Eric Bibb,
A Ship Called Love
(Telarc, 2005)

A short while ago I reviewed a Telarc Blues CD titled Friends, an album on which each track featured a guest collaborator and, as a result, I felt I hadn't gotten an accurate sense of Eric Bibb, the musician at the center of the project. Naturally, I was intrigued to see what picture of Bibb would emerge from the album A Ship Called Love, his followup recording.

On first listen A Ship Called Love struck me as stronger than Bibb's previous release when considered as a whole, but it never attains the soaring heights of the best moments on Friends. The opening three tracks on Friends are dynamic, resonant blues tracks. And while the blues is certainly a component of the music on A Ship Called Love, I think that Bibb's nebulous style is best described in the lyrics of his song "Troubadour."

"Everywhere I go people ask me, What kind of music do you play? And I just say, gonna hear some blues, like a freight train rolling through, gospel, soul and some good ol' rock 'n' roll ... You can call me a troubadour."

Don't know that I heard any freight trains rolling on A Ship Called Love; the blues moments tend to be fairly mild. There is certainly a lot of variety, however. There's even a bit of reggae on "Turning World" and some electronica on "Victory Voices."

If there's a unifying factor in this musical smorgasbord it's the album's exceptionally clean production style, a surprising fact given the use of four separate producers and production teams. To my mind the blues requires a bit of grit. It's a passionate music and the sterility of the recording studio can impair the transmission of that raw feeling. Such is too often the case here.

There are a number of interesting, inspired instrumental choices on A Ship Called Love, including the use of banjo and melodica on "Right Where We Are." But everything is too restrained, too "in its place." Every instrument is clearly distinguishable in the mix. There's very little tension. One partial exception is Amar Sundy's electric guitar work and Ruthie Foster's scat vocal on "Like Aretha Loves to Sing." Yet even here I wish that Bibb had been willing to let loose on the vocal and match the intensity of his guest players.

"The Way You Are"and "More o' That" are other examples of strong guest performances as Jim Pugh's Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer bring some passion to the first track and Danny Flowers bolsters the second via his acoustic lead guitar work. But for the most part A Ship Called Love is a boat at anchor, carefully moored in a picturesque harbor. And as such it's a pleasant enough experience. But the real joy of being on a boat is taking it out into open water and tacking into the wind, catching the salt spray and hearing the snap of the sails. Bibb has the skills to take listeners on such an invigorating ride but he hasn't chosen to exercise them on this becalmed disc.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
17 March 2007

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