Otis Taylor's latest, "Respect The Dead," is unquestionably an important work, a near-masterpiece of storytelling in the quest for social justice; its unrelenting forays into the very worst that humanity is capable of, however, render it a difficult listen indeed.
Otis' debut for NorthernBlues, "White African" (his third release overall) garnered almost unanimous acclaim, and justly so; its tales of murder, racism, suffering and sorrow cast a harsh and unflinching light on issues most would choose to either ignore or hide. "Respect The Dead" is very much a continuation, another twelve chapters in which Otis mercilessly probes the dark underbelly of society and the blackest depths of the soul.
Once again Otis, who plays guitar, banjo (electric and acoustic), mandolin and harmonica, is joined by Producer Kenny Passarelli on bass and keys, with Eddie Turner contributing strange, almost otherworldly guitar; Otis' daughter Cassie provides backup vocals. Together they create weird, propulsive rhythms, alternately driving and droning. At times more musical backdrop than music itself, it lends everything a spooky quality, as though Otis really were chased by the ghosts he sings about. Evocative and atmospheric, it proves the perfect canvas for Otis' gruff vocals. There, too, Otis is unlike anyone else . . . not so much singing as reciting his lyrics, at times howling in anguish, at others whispering with chilling despair.
With song titles like the leadoff "Ten Million Slaves," it's obvious this isn't a party disc. Subjects range from slavery, oppression, and murder to love gone wrong. (In Otis' world, even love is subject to the sheer enormity of the world's indifference, and is never enough). Elsewhere there's the crushing weight of systemic racism, the sheer desperation born of poverty and hunger, harsh and violent death. Frankly it would all be too much if it weren't for a sense that somehow there's still hope. To be sure, you won't find it in the lyrics themselves . . . but Otis' outrage is a form of hope in itself, that someday stories like these needn't be told but as ancient history.
Would I recommend "Respect The Dead?" Without hesitation, but with the caveat that buyers are acquiring a work neither easy nor fun, one that's more . . . well, more important than it is entertaining. But if you take the time to listen, it'll change you. Hopefully for the better. It's that powerful.
Kudos to NorthernBlues for their bravery in providing a forum for Otis Taylor's vision, as disturbing as that may be . . . it's reaffirming to realize there are those who still care deeply about music for reasons greater than power and profit!
NorthernBlues Music, Inc.
225 Sterling Road, Unit 19, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6R 2B2
Web : www.northernblues.com
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