Out Of Time (OOT) is a column that blithely ignores consumer dictates and release schedules. This time, Gary Steel looks at an album by a Kiwi soul legend that, when it was released in June last year, was savaged without mercy.
FOR THOSE TWO at the back, who missed out on the last 40 years of NZ music, Rick Bryant is considered a bona fide legend. To cut a long story short, he was a member of seminal Kiwi bands like Mammal, Rough Justice and later, the Windy City Strugglers, and his reputation for squeezing the requisite emotion out of a blue-eyed soul or R&B tune made him stand out in a scene not renowned for its Otis Reddings or Sam Cookes. He made it to the front cover of John Dix’s celebrated history of NZ music, Stranded In Paradise, but in recent years, became more renowned for his small-time dealings in marijuana, which resulted into time in jail a few years back.
After his release, my dear friend Steve Braunias wrote a great piece for Metro magazine. “His voice is his careful, meticulous art, a thing of rare and expressive beauty,” he wrote. I don’t know if Braunias saw that he’d been quoted thus in a press release in aid of the 2013 release by Rick Bryant & The Jive Bombers, The Black Soap From Monkeyburg, but it’s shows the way a line can come back to haunt you. He wasn’t to know that the album would be widely dissed, and that even a reviewer of Graham Reid’s repute would note that Bryant’s “voice is frequently a lesser and often shredded version of what it once was, his range fraying at the edges, and only rarely does he bring the fire or emotion that was a hallmark of his best work.”
I thought that it wasn’t so much Bryant’s voice that was the problem, but the way it was recorded. Perhaps a fairly contemporary producer like Ed Cake, despite his credentials for hip alternative rock/pop, didn’t really know how to capture Bryant at his throaty best. Too often, the voice sounds isolated, like it’s floating along on top of the music, when it should be integrated, and this very upfront mixing is what too often makes it sound laboured, or just not that great.
Having said that, The Black Soap From Monkeyburg isn’t as bad as some reviews suggest, and every now and then, Bryant’s voice does a convincing job. There are songs here where Bryant’s voice sounds great: gruff, a real man’s voice, with the kind of texture you might find in an old blues singer.
But the record’s greatest strength is Bryant’s often double-edged, slyly humorous lyrics. There’s a bit of George Melly or even Noel Coward in these songs, with lines like: “Allow me to propose an absurdity” and song titles like ‘Red Meat’ (“…and bad behaviour”). And he knows how to get real, as well, on a lyric like: “She said breaking your heart at your age… that’ll really hurt”.
Bryant has got some significant helping hands like drummer Ross Burge (Muttonbirds), guitarists Geoff Maddock (Goldenhorse) and Neil Watson (Tim Finn), but what ultimately works against it is the same thing that’s dogged his music in all his bands through the years: while it’s admirable that someone is determined to represent old-fashioned soul and R&B down here in the Antipodes, stylistically, there’s nothing new here, nothing to add to the genre.
If only Bryant’s music had the personality of his lyrics, and was willing to assert its idiosyncrasies, rather than slavishly follow old-time genres.
Some of the songs here remind me of the worst of Wellington bands from the early 1980s: tepid rock’n’soul arrangements, horrid female backing vocals, absurdly clichéd Stones-type riffs, pub rock, and a bit of New Orleans swing for good measure.
Since this album, which following a launch party seemed to just wither away, not to be mentioned in good company, Bryant’s 1970s group Rough Justice have managed a successful reformation tour, which I’m sure brought back a lot of great memories.
As for The Black Soap From Monkeyburg, it’s neither great, nor pitiably bad. It’s just a pity that few have mentioned its attributes. It’s a deeply flawed record, but it does show that a) the guy can growl and holler, and b) he’s a better lyric writer than most. All he needs, perhaps, is the right set of co-conspirators. GARY STEEL
Rick Bryant & The Jive Bombers – The Black Soap From Monkeyburg
Music Rating = 3/5
Sonic Rating = 3/5