February 14, 2002

Soul, But No Surprise

Print More

Some stories are worth retelling. The story of Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise begins with three young white blues musicians known as Second Self, rehearsing in a downtown Detroit studio. During a quiet moment spent, perhaps, contemplating their authenticity as a blues band, brothers Michael and Andrew Nehra and drummer Jeff Fowlkes heard, through the open window, the voice of Robert Bradley outside their studio. Bradley, a blind man from Evergreen, Alabama, had built a reputation as a street performer dedicated to exclusively playing his own material around Detroit’s famous Eastern Market. After some convincing, Bradley agreed to join Second Self in the studio and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is a great story indeed. The story is so intriguing that PR representatives love using it to sell the collision of blues, rock, soul, and funk that RB’s Blackwater Surprise produce. With their help Bradley and his boys have received critical acclaim, worldwide recognition, and extensive MTV airplay for their ballad “Once Upon A Time.” Most reviews of their previous efforts praise the supposed fusion of The Band, Otis Redding, The Black Crowes, Marvin Gaye, Parliament, The Temptations and Leadbelly. Such a hefty grab bag of names is not very informative, but, after some parsing, accurately highlights the musical avenues Blackwater Surprise attempt to tread on their third studio album, New Ground.

As a vocalist, Bradley is not nearly as strong as Redding or Gaye, but his scratchy vocals are pleasant and express their share of pain without being overly grating, carrying a touch of mellowness reminiscent of Lee “Scratch” Perry or John Lee Hooker. Unfortunately, the production smoothes out Bradley’s voice a bit too much, hiding that rare rawness of old blues musicians which Bradley himself possesses.

Musically, Blackwater Surprise are not funk or blues, they are a standard rock band. In other words they do not write soul or funk songs, but rather straight rock songs, ranging from slow ballads to distortion-ridden jams. These songs are often heavily influenced by the aforementioned genres but it is important to remember that they remain rock songs. The first track, “Train,” starts of with a guitar riff and mid-tempo drumming. There’s nothing to make this track stand out as anything but an average mellow rock song, equipped with a catchy-enough chorus and pleasant mood. Immediately grabbing are Bradley’s lyrics and vocals. Blind at birth, he tends to write lyrics that are very auditory, a nice break from all those visual songwriters. This split in attention between Bradley and his band is seen throughout the whole album.

The next track “See Her” is one of the most rewarding on the LP. The song’s reggae tinge reminds me of some of the soul-influenced numbers on Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come. Bradley’s desire to be near his beloved is perfectly complemented by the call-and-response vocals between Bradley and a chorus of female back-up singers.

“Profile,” the most political track on the album, begins with intriguing trip-hop loops and a spare bass groove that highlights Bradley’s vocals. However, come chorus time, the song degenerates into a mush of distorted, fuzzy guitars immediately detracting intensity from the song — a problem that tends to plague much of the record. By trying to fuse various styles, Blackwater Surprise inevitably lose focus of what is most distinct and precious in their sound; i.e. Bradley’s vocals — the intensity of which peaks with sparse instrumentation. In fact, the truly great tracks on the album are the generally slower numbers written by Bradley without the help of his bandmates. Songs like the beautiful acoustic “Young Girls” or the piano driven ballad “Exist for Love” allow Bradley to capture the intensity and charm of deranged street musician-preachers. When Bradley wails, “there are some many problems in the world today/ oh why don’t we listen, remember what the Bible says,” it is truly powerful. However too many songs on this album detract power from Bradley’s persona and begin to sound too much like another nameless jam band at the Odyssey. Sure they are fun to see and dance to, but the charm doesn’t last much past the exit.

Entertainment Weekly recently praised New Ground as an “old-fashioned soul-meets-pop-rock synthesis.” Although soul is probably not the word to use, the pop rock synthesis part is dead on. It is this college jam rock that makes so much of the album seem so average. The moments where Bradley dominates are great, leaving the listener hoping for the usually despised solo record. Though his bandmates may have picked this blind man from the gutter, unfortunately he’ll have to reach the stars by himself.

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin