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Music Review: JJ Grey & Mofro Orange Blossoms

It's easy to form false impressions of places by basing them on the superficial information available today. From recollections of people's holidays in on line photo albums to what we see of them in television and movies, we're inundated with images designed to entice us to spend our tourist dollars. Air conditioned, air brushed, and sanitized they have as much to do with a place's reality as a centre-fold has to do with real people. In spite of being aware of this, I've never been able to picture Florida as anything more than a collection of motels and beaches, created by Disney World. If ever a state was made out of plastic it was Florida.

Which is of course completely unfair to everybody and everywhere in the state that have nothing to do with the designated tourist zones, but until recently I had no way of knowing that anything else existed. Although in my defence I would ask how many people in Florida think that because I live in Canada I speak French and have to wear snow-shoes year round. Anyway, about a month ago I was introduced to a slice of a much more realistic Florida by a group of musicians from Lochloosa in a band called JJ Grey & Mofro.

I had been sent copies of two of their earlier recordings, Country Ghetto and Lochloosa, on Alligator Records by their Canadian distributor. I was not only impressed with them musically, but by the way they were able bring their part of the world to life. Instead of the mawkish sentimentality or boasting that's earmarked a great deal of the regional music that I've previously heard, these folk created songs firmly rooted in reality that contained elements of such universality that even a city boy from the frozen north could understand what they were about.
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One of the things that had impressed me most about those two discs was how they had expanded their musical horizons from the first to the second. Not only did the music become more sophisticated, they also showed a willingness to experiment stylistically. So when I received an advance copy of their forthcoming release, Orange Blossoms due out on August 28th/08, I was interested to see what they had in store this time.

Well these guys don't fool around, and right from the opening track on the disc, the title song "Orange Blossoms", they show that they have no interest in standing still. For if on the last disc they dabbled in funk and R&B, they've taken the plunge here and committed themselves fully to creating a groove that will move you physically, emotionally and intellectually. That might sound like hyperbole, but these are songs that you can listen to just as easily as you can dance to them as the lyrics matter just as much as the tune, and the CD has been produced with that in mind. Not only are you able to hear the lyrics on all the songs, but they're also comprehensible, not buried under a whole bunch of effects so that you can't understand a word the vocalist is saying.

In "Orange Blossoms", JJ Grey plays with the idea of sense memory, the scent of orange blossoms that pervade the spring atmosphere in his part of Florida, in creating a song that starts off appearing to be a typical nostalgic look back at young love/lust. The music is a mixture of R&B and innocent guitar rock and roll that sounds like it could have been written in the early nineteen sixties. The combination of the lyrics and the music work so well together that the twist at the end of the song catches you completely off guard, successfully changing the mood and the implications of the tune.

Track two, "The Devil You Know" moves into the realm of hard funk, complete with horns punctuating the beat and giving it a harder edge then the opener. Where the horns on "Orange Blossoms" added a layer of sweetness, here they give the tune the dangerous feel needed for a funk tune to really find its feet. When coupled with the background vocals, and the tight playing of the rest of the band, "The Devil You Know", has funk classic written all over it.

I have to admit to some qualms about the fact that they listed strings among the instruments used on the disc. Too many time strings have been the kiss of death for many a good band as they turn songs into clich├ęs. "She Don't Know", track four on the disc, is the first time that the strings make themselves really known and they are used in just the right way to make the song that much stronger. The tiny bit of soaring under the vocals, gives way to some really nice punctuation much like the horns have been used on the funkier numbers.
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Unlike other groups that use strings in order to prove their emotional authenticity, Mofro don't need the props as they've already established those credentials. So when they use strings it's for what they can bring to a song musically, not how they can be used to manipulate the listeners. In fact the way they are used in "She Don't Know" almost works to push you away from an emotional reaction as they insert breaks into the flow of the other instruments. What was a simple R&B tune is made complicated and brooding by the presence of strings, instead of schmaltzy and vapid.

Something that happened on this disc that didn't on the previous ones for me, was that I really became aware of JJ Grey's singing voice. To be honest I'm not sure how I could have missed out on it before as its really quite amazing. It's not often you hear somebody with a genuinely soulful voice, meaning that his voice is full of soul, anymore. There aren't many people out there who can sing with the type of honesty that he brings to all of his songs, and on this disc it really comes through. I don't mean that he's some brooding and intense guy or some such shit like that, because soulful doesn't have to equal drama queen like so many people think today.

Listen to the fun that Grey is having while singing "On Fire" and you'll see what I mean. You can't do that if you're going to get hung up on being melodramatic over nothing. Being a soulful singer means you sing every song with everything you've got so nothing is left over when the song is done. When you listen to Grey sing, no matter what the song is about, you know that he's not held back, and the song is only over because he's got nothing more to add.

When I first heard JJ Grey & Mofro what caught my attention was the way they had created a sound that reflected the part of the world they came from, and wrote songs that worked within that frame work. With each subsequent disc I've heard them expand on that base and branch out into new directions while still holding on to the core that made them distinct in the first place. Orange Blossoms, being released on August 26th/08 continues that process and shows them to be more than just a regional band. This is music that speaks to you no matter where you come from or where you've been.

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