March 4, 2011

Aaron Frank dreams of electric beats.

62 years young, Brooklyn-based soul man Charles Bradley just released his debut album last month on Daptone Records. Several years ago, label co-founder Gabriel Roth plucked Bradley from relative obscurity after seeing him covering James Brown songs in a New York nightclub. Subsequently pairing him with him producer and Budos Band guitarist Tom Brenneck, Bradley has earned a second life as an “authentic” vestige of a rapidly disappearing tradition (no Fitz & The Tantrums and Paperboy Reed don’t count).

A common problem among genre revivalists seems to be a certain inability to put a vintage style of music into a modern context. But Daptone’s been one of the only labels in the past decade to successfully build on the legacy created in the 1960s and 70s by artists like James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Brenneck’s production work on albums like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Sharon Jones’ 100 Days, 100 Nights are proof of his gifts, but his own projects with the Menahan Street Band and Budos Band also show his genuine interest and love for the particular genre. Which helps to explain why the rich melodies on No Time For Dreaming mesh so well with Bradley’s James Brown-inflected wail.

Don’t be misled by the retro veneer, Bradley has his own story to tel. The vicissitudes of his blue collar background are illustrated on “Why Is It So Hard”, which tells the story of a hardworking man with a record of catching bad breaks. It’s not that this song couldn’t have been written in the 1970s, but Bradley poignantly personalizes the dissolution of the American working and middle class on “Why Is It So Hard.” The album’s finale, “Heartaches & Pain” also comes with a heavy dose of reality, as its a dedication to Bradley’s late brother, who was murdered in front of the family’s home years ago.

That’s not to say that No Time For Dreaming veers far from the typical soul subjects of love and heartbreak. “The Telephone Song” is one of the few upbeat, danceable numbers, while “In You (I Found I Love)” provides a lonely flip side. Yet Bradley seems to most excel in the weird gray area between social commentary and old-fashioned love song. The passion in Bradley’s voice on “The World Is Going Up In Flames” initially drew me to this project, and “How Long” echoes a similar sentiment (albeit with a bleaker tone and more lush and melodic background.)

There isn’t a dud on the album. At the risk of being cloying, it’s the sort of thing that you’re grateful to be able to hear–considering his hard-knocks biography. Already a sextagenarian, we obviously can’t expect Bradley to churn out records like Lil Wayne, but I’d bet I’m not the only one who hopes that he doesn’t wait another 62 years to follow it up.

MP3: Charles Bradley-“No Time For Dreaming”

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