90% of Andre Williams‘ latest, Life, is stone-cold cool. Alive Records put the man with with a team of musicians who know how to rock that back-alley juke joint vibe. This is some after-hours shit. “Stuck In the Middle” and “Heels” groove and sway. Smooth. Not quite silky … more like a black cup of coffee, the way it warms with its heat and bites just enough at the end to let you know it’s working — not unlike a stiff shot of rye.
Yeah, I know Williams is 100% stone cold sober on Life, but these are the tales of a man who knows what it’s like to be blisteringly blasted past all sense. His voice shows its age, but the band knows how to work alongside it, and age brings knowledge and experience in this case, not wear and tear.
Because of that age, though, the album has a misstep when Williams revisits the song he made famous for the Five Du-Tones (and, later, Ray Charles), “Shake A Tail Feather.” Williams’ voice simply isn’t up to the challenge of trying to do upbeat material. Besides, that’s never been his bread and butter. The slowed-down, grindhouse speak-singing is what the man’s always done best.
“The Greasy Chicken” and “Jail Bait” weren’t soul shouters. Andre Williams’ best work has always sounded like the lascivious come-ons of a man on the corner, convincing you that what’s in the alley, behind the curtain, or up in that room is worth the risk. You might get shivved, cold-cocked, or otherwise rolled, but them’s the chances you take when you kowtow to the smooth patter of the man in the sharkskin suit.
It’s also disconcerting to revisit an artist’s past work when they’re this age. Johnny Cash, et al, worked best in their latter years when attacking material with which they weren’t familiar. Why throw an oldie into the mix when the other nine new compositions work so well? It just makes it seem like some sad attempt to attract fans based on the successes of others, rather than building on one’s own reputation.