Although he is frequently classified as a blues singer/songwriter, Eric Bibb draws most heavily from the music of black churches on his latest release, Get Onboard. Whereas only one of its songs is cast in a standard twelve-bar blues form, the album is permeated by the sounds of gospel and of spirituals. Many of the songs’ lyrics are of religious or spiritual themes, although the music on Get Onboard ranges in character from the boldly defiant to the quirky and humorous.
To my ears, Get Onboard seems uneven; a certain flatness or lack of energy characterizes several of its songs, making them unable to sustain repeated hearings. This flatness is most apparent on the album’s heavier tracks—especially its opener, “Spirit I Am.” Replete with several backing vocalists, this song aspires to convey the impression of a congregation en masse as it repeatedly intones the phrase, “I live for the Spirit I am.” But the voices blend a little too smoothly for my taste; greater distinction among the backing vocalists would have been more powerful. Additionally, Bibb’s delivery of the song’s verses is not sufficiently emotional.
Bibb shines more on songs depicting humility and supplication, as well as on the album’s more humorous numbers. “If Our Hearts Ain’t In It” (which features Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar) describes feelings of religious ambivalence: one can go through the motions of religion—“Go to church seven days a week / Read the Bible three hours a day”—without actually experiencing any religious fervor of one’s own—“If our hearts ain’t in it / Ain’t nothing much is gonna change.” Bibb’s voice sounds weak and wavering in this song, fitting the mood of its lyrics; the wandering quality of the harmonies also helps the ambivalence.
“Conversation,” a duet with Ruthie Foster, is cute. The only twelve-bar blues song on the album, it offers a humorous musical setting of a conversation between a couple who don’t spend enough time together:
You’re workin’ all the time
What about you an’ me?
Your’re workin’ all the time
Honey, what about you an’ me?
Aw, baby, baby, baby,
I just miss your company.
The somewhat jaunty and unpredictable musical accompaniment lends a touch of irony to the ostensible love duet.
Despite its occasional winners, Get Onboard suffers greatly from the aforementioned lack of zeal, and I cannot give it my fullest recommendation. I would, nevertheless, like to note how well produced the album is; many of its songs feature large instrumental ensembles, but their sound is never homogenized and the individual instruments can be heard distinctly.
Posted by John Reef
Promotional video showing the making of Get Onboard, courtesy of Telarc: