Mofro’s sizzling new CD – their first on Alligator Records – goes deep-fried with a panful of swampy blues and Stax-Volt soul. JJ Grey’s direct, concise songwriting has sharpened, while the band’s incantatory live shows translate better to disc here than on past recordings. The triumphant result strengthens Mofro’s position as the most important rock force to come out of the deep South in a while – maybe since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Many bands think they can make magical songs out of repetitive grooves; few can. But Mofro comes out swinging with the midtempo rocker “War.” Muscling through any and all distractions with its borrowed 1960s sounds, it pounds out a twenty-first century message: “There’s a war going on/And the ones about to die are safe at home/There’s a war going on/And the world stops feeling now.” Grey doesn’t have to preach about the destruction of the environment and the degradation of a people’s soul, however much those issues may weigh on him. It’s all there in a plain image and a single insistent riff.
The intensity actually mounts with a shift to a more personal theme in the deliberately paced “Circles.” Pushed along by Grey’s rolling electric piano, the song builds to a chorus that hangs on one desperately tense, off-rhythm, one-note melody: “There’s no way I can change the past or your pain/I don’t want to fight walking in circles.” The bitter narrator of the title track doesn’t want any handouts or “Hollywood words”; “The only voice that speaks for me speaks from this clay.” And the slow-building, persistent guitar and harmonica almost sound like clay.
The delusional, drug-addled figure in “Tragic” (“Are those FBI agents still hiding in his pine trees?”) isn’t so different from the protagonist of “By My Side,” where Grey uses his most powerfully soulful singing to declare humbly, “Now you know just how feeble/and how weak a man can be.” The slow, tribal-sounding “On Palastine” – about rapacious, early twentieth century timber barons – evokes a violent past with place names and earthen imagery, musically akin to Peter Matthiessen’s Florida novels. The mostly instrumental “Footsteps” is like a lost Doors jam with shades of Fleetwood Mac.
The blues-rock caterwaul of “Turpentine” takes you “deep in the piney woods” both in its lyrics and its oppressive rhythm, and then, just when you’re starting to think that Grey and Co. might have milked all they can out of simple grooves, along comes a complete change of pace, a soul ballad about love called “A Woman.” (Grey wrote it for Cassandra Wilson but she didn’t record it.) Then Grey shows off his vocal versatility by channeling Dr. John in “Mississippi” and Sam Cooke in “The Sun Is Shining Down.” The latter, characteristically, sets his most optimistic lyrics to slow, somber music that ramps up into a triumphant gospel chorus. In the epilogic “Goodbye” Grey breaks out a melancholy, distant falsetto for an appropriately musing signoff.
Among the excellent musicians who support Grey’s multi-instrumental talents, drummer George Sluppick deserves special mention for his easy, deep-pocketed beats. But JJ Grey is the man of the hour.