Reviewed by Andy Langer, Fri., Oct. 1, 1999
Jellycream (RCA)First impressions aren't everything. In the past six years, Doyle Bramhall II has effectively shed the blues prodigy tag that his teenage association with Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds hung around his neck. In the process,the guitarist has also mastered the "creeper effect,"albums that sound infinitely better with time. Whereas 1993's Arc Angels still holds up as a simple, few-frills rock & roll album, 1996's Doyle Bramhall II remains remarkable because it's so clearly an Arc Angels backlash -- notable for its rich textures, retro-soul, and generally understated performances. With Jellycream, his second and most recent solo release, Bramhall positions himself musically right between his two previous sets. On what initially sounds like a middle-of-the-road cop-out, Bramhall turns out to be neither a guitar hero nor a run-of-the-mill songwriter. And therein lies what ultimately makes Jellycream so compelling on repeat listens: Brahmall's ambitious effort to ride both sides of the fence. The result is an album that works on two levels: as a collection of radio-ready singles ("I Wanna Be," "Snakecharmer"), and as a set every bit as modern, dramatic, and highly textured as producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Soul Coughing) has worked on yet. While Bramhall's guitar playing is as tasteful and practical as ever, his biggest leaps are vocally -- there's barely a trace of his previously trademark mumble. Unfortunately, this occasionally shifts too much emphasis onto Bramhall's lyrical inadequacies (i.e. predictable rhymes, space-filling clauses), but while time may never heal a tune as painfully underwritten as "Marry You," an engagement ring jingle featuring the line "Come in the back of my '57 -- let me show you the way to heaven," damn if it isn't funky. In fact, the bulk of Jellycream is so sneaky and challenging, Bramhall's few missteps are easily forgiven. Is the rest complex enough to hold up five years from now? Probably. Is an album that takes five or six listens to impact worthy of your time? When you consider how easy it could have been for Brahmall to deliver a straight blues album or Lenny Kravitz-style rock yawner, the answer is "definitely."