Reviewed by: Geno Thackara
Remember radios with tuning dials? They’d be fairly reliable at best, often just a nuisance, and subject to going fuzzy at annoying times if you happened to bump the table. Or even if not. Sometimes, though, sliding among different signals might lead to interesting surprises – a faint hint of some unfamiliar network from out of town, maybe, or an odd random mash-up of two unrelated things at once. (If you really don’t know what I’m taking about, well, go away. It’s probably past your bedtime.)
Anyway. If you were randomly shuffling sometime and you happened to tune in an alt-country channel and a smooth urban R&B station together, you’d start to get a taste of the Jeb Loy Nichols experience. His Country Hustle has occasional hints of swampy blues and “lost my house, job and dog”-type subject matter, but it’s mostly light on the country and heavier on the hustle – the smooth sultry kind of sound that tends to go with black leather couches and comical amounts of bling flashing under dim club lights. Light funk and Eastern-hemisphere percussion aren’t out of reach either.
This is indeed “not the same old country music,” as the cover declares. The mix puts you on your toes right away, first greeting your ears with some dusty desert blues reminiscent of Tinariwen – and before the opening song is over, he’s shifted to light dreamy organ and then taken it out with some sly late-night baritone sax. It feels like Nichols and his recording mates sat down with a checklist to make sure each track had some combination of unexpected things somewhere. Low-key Americana with light techno beats. Urban funky bass backed up with poppy handclaps. Classic-rock B3 organ with Memphis horns over shuffling trip-hop drums. The super-smoove “Till the Teardrops Stop” is pretty much pure urban soul, but for the most part it’s rare for a whole song to stay in one mode.
It should all sound a bit schizophrenic, but holds together better than you might expect. Nichols’ drawling singing and often-sardonic lyrics manage to fit in both those worlds: “There’s only three things in my life / that I regret / there’s everything I’ve done, everything I’m doin’ / and what I haven’t done yet.” Cute. The easy-swaggering voice and steady-coasting rhythms (solidly emphasizing the R in R&B) go a long way toward making all those elements blend together, like mixers in a complex, but surprisingly compelling cocktail. Enjoying Country Hustle probably relies on the listener’s taste for that modern adult R&B sound slightly more than anything else, but there are flavors for all kinds of tastes. This one’s one of a kind.