Laura Rain and the Caesars • Closer

LRC CLOSER

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Closer

LRC, 2014

Available from cdbaby.com and amazon.com

laurarain.net

 

Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars seem to have internalized everything good about blues, R&B, funk, and soul, and in the process created something smart and soulful of their own: a retro modern vision of soul and blues music, immediately familiar yet completely fresh. This set expands on last year’s debut Electrified with more great songs, killer arrangements, a broader range of styles, and a deeper blues feeling that permeates every track.

The core group of Caesars remains the same: Ron Pangborn (drums and percussion), Phil Hale (keyboards, including left-hand “bass”), and George Friend (guitar, co-writer, recording and mixing engineer). For Closer, Rain and bandleader Friend had very definite notions about how the completed songs ought to sound, and to that end brought in ringers in some cases to achieve specific goals. The album credits list drummers Terry Thunder, Todd Glass, and Rick Beamon, with Sheila Hale on tambourine; Leon Powell and Jim Simonson (electric bass); Duncan McMillan (organ); and Johnny Evans (saxophones) and John Douglas (trumpet). This Detroit All-Star team has laid down a record that sounds full when it needs to and spare elsewhere. Uptown and lowdown, hungry, vivid, and confident, Closer is just plain badass.

In the album opener, “Seasons,” the Caesars build a funky brick house on a bone-crunching, AC/DC-worthy riff. Rain’s impassioned call-and-response vocal sanctifies the grounds. “Super Duper Love” (not the Sugar Billy song covered by Joss Stone) is a knowing, instant-classic 21st Century soul blues hit that grafts a gritty guitar break and an indelible vocal hook onto a syncopated, bass-and-organ figure that could have come straight from an early-‘80s side by Prince or Rick James. Another unforgettably catchy melody tops “Dirty Man,” an ultra-funky slice of modern-leaning, mid-tempo R&B. Slightly more classical in form, “Meet Me in the Middle” is an irresistible dance number, filled with swirling organ, hard-hitting horn blasts, and a slamming rhythm section. Rain’s phrasing and timbre are ideally matched to the song, and absolutely delicious. Her sass and enthusiasm are reminiscent of another great Detroit singer, a legend whose initials are A.F. An infectious, straight ahead blues, “Squawkin’” updates Little Milton’s immortal “That’s What Love Will Do” with an especially hip bass line, ferocious drumming, and the stinging guitar of Caesar-in-chief Friend. Rain’s on-the-money wails are heart-stoppingly effective.

The Caesars visit the deep South on several numbers. Soulful backing voices and an insistent rhythmic pulse give “He Is” a distinctly gospel-inflected, Muscle Shoals sound that would make Mavis Staples envious. Friend’s terse lead guitar neatly cuts through an atmosphere thick with electric piano and clavinet. “Awful Sin” comes straight from the swamp. A dark, brooding tonality puts the song in a class with Tony Joe White’s “Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You,” but Friend’s slinky guitar lines, wobbly with tremolo, and a greasy, ominous groove stamp it with that difficult-to-capture Staple Singers feeling. “All Of Me” could be a lost O.V. Wright or Ann Peebles record. Its bluesy groove, something like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” sets a rock-solid rhythmic hook that frees Rain to do her thing; a sophisticated middle section moves the song to another, transcendent level. Finally, still in the Royal Studio mode, “Closer” has all the hallmarks of a creamy Willie Mitchell production for Al Green. From the drumming (and the drum sounds) up through the deep-grooving electric bass, horns, Hammond organ, and spare, precise guitar, the silky feel sets the mood for Rain’s simply beautiful melody line. Lovers of Memphis soul will recognize this affectionate tribute as a great song.

Rain excels at the slowest tempos, too. With swelling horns in the deep soul tradition, tough guitar, and a stirring vocal that moves with ease from subdued to flamboyant, “Your Love Is Not Broken” evokes the depth and searing intensity of James Brown’s devastating Live at the Apollo ballads. When she hears this song, Bettye LaVette will wish she had it first. The disc ends with “My Heart is Open,” a soul ballad with all the stunning sweep and scope of a Hollywood epic and none of the schmaltz. A Marvin Gaye vibe comes across in the song’s elegant chords as outlined by Phil Hale’s piano and strings, and in its sonics, an impossible combination of intimacy and spaciousness. Much of its success rests on Laura’s amazing performance: a masterpiece of dynamics, pure, unaffected, and deeply emotional.

I tried to describe the wondrous singing of Ms. Rain in my review of Electrified (see http://alturl.com/4t3vo) and will confine myself here to reiterating that very few vocalists are in her class when the discussion gets serious about technique, instrument, emotion, and absolute freedom of expression. Laura Rain is a real soul singer, period. She is recorded better this time out as well, with frankly incredible results. The arrangements are first-rate, and the songs extend the arc of blues and soul music in unexpected ways, while paying respect to their influences. Closer is a varied album of soul and blues that could have been made by Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Johnnie Taylor. Anyone serious about soul and blues music ought to hear this meticulously crafted, heartfelt record.

TOM HYSLOP

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Electrified – UPDATED availability

Electrified

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Electrified

LRC, 2013

http://www.laurarain.net/

Real R&B–and I don’t mean what’s on the charts today–often seems embalmed by tradition. There’s absolutely a place for reverence and strict authenticity, but qualities like imagination and bravado seem to be in too short supply when it comes to musicians who know their history; hence the excitement when artists like Ryan Shaw, Little Jackie, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and Ricky Fanté appear. We can add Laura Rain and the Caesars to that short list. The only thing retro about this band is the record collections I imagine Laura Rain and George Friend, who co-wrote all the material, to possess.

They have a rare ability to evoke vintage soul, funk, and R&B styles while sounding utterly fresh. The set opens with “Sunset,” a head-turning amalgam of rapid-fire lyrics, funky horns, guitar chank, and popping drums. “Bus Stop” is a slamming, Stax-inflected burner with enough energy for five hit singles. “My Love” nails a late-‘70s feel with phase-shifted guitar, a disco-fied bass line, and a smoking organ solo, but it’s smarter than anything that charted back in the day. Two favorites couldn’t be more different:  with its cool pulse and strong melody, “I Don’t Wanna Play” suggests the vibe of a lost Family Stone classic, especially when the horns, dominated by trumpet, sneak in at the halfway mark. And they don’t make them like “This Old House” any more–a shame, given its sophisticated, laid-back soulfulness (somewhat in the vein of the Grover Washington Jr.-Bill Withers hit, “Just The Two Of Us”), the jazzy octaves on guitar, and a story with a message.

Electrified includes enough bluesy fare to satisfy all but the hardest-hearted purist. The title track, a blues strut with a strip-joint vibe, features hard-riffing horns and a taut guitar solo. “No More” references Howlin’ Wolf’s hypnotic stomps, Hubert Sumlin’s slinky guitar, and John Lee Hooker’s patented stutters. Swampy guitar from the Memphis-Muscle Shoals axis, churchy organ, and a Stones-y swagger inform the deep soul ballad “Four Long Years.” The slow-burning “No Good Love” puts a dramatic, minor key funk spin on soul blues. “Lonely” is a terrific, upbeat rocker fueled by horns, powerhouse drums, and layered guitars.

The players come from the ranks of Detroit’s elite musicians. Guitarist Friend, whose long resume includes the hip blues gem Looka Here!, has toured the world with the likes of Janiva Magness and Robert Gordon. On keyboards, “Philharmonic” Phil Hale brings long experience working with artists from the worlds of funk (George Clinton), jazz (James Carter, Marcus Belgrave), and blues (Thornetta Davis). Ron Pangborn (Was/Not Was) is the perfect drummer for this group. Rick Beamon (additional drums/percussion) and three horn players–James O’Donnell (trumpet), John Paxton (trombone), and Johnny Evans (saxophones)–round out the ensemble.

The band is hot, the arrangements first-rate, but you won’t believe Laura Rain. Although classically trained as a soprano, any trace of fustiness is long gone; her singing is raw and straight-from-the-heart passionate. Lines are caressed, worried, torn apart. She has incredible range and makes effortless glides between registers. A host of shadings, from husky to raspy to nasal to full-bodied to infinite varieties of scream, and incredible melisma, are under her precise control. For all that, unlike so many latter-day divas who seem to sing everything but the note they intend to–in essence, offering effects at the expense of affect–with Laura Rain, it’s all about expressiveness, fire, and feeling.

I’m not generally given to predictions, but it is hard to think that, given half the requisite lucky break, Laura Rain won’t be a star. Her bio likens her to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin; I compare her to a force of nature. No one is doing what she is. Her style satisfies in spades the craving for the Big Gesture entrenched in the rock-oriented audience, without sacrificing the purposefulness and class needed to engage listeners from the soul and blues side. While the spirits of such legends as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Sly & The Family Stone, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Prince, and the Parliament-Funkadelic coalition shine through the grooves of the Caesars’ first long-player, don’t bother dusting for prints or swabbing for DNA: Nothing here is an overt lift, nor even an unmistakable homage. Instead, while clearly informed and inspired by soul and R&B styles dating, roughly speaking, from the years between 1965 and 1985, Electrified is vital music for these times.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased the digital files of this album at http://laurarainthecaesars.bandcamp.com/album/electrified. CDs are now available at amazon.com and cdbaby.com, while digital downloads are offered at those sites and via iTunes.