Album Review: Amandla — Laughing Hearts

Amandla is a studio creation of Claude Coleman Jr., an Asheville multi-instrumentalist best known as the drummer for Ween. But unlike the decidedly acquired-taste music made by Ween, Amandla makes pure ear candy. Released February 14, Laughing Hearts (Marshall Hotel Records) is the third album using the Amandla name.

There’s a kinetic undercurrent to many of Laughing Hearts‘ 11 songs songs, one that persists even on the more dreamy, downtempo numbers. Coleman’s keen sense of rhythm makes even relatively simple and straightforward chord changes feel full of texture.

The fuzzed-out bassline that forms the basis of “Stay Awake” gives the song a vaguely malevolent feel that’s eventually lightened by Coleman’s inviting vocals. Subtle touches of tuned percussion on “In a Lovesong” takes the song to a higher level.

Elsewhere, rubbery basslines are executed in a assertive manner that provides the songs with a deep groove. “Follow What Brings You” is built upon a countrified foundation, but once the full instrumentation kicks in, it’s anything but country. Distorted, wah-wah guitar makes an appearance deep in the mix in the song’s second half.

The album’s title track may be Laughing Hearts‘ most inviting number, but all of the songs are memorable. “Summer Road” rocks at a speedy tempo, with sinewy lead guitar lines weaving in and out of the mix. All of the tunes here reward repeated listens; the songs seem to reveal their charms coyly.

Throughout Laughing Hearts, Coleman’s vocals exude a perfect balance of silky, expressive soulfulness and edginess. The slide and pedal steel guitars that weave in and out of Laughing Hearts‘ hypnotic songs may remind some listeners of post-Beatles George Harrison or even classic country.

Coleman’s songwriting walks a tightrope between the heady vibe of jam/electronica and the indelible hooks of ’70s soul and even ’80s power pop. His judicious use of synthesizers and other sonic textures are always applied in service of the songs.

A staggeringly gifted artist, Coleman handles all singing, writing and playing on Laughing Hearts. Live onstage, he plays guitar and fronts a band assembled to play Amandla’s music. The accessible, swirling vibe of Laughing Hearts should translate well to the concert stage.