The story behind Charles Bradley is the kind that heartfelt Hollywood films are made about. Here’s the scene: At a small club in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, the 60-year-plus down-and-out soul singer is performing. A man by the name of Gabriel Roth, part owner of Daptone Records, is in the audience and is so moved by Bradley’s performance that he eventually hooks Bradely with a backing band. They start making original tunes that are inspired by Stax- or early-Motown-style soul. Roth starts his own label, Dunham Records, signs Bradley and puts out a couple 7-inches. The response is good — real good. He starts doing shows with bigger, revitalized soul acts like Sharon Jones, and Bradley’s emotional stage-presence is eaten up by audiences. More songs, more studio time, and at the ripe-age of 67, Bradley finally releases his first LP. Credits roll.
Bradley’s story is a rare one that can be celebrated strictly for the dedication to his craft despite success eluding him until he was a card-carrying AARP member. We could end it right there and call it good, regardless of what his appropriately titled debut, No Time For Dreaming, sounded like. It gets better, though, because the record is actually undeniable. Lucky us. From opener “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” with the dark plucky piano and weary backing singers, it becomes immediately apparent that Bradley’s voice digs deep from within, exuding a well-worn soul rarely heard these days. From the mid-tempo declaration “I Believe in Love” to the upbeat, funk-undertones of “Golden Rule,” Bradley’s strong and gritty voice is a sound from a long-gone past somehow preserved and very much alive on record.
It’s easy to see the immediate influences from standards like Otis Redding’s sincerity or James Brown’s swagger and screams (see title track). Yet, Bradley showcases a surprisingly diverse stylistic range with a suppleness that perfectly complements whatever mood or beat you throw at him. He also digs deep into his roots with hints of the dark, gospel-laden tribulations of O.V. Wright or the confessionals of Percy Sledge and even the passionate yelps of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“How Long”). Go ahead and throw a Bradley track into a mix between Earl and Bob, Curtis Mayfield and James Carr, he’ll prove to be a perfect balance.
It’s not all Bradley who is doing this work on No Time For Dreaming, however. Musically led by Thomas Brenneck, the band captures a 30-year collage of soul, funk and R&B while fusing them into a cohesive, focused whole. Except for “Since Our Last Goodbye” — an unnecessary, instrumental track – No Time For Dreaming remains deeply rooted in the past while avoiding clichés. It’s a refreshing revitalization for a genre that all too often nowadays gets overly stuck in recapturing the past or becomes novel and saccharine in an attempt to utilize the tools of synthetic pop music.
The most lasting impression that No Time For Dreaming may leave, though, is the depth of Bradley’s lyrics. Beyond his tales of broken hearts is a sincere narrative that is full of struggles, pain and sorrow that is often explicitly juxtaposed with life in America. Which is maybe what most defines this album: its roots in the U.S. of A. Not a flag-waving patriotic America, though, but that country that out of tough odds brought you Langston Hughes, Booker T., Fred Wesley, and Malcolm X. It’s in that strange tug and pull from which struggle springs passion and beauty that these men seemed to effortlessly thrive. And it is there with both a genuine, relatable sadness and an unwavering resolve so rooted in the broken concrete Bradley walks upon, that No Time For Dreaming also comfortably sits.