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Three Way Calling

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Album Review

Described on the liner notes as "swamp gospel," the former lead vocalist for the Gospel Hummingbirds' first solo album is a rousing success. With 30 years of experience, Roy Tyler's vocal chops are in fine form, but his band's name points to the changes on this release. His new direction adds a tough, wiry R&B approach to spiritual music. Duets with Raphael Saadiq and the Blind Boys of Alabama's Clarence Fountain represent both extremes, as Tyler walks the tightrope between spirituality and commercial concerns. Both the Blind Boys and Robert Randolph have successfully made a similar jump, and with Robert Cray keyboardist Jim Pugh's sympathetic production, Tyler nails the groove. Except for a few traditionals, some Saadiq tunes, and a rearranged cover of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," the album's most obvious stab at the mainstream, the majority of the songs are originals. The title track is a snappy combination of upbeat blues and soulful gospel, laying sanctified lyrics over the riff often used for "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." Covering O.V. Wright — a Cray favorite — in "Four & Twenty Elders" is a logical move, as Wright also successfully joined soul and gospel. Pugh keeps the sessions loose as the band and Tyler feed off each other — if there are overdubs, they are difficult to hear — and lets innate chemistry define the length of each track. The proceedings strip down to just funereal organ and backing singers on the opening to his stirring version of "Jordan River," a perfect vehicle for Tyler's thrilling vocals. Give producer Pugh much of the credit for the album's success. His sense of dynamics, space, and atmospherics provides the ideal environment for Roy Tyler's voice, keeping it centered in the mix and maintaining an organic feel that is natural and appropriately inspiring.

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