Otis Taylor,
Double V
(Telarc, 2004)

Otis Taylor plays the blues and plays them his way. His songs are steeped in heartache, hard times and tragedy. But Taylor brings a raft of distinctive touches to his brand of blues. His music is not built upon the standard guitar, bass, drums and harmonica foundation that too often leads this vibrant musical form to devolve to cookie-cutter sameness. While Taylor does employ guitar, bass and harmonica in his production, there are also electric mandolins, banjos and layers of cello. And no drums whatsoever.

The arrangements on Double V range from the minimalist presentation of "Took Their Land," with Taylor solo on vocals and harmonica, to the atmospheric bass and cello drone that backs Taylor's guitar on "Sounds of Attica," to the impassioned soulful vocals and African-influenced guitar and bass lines of "Please Come Home Before It Rains."

The emotive power of Taylor's breathy delivery is perhaps most perfectly rendered in a tragic story of an elderly couple who, "can't make the bills" and are forced to exist on dog food. "Plastic Spoons" employs a rhythmic, almost hypnotic electric mandolin bed track over which a pair of cellos weaves an airy melody. The cellos in turn present a beautiful contrast to Taylor's vocal evocation of exhaustion and hopelessness. It's quite a spectacular piece, but far from easy listening.

Taylor's is a refreshing, intriguing, inspired approach to the blues, one that drew me in and immediately captured my attention. But once inside the production the songs need to hold up as compositions. This is where Double V doesn't always deliver. Taylor's songs have a raw, personal edge to them that makes the best tracks ("505 Train," "Buy Myself Some Freedom," "Please Come Home Before It Rains") tremendously powerful. But it also makes some of the songs nebulous, foggy as Taylor withholds the intricacies of the narrative in favor of a more impressionistic lyrical approach. Without the CD booklet explanation that the song "Mama's Selling Heroine" is about Taylor's own mother who spent a year in jail in the '50s, the intensity of the repeated title lyric is lost and the song comes across as somewhat tedious. Unfortunate for such compelling source material.

However, any weaknesses in the music contained on Double V are more than adequately balanced by the album's originality. Far better a disc that marches into unmarked territory and occasionally missteps than one that stays on the well-marked path and holds no surprising revelations for the listener.

There are plenty of remarkable moments on the Double V journey, which culminates with Taylor handing over the lead vocal duties to his daughter/bassist Cassie for "Buy Myself Some Freedom." The track immediately establishes its identity with a melancholy trumpet intro courtesy of jazzman Ron Miles. Cassie then takes full control of the song with a plaintive triple-layered vocal that wrings emotion from lines like, "Wish I could go eat at whichever lunch counter I want,/Then I wouldn't have to go hungry."

Cassie uses none of the vocal grandstanding that so plagues pop music at the moment. Every note is clean, every note is important. The contestants on American Idol could learn a lot about why "less is more" from Cassie's superb vocal restraint on this exceptional closing track to Double V.

So in Tayloresque style let me say simply, give this album a listen, you'll be glad you did.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 18 December 2004

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