Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Gnomes and Badgers
Karl Denson’s star is rising. He will be replacing Bobby Keys on the upcoming Rolling Stones tour. He continues to back Lenny Kravitz and play with the Greyboy All-stars, but he’s long been a beacon in the jam scene with his Tiny Universe band, finding time to release his first album with that unit in the past five years. His septet is augmented with a staggering 17 guests, including Ivan Neville, Anders Osborne, Lukas Nelson and Chuck Leavell. As you’d guess, it’s a funk fest with plenty of second line grooves and hints of soul and gospel. It’s impossible to sit still through much of it.
Denson is not too pleased with the current political environment and answers our divisive times with a loud, pulsating album. He explains the title of the record that Gnomes and Badgers: “are the different people in the world, the different parties on the left and the right—as a great way to frame the political debate and the debate about listening to each other. Somebody needs to say something, and hopefully I can say it in a way that make people reconsider how they think about things.” This exchange of ideas is captured best on tunes like “Time to Pray” and “Change My Way,” the latter a co-write with Osborne and Neville. Even though it doesn’t resonate with this writer as a blues album per se, Denson feels that it is. “It’s a blues about love; it’s a blues about life. It’s about people’s relationships.”
After a couple of futile attempts at making the record, Denson scrapped all but three of the songs that made it to this batch of 11. In the process, a new incarnation of the Tiny Universe emerged with these players – Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and former Greyboy drummer Zak Major, as well as keyboardists David Veith and his pal from Kravitz’s band, Kenneth Crouch. Chris Littlefield blows trumpet alongside Denson’s sax while the twin guitars of funkmaster D.J. Williams and slide/lap steel slasher Seth Freeman add the combustible attack. Denson, of course, plays sax, flute, and percussion as well ad delivering the lead vocals.
In preparing for the record, Denson drew inspiration from Funkadelic (“Can We Trade”), Rufus Chaka Khan (“Just Remember”), Tower of Power (‘Time to Pray”) and Betty Davis in the funk-rock of “Change My Way.” Echoes of Sly, Labell, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder echo through as well. They are all Denson’s tunes except Cyril Neville’s hit “Gossip,” tightly rendered with crisp horns, and spot on guitar and drumming.
He kicks of with perhaps his strongest vocal on the disc, “What If You Knew,” replete with filfthy wah-wah effects and churning funk. “Change My Way” directly addresses immigration and racism with thunderous guitar riffs from Osborne while “Can We Trade” calls for unity with Denson offering both flute and sax, while guest Mike Dillon adds percussion. “I’m Your Biggest Fan” deals with a stalker via frenetic keyboards.
Some of the middle tracks fail to ignite as well as the tunes in the first half. It seems like he’s trying to change it up, going for a soul feel on “Something Sweet” that lacks cohesion while “Falling Sown” is simply a bit too trite. Yet, a couple of clunkers don’t detract much from the album because the second half has some sizzling cuts too. “Millvale, PA” features a wide array of guests (including Neville and Osborne) but it is Greg Izor’s harp playing is the clear standout. (check him out on Rosie Flores’ A Simple Case of the Blues). Izor is a monster on harmonica. The keyboard work on “Smart Boy” evokes The Band’s “Chest Fever” as the Brownout Horns and Chuck Leavell’s piano also imbue the tune. The closer “Just Remember” is the album’s most mellow tune as Rebecca Jade takes the lead vocals and each band member takes a turn.
While Denson set out to ostensibly make a political record, the grooves are the highlight. This is as danceable a record as any, taking the edge off Denson’s displeasure with our current socio-political state.
- Jim Hynes