It’s hard to define a sound or song that’s wholly evocative of Florida, the real Florida at least…not the tourist frequented beaches or family friendly resorts but the real grassroots parts of Florida that keep local tradition, business, industry, culture and community alive. But if you could by all accounts the title track off JJ Grey & Mofro’s album “Orange Blossoms” would be it.
It’s also difficult to find a review of JJ Grey’s music that doesn’t use the word “swamp” to describe his blend of deep Southern soul and murky funk. So that’s taken care of in the first sentence here, which leaves plenty of room to focus on his fourth album’s low-key yet surging backwoods R&B.
The album’s title and title track refer to Grey’s home state of Florida’s official flower, but there is little that is floral or sunshiny about his music. Rather, the Jacksonville-based Grey prefers to hover in the gloaming, layering horns and backing vocals over grinding, mid-tempo blue-eyed soul. This is the most elaborately produced of his albums, but like the chitlin’ circuit blues in his blood, there is nothing slick about it. Similar to the illicit affair at the heart of “Everything Good Is Bad,” the disc’s only cover (the original was done by the obscure act 100 Proof [Aged in Soul]), Grey’s music generally stays in the shadows. The funeral piano that opens “She Don’t Know” is jazzy yet ominous and sounds as humid and muggy as his hometown on an August night. Ditto for the strings that appear at the song’s end and pop up like wild weeds throughout this dozen-song set. Grey has matured into a compelling vocalist and it is his emotional yet subtle singing that elevates this already powerful material. His sluggish Southern drawl on the funky “WYLF” (short for “what you’re looking for”) infuses a laconic, easygoing, almost lazy feel, a distinguishing characteristic of his style. That’s brought into sharp relief on the sticky, sweaty sex of “Move It On,” a sly, nearly seven-minute deliberate groover that sounds like something the Temptations might have recorded if they had been bred in the South. Although Grey deserves the bulk of the credit for this disc’s unassuming success, longtime co-producer Dan Prothero (who has worked on every Grey/Mofro project) and in-the-pocket drummer Anthony Cole are crucial elements of the stealthy vibe. It’s an album that grows on you slowly like moss at the base of a withered old tree and transports you to the dank, mosquito-infested bayou at the heart of Grey’s evocative sound.