Following much in the same groove as their 1998 debut, Phat Blues Music, Kelly Bell Band offered up Ain't Like It Used to Be in early 2001. Again combining chunky funk riffs with blues, rock, and classic soul, Bell and company easily defend their status as champions of East Coast college party rock. This time out, the grooves are even tighter, the melodies richer, and the production much more professional. But again as before, instead of searching for his own personal path through all the many influences he has absorbed, Bell instead tries to touch as many bases as possible. Almost every track on Phat Blues has a counterpart on Ain't Like It Used to Be, be it soulful acoustic blues, jumping swing, even a lame spoken word comedy bit. Special guests are in plentiful number to help Bell and company, including Big Jesse Yawn, Victor Williams, Ron Holloway, Mark Wenner, Jimi HaHa, and the horn section of Bell's nearest live competitors, the All Mighty Senators. But while these guests lend credibility and variety to the album's 15 tunes, Bell does make noticeable steps in his musical development. Two songs in particular, the driving funk of "Workin' Me" and the more concise R&B structure of "Mama's Chasing the Dragon," show levels of harmonic layering that show Bell may in fact be finding new and original ways to write and perform. The album's last proper track, "Take Me Away," is a fruitful blending of Bell's bluesy baritone and a chamber music arrangement complete with operatic vocals. These three tunes are nearly enough to give hope that Bell may in fact be outgrowing, hopefully, the well-trod ground of the past.
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AllMusic Review by John Duffy