Randall Bramblett blinks in the glare of an unwelcome beam of light throughout his new full-length, The Bright Spots, but his music grooves along on cruise control. Bramblett does something remarkable with that groove on the record: He disrupts his post-R&B rhythms with bits of harmonically rich, extraneous matter. Cut partly in Nashville with producer and guitarist Tom Bukovac, The Bright Spots is avant-R&B at its most evolved, and Bramblett's lyrics are in the self-examining mode he has favored during his 40-year career. At nearly an hour, Spots is packed with detail, but the obsession is never far from the surface.
Bramblett came to Nashville last year to work with Bukovac, a respected session guitarist. Having released the fine 2008 full-length Now It's Tomorrow, Bramblett says he wanted to take chances on his next full-band project.
"I played some gigs with Tom, with [keyboardist] Chuck Leavell, and I realized how great he was," says Bramblett about the genesis of his collaboration with Bukovac. "I said, 'Can he really take it out?' and he said, "Oh yeah, he can go outside the boundaries.' Which is what I was looking for: somebody who could really go outside and be really creative."
The Bright Spots takes Bramblett's oblique groove — he creates riffs that are sprung against R&B and funk rhythms — and makes it subtly foreboding. One of the tracks cut in Nashville, "Whatever That Is," is a blues shuffle featuring Bukovac's supersonic guitar solo: "I been ate up with the mean hocus-pocus / And I'm comin' back to down to earth, wherever that is," Bramblett sings.
Born in Jesup, Ga., Bramblett began his career playing sessions for such Southern rockers as Gregg Allman. He released two solo albums in the mid-'70s that combined jazzy interludes and R&B structures. That Other Mile and Light of the Night are notable for the high quality of Bramblett's songwriting: If his keyboard and saxophone skills made his '70s records examples of yacht-rock, such songs as the amazing "No Stone Unturned" displayed his ability to combine philosophical musings with down-home utterance.
Neither of his '70s albums sold well, and Bramblett joined Southern jazz-rockers Sea Level, co-writing and singing their 1977 tune "That's Your Secret." He has also worked as a sideman for such notables as Steve Winwood. Among his admirers is Bonnie Raitt, who has covered his "Used to Rule the World" and "God Was in the Water."
The Bright Spots divides into two half-hour segments, with " 'Til the Party's All Gone" and "Trying to Steal a Minute" perhaps the most straightforward tunes on each half. Still, " 'Til the Party's All Gone" is a critique of hedonism — as Bramblett sings, "Let the rest of the clowns go on about their funny jobs."
A soul music homage in a Bobby Womack mode, "Trying to Steal a Minute" is a perfect pop tune. Meanwhile, "John the Baptist" — one of the tracks Bramblett recorded at home in Georgia — is soul music as soundscape, complete with a brilliantly skewed instrumental section.
Bramblett's '70s albums deserve reassessment, and should be more than the cult items they've become. But his new work is an advance on his previous music that uses the same methods in modern ways.
"There's a theme of what's really going on inside people, and the theme of some kind of mysterious world that we're not all seeing, or all connected to," Bramblett says. "That theme runs through all my music — it may look this way, but there's something deeper going on."