Nick Moss has done it again on Time Ain't Free. What's that, you ask? He's been clearing the bar he set with his previous album each time he releases one. I didn't think he could top Play It 'Til Tomorrow until I heard Privileged and there was no way he was going to top that but Here I Am indeed upped the ante. Nick Moss is playing no-limit poker while everyone else is playing nickel slots because he's gone "all in" with Time Ain't Free and everyone comes out a winner.
The "all in" mentality manifests itself in numerous ways, beginning with the tracklist and run time of the album. 13 songs and 70 minutes is a demanding listen in this On Demand, digital a la carte era and carries with it the risk of becoming indulgent or, worse, boring. That never becomes an issue because the music goes so many directions and never stays in one place long so the music never gets bogged down and the listener remains engaged. The expansion of his sound began on Privileged and continues with soul and R&B elements being blended into the blues, rock, and roots-oriented jams of past records. Moss & Co. also switch things up by changing tempos, rhythms, and even lead vocal duties.
Most of the record is comprised of originals but the choice of cover material gives a strong indication of just how wide Moss is willing to toss his net, giving fantastic performances of Son House's "Death Letter Blues" and The Face's "Bad 'N Ruin."
The record opens with "She Wants It," which remains my favorite moment. Moss' greasy slide guitar is all over the song but it's the swaggering groove that brings the song to life. "Was I Ever Heard" trades groove for a chugging rhythm and a piercing guitar solo. The shuffle of "Light It Up" is our third different rhythmic cadence and brings our first vocal change. Michael Ledbetter made his presence felt on Here I Am as a second guitarist and a standout backing vocalist and his talents were given more room on tour in support of the record. Moss has proved himself a consummate frontman who needs know help but has long been a generous bandleader, having been brought up in the Chicago blues tradition. That confidence in his own abilities and willingness to share the spotlight is a crucial to why this album works.
Ledbetter is such a powerful, open channel for soul and Moss turns him loose frequently. Led's vocals are genuine and sound effortless, free of vocal histrionics and melisma. He's the type of singer we hear so many imitate poorly. He never phones in a performance but nowhere is he better than on the song he wrote for the record, "I Want The World To Know." It's one part soulful hymn, one part declaration of devotion, and one part passionate proclamation of love. Moss' guitar work and the backing vocals of Tina Crawley and Lara Jenkins add vivid sonic coloring but this is Ledbetter's showcase and a spotlight moment for the album.
It's not an all-or-nothing proposition between Moss and Ledbetter, either. "Been Gone So Long" is a great example where both men share the spotlight. Moss takes lead vocal and delivers another sensational guitar solo but the harmonies are the heart of the song.
No Nick Moss record is complete without a badass instrumental and "(Big Mike's) Sweet Potato Pie" stands among his best, a soul-funk jam that sounds straight out of Memphis courtesy of the great organ work from Bryan Rogers. Moss' extended solo is an exercise in skill and restraint, taste and technique.
Time Ain't Free is a portrait of an artist with the vision and courage to try anything and the skill and band to succeed. Moss has once again delivered his absolute best while raising the bar. I don't know how he does it and I'm not betting against him doing it again. In the meantime, he's given us one of the year's most daring, varied, and exciting records.