The Neville Brothers take a back seat to no one when it comes to reflecting New Orleans' diversity of influences and wealth of talent. Their sound is a stew of rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, gospel, funk, soul, pop and Mardi gras Indian rhythms. Individually, the Nevilles have recorded some fine music--including Aaron Neville's timeless, trembling love song "Tell It Like It Is," and Art Neville's precision keyboard grooves with the influentially funky Meters. But their most soulful sessions come from their ensemble work, beginning in 1976 with the release of Wild Tchoupitoulas. The Brothers' musical gumbo of Cajun styles shows through on every record, and their latest Brother's Keeper is another utterly eclectic collection of songs. Last year's Yellow Moon may have won critical kudos and even a Grammy award, but in comparison, Keeper is just as good, if not better, and also considerably more cohesive. Where the Bros shifted quite abruptly from upbeat R&B to slow and soulful ballads to rap on Moon, the changes are smoother and more subtle on Keeper.
Keeper's lyrics portray a heartfelt concern for peace and social equality. On "Sons and Daughters," Art Neville takes a sober look at America's blind ignorance toward injustice. He describes the war on drugs as a two-edged sword that is also cutting away personal freedoms. He tells how the media distracts from real problems while creating a new face to hate every week, like the Ayatollah Khomeini or Manuel Noriega. Art points to these problems and calls for an end to complacency: "Don't deny our flesh and blood/And don't forsake our sons and daughters."
Where Art sings with a deep, resonant and assertive tone, brother Aaron provides contrast with a sweet and fluid vibrato that adds a special glow to any song he sings--that is, when the tune isn't too syrupy or poppy. This was one of the main reasons for the failure of 1988's Uptown. Not that the vocals weren't beautiful, but when combined with too-funky music and heavy-handed production, the songs themselves approached the vapidity of disco.
Considering Aaron's latest work with Linda Ronstadt, one might expect Keeper to also walk a little on the soft side. But surprisingly, the album is only rarely too mellow, even when the Nevilles cross over into gospel with songs like "Steer Me Right (Sweet Jesus)" and the Neville-ized reggae of "Jah Love." When the group raises its voice to heaven, it still remembers the problems of the earth with a passion. Between choruses of "Steer me right, sweet Jesus," the Nevilles sing, "My Uncle Jolly used to tell me/Son don't waste your youth/Eyes blinded by fear and hatred/Will never ever see the truth."
Though the Nevilles are proficient at a wide variety of styles, Aaron and his kin are at their best with the New Orleans funk of "River of Life" and "Brother Jake." On "River of Life," the Bros introduce a bit of Cajun psychedelia, along with harmonies so melodious, they prove beyond any doubt that the Nevilles share genes. "Brother Jake," the story of a man on the run, also rocks with the Bros' inimitable harmony.
With Aaron, Art, Charles, Cyril and their regular band at the nucleus, there's also a staggering number of other musicians and vocalists who contributed their talents to Keeper. Besides relatives Ivan and Gaynielle Neville, there are at least twenty other people rocking down with the Bros here. Among those listed on the cover credits are Buffy St. Marie, who echoes Art's demand for awakening on "Sons and Daughters," and Linda Ronstadt, who accents Aaron's singing on "Fearless." U2's Bono even gets a nod for collaborating with Cyril on the lyrics to "Jah Love."
The words to "Brother Blood" could be a recipe for the Neville sound: "I've got the drums of the jungle, drums of the street/Drums of the Indian chief/I've got the fire of the gospel, a river of blues/And I got the soul of belief."
But even with so many voices and instruments, Keeper is impressively well defined and uncluttered. Sticking with a "less is more" philosophy, unobtrusive background rhythms and melodies allow the Nevilles' talents to ring out in their tonal totalities. From Cyril's sophisticated percussion grooves to Charles' sexy saxophone to Art's sonorous phrasing to Aaron's sweet and savory vocals, every nuance has room to make a statement.
The Neville Brothers will perform at ASU Activity Center on Wednesday, September 26, with Linda Ronstadt. Showtime is 8 p.m.
When the group raises its voice to heaven, it still remembers the problems of the earth with a passion.
Considering Aaron Neville's latest work with Linda Ronstadt, one might expect Keeper to walk a little on the soft side.