Aaron Neville,
My True Story
(Blue Note, 2013)

Cyril Neville,
Magic Honey
(Ruf, 2013)

New Orleans' Neville Brothers have carried and updated the Crescent City's r&b tradition for decades. Now, on two solo projects, siblings and professional partners Aaron and Cyril separately revisit foundational styles of black popular music. As should surprise nobody, the results are pleasing indeed.

On My True Story Aaron Neville goes back to his roots in the street-corner, group-harmony singing that became known as doo-wop. (Like bluegrass, doo-wop was practiced before it was named.) Not that all of the dozen songs here were cut originally as doo-wop -- Hank Ballard's raunchy "Work with Me, Annie," for example, was first recorded in 1954 as a 12-bar blues -- but Neville, assisted by producers Keith Richards and Don Was, turns it effortlessly into sweetly romantic, melodic pop. Likewise, Jesse Stone's comically cynical "Money Honey," a Drifters hit from 1953.

If "Be My Baby" (1963) will be forever associated with the Ronettes and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production, it works to aching effect in Neville's stripped-down arrangement. Neville's version of "Under the Boardwalk," not a radical departure from the Drifters' 1964 recording, always (at least to me) has the resonance of a hymn, even if its actual subject is sex on a blanket in a place where the young lovers won't be seen. It's an almost absurdly lovely song. My True Story delights from beginning ("Money Honey") to end ("Goodnight, My Love").

More salt than sugar notwithstanding its title, Magic Honey spreads hard-core urban blues, r&b, funk and swamp-rock sounds, with New Orleans heroes Allen Toussaint and Dr. John joining Cyril Neville alongside modern blues guitarists Walter Trout, David Z and Mike Zito. This Neville sings in a far harder voice -- at times an almost menacing one -- than does his brother, famously possessed of a higher-than-high tenor. The lyrics transcend the adolescent concerns of doo-wop to delve into adult themes -- lust, betrayal, hard times, injustice, corruption -- and Neville delivers the news, much of it bad, in one rivetingly focused performance after another.

This is the best kind of contemporary blues album, at once based in tradition and moving it to the current moment without altering the music's character or reason for being. In particular, Neville's way with "Something's Got a Hold of Me" will give heart to anyone who fears that blues lacks a future.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 November 2013

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

Click on a cover image
to make a selection.

what's new