The comical cover illustration of the grouchy gnome and the feisty badger pointing fingers at each other is practically an uncaptioned political cartoon. Left to interpretation, it could symbolize the partisan nature of politics these days, where things rarely get worked out between party lines. Conceptually inspired by Stevie Wonder’s 1980 Hotter Than July LP that advocated for a Dr. Martin Luther King national holiday, Denson has a few things to say as well. “Change My Way,” co-written with Anders Osborne and Ivan Neville, addresses the border war battle while “Can We Trade” calls for unity, a message also felt on the horn-strutting “Time to Pray.”
Here Denson favors subtly imparted messages that aren’t overbearing or heavy handed, though it’s still a groove-centric Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe record, the band’s first in five. With its hardened guitar funk edge, slippery, snaky horns, crazy rapid-fire beats, and Denson’s authoritative, occasionally abstract sax solos, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe comes at you full blast and never lets up on the throttle. The background vocals are also in full force here, sometimes ringing with gospel-ish overtones.
Besides Neville and Osborne’s involvement on two tracks (the instrumental blowout of “Millvale, PA” being the other), the guest list here includes guitarist Lukas Nelson and percussionist Mike Dillon. Denson’s bandmate from the Rolling Stones’ touring ensemble, Chuck Leavell, jams the ivories on “Smart Boy.” With its nonstop dance vibe and shift in songwriting, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe continues to expand its galaxy.