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Charles Bradley, Stripped-Down Soul

March 15, 2011
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Charles-Bradleycred1B8488C_1Tucked away in the three-room warehouse studio known as Dunham Sound in the South Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, 62-year-old singer Charles Bradley and youngblood producer/guitarist Tommy Brenneck are playing back their cover version, still in progress, of Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold.” This one sounds funkier, darker, and somehow older than the original, and one glance at the half-inch reels rotating silently on the vintage Otari MX5050 8-track tape machine—the studio’s recording hub, along with an MCI JH 400B mixing desk—tells part of the story.

“I’m heavy into that late-’60s, early-’70s soul sound,” Brenneck says, citing influences ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Sly Stone to Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatqé, “but there isn’t a lot of studio trickery going on here. We spend so much more energy on the songwriting, arranging, and getting the performance right that I really don’t believe in the gear helping too much. As long as there’s a tape machine, it’s cool.”

High-octane performances are at the heart of Bradley’s long-overdue debut album, No Time For Dreaming (Dunham, 2011). Started in 2005 in Brenneck’s former bedroom studio, the album is a reverent throwback to the days of Muscle Shoals, Stax, and Studio One, when entire bands would cram into a room with just a couple of microphones—in this case, Brenneck’s own six-piece Menahan Street Band, with only a Shure SM54 and an SM57 going into a TASCAM 12-channel mixer—and lay down a barrage of rhythm tracks that were bounced, squeezed, and compressed to make room on the tape for the wailing lead and background vocals.

And Bradley does indeed wail, his gruff shouts on the title track conjuring a certain Godfather. “I always loved James Brown, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke,” he notes, his sandpapery voice redolent of a tough life tempered with faith and resilience. “When I’m not doing Charles Bradley, I normally end up doing James Brown, but thanks to Tommy, he pulled me away from that. He ain’t stopping me, but he wants me to be me, and I respect that.”

Smoldering embers like “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” the rump-shaking “Golden Rule,” and the after-hours serenade “Lovin’ You Baby” make No Time a pithy slab of introspective soul that promises to be this year’s sleeper hit from the Daptone camp. (Brenneck is a longtime member of the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band, and mixed the album with Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth.) More importantly, it’s evidence of how solid musicianship and the spontaneity of first and second takes can transcend the limitations of studio gear.

“Some of these tracks have the crunchiest organ and Rhodes sounds,” Brenneck explains, “because they were getting bounced with the guitar [a ’66 Harmony H74 through a ’68 Ampeg Gemini amp], and of course every time you bounce, you get another generation of tape compression. You don’t really need outboard gear when you do that, and you can end up with some really tough-sounding shit. Then you’ve got Bradley and the horn players just pinning the needles with tape distortion; there’s no way I’m gonna record it again if what they just did is magic. It’s all about commitment and hard work beforehand, and I think the sound just comes naturally as a result of that.”

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