In the age of excess, of “biggie size it” and gas guzzling SUVs, of self-centered cell phone users endangering our lives at every other turn, and of corporate crime fueled by greed driving Americans to the poor house, in an age when our recording artists are forced to give us seventy or more minutes of music even when they are incapable, one cannot help but wonder if Delbert McClinton’s 12-song follow up to 2001’s successful Nothing Personal is a small gift from above. His music has been categorized as blues, rhythm and blues, blue-eyed soul, rock ‘n’ roll and country. It’s all of the above and so much wonderfully less. Room to Breathe proves it.
The songs recorded here are a funky, down home, bluesy reminder of that other side of America, that side the world has come to know and love, that understated, uncomplicated, self-effacing and rugged side where people say what they mean and mean what they say and don’t feel compelled to say it more than once. There is no flashy musicianship on Room to Breathe, no filler songs. Every note on this album serves a purpose, even when the song is mediocre, which thankfully doesn’t happen often.
The opening track, “Same Kind of Crazy”, is one of the highlights. It’s a medium-tempo blues rocker with an intro that sounds a heck of a lot like the intro to the Beatles’ “Get Back” from their Let It Be album. Is it intentional? If so, it makes perfect sense, because this is precisely what McClinton does on this album, gets back to the basics. It’s a fun lyric and a funky groove and sets the proper pace and tone for what follows. Kevin McKendree plays a kicking, whirring and distorted Hammond B3 solo — one of many to come — that’d make the great Jimmy Smith giggle.
other highlight on the album is “Lone Star Blues”, a comical country blues McClinton penned with co-producer and long time associate Gary Nichols. McClinton refers to this one as a “gang sang”. The background chorus includes such notables as Marcia Ball, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Emmy Lou Harris, and many others.
Of course the danger with American simplicity is that sometimes it can get downright Gomer Pile-ish. McClinton wrote or co-wrote every song on Room to Breathe, and the list of co-writers is impressive: Gary Nicholson, J. Fred Knobloch, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s band, Al Anderson, formerly of NRBQ, Billy Lawson and Kim Wilson. All collaborations hit the mark but two, both ballads, “Everything I Know About the Blues” and “Don’t Want to Love You”. The lyrics are trite and clichéd. The string arrangements on both songs are beautiful in structure and performance, but sadly seem wasted. The songs do serve a purpose, though, by coming at the exact moment the listener needs a breather from the upbeat, bluesier tracks.
“Everything I Know about the Blues” is thankfully followed by “Blues about You Baby”, a Jerry Lee Lewis styled tune, written with Al Anderson. All the requisite and frantic piano licks are here, played once again by the inimitable Kevin McKendree.
McClinton explores the darker side of blues with tracks like “Jungle Room”, a tribute to late nightclubs found in the back alleys of urban America, and “The Rub”, a murder story song. On “Jungle Room”, he sings “Ain’t no number, ain’t no sign / They’ll let you in if you knock three times / Find you a spot where you can lick your wound s/ They keep it cool at the Jungle Room”.
Throughout Room to Breathe, the swampy and sultry guitar riffs, played by Todd Sharp and Bill Campbell, hang down from most arrangements like Spanish moss from an old sycamore, giving color and character to the scene and keeping things cool when they threaten to overheat or get “biggie sized”.