Standing at a towering six feet and five inches, Washington native James Otto scored a hit back in 2008 that has stood taller than the largest Douglas Fir in the Pacific Northwest: The ubiquitously smoldering “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” which became the top-played country song of that year and has lingered like an endless Indian summer breeze on station playlists from coast to coast.
Sadly, each if the followups from his stellar 2008 Warner Brothers Records release Sunset Man rode off into the sunset almost as quickly as it dawned upon the horizon line of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
That disgracefully underrated album not only revealed a self-actualized performer comfortably embracing his musical heritage (his 2004 debut Days of Our Livesleaned close to standard contemporary country fare), but also served as a road map to his broader potential as an artist. By pointing his compass toward his lodestar idols, his latest release, Shake What God Gave Ya, offers a full serving of R&B-drenched country soul in the vein of Ronnie Milsap and Conway Twitty’s bodies of work, zested with generous squeezes of Memphis soul and gospel from the school of Al Green, Syl Johnson and Donny Hathaway.
The album swaggers out of the gate with “Are Ya With Me”, an arena-ready electric guitar romp that’s consistent with the decidedly “feel good” mood of the album. Musically, though, it’s out of sync with the soulful vibe the marks the rest of Shake What God Gave Ya—save the slivers of barroom piano that enhance the track’s flavor. Otto more than holds his own here vocally, but the track doesn’t serve as a satisfying platform to show off his full chops and makes for one of the album’s more forgettable contributions—mistakable, along the way, for a lukewarm holdover from his Muzik Mafia years.
Fortunately, this opener is immediately followed by the record’s lead single, the irresistibly sun-soaked “Groovy Little Summer Song,” which hearkens back to 60′s-era Carolina shag music and wouldn’t feel out of place on Betty B’s Bungalow, despite having a distinctive, lapping Southern guitar lick to counterbalance it as unmistakable contemporary country escapism at its finest.
The lyrics beachcomb no new frontier, citing margaritas, senoritas and top-downs. But, then again, music of this sort isn’t expected to, as it’s a groove-centered style that is made for Friday night shuffling. Otto’s sultry vocals set the mood as capably as the best of this style can muster.
Most the rest of the album keeps the good times flowing. Jim Femino, who co-penned “Just Got Started Loving You,” returns alongside former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson to co-write the swaying, slow-burner “Lover Man,” on which Otto comes as close as ever in emulating Issac Hayes.
“Sun Comes ‘Round Again,” one of only two tracks not co-written by Otto, is nonetheless made Otto’s own invention with a brawny, buttersmooth and white-hot emphatic vocal, laced with tickling keyboards and halluciogenic touches of pedal steel that would send many who thought “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” was torrid rushing for a cold shower.
And the twang-meets-retro funk title track—a standout brought about by Otto’s unabashedly confident vocal and backed by a stirring gospel choir—is a born live show signature song bound to keep your serotonin flowing.
Even a record with as kinetic a vibe as this doesn’t fully “shake” off the more vulnerable moments, however. The album’s current single, “Soldiers & Jesus,”exposes a more wistful, nostalgic Otto who, as a Navy veteran himself, reflects on his grandfather’s service in the Korean War. Here, Otto gives a robust and sincere vocal. Unfortunately, the song is shoddied by partisan posturing in the second verse, which opens with Otto arguing, “It seems like the news likes to run ‘em both down,” without providing any substantial backing or case-in-point denotation.
The song then follows that up, insisting with a make-no-mistake defensiveness: “Don’t hand me a party’s political views, ’cause there’s a left side, a right side, and then there’s the truth.”
“Let’s Just Let Go,” a tender ballad punctuated by twinkling piano and clement touches of pedal steel, takes a hard look into a relationship at a crossroads and finds the narrator identifying only two solutions: Fixing the fissures in the relationship cooperatively and living on, or leaving altogether. With a bluesy smoke filling Otto’s lungs, he inches ever closer in running abreast to John Hiatt in terms of emotive poignancy, making for a rewarding change-of-pace moment.
After effortlessly mimicking his obvious influence Ronnie Milsap on “She Comes to Me,” the album’s most gallivant gambit comes in the form of its closer: A duet titled “Good Thing’s Gone Bad” featuring none other than Milsap himself. Allegedly inspired by Milsap’s hit “Stranger in my House”, a colorful, conversational quality lifts this track as rejected lover (Otto) wonders where his relationship went wrong, while his rival (Milsap) scornfully explains: “She was tired of being used/Tired of hearing your latest bad excuse/Never thought she’d cut you loose? Don’t look so surprised, you know you had it coming.” Later, Milsap’s character taunts Otto’s by insisting that the woman now has everything she needs, bragging: “I’ll take her off your hands/Don’t worry about her, brother, you know I’ve got you covered,” brilliantly masking the sadism with an insatiable, sweltering vocal that blends perfectly with Otto’s own.
Topically, “Stranger” may leave the record to close on a downer of a note, but in terms of quality it is anything but a good thing gone bad.
Otto has stated in recent interviews that he intends to explore other facets of his personality on subsequent releases, and that each album is a representation of his state of mind while writing and recording. While we have yet to see if Otto can consistently tap into the introspective magic he conjured up in helping pen Jamey Johnson’s “In Color,” Shake What God Gave Ya is a mighty fine feel-good record that draws the best out of these jaunts through country’s soulful side.