Set to hit the streets on August 7, The Nevilles’ latest is probably the most-anticipated album in recent New Orleans history. And this album was well worth the wait.
Personally, this reviewer was thrilled when Daniel Lanois decided to get involved with The Nevilles, and even happier when Yellow Moon hit the charts and gave the guys some of the commercial success they’ve deserved for such a long time.
But to tell you the truth, Yellow Moon didn’t ring true to me. Brother’s Keeper does.
I love this album. It’s pure Nevilles, the way we locals know them…sweatin’ at Tip’s, jooglin’ our buns to the beat, listening to Cyril’s musical penchant for Caribbean and African rhythms, being transmogrified from groove-things to more ethereal beings by Aaron’s angelic pipes, moving to Charles’ slithering sax arrangements. I’m glad to report that the fine, rich voice of Art plays a more prominent solo role in Brother’s Keeper too.
But it’s not just the musicianship that’s so great about this album. It’s the spirituality of the whole endeavor. Malcolm Burn seems to have brought out the best in the Nevilles this time ’round. Listening to the words of the tunes conveys how far the Nevilles have progressed in their struggle for integrity and maturity, their obvious concern for social reform and their deep spiritual love of life.
The album opens with “Brother Blood,” with music by the Nevilles and words by local jazz poet Ron Cuccia. Accented by Cyril’s African-oriented percussion and Charles’ sax refrain, the tune is probably the closest the brothers have ever come to collaborating on a statement of their collective spirit.
“Brother Jake” is nothing short of a killer in true New Orleans butt-shaking fashion. It’s bound to be a tremendous hit with live audiences, and features Cyril and Aaron on vocals. Words to the tune are from Aaron’s book of poems, along with the title tune and “Steer Me Right,” a spiritual with a Caribbean feel. “Fearless” is pure Aaron, for those of you who want to get lost in that voice.
My favorite track on this side is the dramatic and sobering “Sons and Daughters” (which is refrained on Side Two), a solo social commentary by Art with vocal support by Buffy Sainte-Marie. This song literally sent chills down my spine; Art’s voice is enveloping, sober, dark and richer than ever. Art’s also featured on the mellower, more melodic, but equally affecting Link Wray tune “Fallin’ Rain” that follows.
“Jab Love” is Cyril’s rhythmic collaboration with his brothers and Bono of U2, and expresses his social concerns and the responsibility of living in a political universe. “River of Life” begins with a classic Aaron yodel and segues into a driving New Orleans rock groove that aptly describes the Brothers’ philosophy of flowing with the river of life.
“Witness” is a love song inspired by the memory of the brothers’ late mother Amelia and paternal great-aunt, Virginia. Cyril uses as an inspirational source his musical heroes (Professor Longhair, James Black, James Booker), tempered by a march-tempo brass band sway and gospel feel with a real Al Green-type vocal and organ backup.
“My Brother’s Keeper” again features Aaron’s fluid croon, Cyril’s impassioned voice, Art’s rich pipes as well as Charles’ haunting sax. “Mystery Train” is the only relative disappointment on this album; it’s not up to the other cuts on the album. “Bird on a Wire” is the Dave Stewart-produced tune that’s the theme to the recently-released Goldie Hawn/Mel Gibson film of the same name, the most “commercial” sounding tune on the album.
This is certainly The Neville Brothers’ best to date. They personify the spirituality that envelopes New Orleans, the music that flows from our souls. Congratulations, guys, this is really a masterpiece.