Charles Bradley strives and strains his avuncular little vocal fibers for the extra mile to the extra mile. Where he could reiterate his mid-range register in the opening bars of “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” he leaps from the mere stratosphere to the moon as he sings “Nobody want to take the blame / Don’t tell me how to live my life / When you never felt the pain.” His Menahan Street Band answers his pile-driving calls with congregation-quaking responses and orbits around his expressive vocals with a rousing brass section and multihued bass. And if that’s not endearing enough, he’s an old man from Brooklyn who trudged through a seemingly hopeless childhood and had to wait 40 years to get his break in the music industry. Oh, and he doesn’t make shitty, pompous indie music like all his neighbors.
Like the aforementioned pompous indie bands channel a putrid concoction of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective (who, as it happens, are not even from Brooklyn), Bradley channels none other than the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. But there is more merit to his blatant Brown impersonation than there is to copycatting for profit; Bradley is a soul revivalist. He’s not only old-school, but shamelessly old-school. And not just that, but, at 62, he’s authentic. His spoken-word opening verse in “The Telephone Song” hugs so surely to his mighty bird-of-prey caw that Bradley makes Flight of the Conchords look like a couple of grade-A jamoke assholes for their parodical “Business Time.” The track opens to the sound of a telephone dial turning (yes, turning) as Bradley mellifluously whispers, “Remember that time when we was just layin’ down together, side-by-side, and your love just hit me so strong…I love you baby, just come home, it can’t be this way no mo’.”
Bradley has mastered the James Brown shtick right down to the physics-scoffing perm, but he makes his mark as a songwriter within those parameters with his autobiographical numbers like “Why Is It So Hard?” and “Heartaches and Pain.” The lyrics in the former are about as cryptic as a Paul Pierce tweet (“It’s been a pleasure to bring my talents to South Beach”…anybody?) as Bradley sings “I was born in Gainsville, Florida / I traveled far and wide / Then I moved to Brooklyn, New York / I had hard times, but sometimes I hold on.” Similarly, the latter plods along like a lazy July afternoon as Bradley croaks, “A friend grabbed my shoulder / And he said these words to me / Life is full of sorrow / So I have to tell you this / Your brother is gone” out in front of the band’s ironically cheery demeanor.
But the superb Menagan Street Band is sure to lift at least a little of the spotlight from the flamboyant Bradley. The brazen horn section launches “Golden Rule” into the sun the same was Allen Toussant’s brass menagerie lifted much of The Band’s later material from the depths of obscurity. “Lovin’ You Baby” is a champion of electric soul guitar, a twinkling ode to Bradley’s special woman and America’s precious six-stringed sacred harp simultaneously. “I Believe In Your Love” extrapolates that motif as the guitar and bass pace around each other until they’re both dizzy enough to fall out and let the horns and chorus vocals take the floor.
No Time For Dreaming hurls even us 90s kids into a state of nostalgia for the 70s, but that’s not to say it sounds lifted from a time capsule. The production is clean and tastefully spare but never overproduced or intentionally lo-fi. The young band’s new-age take on soul makes Bradley’s Brown flashback all the more genuine, and his effortless vocal acrobatics show the agility of a man one-third his age. It might be wrong to call Bradley a soul revivalist; as far as he’s concerned, it never went anywhere. This is no neo-soul…this is the real thing.