In the three years since singer-songwriter Phil Cook released his debut solo album, Southland Mission, he's steered his blues-driven roots sound closer to the shores of gospel and soul. That directional shift makes sense in light of the extracurricular work he's conducted in the interim: Cook wrote for Mavis Staples and The Blind Boys of Alabama, and has partnered with The Branchettes' Lena Mae Perry, among other seminal roots music figures, on a handful of projects. For his second album, People Are My Drug, he borrows from their encouraging messages at a time when being kind remains critical.
Community forms the thematic cornerstone of the nine tracks, which include covers of Allen Toussaint ("Life") and Randy Newman ("He Gives Us All His Love"). But more than simply sing about how and why people need one another, Cook embodies that ideal by drawing upon the community itself. People Are My Drug reverberates with voices. There's Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath on the bluesy call-and-response "Miles Away" (which she co-wrote), Tamisha Waden on the churning gospel number "Steam Powered Blues," and a powerful choir on "Another Mother's Son." Encouragement can't be a solo effort; it requires the action of many.
As Cook has explained, People Are My Drug presents listeners with the kind of music "that makes him feel." Feeling has long been the backbone of his musical approach, and it shines on People Are My Drug. The quietly poignant "Tupelo Child," about respecting those who have journeyed before you, was written by Hiss Golden Messenger's MC Taylor, with whom Cook plays as a recording and touring member. Cook's soft strumming and whisper-like harmonies with Molly Sarlé and Meath capture all the front-porch-magic of the city's roots scene.
If Cook's music sounds like a porch gathering, People Are My Drug actually comes closer to a prayer. Be kind, Cook reminds listeners, and don't forget that none of us can get through life alone. The passage requires people and People Are My Drug celebrates those relationships big and small.