Kim Wilson, in detouring through the slow-simmering joys of R&B on this new Fabulous Thunderbirds recording, has allowed himself a remarkable depth of feeling. It is, to my ear, the best he’s ever sung.
On the Verge, set for release via Severn Records, hews closer to the Stax Records aesthetic than it does the Texas roadhouse, beginning with “I Want To Believe” — which opens On the Verge at a slow boil, sounding like a lost Staples Singers side. That sets the stage for a series of similarly focused groovers, most written by Wilson and co-producer/keyboardist Kevin Anker.
Not that you can’t peg this as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, whatever the album’s atmospherics. There’s just suddenly a lot more going on around what was once a straight-forward sound.
Wilson adds a few tough blasts on the harp to “Too Much Water,” for instance, but it’s amidst a polyrhythm straight out of the Hi Rhythm Section’s playbook. Elsewhere, “Hold Me” finds Wilson barking with an attitude not unlike “Wrap It Up,” before settling into a reggae-inflected tune of quiet majesty and supremely urbane coolness. The playful 1950s riff of “Lovin’ Time” will take longtime fans back to the band’s Jimmie Vaughan era, but — as Wilson unleashes another startlingly unguarded vocal — not for long. He didn’t sound this good back then.
Bassist Randy Bermudes contributes “Runnin’ from the Blues,” a song whose desperately sad lyric would have been obscured by its redemptive groove — if not for Wilson’s raw delivery. (The Fabulous Thunderbirds are rounded out these days by guitarists Mike Keller and Johnny Moeller, and drummer Jason Moeller.) “Do You Know Who I Am,” written by Wilson alone, is a stark story song that digs even deeper, discussing our priorities during tough times.
In a show of force, Wilson’s “That’s the Way We Roll” grinds with a rooster-tailing menace, but not before the the Thunderbirds unleash a furious funk number in “Got to Bring It With You.” “Diamonds Don’t Kiss You Back,” by Steve Gomes (who also joined in composing several other cuts here with Wilson and Anker), finds Wilson channeling soul-blues greats like Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor. If the last time you checked in with Wilson was on MTV-era videos for tracks like “Tuff Enuff,” his evolution as a vocalist arrives like a thunderclap of wonder.
“Lonely Highway,” the last of three tunes co-written with David Earl, gives Wilson another chance to reassert one of the few things he hadn’t yet on this tour-de-force recording — his once and future prowess on the harmonica. Where so many are content to squall their way through, Wilson displays a hard-won sense of restraint.
Like so much of On the Verge, it’s filled with as much ambition and verve as it is pure, thrumming emotion.