Graded on a Curve: Barrence Whitfield
& the Savages,
Soul Flowers of Titan

Boston’s garage soul kingpins Barrence Whitfield & the Savages have released four records since kicking it back into gear in 2010, and not one of them has been less than a keeper. As reflected in its title, their latest takes inspiration from multifaceted jazz genius Sun Ra, but don’t go thinking Barrence and company have radically altered matters; no, on Soul Flowers of Titan, the Savages’ howling, stomping, grooving essence is as recognizable as ever, as they deliver their signature sound with obvious relish. It’s out March 2 on compact disc and vinyl, with a limited deluxe clear wax option, from Bloodshot Records.

Barrence Whitfield & the Savages have accumulated a fair amount coverage in these digital pages, in part because they’ve accomplished an unlikely feat. Specifically, since the reunion of Whitfield with guitarist Peter Greenberg and bassist Phil Lenker, with drummer Andy Jody and sax blower Tom Quartulli filling out the band, their output has easily equaled, and to my ear slightly surpassed, the records that put them on the roots-party radar screen in the first place.

Indeed, coming back so strong after such a lengthy break in activity is impressive, but that they’ve successfully honed (and not overly finessed) an approach on record that is best-suited for small, tightly packed nightclubs only heightens the achievement. Large and bright but lacking in slickness, they’ve managed to retain a tight focus without falling victim to the samey.

Integrating Sun Ra-inspired space themes to Soul Flowers of Titan certainly helps to keep matters fresh, but a more um, down-to-earth maneuver comes through the lineup’s addition of B3 and Rheem organ courtesy of newest member Brian Olive. Perhaps the most successful ingredients in their recipe are enduring, namely Whitfield’s undiminished capacity as a raw shouter with beaucoup soul flair, and continued savviness in blending non-played out cover material with originals that hold right up.

For this record, which was cut in Cincinnati’s Ultra Suede Studio, the band tapped into the one of the jewels of the city’s musical history, namely the vast discography of the King and Federal labels, both of which were owned and operated by the indefatigable record hustler Syd Nathan. Opening with a raucous dive into “Slowly Losing My Mind,” which originally hit racks in 1960 by Willie Wright & His Sparklers, the Savages wisely don’t tinker with its solid R&B foundation.

Instead, they just add some welcome rocking punk muscle; going way back, Greenberg was in the undersung early Boston punk act DMZ, and both he and Lenker were part of the often-terrific Lyres. The Savages do swap out Wright & His Sparklers’ saxophone solo for a sharp trumpet break, and it works like a charm as it presages the fuller horn section additives to the already classique-style mid-tempo riffing and pleading of “Pain.” Indeed, if not for the touches of up-to-date-ness in Barrence’s lyrics across “Tall, Black and Bitter,” one could be easily convinced that it’s another obscurity from the King/ Federal vaults.

It’s true that the Savages have adopted a harder sound upon coming back, and it’s even more so in evidence here, but if undeniably punk-tinged, they haven’t crossed the line into full-on roots demolition. And they can effectively scale it back to spotlight Whitfield’s bona fides as a soul man, as in this record’s “Tingling,” which is made even sweeter with the entrance of Olive’s keyboard. They then follow it with the decidedly garage punk “Sunshine Don’t Make the Sun” as Quartulli’s sax brings a familiar Sonics edge to the proceedings.

Dipping back into the Federal catalog, they tackle the doo wop-ish “I’ll Be Home Someday” by the Midnighters (Hank Ballard’s crucial group) and give it a suitably darker edge in keeping with the Savages’ general comportment. It’s a cohesiveness that extends to “Let’s Go to Mars,” the Greenberg and Lenker tune inspired by their viewing of the Sun Ra documentary A Joyful Noise.

Rather than plunge into avant-jazz mimicry (which would’ve likely been disastrous, as it’s frankly not the band’s forte) they smartly dish some non-flashy blues-rock with lyrics pertaining to space travel. It’s in the addition of electric piano that a subtle connection to the great bandleader is established, a move that, like their choice in covers, isn’t about the inflation of cred but simply deepens a distinctive sound. The bluesy edge persists in “Adorable,” which has some fine belting from Barrence followed by a cool smudgy solo from Greenberg.

With the party atmosphere of “I Can’t Get No Ride,” the covers extend beyond King and Federal to Finley Brown’s ’65 single for the M.O.C. label and then snaps back with a tough reading of a second gem from Willie Wright & His Sparklers, 1961’s “I’m Gonna Leave You Baby.” From there, the emphatic “Edie Please” rolls without a hitch as Barrence’s vocals briefly adopt a bit of Howlin’ Wolf/ Beefheart-like edge, and “Say What You Want” closes the vinyl with a nifty slice of organ-enhanced soul ache.

Including the somewhat more stripped-down bonus track “Dream of June” (surely included with the vinyl’s digital download) Soul Flowers of Titan clocks in at a tidy 36 minutes, illustrating that even as Barrence Whitfield and the Savages work a love of Herman “Sonny” Blount into their program, they still have a firm handle on what’s made the core of their thing so effective. And so, the Boston garage soul train just keeps on rolling, all night long…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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