I'll admit that picking this up (Aaron Neville's 2010 gospel release I Know I've Been Changed) was a reaction to having picked this up the week before. One good resurrected NPR-ready Americana turn deserves another, right?
This review of the album is worth reading for how it explores the likely role of, as in Allman's record, a big-name roots producer, in this case Joe Henry, in determining the final artistic tone of the record. I'm not up enough on contemporary music, even of the NPR-ready Americana variety, to know Joe Henry from John Henry, but that review is probably right.
This is a successful record in all the ways Allman's isn't.
The intricate arrangements and expert playing never overshadow the singer: Aaron owns these recordings in a way Allman seldom approaches on his outing. You can hear how on the very first track, "Stand By Me." The first half of the track is Aaron singing, first a capella, then over standard gospel-style instrumental washes. Piano trills, dobro resonances, backup singer ooohs. Aaron's all over the place, naturally, but mostly in a lower (for him) register. As I say, this is a standard gospel approach: the lack of rhythm and a melodic through-line for the instruments puts the focus squarely on the singer, and therefore the Message. Halfway through the song, they kick into rhythm, and at this moment Aaron leaps up into his falsetto, where he stays, mostly, until the end of the song. This does two things: it gets him out of the way so we can appreciate the subtlety of the groove the musicians are making, but it also allows him to surmount that groove, so that he's still master of the song. He's owning it, but not through a more urgent assertion of personality: this being Aaron Neville, the falsetto sounds utterly effortless. He's just claiming a territory that's all his own.
It helps that Aaron's instrument is undiminished by time: he still sounds as much the angel as he did in 1967. It's uncanny. And it helps that the production is invisible. I'm sure a lot of care went into choosing players, and making sure they were being recorded right, but there's no intrusive murk, just complete clarity, so that every rasp of the dobro, every piano chord, every thump of the bass comes through perfectly.
Which allows the listener to appreciate the arrangements, which are gorgeous. It's not a typical gospel record in this respect - no church organ anywhere to be found. Instead it's gospel sung with gospel fervor but played as country blues. When a roadhouse electric guitar comes in for the "Don't Let Him Ride" solo it sounds natural. Part of the gestalt. ...The album is bursting with delightful playing, from Jay Bellerose's sensitive drumming to Allen Toussaint's piano, as fresh and sparkling as baptismal water.
This is why I keep collecting records, when I already have far more than I could digest if I lived fifty more years: because once in a while I stumble across a record like this, and I remember why I love music.