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Charles Bradley – Black Velvet

As Daptone Records and the wider music community was left reeling with the loss of the inimitable Sharon Jones in 2016, Charles Bradley’s passing 10 months later merely exacerbated the vacuum affecting the funk and soul genre. Now, more than a year later, with their loss still felt, Daptone are celebrating The Screaming Eagle of Soul with the posthumous release of his conclusive album – in the same week that would have marked his 70th birthday. This final oeuvre serves as a powerful presentation of his range and flare, representing a poignant final love letter to the fans and influences of Bradley’s music.

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Bradley first met Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth after being convinced by a friend to go knock on the door of his basement apartment in Williamsburg, New York. “I heard you were looking for a singer,” he reportedly said. Bradley was performing under the ‘Black Velvet’ moniker at the time, impersonating his idol James Brown. A decade later in 2011, Bradley would release his stunning debut album, No Time For Dreaming. With producer and friend Tom Brenneck, three critically acclaimed releases later saw the contemporary funk and soul scene revitalised. It’s from the sessions for these albums that this final record is formed. What results is a raw collection of originals, covers and re-recordings that capture the tenderness, vulnerability, truth and fervour of an artist lost in his prime.

Bradley’s first cries are as warmly familiar as the upbeat 60s funk of opener “Can’t Fight the Feeling”. A preamble of crisp cymbals and delayed guitar teases before horns wash over the listener with a wave of nostalgia. Bradley implores “don’t listen to everybody, baby, listen to your heart,” sinking us deeper into the levity and sheer goodwill of his music. Where its driving, grainy rhythm invokes a summer strut through the streets of Brooklyn, the tantalising trumpets of follow up “Luv Jones” beckon the dancefloor. But however smooth and seductive LaRose Jackson’s vocal performance is, the absence of Bradley for the majority of the song – save for four lines, is a sharp reminder that he is no longer with us. Despite quivering keys hiding deep in the verses and horn hooks used with a grandeur equal to Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby”, the repetitive nature of the arrangement ultimately results in one of the weaker songs presented here.

“I Feel a Change” will remind listeners of his Black Sabbath cover “Changes” – both in title and through the use of its deep jam of luscious keys, slinky bass and razor-sharp guitar licks. Recording imperfections like snares cutting into the reverbed vocals prove more strength than weakness, adding an edge to the mix to compliment Bradley’s style. Its explosive conclusion erupts, drawing you into the maelstrom of Bradley’s anguish and despair; “don’t take my heart, if you don’t mean it”.

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A rendition of Rodriguez’s “Slip Away” stands out as evidence of a special, indefinable something. Listening with the knowledge of his passing only underscores the deep sorrow in the lyricism reflecting his struggles with life and love; “I’m tired of lying, I’m sick of trying, cos I’m losin’ who I really am”. The bossa nova rhythm permits guitars to bend and trumpets swell in a chorus that shimmers and shines, arresting the listener with a heartrending appreciation for who and what we’ve lost. The downtempo Menahan Street Band instrumental “Black Velvet” follows up, again underscoring the vocalist’s absence. Heavy vibrato garnishes the smooth arpeggiated guitar as a standard three chord progression blossoms with trumpets and sax full of yearning.

Nirvana’s “Stay Away” is an unexpected inclusion, far slower and calculated than its original. Like a cut from a James Brown record that never was, the fuzzed-up guitar stalks a menacing bass groove. Bradley’s screams and growls are potent amidst the collision of keys and beats manifesting in the final build. There’s just as much artistic freedom with the funky rendition of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. Rhythms pulse and pause, toying with time over staccato strums and busy bass.

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The psychedelic slow burner “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” sadly lacks any real drive or direction. A drum machine gives the track a contemporary twist while jangly guitars and synths flitter in and out of the mix, orbiting Bradley’s free-flowing sermonising; “memories are the corners of my mind, misty coloured water, of the way we were”. The mood then pivots into the swinging 70s funk of “Fly Little Girl”. Harnessing all the charm of The Temptations’ “My Girl”, it’s as empowering as it is infectious. With a chorus that burns into the memory as strong as any funk tune from yesteryear, the keyboard and guitar solos are cherries atop a rollicking number.

“Victim of Love” closes things with a full-band version of an acoustic number from his second studio release of the same name. Bradley’s opening line is simply arresting, sung with an earnestness and transparency, bearing the scars of a man who performed the night of his mother’s passing. The arrangement begins sparse before trumpets, cymbals and backing vocals all unite with the Eagle’s squeals, the descending pre-chorus melting each time it passes. His final incantations are fitting for one bearing his heart upon his sleeve; “they gonna take me to my grave, I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you”.

Charles Bradley’s final frontier stands as one of his most moving releases. While undoubtedly disjointed at times, to cast aside this collection of session songs as hastily cobbled together would be to ignore the musicianship, the acutely articulated 60s-70s aesthetic and catchy songwriting. Moreover, with his passing forever at the forefront of the listener’s mind, Bradley’s lyrics weigh heavier and squeals cut deeper. Whilst a heart-wrenching reminder of his conclusive contribution to contemporary soul’s fabric, it closes a career on a high note.