Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Will Color Your World Via ‘Gnomes and Badgers’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Karl Denson has been busy his whole career, backing Lenny Kravitz, forming the legendary Greyboy All-Stars, establishing his Tiny Universe’s jamband sound and most recently joining The Rolling Stones on the live stage, replacing the departed Bobby Keys. Now comes his first studio album from KDTU in over five years, and it is a dance-laden, guest-filled, polished funk fest with many nods to the current political/cultural climate, New Orleans groove, gospel, soul and good old fashion rock and roll.  

Denson explains the title of the record that Gnomes and Badgers: “are the different people in the world, the different parties on the left and the right—as a great way to frame the political debate and the debate about listening to each other”. “Change My Way” (co-written and performed with Ivan Neville and Anders Osborne) directly addresses today’s fight over the border wall and racism with ominous heavy guitar riffs while “Can We Trade” calls for unity with shimmering flute, percussion from guest Mike Dillon and a killer saxophone solo.

This is, after all, a Tiny Universe record (bassist Chris Stillwell, drummer Zak Najor, keyboardists David Veith and Kenneth Crouch, trumpeter Chris Littlefield, twin-guitar attack of D.J. Williams and Seth Freeman) and the jamming, dance ready tracks are a major focus as the live stage is the bands home base.

Opener “What If You Knew” demonstrates the strongest passionate singing from Denson on the record with Jamiroquai style polished funk behind the vocals while “I’m Your Biggest Fan” uniquely deals with a stalker via up-tempo wah-wah strumming and keyboard runs. Not everything is as smooth; “Something Sweet” goes for a sexy soul feel but ends up disjointed, never taking off while “Falling Down” drips with cliché lyrics, sticking around too long.

The lone cover on the album finds the players nailing their take on Leo Nocentelli’s funk/rock “Gossip” with crisp horns, gorgeous guitar work and drumming, it is only topped by the funky as get out instrumental “Millvale, PA” which has a host of guests (including Neville and Osborne returning) but it is Greg Izor’s fuzzed up harmonica which steals a smoking album highlight. “Smart Boy” is inspired by the swelling of The Band’s “Chest Fever” mixing in heavy riffs, the Brownout Horns and Chuck Leavell’s piano before the gospel/soul of “Time To Pray” showcases a dominant bass line, backing vocals and powerful horn breaks, lyrically calling for a calmness during troubling times.

The relaxed extended groove of “Just Remember” allows all of the Tiny Universe to showcase their skills (including lead vocals from Rebecca Jade), easing the album out on a mellow note. While Gnomes and Badgers finds Denson writing about volatile issues, his solution overall is a time-honored slogan, come together…and get down.

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