The Holmes Brothers – Elementary Grace
Indeed, countless bands, both amateur and pro, have absorbed southern roots music in its myriad forms. Yet from Sherman’s liquid bottom and Popsy’s implacable backbeat, to Wendell’s funky right hand and the trio’s febrile vocal blend, few have created and sustained as distinctive a sound as the Holmes Brothers have. No matter how grounded they are in tradition, the trio never sounds like anyone so much as themselves — and almost always as if they’re reaching beyond themselves for something more, something deeper, than they’ve known or done before.
Doubtless some of this stems from not recording their debut album until the late 1980s, by which point they’d been playing together for nearly two decades and had forged a vision of their own. But for whatever reason, a singularity — or “freshness,” to use Sherman’s term — pervades the group’s music: The Holmes Brothers were neo-soul before neo-soul was cool.
You can hear their untrammeled imagination in the way they refashion the Sam & Dave hit “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” for three-part harmony; their aching, interpenetrating voices are the sound of empathy itself. This inventiveness is there, as well, in their hymnal reading of Tom Waits’ “Train Song”, especially the way Popsy’s vocal transforms the dissipation in Waits’ lyrics into a soul-cleansing prayer.
The Holmes Brothers’ originals are utterly of a piece with the material they interpret. Take the lightly juking “We Meet, We Part, We Remember” from their new album Simple Truths (released in January on Alligator Records). You’ll swear, on first blush, that you’re hearing a lost soul classic (a minor hit by the Purifys?), only to check the notes and discover that the publishing credit belongs to Wendell. Other times you won’t recognize a song previously defined by someone else until the Holmes Brothers head into the first chorus. Even something ingrained as indelibly into popular consciousness as the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” can seem new in the trio’s hands, which it does, to devastating effect, on 1997’s Promised Land, which was their fourth album for Rounder and fifth of their career.
This process of reinvention is writ large on Simple Truths, the Holmes Brothers’ second album for Alligator and their first with Grammy-winning producer Craig Street, who also has worked with Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Perhaps most notable is the way Street and the Holmes Brothers reimagine Gillian Welch & David Rawlings’ “Everything Is Free”, imbuing the duo’s dissonant meditation (on the impact of Napster and online file sharing?) with an uncanny mix of ethereality and weight that’s obliquely reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”.
Other epiphanies on the album include Wendell’s solo piano turn on Willie Nelson’s “Opportunity To Cry”, done as a declamatory R&B ballad, and a de-reggae-fied version of Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle”, rendered not as a ravaged outcry but as a ruminative blues lament. The Holmes Brothers’ churchy rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is another wonder, as is their funked-up take on “Shine”, based not on the Collective Soul original, but rather on the remake by Dolly Parton (a favorite on the group’s tour bus). Typically, the trio’s ebullient version sounds like neither.
Some might accuse the Holmes Brothers of jumping on the Norah Jones bandwagon by enlisting Street to produce an album consisting mainly of “covers,” but there’s just no evidence to support such a claim. To begin with, the project doesn’t betray the “it has to be slow and lazy to be soulful” fallacy of the current neo-jazz fad, a proclivity typified even by Street’s best work with Jones and Cassandra Wilson. More to the point, the Holmes Brothers have known Street at least since 1997, when they sang harmony on Jeb Loy Nichols’ Lover’s Knot.
“Craig has been a dear friend of ours for many years,” Wendell says. He’s quick to add, though, that the record they made together proved to be something of a departure for the group. If anything, it sounds looser than the Holmes Brothers’ previous albums, but also airier — even ambient — in spots in well.
“Craig was a very different kind of producer than we were used to,” Wendell goes on. “We had Joan Osborne for our last album [the gospel-steeped Speaking In Tongues], and Andy Breslau produced our albums for Rounder.”
“Simplicity, keeping it simple, was definitely the thing with this record,” Sherman says. “You know, not overproducing it, not that we’re known for overproducing things.”
“A lot of the new alternative-type records are being recorded very loosely,” Wendell says. “They’re not so choreographed, for lack of a better term.
“Unbeknownst to me,” he continues, “a lot of takes that I thought were scratch takes [on the record] were the real takes. I think that’s the way Craig intended it to be, and that’s what gives the record that live feeling. Some of the endings seem raggedy, but that’s the way we’re with it now.”
Enlisting the likes of Greg Leisz (on steel and other guitars) and Patrick Warren (on pump organ) to play on Simple Truths was also something of departure for the trio, who had done virtually all of the tracks on their previous recordings. “I didn’t play all the bass, my brother didn’t play all the guitar; it was different,” says Sherman. “I mean, we usually do all of it.”
Simple Truths is a markedly more country record than any of the Holmes Brothers’ other albums as well. The trio has included country material on other records, from the odd Hank Williams standby to Dallas Frazier’s “There’s Goes My Everything” (a smash for Opry star Jack Greene in 1966). And country has always been an element of their sound.
But this time there’s a preponderance of honky-tonk and twang-leaning singer-songwriter fare, including, in addition to the aforementioned numbers written by Nelson, Van Zandt, and Welch & Rawlings, updates of Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the Jim Reeves hit “He’ll Have To Go”. The difference, as is typically the case with the Holmes Brothers, is that little of this material sounds country, or at least nothing like what most of their predecessors or peers might perceive as country.