If there is a single word to "define" the entire labyrinthine musical journey offered by singer and songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols' work, it's "mercurial." A farmer living in Wales, the American-born Nichols has been writing and singing country, folk, reggae, funk, soul, jazz, and anything else he's attracted to for over two decades. (Look through his credits; you'll be stunned.)
Nichols hasn't issued an album of new studio material since 2012's Jeb Loy Nichols Special. Three-plus-years in the making, Country Hustle began after the songwriter received an invite to London from Andrew Hale (Sade's keyboardist and co-writer). Nichols came down from Wales on numerous occasions as his time permitted. The pair roped in Ben Lamdin, Distance, St. Francis Hotel, and others to participate. The end result is a seamless whole that reflects Nichols' penchant for great melodies, vast melodic imagination, and signature vocal style.
The swampy, blues-tinged "Come See Me" was produced by St. Francis Hotel. This steamy, swampy tune conjures notions of what a collaboration between Tony Joe White, JJ Cale, and Tinariwen -- with Nichols fronting the band -- might sound like. A stinging blues guitar vamp informs the intro of "Don't Drop Me," but it shifts gears into slippery funk, driven by a popping bassline, handclaps, and swirling synths. It's followed by a completely reimagined cover of Razzy Bailey's 1974 smash "I Hate Hate." Almost all instruments on the tune are played by St. Francis Hotel, but with a double-time snare shuffle accented by breaks, a flute solo (played by the singer), and guitar vamps that imitate horn section fills. Nichols' "That's How We're Living" is a 21st century take on Southern soul. His bittersweet reflection on love as it endures poverty is made more poignant as breakbeats, a B-3, and a male backing chorus underscore the conviction in his vocal. Nichols weds 21st century lover's rock reggae and vintage pop country (think Charlie Rich) in a tender cover of Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much." "Til The Teardrops Stop" is a fingerpopper that juxtaposes spacy, ambient, and electronic effects, a Philly soul-styled chorus, and swamp pop threaded through Nichols' own cagey melodic sensibility. "That's All I Want" evokes the ghosts of Junior Kimbrough's "All Night Long" and Bob Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown," as refracted through the smoky lens of Hale's electronic treatments and production. The Meters-esque NOLA-inspired funk on "Regret" leads to surreal closer "Long Live the Loser," produced by Distance. Here, heavy dub (à la Sly & Robbie's early Taxi Gang) is wedded to a simple folk-county melody, and expanded via by tender blue-eyed soul as futuristic distorted horns, fractured vamping guitars, echoing snares, and clipped handclaps frame Nichols' haunting vocal. The jam melts into abstracted R&B in its second half, but the groove remains solid. Ultimately, Country Hustle is, even by Nichols' lofty standards, a visionary album that was well worth the wait.