The second full-length from sacred steel genius Robert Randolph & the Family Band delivers, from the studio, the same promise, grit, grease, and sweat that Live at the Wetlands did. Randolph pulls out the stops in the studio, using his own band, without any of the hotshot guest stars who he's appeared with in the last two years. Unclassified features a road-tested, studio-savvy band using all of its collected gifts with producer Jim Scott to make a record that is as much about soul, funk, hard rock, folk, and jam band intensity as it is about the gospel music that first inspired the unit. On first listen, listeners might be taken aback by "So Refreshing," with its soul groove and tight gospel arrangements and a greasy P-Funk bass running alongside Randolph's razor-wire and switchblade steel. But contrast it with the in-the-pit wail of "Squeeze," with organs and syncopated rhythms playing counterpoint to the steel and bass, or the Stevie Wonder-esque hard funk of "I Need More Love," with keyboards rollicking along the groove as the bass literally pops around a chorus that delivers the call-and-response choir in full-on, Sunday church, Funkadelic effect. Unclassified is, in all of its varied approaches to gospel music and the sacred steel tradition, incontrovertible proof that they can deliver from the booth as well as they do on a stage and with more variety.
This is a free-sounding record, given how so much of it feels live with its intensity and its focus on shape-shifting rhythmic and harmonic structures in the improvising, yet all within the context of "song." "Smile" features tender lyrics and gorgeous harmonies, while "So Refreshing," with its Sly Stone Fresh-era open R&B pockets of easy melodic invention and rumbling funky overtones, gives the vocalists lots of room to bring home the atmosphere of the tune; it's summery, free, and full of light. These two tracks stand in sharp contrast to the jam sensibilities that much of the rest of the album operates on, but they are wondrously multi-dimensional portals into the band's collective psyche. While it's true that Randolph's steel, which is immediately recognizable everywhere here, is supplanted by the fattest, gnarliest bass this side of Bootsy Collins, the instrumental attack of the Family Band is in its ability to change its sound on virtually every track. "Calypso," with its flights-of-fancy explorations into the realms of jazz-rock and Santana-esque Latin jam consciousness, opens up the American gospel palette infinitely, and the shattering country gospel -- via New Jersey nightclub rock & roll infusion -- of "Run for Your Life" that caps the disc is a summation of the journey; that journey is spiritual and full of humor, empathy, and expansive notions of what music is, and how it plays a role in the relief of suffering in everyday life. This is multivalent music, full of the message of joy, passion, and realization, and it is played in such an enlightened manner, so completely unburdened by the rigidities of context and category, that it exists on its own plane. How many times can you say that about a pop record in the 21st century? Unclassified is truly awesome and inspiring; it provides a guidepost for sacred steel music in the future and will hopefully enter the mainstream -- though that's doubtful -- of American popular culture.