Southern soul. Country soul. Swamp rock. Muscle Shoals.
Collectively, these terms evoke a vibrant presentation of music. No one is suggesting Tony Joe White, the Allmans, and Bobbie Gentry’s music sound alike, and no one is going to extend the representation to include every recording session (whether made in Alabama, Memphis, or elsewhere) by Bobby Charles, Amy Black, Shelby Lynne, or Larry Jon Wilson. Some have horns. Some are heavy on the R&B, others country. Some are tightly structured, some freewheeling.
But they have a commonality of smooth grooves creating a potent, soulful, hazy-summer mood that infiltrates the DNA of susceptible audiophiles.
We all love Alabama Shakes, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats have their moments. These last six months, I’ve likely listened to Yola’s debut album as frequently as any other. It is amazing, of course: soulful, controlled, and rocking with a country edge separating it from most everything else encountered in 2019. Adia Victoria’s Silences is a more recent discovery, and does it sizzle!
Completely different, but as satisfying, is HeavyDrunk’s HolyWater.
The confident swagger of “Keeping Up With the Kid,” the longing of “Walking to the Mission in the Rain,” the ambiguous duality of “Memphis,” and the gritty lust of “Somebody’s Got To Take Them Panties Off” (…”let it be me….”) are miles apart, establishing lush parameters for this dynamic record.
Frontman Rob Robinson wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of the songs, and his harmonious fluidity is evidenced by the diversity of HeavyDrunk’s music. A nine-piece band, HeavyDrunk takes all the elements of R&B, blues, country-rock, soul, and the rest of the roots we love, and mixes them into a seriously powerful concoction that we can’t help but imbibe in significant quantities.
Among others—Will Beeman, Gina Pittman, Maureen Murphy, and Nicki Connely—veteran vocalist Renee Armand contributes amazing accompaniment—I won’t share how long ago I first heard her voice—adding depth and truth to several tracks, with songs benefiting from the addition of explosive horn arrangements, keys, and a deep rhythm section.
In places, Robinson gets Jaggeresque, elsewhere reminding us of Jonathan Gray and Chris Robinson. “If I Loved You Hard Enough” kicks off the album (“I grabbed her by the hair of her head and drug her across the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. She lost her hot pink flip-flop in the disabled parking spot…”) but the song elevates itself beyond the initial, disturbing images. Tattoo You’s funk-jam “Slave”—embellished with an extra verse—provides desirable familiarity, and this take is one of the album’s many highlights, as is the funereal “Heavydrunk Holywater,” inspired by Robinson’s grandmother’s abandoned piano.
I live far from the south, and I know my understanding of the land is coloured (and limited) by the amount of bluegrass, old-tyme, Cajun, zydeco, and southern soul I’ve listened to, and the number of Oxford American issues and James Lee Burke novels I’ve devoured. But listening to an album like HolyWater immediately evokes the sweet, spicy aroma of BBQ wafting from a non-descript building, the feeling of being engulfed in a community of like-minded folk in a sticky club, and the wonder of chicory coffee and beignets along a muddy river.
Damned near perfect.