Five previous albums and years of touring made JJ Grey & Mofro mainstays on the roots rock/jamband scene and helped them hone their "kitchen sink" sound to such a sharp point you almost don't realize how much they're hurling at you. They've found their knack for fusing chaos into cohesion and making their brand of Southern rock, blues, soul, funk, and country elements sound natural. Grey has grown as a bandleader, arranging all of that into ear-pleasing romps, sweaty jams, and soulful ballads. He's also grown as a singer/songwriter, penning lyrics and stories that are often excellent vehicles for his gritty voice. They can be a whole lot of fun, break your heart, and make you think over the course of a record or a show and that makes for a fun night.
This River is their sixth album for Alligator Records and the followup to their 2010 studio effort Georgia Warhorse and first ever live CD/DVD Brighter Days. What's most surprising about the album is how unsurprising it all is. There is a difference between comfortable and complacent and This River exhibits both.
I'm going to lose some of you when I tell you I wish I could unlisten to "Your Lady, She's Shady." I love a great groove and heavy funk but those elements are undercut by hipster delivery of predictable, silly lyrics. I listened to it a second time to ensure it was as bad as I thought it was the first timr; it was. It's clear this song is supposed to be fun and has no intention of taking itself seriously but it's hard not to feel insulted by the banality.
Fortunately, the record quickly and drastically improves with "Somebody Else," a soulful warning with plenty of heat and great horn charts. "Tame A Wild One" is a satisfying retelling of a story given away in its title which again underscores the problem with pleasant predictability in the record. There's nothing wrong with "Tame" but you've heard it before, done better and worse, by Mofro and other bands. Speaking of other bands, tell me you can't sing Skynyrd's "What's Your Name" while you're listening to "99 Shades Of Crazy." "99 Shades" isn't completely derivative of the familiar classic rock staple but there is a resemblance, particularly with the vocals in the bridge and the rhythm guitar track. The lyrical conceit in the title is a bit tired and the song is a little sleepier than it should be. This could have rocked harder and probably will on stage. "Florabama" is a slower, slightly more tolerable execution of "Your Lady." "Standing On The Edge" opens with a sharp guitar riff but rather than building this into an uptempo rocker, it ambles at the same laidback pace of the rest of the record.
JJ Grey & Mofro provide some fine moments and one regrettable one on This River but excitement, edge, and energy are too often lacking making the record feel like both a pleasant, satisfying listen and a missed opportunity.