9 songs – 30 minutes
The Reverend Shawn Amos’ new album continues to mine the modern blues vein he so successfully explored in 2014’s The Reverend Shawn Amos Tells It and 2015’s The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You. His new release, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down follows a similar approach to those albums, being relatively short, but mixing left-field cover versions with smartly-written originals – and all played with impressive restraint and purpose.
Breaks It Down features a range of musicians, including guitarists Chris “Doctor” Roberts, Michael Toles and James Saez (who also adds percussion to a couple of tracks); bassists Leroy Hodges, Jr. Alex Al and Hannah Dexter; drummers Steve Potts, Mike Smirnoff and Rodd Bland; keyboardists Charles Hodges and Peter Adams; and backing singers Sharlotte Gibson, Kenya Hathaway, Harold Thomas, Robert “Tex” Wrightsil, Philemon Young, Lester Lands and Bill Pitman. The horn section of Vikram Devas (trombone), Joe Santa-Maria (baritone sax) adds extra depth to three tracks while Chris Anderson contributed the string arrangement to “2017”. In addition to singing, Amos also contributes neat harmonica on various songs.
The album contains five original songs and two extraordinary covers. The originals include the menacing blues-rock of “Moved” and the retro-modern soul of “2017”. In “Moved”, solo electric guitar and haunting harmonica are the only instruments and a sense of taunt restraint underlies both the instrumentation and the vocals. The upbeat “2017” however, sees Amos backed by Al Green’s wonderful Hi Rhythm Section, with backing vocals from the great Masqueraders, which leads perfectly into the soul-pop of “Hold Hands”.
The core of Breaks It Down however can be found in the three-song “Freedom Suite” in the middle of the album. The one-minute a cappella “Uncle Tom’s Prayer” pays homage to Freedom Singers founder, Cordell Hull Reagon, before Amos re-imagines Bukka White’s Delta Blues “Does My Life Matter” as a threatening gospel-rock piece. The third piece, the gospel-soul of “(We’ve Got To) Come Together” includes quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in its plea for peace and tolerance.
The two cover versions should not really work at all, but they do. Amos spotlights the blues elements in David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie”, slowing the beat, emphasizing the groove and highlighting Bowie’s Howlin’ Wolf-like howl before each chorus. The addition of the horn section of Devas and Santa-Maria in the choruses helps to accentuate the barren beauty of the minimalist verses.
Elvis Costello’s classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding”, meanwhile, is given a gospel dressing down, with just simple keys and exquisite vocals from Gibson, Hathaway, Thomas and Wrightsil. It’s a magical re-interpretation that really drives home the furious hope in the lyrics.
Breaks It Down is an overtly political album with many lyrics raising similar questions in relation to race, intolerance and political unrest. But like some of the great soul tracks of the Civil Rights era, Amos often manages to strike that delicate balance between articulating personal perspectives and addressing broader societal issues. Amos describes the songs as a collection of 21st century Freedom Songs and that is a pretty fair description.
However it may be described, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down is a very, very good album. Highly recommended.