Laissez les bon temps roulez. Or, for the French-impaired: ”Let the good times roll.” This is the unofficial motto of New Orleans, and it could also be the rallying cry for Family Groove, the latest album by the Neville Brothers, the Big Easy’s First Family of R&B. Of the six studio efforts by the four brothers — singer Aaron, singer-keyboardist Art, saxophonist Charles, and singer-percussionist Cyril — this one comes closest to capturing the joyous buoyancy of their live performances. From the opener, a driving cover of Steve Miller’s 1976 hit, ”Fly Like an Eagle,” to the closer, an intercontinental medley of a New Zealand Maori chant and the hymn ”How Great Thou Art,” the Nevilles’ enthusiasm is irresistible. And thanks to their deeply moral perspective on social issues, their music is good for the body and good for the soul.
You can almost hear the Nevilles sweat on Family Groove, and that wasn’t true for the two albums that preceded it. Both Yellow Moon (1989) and Brother’s Keeper (1990) were extraordinary in many ways, with songs that actually were a little stronger than this new batch, but the production was somewhat airless. You could hear every exquisite nuance of what the Nevilles were doing, but they seemed a little formal. By contrast, Family Groove finds them at ease and completely natural, effortlessly pounding out their blend of various R&B styles, from funk and soul to doo-wop and just about everything else you could name.
This music is the springboard for Neville songs about the subjects that concern them most. On the serious side, the brothers condemn homelessness, spiritual emptiness, drugs, and street crime (”Line of Fire” and ”Let My People Go”). As heartfelt and convincing as their pleas can be, they express them here in a vague, almost platitudinous way. Leavening the family fervor are a couple of candy-sweet valentines — ”Take Me to Heart” and ”True Love’ — and the down-to-earth ”It Takes More,” which lays out this bottom line for a relationship: ”It takes a whole lot of me/A whole lot of you/To find true love in this world.”
Family Groove is well named, since the brothers build almost every tune upon a steadily pumping set of rhythms — from the urgent grind of ”Let My People Go” to the Caribbean sway of ”On the Other Side of Paradise” to the funky strut of the title tune. As narrow as this approach can be, the Nevilles infuse each groove with tantalizing, enlivening touches. Spindly guitar figures and a roiling, New Orleans-funeral-style horn section spice up ”Family Groove,” for example, and a thin line of earthy organ music helps to keep the light and airy ”Take Me to Heart” from floating away. More than anything else, however, the glove-tight combination of bassist Tony Hall and drummer Willie Green, urged on by Art Neville’s jabbing keyboards, keeps the music rocketing along.
Soaring over this festival of polyrhythms are the incomparable Neville voices. Aaron’s creamy falsetto takes the high road, embroidering love songs with lacy curlicues. Art’s supple, leathery baritone takes the low road, investing his more serious outings with world-weary gravity. In between is Cyril, who croons with an impassioned moral conviction that nearly matches that of Marvin Gaye. When the three men trade off verses or gather together for tight harmonies, the effect is exhilarating. One line from ”Family Groove” makes the point in a syrupy but telling way: ”There’s nothing more blessed than a happy happy family.” The singing is so strong it overrides almost any flaw in the lyrics, including cornball homilies. When the Nevilles sing, even a cynic can believe.