Cyril Neville is at once among the best-known and most-overlooked musicians in town. As a Neville Brother and former Meter, he’s automatic royalty, but his long catalogue of solo albums—some released on small labels, some simply burned onto CDR and available for a few months—has largely flown under the radar. He’s devoted albums to whatever style was grabbing him at the time—a vintage New Orleans R&B album, an old-school funk album, a modern R&B set and most recently (2009’s Brand New Blues) a blues album. Much like the Brothers, who never made two studio albums that sounded alike, Cyril’s talent proved a tough one to rein in.
Magic Honey is another blues-based album, but that’s where the similarity ends: Instead of the organic Chicago blues on Brand New, this is full-throttle, electric blues-rock, produced to a sheen by Prince associate David Z., and likely tailored to the younger fans who came aboard for Royal Southern Brotherhood (whose guitarist Mike Zito guests here). It sounds remarkably commercial for a Neville album and, frankly, it’s about time he really went for it. He doesn’t soft-pedal his messages (there are songs here about lingering racism, plus the self-explanatory “Money and Oil”), so why not put them on an album that mainstream audiences might get into?
Part of Magic Honey’s success hinges on his choice of band: Lead guitarist Cranston Clements is no mindless shredder; even when he plays heavy he carries along his melodic sense. Likewise, “Mean” Willie Green is the drummer, which means the drums here—heavy on the backbeat and mixed right upfront—still manage to swing. Neville’s vocals have never lacked swagger, but here they have an arena-rock power that he’s seldom reached for in the past. So it makes sense that the track “Working Man” isn’t the one Mike Bloomfield wrote and Otis Rush recorded (as the cover credits have it), but the one by those venerable bluesmen, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. And the sound of New Orleans funkateers doing a Rush song—and doing it damn well—is about as colorblind as music gets.
Neville doesn’t leave New Orleans behind on this disc: Allen Toussaint guests on two tracks, one of which is a Dr. John obscurity on which Mac also plays. But overall, this album is one of his least N.O.-centric. It’s one of those cases where leaving the comfort zone pays off, even a comfort zone as wide-ranging as the one Cyril’s got.