“Once I began that process I knew there were a couple of songs floating around, but I honestly didn’t think that they were finished,” Brenneck continues. “Because they hadn’t made the record at the time, I just assumed that they weren’t great -- if they weren’t on par with the record they were intended for, I didn’t think they were going to be so great now. Luckily, I was pretty wrong about that.”
Bradley’s most effective vocal performances didn’t require fully-formed phrases or complete words: they were often ecstatic or anguished utterances -- Unnnhhh! Ahhhhh! Hah! -- and Black Velvet kicks off with one of them, an exclamation point of an “OH!” on “Can’t Fight the Feeling.” What follows are ten tracks that faithfully convey Bradley’s ability to squeeze the most out of a vowel across his whole career, as the songs were pulled from sessions that fed his three albums. Some songs sound familiar, like one-off releases of Bradley’s take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Nirvana’s “Stay Away,” which echo his satiny rendition of Black Sabbath’s Changes, the title track of his 2016 album. Others, like “Luv Jones,” an undulating groove that could dominate any blaxploitation soundtrack, and “I Feel A Change,” in which Bradley wails an all-or-nothing ultimatum to his lover over the Menahan Street Band’s building din, reminded Brenneck of the range of Bradley’s talent, and what he captured in the studio beyond what listeners have already heard.
“It’s this beautiful ballad that was recorded for Victim of Love, but that album had four ballads on it. Even though this song was completed, it just didn’t make the record -- never got mixed, just went right back on the shelf undocumented until I found it,” says Brenneck of “I Feel A Change.” “When I found it, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, how did I forget about this song?’ Charles’ vocal take is incredible and the band performance is killer. It teared me up a little bit -- like, okay, there’s some sunshine in this endeavor. I’m finding music and it’s cheering me up, I’m starting to see the light, this record is starting to make sense. I see the beauty of it.”
Mixing the Black Velvet tracks with Roth in Riverside was therapeutic for Brenneck, as Roth sadly knew from experience what Brenneck was going through. Daptone’s roster of twelve acts is familial in vibe and scope: many bands share players, and Brenneck himself was a guitarist in the Dap-Kings before he got behind the board as a producer under Roth’s wing. Including Bradley, three of Daptone’s artists died between June of 2016 and September of 2017: Dan Klein, the lead singer of reggae act The Frightnrs, passed after suffering from ALS in June of 2016, and Sharon Jones, the label’s flagship artist and the enigmatic soul singer who worked closest with Roth, fought pancreatic cancer before it killed her in Nov. 2016. Having worked on the release of The Frightnrs’ Nothing More to Say and Jones’ Soul of a Woman following their deaths, Roth knew how impossible it could feel to listen to the music of silenced muses as the sudden architect of their legacies.
“I remember telling him, ‘These were the hardest parts for me when I was working on Sharon’s stuff,’” he says. “It wasn’t the music, because eventually you get deep into the work and you’re distracted by the duty of it. What was really hard for me was hearing the moments before or after a take when there’s just bantering: ‘That’s a good take!’ ‘Pass me that!’ It’s just casual conversation, not something you’re really used to hearing that much from people you’ve lost. It makes it that much harder to hear than a performance -- maybe because you’re kind of expecting that.” (The final line we hear from Bradley on Black Velvet’s closing track, a previously unheard full-band version of “Victim of Love," is one of these intimacies, a soft “I’m gonna keep on loving you” he insists before the track fades out. )
“We both lost giant figures in our life, the vessels that we connected ourselves to as artists,” says Brenneck of this new, unfortunate bond he shares with Roth. “That was the process of the first two records also -- I’d track them and then I’d mix them with Gabe. Doing that to finish this record for Charles was cathartic, and it was nice to be in the company of my mentor again. With both of us having been through similar experiences with different artists, we didn’t have to say anything, but there was something really comfortable about finishing these songs with Gabe. God knows I don’t want to sit by myself and mix them, because that just would’ve been depressing as fuck, you know?”
For both Brenneck and Roth, it’s what you can’t hear on Black Velvet that strikes the most poignant chord.