Album Review: Omar Coleman – Strange Times

Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, vocalist and harmonica player Omar Coleman got his first well-deserved break when he was featured on Severn Records’ 2007 compilation of current-day Chicago harp players, Diamonds in the Rough. Coleman released his full-length debut, West Side Wiggle, in 2011. That same year, he was featured on Very Lucky Man, an album by International Blues Challenge winner and guitarist Sean Carney. Signing to the venerable Delmark the next year, Coleman released a pair of albums for the hometown label, 2015’s Born & Raised and a live set, Live! At Rosa’s Lounge. Another release for a small label (Omar Coleman & Westside Soul) appeared that same year.

The producer of Westside Soul introduced Coleman to Eddie Roberts, British-born guitarist of acclaimed modern funk/boogaloo group The New Mastersounds; around the time of that meeting, Roberts launched his own record label, Color Red. And while many of the acts featured on the label inventively explore a kind of instro-funk vibe, Coleman’s blues are very much in line with Roberts’ aesthetic; he signed Coleman to the label. In 2020 Roberts scheduled recording sessions, and the resulting nine-song album, Strange Times was scheduled for release in 2021.

Strange times indeed: owing both to worldwide lockdowns and supply chain issues, Coleman’s Color Red debut – a vinyl-only release – would be delayed more than two years, finally appearing in early 2024. And while that delay likely frustrated Coleman, for listeners, it’s well worth the wait. Roberts’ determinedly organic and analog approach to the recording studio – coupled with Coleman’s artistry and his gift for coming up with meaningful lyrics essentially on the fly – has resulted in a superb album.

In the run-up to the long-player’s delayed release, Color Red did manage digital release of four select cuts from the record. While Strange Times is a consistently solid record, those four tracks offer an excellent sampling of what’s on offer within the record’s grooves.

Deep grooves and spirited horns provide rock-solid backing for Coleman on the autobiographical “Chicago.” Shades of Otis Redding make themselves known in Coleman’s voice, and the tune’s vibe has an Albert King feel, albeit with harp – not electric guitar – as its focus instrument. Roberts leads the band and plays guitar, but he wisely leans back, keeping the spotlight squarely on Coleman.

On the title track, Roberts engages in instrumental dialogue with the horns, and the rhythm section lays down a moody, vaguely sinister feel. “Strange Times’” arrangement hearkens back to ‘70s blaxploitation soundtracks like Super Fly and Shaft, and a soaring yet subtle string section heightens that character. Here, Coleman focuses on his soaring vocal, leaving the harp on the table until halfway through the song; at that point he turns in a hearty extended solo.

“You’ve Been Cheatin’” has a character that will be familiar to fans of The New Mastersounds’ trademark sound. But Coleman adds a What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye feel to the song, and Roberts’ production serves to reinforce those values. Coleman’s solo evokes thoughts of Stevie Wonder, but the song remains rooted in the blues.

The rousing “Slow Down Baby” mines a Stax feel, with a kinetic rhythm section, beefy and whip-smart horn charts. Coleman howls and shouts in between the lyric lines, and when he blows like mad on a harp solo, the band storms along right behind him. In the song’s second half, Roberts peels off some wonderful, compact solo riffs in response to Coleman’s singing. On an album with no weak tracks, “Slow Down Baby” may well be the four most exciting minutes on the whole set. And that’s saying something; after the wait, Strange Times should go down as one of the year’s best releases.