Scrolling Headlines:

UMass women’s basketball suffers disappointing loss to St. Bonaventure at Mullins Center Thursday -

January 19, 2017

REPORT: Tom Masella out as defensive coordinator for UMass football -

January 19, 2017

Zach Lewis, bench carry UMass men’s basketball in win over St. Joe’s -

January 19, 2017

UMass women’s basketball handles Duquesne at home -

January 16, 2017

UMass men’s basketball’s late comeback falls short after blowing 15-point first-half lead -

January 15, 2017

UMass hockey outlasted at home against No. 6 UMass Lowell -

January 14, 2017

Hailey Leidel hits second buzzer beater of the season to give UMass women’s basketball win over Davidson -

January 13, 2017

UMass football hosts Maine at Fenway Park in 2017 -

January 12, 2017

UMass men’s basketball snaps losing streak and upsets Dayton Wednesday night at Mullins Center -

January 11, 2017

UMass women’s track and field takes second at Dartmouth Relays -

January 10, 2017

UMass hockey falls to No. 5 Boston University at Frozen Fenway -

January 8, 2017

UMass professor to make third appearance on ‘Jeopardy!’ -

January 8, 2017

UMass women’s basketball suffers brutal loss on road against Saint Joseph’s -

January 7, 2017

UMass men’s basketball drops thirds straight, falls to VCU 81-64 -

January 7, 2017

UMass men’s basketball drops tightly-contested conference matchup against George Mason Wednesday night -

January 4, 2017

Late-game defense preserves UMass women’s basketball’s win against rival Rhode Island -

January 4, 2017

AIC shuts out UMass hockey 3-0 at Mullins Center -

January 4, 2017

UMass professor to appear as contestant on ‘Jeopardy!’ Thursday night -

January 4, 2017

Penalties plague UMass hockey in Mariucci Classic championship game -

January 2, 2017

UMass men’s basketball falls in A-10 opener to St. Bonaventure and its veteran backcourt -

December 30, 2016

The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Duets”

The Blind Boys of Alabama formed their singing group 70 years ago, and have been performing and recording gospel music ever since. As the legends of the industry they’ve become during that timespan, its not suprising that they have collaborated with a number of notable musicians. “Duets,” their newest release, anthologizes the past 15 years of these collaborations in 14 tracks, three of which were recorded solely for this album.

The 14 names gathered for this collection mostly cover the blues and country spectrum (Randy Travis, Solomon Burke, Asleep at the Wheel), with a few surprising and eclectic exceptions like Lou Reed and Jars of Clay. What each artist chose for this compilation seems to share with listeners a sort of gospel influence, even if only some would never be classified under that genre. The Blind Boys merely coax out that sanctified Southern sound, playing a supporting role on every song, and accomodating its presence with a spirituality ranging from vaguely to powerfully Christian. But fear not, secular listeners – the religious overtones are easily palatable, sounding more like a pop trope than anything else.

The first track, Ben Harper’s “Take My Hand,” is a lively New Orleans blues groove that sets the framework for the rest of the album. Harper takes the lead and the Blind Boys hit the big refrains, tossing in occasional soulful interjections. As such, the boys are not really the centerpiece of the album, but rather a thread connecting songs ranging in style from Charlie Musselwhite’s rockabilly to Toots Hibbert’s reggae. Instead of changing the well-realized tone of the other artist’s tunes, the Blind Boys’ unmistakable voices highlight the gospel core already present in the pop form.

This formula works brilliantly on almost every song on the album, with the exceptions of the tedious Toots Hibbert track “Perfect Peace,” and the overwrought “Secular Praise” with Timothy B. Schmit. Unless you’ve never heard The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” the rendition here with Lou Reed will probably not impress. Still, the Blind Boys remain the redeeming features on the album’s weak points, selling otherwise uninteresting music with big, deep harmonies.

The highlights are the danceable, uptempo tunes. The Blind Boys drop a smooth lament behind Charlie Musselwhite’s rowdy “I Had Trouble” and give a vocal weight to Asleep at the Wheel’s cover of the western swing number, which is practically a commercial jingle by Fred Rose, titled “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.” The infectious Southern flavor on these tracks might have been a step too close to Dukes of Hazzard if not for the Blind Boys’ grounding. The concoction is undeniably fun.

The Blind Boys of Alabama close the album with John Hammond on a beautifully doleful blues dirge: Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” rearranged by the Blind Boys and retitled “One Kind Favor.” Hammond’s acoustic slide guitar sounds appropriately in its death throes, and his low, dusky voice resonates with an eerie fragility over the calmly humming harmonies of the Blind Boys.

What makes “Duets” so engaging is that it does not feel like The Blind Boys of Alabama have invited 14 artists to the studio to try gospel with some legends. The boys are instead guests on their own album, providing a stirring backdrop for a group of musicians with a surprisingly heterogeneous set of musical styles. Additionally, each individual track’s lead musician invariably sounds like the hero of the song, with the Blind Boys singing a subtle but ever-present spiritual conscience. There is something so unpretentious and universally pleasing to the ear about the style of the Blind Boys that it would be hard not to at least appreciate their contributions here. Heck, they even make the Jars of Clay sound satisfying.

Garth Brody can be reached at gbrody@student.umass.edu

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