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Arts in Review

Once more with feeling: A soul giant’s farewell from beyond the grave



Full disclosure: the only thing I’ve listened to this past week has been a mix of The Birthday Party’s Live 81-82 comp, Childbirth’s 2015 release Women’s Rights as well as songs cherry-picked from Chastity Belt’s discography, and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ 1959 bop scorcher, Moanin’. All this to say, Charles Bradley’s posthumous Black Velvet, released at the beginning of November, has made its way to my ears without the luxury of in-genre context.

Charles Bradley died more than a year ago, on Sept. 23, 2017. He was 68 years old. Only six years earlier, Bradley had released his first record after a life moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator while working day jobs as a plumber and chef. In the time since, Bradley made a name for himself as the inheritor of soul’s mantle — a mantle he held until his death in 2017.

Black Velvet evokes a portrait of a man whose life was defined by music, and who died (though perhaps sadly, in our eyes) having made it. Through tracks like “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” and “Slip Away,” Bradley pays homage to the soul of the late ‘70s and ‘80s after which he modeled his career; and though both tracks are technically and emotionally impressive, connecting with listeners fairly easily, they seem to characterize an attempt by Bradley to reach out to more varied influences in his music — an attempt that works on “Slip Away,” but doesn’t deliver as well on “The Good Life.”

Perhaps not surprisingly given that “Changes,” one of Bradley’s most successful tracks to date, was a cover of the Black Sabbath original, one of the tracks that works the best on this record is a Neil Young cover. Bradley’s soul affectations play particularly well on “Heart of Gold.” Backed by a horn section and a tight rhythm element, “Heart of Gold” emphasizes the best that Bradley had to offer.

Accompanied by the Menahan Street Band on the bulk of the record, Bradley’s James Brown-influenced soul is best highlighted by three tracks on Black Velvet. The first of these is “I Feel a Change,” a slow-cooked jam that grounds itself in simple soul instrumentals and gives Bradley a football field’s worth of space to sing, and boy does he use it all. Romantically hopeful in an “America at the end of the 1970s” kind of way, Bradley’s voice takes centre stage in a soul powerhouse of a track.

Given that the record was released posthumously, it seems especially appropriate that an electric re-recording of “Victim of Love” ought to be the closer on Black Velvet. On it, Bradley is back at home base: explicitly comfortable in screaming out his love for (we assume) a beloved. More than likely though, is that the track is as touching as it is because music for Bradley was, indeed, a labour of love.

A fitting farewell from an artist whose tenacity in commitment to his chosen medium is immediately apparent, Black Velvet will likely have you pining for further contributions to music from Bradley. Thankfully, he left behind a back-catalogue through which you might get to know him, or, if you’re already acquainted, greet him once more.

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