Editors' pick

Otis Taylor's Contraband


Editorial Review

Album review: "Contraband"
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Most of the lyrics on the opening track to Otis Taylor's new album, "Contraband," consist of two lines, "The devil's gonna lie / When he needs to," repeated over and over. But Taylor milks a lot of meaning from that couplet by continually shifting its musical context.

At first, the devil enters amid wordless moans and ominous Mississippi blues guitar. But Taylor laughs in Satan's face and brings on a rock-and-roll band that blasts a warning to the citizenry with funky drums, organ and horns. By the end, the warning turns into a cry of triumph underlined by a gospel choir and a gospel steel guitarist (Chuck Campbell).

"The Devil's Gonna Lie" sets the template for an album that goes from quiet to loud, from scared to brave, from angry to satisfied by traveling the highway of African American music. Anne Harris's backwoods fiddle is juxtaposed against Ron Miles's jazz-club cornet; Jon Paul Johnson's screaming rock guitar against Faro Tolno's West African djembe.

Throughout it all, Taylor's captivating arpeggios on guitar and banjo underline his gruff baritone. He repeats his blues mantras to tell the stories of newly freed slaves, love-hungry men, a World War I veteran, spurned lovers and Jim Crow victims. Somehow it all comes together in a cohesive but utterly distinctive sound that gets the point across with a minimum of lyrics.