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Van Gordon Martin Band | Take the High Road

album review by John Powell

Van Gordon Martin Band | Take the High Road

Since leaving Spiritual Rez, Van Gordon Martin’s first solo record, No Limit to Love, was under his name, whereas the follow-up, Take the High Road, is under the Van Gordon Martin Band. This may, in many ways, sum up the evolution Van’s gone through, as the first record was clearly a marking of Self: literally half super funk, have roots reggae- both heavy influences on Van.

 

Take the High Road is instead a free-flowing record, certainly drawing from funk and reggae, but the lines have grayed. The overall vibe is les enclosed, follows fewer rules. The “band” is really a collective, as many musicians fill the record and he tours with a batch of musicians as well. All can be categorized under a wider northeast family: Nate Edgar of John Brown’s Body, Justin Perkins of Toubab Krewe, reps from The Slip, and a bunch of others.

This record, therefore, is tight. And loose. They synch so well that they can play around, creating great energy. The all-star cast takes on Van’s great songwriting. Sure, he doesn’t have the best voice in the grand scheme of voices, but it is distinct and low in a sexy seducer kind of way. He pushes his reach now. He still takes on horny love, God (in whatever spiritual form that may be), and having a good time. His songwriting is serious, though. He means business. Horns, funky bass, and Van’s signature guitar wailing, make up the songs’ connecting threads.

“Home” is a relatively quiet opener, and nothing like Van’s done before. He uses great female backing vocals throughout the album, but they really shine here. “I’m locked away,” Van sings. “The only place for me: home.” This marks the man’s progression, no longer trying to find his feet as a frontman and band leader, but now seasoned and surefooted.

The cosmic “Dreams” takes us off in slippery world beat meander. “Surrender” blends 70’s soul ala Shaft with afrobeat layering. “I Never Knew” has a supremely summery, near Jack Johnson vibe. All the while Van is gracious, humble, and cherishing his time.

On the title track, a roots reggae track, Van warbles, “I n I have the torch/ and it’s burning bright/ in the name of the most high, JAH.” So, as experimental as Van gets, it’s in the roots reggae moments that his truest nature comes out. This causes a balance on the album, between focused message music and more fun-time music. It's interesting to have an album that can feel utterly roots reggae driven paired with roller coaster funk and saucy pop.

Whatever road he walks down, Van and his band have a party album with some songs mixed so well that you want to blow your speakers out listening to it. He loves his bass! It’s nice to not see a sophomore slump. In fact, this album is better than his last. At this rate, Van’s entering the cannon of northeast legends, the kind of guy that masters his guitar, writes good songs, knows everyone, has played with everyone, and walks away with no ego; only more reason to keep playing.

Bottom line: A very good album of reggae, funk, soul, and good vibes. Perfect for summer.

 

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