Eric Lindell makes space for soul 

The singer/guitarist brings a small combo and a big-hearted sound

"I feel like we definitely made a good one, like it's definitely a step up," says young soul man Eric Lindell of his latest album, Gulf Coast Highway (Alligator). Recorded at Balance Studio in Mandeville, La., the collection features 12 originals and three covers.

"There are a couple of songs on there that are probably 12 years old, and we just revisited them and turned 'em inside-out," Lindell says. "I think they hold up next to the new songs. I feel like I'm still writing my same old songs, but honing my craft, too."

Gulf Coast Highway finds Lindell reaching new musical ground. As passionate as ever, he sounds as strong on the mic and through the guitar amp as he did on previous albums. But there's a fine layer and extra polish on this new batch. It's almost a double-album's worth of music, and some songs rock and swing with more brassiness and aggression than before.

"I started to feel like it's a little easier," Lindell says of the songwriting sessions and studio prep he and his bandmates put in earlier this year. "There are a few things on there that might be a little bit too busy. We could have trimmed a few things down here and there. The older I get, the more I appreciate space and dynamics. I like that real airy sound. We went out and hit it live first, then we went back, took our time, and cleaned some stuff up. Taking some extra time off between sessions, it was a new process for me, and I'm really happy with the results."

Lindell grew up in California, but he's been anchored in New Orleans for 10 years. As a singer/guitarist, he's well known around the South for cranking out blue-eyed soul and R&B with a "vintage" sound.

In his earliest days in New Orleans, Lindell managed to jam with some of the Crescent City's most respected young musicians, including organist Ivan Neville and various members of funk/fusion ensemble Galactic, many of whom helped with the recordings of Lindell's 2006 album Change in the Weather (his Alligator Records debut) and 2007's Low On Cash, Rich In Love.

Gulf Coast Highway is a natural step ahead. While much of it maintains Lindell's balance of soul, R&B, swamp-blues, and funk influences, the overall blend is a little less mixed up and much more focused. The super-tight quality of the band's performance behind Lindell's hearty singing underlies the entire set of songs.

"The true magic man on this was Drew Vonderhaar," Lindell says of his engineer. "I produced the album, but he was the guy who handled the knobs and all, and he just did a hell of a job. We make a good team. He knows how to get a great room sound, a great live sound that's clean but still loose and natural."

The energy level and grooviness certainly are big factors, for sure, but even with the additional horns, organ, and backing vocals, most of Gulf Coast Highway lays back. Main drummer Chris DeJohn and organist Marc Adams deserve much of the credit.

Highlights include Jimmy Carpenter's baritone sax work on the funky "Country Livin'," the syncopated groove like on "This Love Is Gonna Last," and the Ray Charles-like "The Look," with boogaloo rhythms (courtesy of Galactic's Stanton Moore). The female-power backing vocals add charm and soul to the mid-tempo grooves on "Turnin' It Out." With its slappy snare drum rolls and loose-swingin' beat, "Lullaby for Mercy Ann" is a terrific shag tune as well.

On the second song in, "Willin' and Able," Lindell pronounces that his "Rambling days and ramblin' ways come and gone." It's one of several personalized moments on the album.

"Songs are just life experience that you try to convey to somebody else," Lindell says. "They might be able to relate to them. In a way, songwriting is really simple, man — it's just three chords and the truth. There's not much to it. If you get too tricky or too crafty, it can get a little funny, you know? Sometimes I gotta really come off it and come back to what I do best, which is really simple shit. Translating an experience into a song ... it feels easier the older you get."

The touring lineup for this week's small road trip features a different band from the studio sessions, with bassist Chris Aranis, Baton Rouge-based slide guitarist Thomas Johnson, and acclaimed New Orleans drummer Eddie Christmas on board.

"That's it — we're coming out as just a four-piece," laughs Lindell of his touring outfit. "It's really about the songs. I've been playing out with a trio a lot, too. You might think that we'd have to over-compensate for the lack of instrumentation and make more noise, but what we do is pull it back in, get even more dynamic, and really use the space to our advantage. It really puts the songs right up there with the subtleness of a trio or quartet. A lot of people say they love it stripped-down and raw, though. That's when you can really get the essence of the song. But we like it both ways — don't get me wrong."



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