JJ Grey & Mofro

Ol' Glory

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Normally, when musicians grow both in confidence and ambition over time it's considered a good thing. JJ Grey & Mofro's sound grew from a gritty, stripped-down hybrid they called "Lochloosa," a musical meld of swamp pop, funky gospel, Louisiana-tinged R&B, and roots rock. Lyrically, Grey spun myths from the rich, humid soil of his homeland straight into the band's grooves. Things got funkier and rowdier on 2010's Georgia Warhorse and 2013's This River, where they truly gelled. Now signed to Provogue, Grey's grandest musical statement yet lies on Ol' Glory, where it sounds like he's asserting himself as a frontman rather than a singer/songwriter fronting a band. His limited capabilities as a vocalist don't allow for that excess of ambition, though. This band's sound is much larger than the sum of its parts. More often than not, Grey is swallowed by their din. Added to this is the fact that the songs on Ol' Glory are the least imaginative or well-crafted songs in the band's catalog. At just under an hour, this set is too long by a third. That's not saying there aren't some excellent songs here, but they can get lost in the mire of much lesser ones. Its best numbers include the opener "Everything Is a Song," a joyous, retro Muscle Shoals R&B-styled number with tight horns, ringing piano, and a gorgeous chorus of backing vocals from Kalen Michele Dennis and Grey. The gentle interplay of acoustic and electric slide guitars on "The Island" (courtesy of guest Luther Dickinson) is understated, poetic, and soulful. "Every Minute" features guest Derek Trucks' great lyrical and serpentine slide work and Dennis' killer backing vocals; it's prime Grey -- all balance and nothing extra lyrically or musically. The horns actually act as support rather than a sonic wall to break through. The interplay between rock and R&B is naturally bluesy and gritty. "Light a Candle" is gospelized R&B with rock & roll guitars. It actually testifies when the horns and backing vocals build a bridge to Grey's lead. On "Home in the Sky," Grey sounds like he's calling on the spirit of Gregg Allman's Laid Back for inspiration and it works. The deliberate slow-build drama of "Hold on Tight," as Grey and Dennis respond to his protagonist's swaggering declarations of lust in call and response, meld ragged, rockist blues and drop-line breakbeat funk. But these tracks and the earthy, backporch country of closer "Hurricane" (with Dickinson) are the exception rather than the rule. Too many other tracks have one too many verses, could have used bridges, or been left off altogether. Ol' Glory may reveal a bigger, more multi-dimensional sound for Grey and Mofro, but at what price progress?

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