Critic’s pick 276: JJ Grey and Mofro, ‘This River’

this riverThe story goes that This River, the sixth studio album by southern soul-funk strategists JJ Grey and Mofro, takes its name from the St. John’s River near Jacksonville. But as you listen to the record’s mighty music unfold, you might think Florida native Grey has charted a course for Muscle Shoals. That’s the Alabama community responsible for some of the greatest R&B music of the past 50 years. Its influence has increasingly informed Mofro records for the past decade. By the time this new album’s 10 songs have run their course, the pilgrimage to Alabama sounds pretty much complete.

That’s not to say This River doesn’t pay heed to the distinctive swampy groove music that Grey began giving a solid Floridian stamp to as far back as Mofro’s 2001 debut album, Blackwater. That record’s earthy, humid air feeds the swelter of This River’s album opener, Your Lady, She’s Shady. The ragged guitar hooks and Grey’s equally juiced-up vocal shout instigate the groove over fast-talking, street-walking lyrics. But by the time the soul shouting commences on the chorus, the grand spirit of Sly and the Family Stone comes into play. A merry party ensues.

Then we get a hearty dose of the sleeker R&B tradition that edges Grey and company closer to Muscle Shoals. Somebody Else cues up the horns and organ for a sly, propulsive groove with Grey’s beefy singing in the driver’s seat. Later, 99 Shades of Crazy holds off on the brass initially so a weather-beaten electric piano run can establish a slightly chilled groove. Between the two, though, the skies clear for Tame a Wild One, a huge, brassy soul-pop celebration that smoothes a few creases out of Grey’s scratchy singing.

That’s essentially the pace This River runs at. For every dirty funk grind indicative of Mofro’s Florida roots there is a trek to the welcoming soul sanctuary of Alabama. Don’t be confused by Florabama, though. The tune’s title would seem to acknowledge the record’s Southern migration, but it clearly belongs in the funk camp.

The big thrill is saved for last. On This River’s title tune, Grey surrenders fully to the Muscle Shoals spirits with a musical roll call. The song starts as an acoustic meditation that measures a river’s motion and constancy against a story of more personal despondency. Then the organ chimes in. Then the brass. Finally, the vocals uproot and soar. Countless soul giants – Otis Redding is the most obvious – have run with such a game plan. Grey isn’t their league. But by respectfully dipping in the same musical stream, he fortifies Mofro with a soul charge as majestic and healing as the river he sings of.

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