Double V – Otis Taylor
Otis Taylor’s got a hell of a lot more than the blues. The man’s got issues. On his sixth album, Double V, Taylor mixes blues’ traditional simplicity of style and form with a wide range of other flavors to create his own blues, faithful to its roots but not derivative or generic. Able to pack a lifetime of tangible emotions into a single phrase or image, Taylor has created yet another jaw-dropping album full of austere portraits painted from a unique consciousness.
Never one for dropping empty tears into half-empty whiskey bottles, the Colorado blues veteran gorges on darker fare: racism, torture, captivity, poverty, addiction, and despair, just to name a few. He drops one-liner stories of injustice and misery like a 90 year-old former slave on a Mississippi front porch, able to muster up just enough breath to get right to the meat of the story. Taylor’s lyrics deliver the simplest plot outlines, leaving his stark and desperate instrumentation to push the listener’s imagination to fill in the details.
The woeful train whistle guitars of "505 Train" give a driving urgency to Taylor’s motherless child’s fear of the abusive father who’s left behind, and a dark, unrelenting banjo pounds on "Mama’s Selling Heroin" like a soft but endless rain falling on already sunken shoulders. Most striking is Taylor’s ability to encapsulate a lifetime of misery in the simplest of images: the blues haiku of "Plastic Spoon" is about as low as it gets ("eating dog food with a plastic spoon"), and the accompanying cello’s mournful, desperate moan is a perfect, unexpected twist on Taylor’s atypical blues formula.
Despite its dejected misery, Double V is not without humor and hope, both reflected in Taylor’s non-traditional style, which incorporates the bouncing, frenetic rhythms of West Africa just as easily as trumpet and cello. ‘Reindeer Meat’ manages to extort a smile despite its sad dejection, and ‘He Never Raced On Sunday’ lifts world champion bicycler Major Marshall Taylor above the common fray without discrediting his career-long struggle against racism.
Boiled down to its stock, though, Double V is about as low as the blues can go. Taylor’s is not the blues of lost loves and drudge jobs. He doesn’t sing about money to paint his pictures of poverty. His vision of racism sees less of black and white and more of fear and greed. He captures the suffering of the forgotten without losing touch with their humanity and realizes that even the most down and out can still muster up a chuckle if the moment calls for it. Taylor’s bittersweet juxtaposition of light, airy guitar and banjo strumming and picking with the weightier textures of trumpet and cello is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrical depth and complexity in his simple sketches of man suffering yet persevering. Like a minimalist work in a museum full of details, Double V could easily be overlooked, but those who take the time to ponder over it will find a sleeping masterpiece waiting to come alive.