Right out of the gate, the strolling and assertive introduction to “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me” signals that Can’t Turn Me Around is not your typical gospel album. Music lovers raised on a diet of ‘70s arena rock may find that thoughts of Foghat and Bad Co. spring to mind. It’s not until the close harmony response vocals come in that one gets confirmation that indeed, Dedicated Men of Zion have the Lord on their minds.
Dedicated Men of Zion are from the small city of Greenville, North Carolina, and it’s there that the group’s gospel roots were formed. Vocalists and siblings Anthony “Amp” and Antwan Daniels grew up as friends and fellow church congregants with Marcus Sugg and Dexter Weaver; today – thanks to some marriages – all four are related.
Anthony’s background as a hip-hop producer and backing musician (Bebe Winans, Toni Braxton et. al) ensures that the vocal quartet has the kind of instrumental backing it deserves. The rock-solid rhythm section – Mark Stuart on bass and sought-after Memphis drummer George Sluppick – provides faithful and insistent support that chugs and swings. Will Sexton (originally from Texas but these days a Memphis fixture as well) lends sinewy guitar licks in the restrained yet soulful and note-perfect manner of Steve Cropper. Calvin Barnes’ superb Hammond organ is equally understated.
And like the best of classic Memphis-based musical projects, Can’t Turn Me Around features some tight horn work: Jim Spake and Art Edmaiston give the project an injection of the kind of brass that helped make Stax and Muscle Shoals productions truly special. And Bruce Watson’s production here demonstrates a deep understanding of the group’s aesthetic.
But the distinctive musical personality of the North Carolina quartet ensures that all of those Bluff City ingredients don’t overwhelm; the record is Dedicated Men of Zion through and through. Instrumentally, the hypnotic title track is little more than a one-chord vamp. But the vocalists and musicians wring every bit of emotional intensity out of those spare elements, and the result is transcendent. When Sexton peels off a solo, it’s mixed low in the arrangement; it’s clear that the singers are the center of gravity here and throughout the record.
Set aside the lyrics and “You Don’t Know” is – at least at its start – a down and dirty blues number. But the song shifts quickly into a modern take on traditional African American gospel, redolent of the Dixie Hummingbirds. The group manages it have it both ways, staying true to the musical values of traditional gospel while sounding thoroughly timeless. The music’s appeal is undeniable.
The devotional, spiritual nature of Can’t Turn Me Around shines through on all of its ten tracks. When Dedicated Men of Zion sing a phrase like “Great God Almighty” on the relentlessly, joyously uptempo “When I Look Back,” they mean it literally. But secular-minded listeners may well react to the verve, passion and fervor with which the group serves up these tunes by shouting that same phrase. When the four singers chant the title of the closing number, “Work Until My Days Are Done,” listeners may find themselves hoping that those days are far away in the future.