Dealing with banality in the music industry has become standard throughout our current decade, with over-exposure and over-hyping of fairly bland musical acts. Fortunately, Daptone Records has sought to break that mold by signing and promoting artists who have more soul in their pinky nail than anything coming out from major record labels as of late. One such artist on the label’s roster, Charles Bradley, has further solidified the return of soul music to the mainstage.
Bradley, who has a well-documented underdog narrative seen in the documentary film Charles Bradley: Soul of America from 2012, has been able to persevere. Bradley, along with labelmate Sharon Jones has served as genuine and perpetually marketable artists for the revitalization of soul. This continues to ring true on Bradley’s third album Changes. Musically, this album is hands down his best to date, boasting improved dynamics between himself and his band – which is ultimately surprising given that Bradley worked with five different bands throughout the recording of this album. Regardless, Bradley asserts control over his songs, something vital in the work of retro-soul.
The record opens with a gospel, yet kitschy version of “God Bless America” in which Bradley serves as an orator over thick organ lick, reminiscent of a Sunday service. As a follow-up, those keys cut through James Brown-esque meaty “uhs” on “Good to Be Back Home,” a song that has literal meaning to Bradley. From relative obscurity to spending much of his seventh decade as a first-time international headliner, Bradley croons about being relieved, yet disappointed about his return trip. This song is also the first foray into upliftingly political messages, a similar theme to other songs on the rest of the record.
Musically, despite the cacophony of backup bands found on the record, Changes fits relatively well into the Daptone house sound. The session players from Menahan Street Band and Bradley’s touring group The Extraordinaires are more restrained on the record, allowing for Bradley’s presence to be felt without muddying up the mix. Although this is the case, there are moments throughout the record where Bradley shares the limelight with label guitarist Thomas Brenneck and company to provide references to post-funk and hip-hop drum sounds. More specifically, towards the end of “Nobody But You,” there is a horn riff that is unabashedly lifted from Seals and Crofts “Summer Breeze.” Now, while it may be your initial reaction to cringe and pull away from the song, try not to smile when you listen to it at full volume, then cry later when you cannot get the lick out of your head. Other notes and creative borrowing appear on “You think I Don’t Know (But I Know)” where Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I Need,” provides the drum break and opening piano lead.
Lyrically, Changes comes off too familiar on initial listen, but Bradley’s remarkable voice captures ears, causing the listener to remain interested. Despite dealing with comparisons to artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown (the latter is apt since Bradley was a James Brown impersonator called Black Velvet for part of his career), Bradley has undoubtedly earned his the title of “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” and the new album cements this title even further.
If there is a theme associated with this record, it would have to be love. Bradley sings about searching for it, being hurt by it, and enjoying it. That said, “Things We Do For Love,” is the most retro offering, featuring a romantic grove and a doo-wop accompaniment. What is most surprising, though, is an unexpected cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” to whom Bradley dedicated to his late mother. After spending a majority of his life estranged from her, Bradley was able to repair the strained relationship with her prior to her passing. While the song itself was never really a big hit for the heavy metal behemoth, Bradley’s rendition gives the song new life and new meaning.
Bradley’s success may have only been a pipe dream a few years ago, but as the music climate ebbs and flows, it seems as if the planets have aligned to bring Bradley, and the rest of the Daptone family to the forefront. While Bradley’s previous offerings on the label have been promising, Changes is much more realized and is an instant classic. While it only took the public 45+ years to realize that Bradley was a star, perhaps he knew he was the whole time – though he seems as if he is humble enough to tout that publically. Ultimately, Bradley is what music fans need, and we’re grateful for him.