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Published: 2010/11/22
by Brian Robbins

Black Dub
Black Dub

Jive Records

Okay, forget about Neil Young’s Le Noise. Forget about Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Forget about the projects with Brian Eno, U2, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, and Robbie Robertson. And everyone else. Just forget about them.

The only fair way to put an ear to the self-titled release from Daniel Lanois’ new Black Dub project is to say to yourself, “I don’t know this man; I don’t know any of these people; there are no free rides based on the past; this album is this album with no ‘Get out of jail free’ cards involved.” Spin the thing and listen.

And the cool thing is, once you’ve done all that, Black Dub stands solely on its own hind legs. This is an engaging, hook-laden, and funky/quirky album of tunes by a band that happens to have Daniel Lanois as a member but exists on its own merits. Go, Black Dub.

Here we have a total rhythm monster composed of drummer Brian Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson. Blade’s jazzbo heritage shines through in his fluid playing and ability to lug the beat to the party, no matter if it’s in church (the Willie Dixon-flavored gospel of “Sing”), on a Jamaican beach (the easy skank of “Silverado”), or off in outer space somewhere (the powerhouse roll-and-tumble of “Ring The Alarm” that, before it’s all said and done, goes deep and black before bursting free in a brilliant flash of joyous Hendrixian colors). Johnson is Blade’s perfect wingman, countering/complementing the pulse as needed. He can be sweet (“Surely”), haunting (“Slow Baby”), or absolutely nasty (“Last Time”) – and totally tasteful at the same time. Blade and Johnson could easily be the Sly & Robbie of these shores – they’re a hellish team.

Out front on vocals (along with keys and auxiliary drum work – for those times when Blade’s eight or ten limbs aren’t enough) is Trixie Whitley. The fact that she is the daughter of the late bluesman Chris Whitley should be mentioned in tribute; the gal earns her own keep, however. I’m going to spoil something for you, boys and girls: if you’ve never seen Ms. Whitley, one listen to Black Dub will have you imagining a 275-lb. ebony soulstress with decades of blues behind her. The fact that Whitley is just about the size of one of the legs of your imagined version might blow your mind, but you can’t deny the power of her performance here. She may be tiny and blonde, but look out – when Trixie Whitley braces off and lets loose, it’s impressive, whether she’s carrying a torch (“Surely”) or leading the choir (“Sing”).

Completing the quartet is Mr. Lanois himself, who must be tickled with the results of this experiment in soul/reggae/surf/funk/rock. As expected, Lanois works the mixing board as its own instrument, but his guitar work on Black Dub is outstanding, as well. Again, shelve the master-of-sonics reputation for a bit and listen to his old Gibson. The only reason Lanois has never gotten the attention he serves as a guitarist is that he’s a great producer. Black Dub may change that.

The sum total of the parts is a band capable of moments of cool yin/yang that can’t be pinned down: who’s responsible for the ongoing major/minor shade shifts in “Nomad”, for instance? Is it Johnson’s slinky bass lines? Yes – no – now it is; now it isn’t. There was a keyboard line here a second ago – now there’s just this big ol’ nasty Les Paul squall blasting up against Blades and Johnson. How did we get here?

There’s a lot of that sort of thing on Black Dub. Not in a discomforting way – just a neat mix of dreamy ambience and dry right-here-in-your-face sound shaping. Yes, Lanois’ hands-on-the-faders production is all over this thing (headphones are a total trip), but much of the album’s dynamics are a result of how deep Whitley digs into her soul before she lays down a verse, how hard Blade rides the cymbal, how far Johnson swoops up the neck, and how gently Lanois works his Bigsby tremolo. Just as Lanois’ reputation doesn’t get in the way of Black Dub as a band, the tech applied here never gets in the way of the soul.

And Black Dub’s got soul.

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