BY AARON RICHARDSON
I picked up “Country Ghetto” on a whim, a risky maneuver at best, especially when you consider the price of records these days. Luckily the new album by J.J. Grey and Mofro turned out to be a solid and satisfying work of soulful wizardry. Mofro delivers a slow, persistent groove as J.J Grey’s gravelly distressed voice pines away about the ravages of growing up poor in the South. Otis Redding’s influence on Grey’s musical career is easily felt throughout the entire album, especially on the slow groove “A Woman.”
“Country Ghetto” kicks off with the driving multi-layered song “War.” Thick bass lines and no frills drumming make sure that the basis of the song stays simple and consistent, while Grey’s vocals interweave with murky, mud-splattered guitar and organ lines. Further into the album, the band slows itself way down, a method that is lost in most popular music these days. Grey and his boys aren’t afraid to slow down and make sure you catch every bend, trill, or nuance in their sound.
The song “On Palastine” is a great exemplifier of this slowed down sound. Opening with a haunting piano melody, the song gathers tremendous force as a slide guitar conjures up a foreboding air-raid siren sound. “On Palastine” is best described as modern-day gospel, a heavy, forbidding warning to humanity in turmoil.
The key track on “Country Ghetto,” however, has to be “The Sun is Shining Down.” Grey’s family gospel choir steps in on this cut, along with a string section to exalt in life’s beauty. Where “On Palastine” was a warning, “The Sun is Shining Down,” exalts, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, / I’m alive and the world is fine.” Not only does the song hold importance because of Grey’s family ties to the backing vocalists, it affirms Mofro’s ultimately positive outlook on the world.
What is most impressive for me is Mofro’s ability to stay original while honoring a time-tested genre of music. Blues-rooted guitar playing and Hammond organs are nothing new to American rock and roll, but Grey manages to make them his own instruments on “Country Ghetto.” Indeed, J.J. Grey is the main creative force behind the band, writing all of the songs on his own, and playing most of the instruments himself in the studio.