did not feel qualified to review it. I didn't get it. I could tell there was something there, but I did not know what to make of it. A few days passed. I realized I was not going to be able to put off the assignment forever, so I listened to it again.
This time, something clicked.
There are no fancy words to describe what Robert Randolph & The Family Band does. It's not rock and roll. It's not the blues. I am not well-versed in soul, funk, or gospel but I have a feeling this isn't exactly that, either. Randolph's approach to music reminds me of Beck and Prince. All three share an unapologetic refusal to be shoehorned into one particular genre or style. The analogy well has run dry for me and the only thing I can liken Colorblind to is one hell of a tasty musical stew. Actually, the album is a collection of stews because each track is a different grab bag of ingredients.
The album opens with the explosion that is "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That." Tolerance, diversity, and acceptance have never sounded this cool. I am a huge U2 fan, but Bono's anthems of peace, love, and understanding are usually filled with a serious earnestness. They are still great mostly great songs – they just are not always a hell of a lot of fun. "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That" is an absolute blast. It is energetic. It rocks. It grooves. The stomps, handclaps, and chants make it nearly impossible to listen to in stationary mode. Randolph picks and chooses his places, but when he strikes his sacred steel those lines sting! The female backing vocals and cool organ fills – and how many times has the phrase "cool organ fills" ever been used – add some depth and color to a song already filled with it.
"Desire" is anchored by some basswork that sounds very Marcus Miller-like to me. I am not well-versed at all in the school of jazz but I did listen to some Miller records in the '90s. When I hear Danyel Morgan's bass on "Desire," it evokes Miller and that is not a bad to thing to these ears.
"Thrill of It," the first single from Colorblind, is a great pop-rock song. "Thrill" is funk-rock fusion at its most accessible, listenable, and fun. It is the most mainstream-sounding cut on the album and has a big, FM-radio sound. The layered vocals in the chorus have just the right touch of compression. This is a rare example where the groove and flow of a song is not destroyed by slick production. The sound is slick, but it works. The world will be a better place if this song becomes a hit (Check out the video for "Thrill of it": QT|WMV).
…and then there are the guest spots.
Eric Clapton provides guest guitar and vocal on a cover of "Jesus is Just Alright." The pairing works well enough. The mostly by-the-numbers cover is enjoyable but not particularly revealing or invigorating.
While not performing a cover, many of the same adjectives apply to "Love is the Only Way." The song was co-written by Matthews and he provides some guitar and shares vocal duties. The Matthews/Randolph pairing might have seemed interesting on paper but "Love is the Only Way" is not much more than pleasant album filler when compared to some of the better moments on the disc.
I won't be surprised if Leela James' duet with Randolph, "Stronger," is a favorite for many listeners. It is a tender, soulful-sounding ballad… and it did nothing for me. Maybe I just don't get it. Some people were inspired by R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." You do the math. "Stronger" is an ambitious love anthem- maybe too ambitious.
If there is a criticism to be made of Colorblind, it would be its slickness. Maybe the slick is necessary to keep the synthesis of all these musical styles from sounding too schizophrenic. It is a minor complaint but an audible one. Anyone who dismisses the album solely for being too slick should be pitied as there are still so many things to like about this record.
The compactness of these songs is surprising- only one song, the Clapton duet, goes longer than five minutes. Randolph & The Family Band are known for stunning live shows. To be able to keep the song lengths in check and still incorporate so many styles and influences is amazing. If they can pack that much energy into four minutes in the studio, imagine the frenzy when these get taken out on the road.
Colorblind is never a bad listen and is sometimes a great one. With this album, Randolph has taken a step towards adding the title of "songwriter" to the crowns he already wears as a musician and performer. Here is to hoping we can add "longevity" to that list.