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JJ Grey & Mofro - Orange Blossoms

Alligator Records

Occasionally you’ll hear an album and say, “Man…I bet this band is great live.” It’s a well-worn backhanded compliment, usually accompanied with the unspoken insinuation of, “…because they’re not that great on record.” Many bands, however, wear this onus like a badge of honor, and often rightly so. JJ Grey and Mofro seem to find themselves in this camp. Orange Blossoms is an album of songs that you wish you were hearing live, but still retains a general sense of quality and workmanship.

Like so many other great bands, Grey & Mofro seem unable to capture the heat and tenacity of their live sets when in the studio. While that’s frustrating, the flip side is an album of well-crafted, perfectly workable songs that display Grey’s songwriting prowess in full light. Were the album a collection of shoddy compositions, it would fare far worse. As it is, it stands as a testament to the importance of a little rowdiness to the blues; an album of considerable skill and regrettable restraint. Songs like “Ybor City” conjure images of a fiery jam session fueled by Pabst tallboys and scantily clad groupies, but come off as a little limp when you’re listening in your living room.

As solid as Grey’s songwriting is, Orange Blossoms still feels toned down. The fundamentals are all strong and Grey’s smoky vocals forgive a few hackneyed lyrics here and there, but nothing in particular stands out. Of course, this also means that one would also be hard to find a weak link. On tracks like “She Don’t Know,” where the subtleties of digital recording work in favor of the song, the quality of the album is clearly visible, and even the slightly contrived album closer “I Believe (In Everything)” radiates authenticity.

This heartfelt honesty acts as the album’s saving grace in more than one instance. Grey is a solid frontman, and when he lets loose a bit, he rasps out some great melodies. Even if the energy of the album is questionable, Mofro’s carefree sway borders on infectious. The title track is probably the closest intimation of Grey and company’s live swagger, and it certainly sets a tone for the following material. Regardless of whether or not Orange Blossoms is indicative of the band’s strengths, it’s never dull.

If nothing else, Grey will see a rise in ticket sales as a result of this album, and it’s one that he deserves. The true power of the blues has always been in the performance, and the band is no slouch when it comes to the live arena. Viewed as a primer, Orange Blossoms is a successful album that hints at what fans already know: JJ Grey and Mofro are a band you need to experience for yourself.

Review by John McCormick

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