SING IT IN A PRAYER
by Josh Hurst
Or: Shared Time with the Tedeschi Trucks Good-Time Family Band.
“I told you that times are a-changin,’” sings Susan Tedeschi on the title track from her band’s new record. She may not have actually sung those words before, but that’s not the point: She’s positioning herself in a lineage of song here, one that stretches back to and beyond Bob Dylan and them loops around to the present day, encompassing all the country, blues, gospel, folk, soul, and rock and roll singers who have born weary witness to rising tides and changing times. Not that Tedeschi wants you to get hung up on that. “… but I’ve got a body to move,” she finishes the line, and move she does—both herself and the listener—across ten songs of considerable soul and swagger; songs that nod their heads in the direction of hardship and sorrow, but don’t dwell on them, because who has the time?
Let Me Get By is not a record that could have been made by a young or inexperienced band. It’s weathered, tried and tested, but hopeful. It celebrates romance and community as stabilizers in a world ever in flux. It opens with the steely resolve of lovers rising from the ruins: “Cain and Abel lit the flame/ But we can never go that way again.” Three songs later, Juliet lies dead at Romeo’s feet; death creeps and the future is uncertain, but the song’s narrator pledges kinship: “I’m just here to share your time.” For its weightiness, this is ultimately both a happy and a joyful album—not the same thing, though here they are close enough. The music feels good. It unspools with uncommon generosity and the invitation of fraternity. Both love and music feel like verbs and not nouns here, and the listener who elects to sing along engages in a radical act against apathy and darkness.
Tedeschi Trucks Band is often categorized as a “jam” band, which here means openness rather than indulgence. The songs are too long to qualify as pop singles—one extends past eight minutes, another for more than seven, only one for under four—and there are extended instrumental codas here, yet nothing that feels like instrumental wonking just for the sake of it. Trucks and Tedeschi bring different levels of experience to these songs, and prove perfect foils for one another: Trucks, long-time Duane Allman fill-in, knows how to give the songs room to breathe, to take their time. He lets the band twist the songs this way and that, tearing into them from different angles, wringing out all their varied charms, allowing each band member a chance to shine. Tedeschi is a more disciplined student of song—check her fine solo album, Hope & Desire, produced by Joe Henry, where she sings Dylan, Ray Charles, and the Stones—and she keeps things on point. Even the jammy sections of the record are tuneful, the progressions and digressions logical and coherent.
Though the songs capture a loose camaraderie—only attainable through home recordings, featuring musicians who are warm and familiar with one another—they are arranged with precision. “Let Me Get By” has a funky main riff played by an organ, but the empty spaces are filled first with a lick of fire from Trucks, then with a punchy beat from the group’s full horn section.
The song’s body-movin’ counterpart is “I Want More,” which rides a Stax groove banged out by guitar, organ, horns, and drums all in unison; the groove breaks open into an Otis/Aretha vamp when the tambourine and gospel choir come in. It’s a song for the dancefloor, and it really moves—but movement is thematic as well as musical; throughout the album, forward momentum—acts of love, acts of song—spark a fire against long odds and dark horizons; they celebrate life lived fully and openly, consequences be damned: “Nothing can hold me down/ I’m taking the long way ‘round/ Can’t get enough, I want more/ When I come around this time/ There’s nowhere to run and hide/ I want more, more of you/ all of you.”
These aren’t flowery lyrics, but they’re exactly right for the spirit and sound of this record: They’re punchy and percussive; they’re clipped and expressive. Tedeschi drives every one of them home, the grit of her voice providing these words with their weight, their backstories, their scars. She is never more commanding than on the wild rumpus “Don’t Know What it Means,” the closest you’ll ever come to a party in a song. The song drives forward, stoic and resolute, Trucks’ slide work dancing all over the groove; when the chorus comes the whole thing explodes in voices; it’s a sing-along and a call to arms. Tedeschi is part motivational speaker and part James Brown here, finding salvation in hard work—in getting up and getting involved: “Now don’t look down in the dirt/ Just to find out what you’re worth/ ‘Cause that song and dance was never worth the time/ so work hard and do it right/ Learn to speak up and to fight/ The truth is gonna beat them down the line.”
It feels like the album this band has been striving for, the one they’ve trained for and worked toward—not just because it’s so vital, but because it’s so expansive. Check “Right On Time,” a musical theater stomper that sounds like it drifted upriver from New Orleans before it was fished out by Tom Waits, then handed to this band for safe keeping. Cabaret piano mixes with dirty riffs from the trumpet player. Harmony singer Mike Mattinson takes lead here, his deep deadpan a nice counterbalance to Tedeschi’s soul and grit. When she joins him and they take the song to its chorus, the horn section really swings into Mardi Gras mode. That’s one of the great virtues of this massive ensemble: A band this big and this open-hearted can conjure any number of sensual pleasures. See also Mattinson’s other lead vocal, on the eight-minute album centerpiece, “Crying Over You.” A string section soars over the groove, turning it into pure Philly soul; it climaxes in cataclysmic jamming, and the the droning coda—soft-lit interplay between flute, harmonium, and guitar—feels like a necessary breather.
“Just as Strange” takes the record somewhere else entirely: A kick drum pounds out the beat before twangy slide guitar and ratting hand percussion introduce a little country song so lived-in, it almost sounds rusted over. Tedeschi sings of self-reliance even with a hellhound on her trail: “I raised the devil on my own/ Gonna scratch and claw until it’s gone.”
But hope—like a lover’s steely resolve—gets the first and last word, plus a few words in between. “Anyhow” is the sweet hymn that opens the song. The singer stands amidst wreckage, but offers a hymn to starting over: “I would go anywhere, anytime,” she sings, her delivery graceful and measured, piano, harmony singers, and Trucks’ guitar licks joining her song of ascent. The song’s just too rousing not to end it with a blistering jam, guitar nirvana from Trucks. The New Orleans horns are back to introduce the closer, “In Every Heart,” pure gospel soul. Here salvation is in song: “In every heart there’s a psalm/ Coming to find you to sing along.” The album’s most ebullient grace note is here: As Tedeschi sings of being surprised by joy, the gospel chorus drives her point home: “You’d never believe it.”
“Hear Me” finds the band at its most beautiful, a lover’s plea. The first couplet contains the whole story: “When I watched you walk away/ I knew I’d gone too far.” But then comes recognition; the narrator affirms the long odds of two people finding and loving each other forever, almost as though star-crossed and predestined. “We were always going to work it out,” she sings, reconciliation the best and only conceivable future.
Let Me Get By sounds like sweet relief after a season of struggle— a sharing of battle stories and war wounds, a reckoning with everything that’s happened and everything still to come. There’s no promise of a better tomorrow, but there is this simple pledge: “I’m just here to share your time.” That’s what the record feels like: Shared time; hearts and souls poured into ten songs, songs generously filled out with dreams and ideas but left with the gates open and the door ajar, ready for the listener to find a place within, real engagement invited and rewarded. Bring your burdens with you; crank it up; and follow these instructions: “Sing it like a prayer.”
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Thom Jurek’s All Music review.
- Read Jedd Beaudoin’s review at Popmatters.