March 3rd, 2011
Title: I Know I’ve Been Changed
Artist: Aaron Neville
Label: EMI Gospel / Tell It Records
Catalog No.: 5099960651020
Release Date: November 9, 2010
To commemorate his 50th year making records, Aaron Neville chose a stripped-down setting for his third gospel album. He also made sure to include his longtime friend, collaborator and mentor Allen Toussaint, whose piano is present on every track. The result, produced by Joe Henry, is I Know I’ve Been Changed, a superb and consistently appealing work, Neville’s best in years. It stands strong and leads by example, moving but not preachy, blending traditional gospel songs with more contemporary renditions.
If Neville sounds pensive and world-weary at times, he’s had a hard decade. His house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and his wife of 47 years died in 2007. But this isn’t a morbid or resigned album, this is Neville returning to the simple and beautiful gospel music he heard from his grandmother’s radio in the 1950s.
For the five-day recording session last April, Henry assembled a simple band of Toussaint on piano backed by guitar, dobro, electric keyboards, bass and drums. No strings-heavy arrangements, and no chorus of backup singers; just Neville’s voice, Toussaint’s piano and low-key but on-point backing. The sound isn’t stereotypical gospel, it’s a New Orleans-flavored mix with a country feel. It sounds old-school but not antique. Neville’s vocals, with Toussaint’s piano there to back him up at every turn, surround and infuse the music, making each instrument’s part make sense and seem vital.
The album is sequenced a bit like a church service. Neville starts out a capella “standing before the microphone not as a musical legend, but as an ordinary man appealing to an eternal God,” as described in Monica A. Coates’ liner notes. He sings “Stand By Me,” not the Ben E. King soul hit but Charles A. Tindley’s traditional prayer-song. Then, “in keeping with the format of a traditional African-American church service, the opening prayer is followed by testimony service,” he and the band cover the Staples Singers’ “I Know I’ve Been Changed” followed by “I Done Made Up My Mind” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” which Neville notes was recorded by Sam Cooke. The album ends with another prayer-song, “There’s a God Somewhere.”
Other highlights include covers of Odetta’s “Meetin’ At The Building” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is.” But the album is so uniformly well-performed and consistent in its strong song choices and sequencing, it’s hard to single out any handful of songs. It’s all good, and Neville sounds comfortable with all the songs, like he knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. This is impressive considering the lineage of some songs, detailed well in Coates’ notes. Fifty years into a successful and varied music career, Neville is comfortable singing the songs of giants.
According to a December profile in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Neville has remarried and relocated to New York, and his solo career is under new management. This all has left Neville in a self-described “good place.” If this new album is musical evidence of his rebirth, may many more follow.
Reviewed by Tom Fine