Otis Taylor,
(Telarc, 2012)

If rooted in blues ("trance blues" in his formulation), the prolific Otis Taylor always manages to feel elusive and enigmatic, an artist both in and out of time, an absorber of voices, stories and genres. One of his artist's feet is in the African-American 19th century, the other in the 21st.

You could say that this makes him, perhaps, a kind of post-Taj Mahal, though Taylor's songs -- while inspired by the same vernacular sources Taj draws on -- are nearly all of his own composition. The haunted nature of his lyrics, carrying the pain of history in echoes of an old, rural music encased within modern, often (but hardly exclusively) electric sounds, brings Bob Dylan's past 15 years' worth of recordings to mind. And Taylor is good enough to be spoken of in that breath even if a comparison between the two may not occur to many listeners on first -- or second or third -- meeting. Once heard, though, it's inescapable. Here is somebody who ought to be a whole lot more famous than he is.

Taylor sometimes makes for demanding listening, but if Contraband is not exactly a radical departure, it is in some ways more accessible than some other of his discs. On the other hand, having listened to most of them over the years, maybe I'm just now getting accustomed to his distinctive approach. It is not as if Taylor were suddenly starting to make compromises. That approach, let me add, includes a gentle foghorn of a voice, sometimes with backing horns to underscore the sonic link. That voice also brings to mind a host of songsters, bluesmen and gospel shouters, albeit no one in particular. On the other hand, once in a while Taylor's singing, at least to my ear, recalls Richie Havens'.

In common with only a few living black roots musicians, Taylor plays banjo, both acoustic and electric, along with, less surprisingly, guitars. On occasion a fiddle or an African instrument will show up in the production. The effect can be hypnotic -- that's the "trance" in trance blues -- with the narrative or lament delivered in something between speech and chant, as if in the late-night, half-sung rumination of a man, specifically an African-American man, in a very bad way, inside a prison or on a plantation with a chain around his leg, those images varying between literal and metaphorical. Old times are not forgotten in Taylor's magnificent art, nor is there any looking away.

Though Taylor's albums are uniformly accomplished, Contraband feels special to me. If you haven't heard him before and would like to know what he's about, here's a fine place to start.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 March 2012

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