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God Don’t Never Change
Artist: Ashley Cleveland
Label: E1 Entertainment
Time: 12 Tracks / 50 mins
I cannot understand how it has taken this long for Ashley Cleveland to record a bunch of blues-gospel classics. After all, it is the gritty soulfulness of her voice that has led to her backing vocals appearing on some 300 albums. She may have eschewed the genre on previous solo releases, but she has finally made the album she was born to record.
The strength of her voice is what makes her so popular as a backing vocalist, but it could be overbearing up front. This disc succeeds largely because it always has something to counterbalance it. Normally that foil is the vibrant guitar work of her husband/producer Kenny Greenberg (who himself has worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Bob Seger and the Indigo Girls). He plays off her singing like jazz players feed off each other – listening for the gaps, gauging the mood, ever ready to bounce ideas backwards and forwards. His individual work here is superb here too. He almost makes his instrument talk or sing in “God Don’t never Change.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t staring the obvious in the face that led to this disc. It took Cleveland and Greenberg separately to hear an NPR broadcast – a “Fresh Air” interview with Baylor University Journalism Professor Bob Darden in which he discussed his passion for obscure recordings of black gospel music – for them to realise that Cleveland should record the stuff. (Maybe it was quite a jump to go from songwriter to interpreter).
She has found material that includes commonly recorded songs like “Denomination Blues”, “You Gotta Move” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” alongside rarer, but lyrically valuable, songs like “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in my Song.” Throughout the lot, every instrument earns its place and nothing is here without reason; so on “I’m Going to Live…” the lead instrument turns out to be the upright bass, backed only by a lightly shuffling drum and some guitar colouring. Cleveland takes a beautifully restrained approach to this one; the song is almost jazz. And “When this World Comes to an End” includes a lovely touch of mandolin – just enough to lighten a space.
A similar thing happens on “Joy, Joy.” Every fourth song swaps the blues for gospel, and this one is just Cleveland with piano and organ until a choir sweeps in at almost four minutes into the piece. It is a real singer’s track, the piano and organ reacting to the pace and mood of her singing (which shows the Edwin Hawkins arrangement nicely) and it is easy to see why it was one of the first that she had on her list. By contrast, on the other gospel track, “Going to Heaven to Meet the King,” the choir takes on the complementary role from Greenberg.
Very little disappoints me. The phrasing on the opener sometimes niggles, and “Rock in a Weary Land” has a counting song lyric that we don’t really need (although the chorus really rocks), but that’s it.
“You Gotta Move” is as slow, heavy and full of direction as a freight train; and “When this World Comes to an End” – which features Odessa Settles, whose father sang lead in the Fairfield Four – exemplifies the potent interplay between Cleveland and Greenberg. “Samson and Delilah” has such a fine, bluesy, acoustic tone that it would sit neatly on Led Zeppelin III. Despite the quality of these songs, there are two that really stand out, and both have a deep, slow groove that only increases their power.
On “Denomination Blues” the vocals and guitar each slide around, sensing the song. Greenberg has a real chiming Bryn Haworth sound to his guitar. Dan Dugmore’s lap steel adds a gorgeous extra tone to it, too. On her website, Cleveland claims that the words for these songs are important, saying, “With the hymns, it’s all about the poetry, whereas with black gospel, there’s this economy of words. Both types use straight scripture, but where the hymns will expand on it and the words will flow, the gospel song will have fewer words but the right ones.” She’s correct. This song still has a lot of vital things to say to a polarized church: “It’s right to stand together, wrong to stand apart, there’s only one man going to make you pure in heart and that’s all. You’ve gotta have Jesus, that’s all”.
The other standout is “Keep Your lamp Trimmed and Burning,” which typifies the way that this disc never needs speed to be powerful. It’s all down to visceral vocal power, changing the pace, letting the music sway, breathe and take on its own life. Reece Wynans, who gets organ credits on so many albums, shows here why he does. It’s great to see him given the freedom to rock out in gospel style.
Despite some of these songs being done by artists like Glenn Kaiser, the 77s and The Lost Dogs, none of their versions beat the ones on this disc, which is beautifully and carefully put together. As I said, it’s the album she was born to make.