The nine song collection from singer, songwriter, and guitarist Robert “Freightrain” Parker, Outside Ourselves, is an excellent release for this Buffalo, New York based performer and his second release. Parker has garnered awards and critical acclaim so far for his potent brand of Americana but he’s a risk taker as well far from content regurgitating cookie cutter roots music for a modern audience. Instead, he’s successfully revamped time tested styles for his own use and surrounds himself with a high level of instrumental acumen. These are accessible yet challenging compositions and Parker’s voice and lyrical inventiveness gives them a quality you will not readily discover amongst his peers. Parker and his release Outside Ourselves is a cut above.
It begins in surprising fashion with the instrumental “Elijah”. It’s an eight minute showcase that comes together rather artfully following a diffuse, thoughtful introduction. The careful orchestration of various musical threads never suffers from the lack of lyrics or a traditional vocal; instead, there’s ample melodicism here to enchant listeners and hold their attention for nearly ten minutes. It’s a remarkably laid back way to begin Outside Ourselves. Blues makes its presence felt with the second song “Better Man” and the pensive, gentle vocal swell from Parker’s voice invests the song’s fine lyrics with even deeper layers of meaning. The lead guitar work is never ostentatious and artfully punctuates the song without ever being heavy handed.
The album’s title song foregoes the blues trappings of “Better Man” in favor of stylized soul with a handful of blues flourishes courtesy of guitar underlying the song. It has a tempered sense of urgency, but the steady press of the rhythm section keeps things moving forward in a direct way and the vocal harmonies peppering the song will linger with listeners. “Don’t Stop the Music” will clearly get over with live audiences in a big way – it’s uptempo, but never too rushed, and has percolating qualities not shared by the earlier songs. It’s a more funk vein, as well, but never in a false or unconvincing way.
“Dark Season Blues” has a mid-tempo saunter from the outset and strong organ accompaniment running throughout, but the drumming is particularly stunning for the simple and dependable way it sets a tone for the entire performance. It definitely checks all the required boxes for a blues tune, but the light touch exhibited by Parker and his band mates prevents this from ever sounding clichéd. Instead, it comes off as nuanced, tasteful, and thoughtful. “I Still Believe” breaks out the funk in a way the earlier “Don’t Stop the Music” never dared and it’s particularly notable for Parker’s vocals and the able support he receives from the song’s backing singers. Few releases in recent memory come close to achieving the seamless stylishness you’ll hear from Robert “Freightrain” Parker’s Outside Ourselves and, if nothing else, illustrates Parker’s comfort with surprising his audience. It’s never paint by numbers and the first class musicians alongside him for this project help him realize the album’s artistic ambitions without ever straining for effect.