The inside sleeve of Delbert McClinton's Acquired Taste reads "...nobody likes me at first." And that's a fair assessment for one of the most enduring figures in American roots music. McClinton has assembled a startlingly consistent catalog of blues, R&B, Southern funk, ragged Southern soul, rock, country, and then some over nearly 50 years. That said, he puts a some people off initially because his iconic voice is so immediately in-your-face, so powerful and driven it leaves the listener with little room to breathe on first listen. This set was produced by Don Was and recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles. He might seem a strange producer for McClinton, who has had a consistent "sound" for decades, despite his wide array of stylistic adventures. But Was is better than anybody who has produced his records since the late '70s: he understands that McClinton's voice is showing signs of age, and that that's not a bad thing. Using members of the singer's road band and some crack studio aces, Was adds some killer rhythmic touches in this 13-song set that runs the gamut. McClinton never deviates from the roots, but the producer adds some Afro-Cuban percussion on some tracks like the opener, "Mama's Little Baby" (as well as some killer backing vocals by Maxine and Julia Waters), to give this Southern funk tune some urban bump, without compromising the rawness in either the grain of the singer's voice or the immediacy of the band's sound. In other words, this cracking number comes off sounding barroom live. The stellar soul tune "I'm Starting a Rumor" is one of the most beautiful love songs McClinton (with help from Guy Clark and Gary Nicholson) has ever written. (He wrote or co-wrote everything here.) This is followed by a change-up in "Can't Nobody Say I Didn't Try," a killer honky tonk number and then by a dark love song in "Never Saw It Comin'." (It may be the last song the brilliant session guitarist and longtime McClinton road dog picker Stephen Bruton ever played on.) You get the idea -- it's one stylistic shift after another with only one thing in common: that voice. Was highlights the new vulnerability and the unwillingness to surrender in McClinton's voice to ground the album and hold it together. Even at this stage of his career, his singing voice can blow away an audience with its expressiveness and singular phrasing. Check out the tough funk on "Do It" with a smoking Rhodes piano and d some nasty distorted guitar, and the jazzed-up hepcat blues of "People Just Love to Talk," a compelling twist on jump that offers a killer piano and horn chart. The vulnerable "Wouldn't You Think (She Would Have Been Here by Now)" is a ballad that illustrates better than most that there's no fool like an old fool -- especially in the refusal to accept reality -- likewise in the slow rhumba in "She's Not There Anymore." Ultimately, Acquired Taste is one of, if not the best, studio outing McClinton's issued this decade. The partnership between himself and Was is a fine one. Both men focus on only two things here: great songs and the best way to get them across with that voice. If this album takes a spin or two to get acclimated to, it's well worth the investment.  - Thom Jurek

CD - Acquired Taste (2009)