It doesn’t matter what other soul-blues albums you’ve heard this year; chances are, Robert Finley‘s debut Age Don’t Mean a Thing (Big Legal Mess Records) will have most, if not every single one of them, beat, with the 62-year-old Louisianan appearing well-suited to help fill the void left by the death of the great soul singer Otis Clay this past winter.
Never mind that music is a relatively recent full-time undertaking for Finley, following careers in the U.S. Army and as a carpenter. With his vision failing, Finley has enlisted the assistance of the Music Maker Relief Foundation in establishing a full-time musical career, which we can’t imagine being too much of a challenge, hearing the extraordinary vocal talent Finley possesses.
In addition, Finley manages to avoid a trap common to many modern soul albums, where tracks often seem to rely on the same formulas and tempos, resulting in a record that can make it difficult to maintain the average listener’s interest no matter how solid the vocals. Here, Finley presents a delightful variety of soul-based tracks, from the strong, Stax-like grooves of numbers such as the opening “I Just Want to Tell You” – a reworking of The Parliaments’ “I Wanna Testify” (George Clinton) – with its swinging horns, superb background singing, and Finley’s own strong, sturdy vocals (all of which you can hear for yourself below), and breezy, almost “Ya Ya”-ish “Let Me Be Your Everything”, to the funky James Brown-meets-Morris Day soul of “Come On”, to the powerful, swaying “It’s Too Late” that combines Finley’s coarse, passionate vocals with a theme of “It’s too late to tell you I love you, but it’s too soon to say good-bye” and the soulful, King Curtis-like closing dilemma of “Is It Possible to Love 2 People?”.
All but two of the nine songs here – the aforementioned “I Just Want to Tell You” and the familiar slow dancer “Make It with You” (Bread, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, Gerald LeVert, The Meters, The Supremes) – are Finley originals, making this inaugural outing all that much more impressive, with other highlights including the slow, guitar-laced blues of the title track and the slightly more uptempo, R&B soul grooves of a Johnny Rawls-like “You Make Me Want to Dance”.
Joining Finley – who delivers the kind of oomph exhibited by such greats as Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and Eddie Floyd – on the album are a number of accomplished Memphis musicians, including guitarist Jimbo Mathus (who also co-produced the project), vocalist Reba Russell, and drummer Howard Grimes (Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Al Green, Willie Mitchell, OV Wright) as well as other members of The Bo-Keys.
We aren’t in the habit of making these types of statements with nearly three months still left to go on the calendar, but it’s hard to see anything other than Age Don’t Mean a Thing taking home the honors for soul-blues album of the year.