"Bad day for a replay, so I'm skipping the downside," Randall Bramblett moans at the onset of his ninth and newest album of scholarly Southern soul. "Lizard in a whirlwind, monkey in a trash bin ... and that's just the bright spots." Hence the record's title, The Bright Spots, a record perhaps more blues in tone than in temperament.
After all, the aforementioned tune's sense of despondency turns almost playful once it gets shoved next to looped cowbell chatter, stuttering brass and a massive chorus that spreads the song's single-word title over the groove like butter on burned toast: Roll. Yep. That's what you do when the blues hit.
The Bright Spots is a sublime glance at how Bramblett rolls. For more than three decades, he has been the quintessential Southern stylist — a writer with a storytelling ability that favors dark but humane detail, a singer with just enough scratch and weariness in his singing to ignite the soul and blues spirits in those songs, and an instrumentalist whose playing on keyboards and saxophone establishes and expands numerous Southern soul traditions.
All of that holds true and then some on The Bright Spots. It's Southern. It rocks. But don't dismiss it as Southern rock in any conventional sense.
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In the lighter moments of The Bright Spots, Bramblett summons R&B and soul accents that uphold the music's deep tradition without pandering to it. Case in point is 'Til the Party's All Gone, a suitably sunny reflection that revels in a freedom that is as celebratory as it is effortless ("To be passing through, no one to tell you what to do; wouldn't that be the way to slide through your lazy days?").
The sentiments grow more restless as faith becomes tested on All Is Well. There are devils in the wind as the title is uttered in the chorus by a blind man with profound uncertainty. "I lost my keys to the future, I lost my hold on the past," Bramblett sings over a light, patient, piano-crisp arrangement full of autumnal jazz.
Somewhere between those extremes sits John the Baptist, a slab of earthy spiritualism undercut by the guitar and sitar of Bramblett's longtime pal Davis Causey, and a blast of ultra-funky baritone sax from Tom Ryan. It all makes for a sermon that sounds cunningly streetwise.
The album's loveliest, and perhaps most curious, moment is Detox Bracelet. It's a slow-motion portrait of a runaway life. Images are presented like snapshots of objects and people in blurred motion. But when forced to a halt, the hurt — and, eventually, the beauty — of life is revealed ("There are gifts of desperation everywhere").
And for a record so filled with beauteous, soulful ruminations, those are just the bright spots.