Jerry Lawson,
Just a Mortal Man
(Red Beet, 2014)

After 40 years and 22 albums with the Persuasions, the celebrated a cappella group, Jerry Lawson delivers Just a Mortal Man, a solo recording. A band assembled by producer Eric Brace accompanies him on an outing that recalls the late Solomon Burke's Nashville (Shout! Factory, 2006). Like Burke, Lawson brings r&b vocals to mostly, albeit not entirely ("Members Only," "Never Been to Memphis"), non-r&b material with pop, country and folk accents.

The East Nashville-based label Red Beet is devoted to a style once called, now more often Americana, though in my hearing the would-be genre designation spans so much musical territory as to be effectively meaningless. In any event, Brace, who is a smart and dependable composer, wrote four of the cuts, among them a nearly perfect evocation of romantic anxiety, "Time & Water." His musical partner Peter Cooper contributes a paean to the seductive but illusory power of alcohol, "Wine," which Lawson sings to sly effect. "Wine" surely owes some of its inspiration to Tom Paxton's classic "Bottle of Wine," whose "bottle of wine/fruit of the vine" refrain Cooper flips. Lawson's one original, "Woman in White," is a co-write with Robert Hunter, the onetime Grateful Dead lyricist who's also collaborated with Bob Dylan, Jim Lauderdale and others. Lawson -- I presume he wrote the tune -- lays down one serious earworm of a melody.

As I write these words, the news is crowded with coverage of the long-overdue removal of Confederate flags and other symbols of a dark past from public spaces, while fishy twaddle about "heritage" at last faces popular skepticism. In that context the opening cut, Paul Simon's "Peace Like a River" (not to be confused with the hymn of the same name), feels like a soundtrack for this moment: I remember misinformation followed us like a plague/ Nobody knew ... if the plans were changed/... You can beat us with chains.../But you know you can't outrun the history train. The song eerily resonates with all that surrounds us now, generating a sensation something like awakening from a bad dream. I don't recall that I've heard Simon's own version, but Lawson's commanding interpretation surely clears out any possible competition.

Mortal Man boasts solid songs, impressive performances, thoughtful arrangements. What more do you want?

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 August 2015

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