The Holmes Brothers
If the world were fair, that is if breadth and depth of talent were the sole reasons for recognition and success then the Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise divorce would be nothing more than a legal notice in the weekly Harlan County newspaper. Or if not Harlan County, then some such town where Kidman would be a waitress in the café out on the highway and Cruise would be the janitor at the High School. The very same High School in which Brittany Spears and all the 'N SYNC boys would be taking 12th grade over again. More importantly, in this better world, Speaking In Tongues, the latest album by the Holmes Brothers would sell 25,000,000 copies.
In case you need an introduction, the Holmes Brothers are Wendell Holmes, a slash and burn rhythm guitarist, his brother Sherman who plays the bass as if he were the pacemaker for planet earth, and Willie "Popsy" Dixon, a John Henry on the drums. Vocals are shared, with each having a distinctive lead. They've been playing together for decades, with 5 previous albums in the last ten years, all on Rounder Records. Each of their previous works are excellent, but this latest one is their finest.
Perhaps one reason for the step forward is producer Joan Osborne. Not, as you might expect, because she lends a commercial touch. In fact quite the opposite. First, along with Catherine Russell and Maydie Miles she is part of The Precious Three, a killer backing vocal group. They add an earthly - at time sassy and nasty and at times reverent - call and response. Second, the recording she has produced is precise but not fussy, detailed but cohesive, and live but most certainly clear. No tricks, commercial or other, just the Holmes, the Precious Three and a couple of backing musicians. In short, just what these talented gentlemen deserve.
As for the music, this is sound of real working musicians, not of "recording artists". It is the sound of men who put food on the table and a roof over their head by what they do every day and every night. It's the sound of belief, power and especially of commitment. It's the sound of three righteous but not holy men singing the blues with soul and a bit of gospel. The opening track, a cover of Ben Harper's Homeless Child, sets the tone. With Popsy setting a volcanic beat and an amazing harmonica accompaniment by Andy Breslau, they conquer both booty and soul in the first thirty seconds. From there the album moves from a mostly acoustic version of another Harper tune, I Shall Not Walk Alone, to a perfect funk/gospel cover of the Sister Rosetta Tharpe classic Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down, they take on a three quarter speed re-working of the Gamble and Huff tune Love Train. Add a power blues version of Dylan's Man Of Peace, four originals, and a couple of traditionals including the closing country-gospel take on Farther Along. Whether song by song or as a complete work, Speaking In Tongues, is as perfect an album as I have heard in years. Help set the world right, buy a couple of copies, one for yourself and one for someone you love.