I have no idea why Otis Taylor is on the cover of his new album, Contraband, dressed in what appears to be a coat — made of, what, ostrich feathers? polar bear fur? — and a giant tribal-looking chain dangling, hat rigidly perched, icy countenance obvious even behind the dark bushy beard and jet black sunglasses. But I can’t deny that it’s one more extension of the man’s mystery and mojo — that which makes his so-called "trance blues," an amalgamation of country-blues, spectral folk and snatches of more international music styles, so rich and darkly enchanting.
It’s hard to describe Taylor, nominally a bluesman but, like James Blood Ulmer or another inscrutable picker, he;s more a mutant of the genre. He’ won’t get lost in something primal — a repeated phrase, worked to the point of exhaustion like Richie Havens singing "Freedom" — or keep things even-paced and laid-back, yet he finds himself pocketed with menace and portent.
Sonically, Contraband feels familiar to Taylor fans, meaning no shortage of banjo boogies and pissed-off slide guitar. Taylor’s also up to his usual tricks of twisting blues tropes around with unusual instrumentation (here, snatches of violin and trumpet in addition to the glistening guitars) and vocalization that sounds somewhere between country blues rasp and dark-night-of-the-soul confessional moaning. But all 14 of these songs hold up to repeated listens, from the jailhouse laments ("Open These Bars") to the Willard Grant Conspiracy-style alt-country portraits ("Blind Piano Teacher"), to the angry blues rockers ("I Can See You’re Lying"). "Trance" is the operative word as Taylor’s abstruse arrangements, bleak meditations (balanced somewhere between fury and resignation) and the bleary gravitas in that voice, make him hypnotic.