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Randall Bramblett

Thin Places (New West Records)

You probably won't see Randall Bramblett at that hotbed of inbreeding and self-promotion known as the Grammys. Unfortunately, that says damn near all we need to know about the prestigious awards ceremony, because his not being nominated for music's highest honor is like Pete Rose not being in the Gambling Hall of Fame.

Bramblett is a frequent sideman with such outfits as Traffic, the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic and Gov't Mule. He sings and writes and can play half the instruments in a symphony orchestra; he also collects kudos from industry heavyweights and invitations to tour and record like a retired redneck collects aluminum cans. Yet he remains virtually anonymous in the wide world of popular music. I naively thought No More Mr. Lucky, Bramblett's previous album, was the smoothest thing since I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and that it would be his breakout album. Duh. Too smart. Too deep. Too musical. Not American Idol enough. And yet as good as Mr. Lucky was, Bramblett's Thin Places eclipses it.

Bramblett has always been a triple-threat artist, but even by the standard he has set, Thin Places is an extraordinary disc. There was never any doubt about his musicianship or his molasses-sliding-across-sandpaper, blue-eyed-soul voice. And even though Bramblett never tosses off a lyric lightly, the songs on Thin Places provide definitive evidence that we're in the presence of one of the world's truly gifted songwriters. Accepted to the Harvard Divinity School just before he sidetracked into music, the Atlantan has the ability to delve into the human spiritual matrix as few writers can, and he does it without the usual heavy-handed vacancies or schmaltzy New Age feel-good-isms that infect and decay so much popular music today. Lines like "Chet Baker walked out of a window / left a trail of blue notes hanging in the air so sweet / and a checkered suit lying on a foreign street" mark Bramblett as a singular lyricist in any genre.

But the true measure of his genius lies in his ability to seamlessly embed his lyrics in a multicolor synthesis that daubs from the entire palette of Southern electric music, smartly melding soul, blues-rock, R&B and jazz, and even venturing over into sophisticated alternative country on tracks like the terribly catchy "Nobody's Problem." Smooth ("You Can Be the Rain") or syncopated ("Black Coat"), rocking ("Playing Card") or mystically discombobulated ("Chet Baker"), Bramblett's tunes have rare emotional depth and wholeness and are anthemic in the extreme. "Gotta Stop Somewhere" and "Black Coat" have grooves so deep and nasty that the stereo sweats, and Bramblett's occasional buttery, sexual sax punctuations are straight out of Last Tango in Paris.

Thin Places is no more just an album than War and Peace is just a book. But despite its genuine claim to greatness, Bramblett likely won't even get a mention at the Grammys -- unless he nominates himself.

 
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