Monday, November 29, 2021

Gov't Mule - Heavy Load Blues

Well fuck me, I’m impressed.  Albums of blues covers by established artists seem to be ten-a-penny this year, but this half’n’half originals and covers set by Gov’t Mule probably tops the lot.
Never mind the width - and with a running time of 78 minutes Heavy Load Blues is as wide as an elephant’s backside – feel the quality.  See, I can’t say I’m a huge Gov’t Mule fan, though I’ve got a couple of their albums and quite liked ‘em.  But that doesn’t matter, because a couple of listens to this tells you that you’re in the presence of some grown-ups who know what they’re about.
Okay, so a few of the songs here just are what they are, know what I mean?  They open with ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, and it’s a pretty straight reading with some screeching slide guitar and wailing harp, but even though it sounds like they’re just getting warmed up it’s still on the money.  
Gov't Mule - "Waddya mean, 'Say Cheese'?"
Pic by Jacob Blickenstaff
'Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ is a great song, nicely done, and easily matches up the benchmark treatment by Whitesnake, while ‘(Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt’ is less familiar fare -  a lesser known Leiber and Stoller slice of straightforward R’n’B, with a stop-time riff, and a distorted vocal to go with its pained narrative  By contrast, Ann Peebles’ ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ is oft-covered, and the Mules don’t attempt any radical reinvention, but they still put it over with a stylish, funky edge, as drummer Matt Abts’ rock steady beat is accompanied by throbbing bass from Jorgen Carlssen, sparky clavinet from Danny Louis, and squelching guitar from Warren Haynes.
But while all of the above are very good, the Mule shine even more brightly elsewhere.  ‘Hole In My Soul’ and ‘Wake Up Dead’ are both originals, but they come with “where have I heard that before?” melodies.  The former leans on slinky horns and subdued organ, studded by prickling guitar licks from Haynes, while the latter features an ear-catching organ riff, which Louis follows up with an excellent solo, while Haynes provides more injections of guitar commentary, and a steely solo that values substance over flash.
‘Snatch It Back And Hold It’ will doubtless please jam band enthusiasts, as after three minutes the Junior Wells and Buddy Guy tune, with its stuttering riff, sinks into a slower jam, with everyone playing off everyone else and stacks of tension and release going on.  ‘Make It Rain’, meantime, sounds like it’s been around forever, even though Tom Waits only recorded it in 2004.  Probably a lot of that is down to Waits, but I’m inclined to give a heap of credit to the Guvnors too, as they trigger its fatalistic lyrical mood with a swaying Fender Rhodes piano phrase, and more crackling vocals from Haynes.  Then the following ‘Heavy Load’ is seven minutes’ worth of
"Has anyone found the ending yet, fellas?"
haunting acoustic blues, depending on little more than a pinging guitar motif, hints of slide and some sparse piano chords as the backing for Haynes’ evocative vocal about encountering “too many bridges, too many roads”.  For me it feels a minute too long – not the only occasion they overstretch, but given the “live in the studio” approach taken to the album, I’m guessing tracks would just end when everyone was ready to end.
‘If Heartaches Were Nickels’ is another original, but one that comes over like a ready-made classic of a blues ballad, simple but resonant, and with a heartsick lyric delivered by Warren Haynes in emotive fashion, before they pick up the tempo a tad for a playful organ solo, getting Dave Brubeck-jazzy as they head towards Haynes’ guitar solo and a subtle, flickering ending.  ‘I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)’, on the other hand, is a lead-heavy storm, with a lurching riff reminiscent of Cream’s ‘Politician’, a surging organ turn from Louis, and a couple of solos from Haynes that progress from the merely tempestuous to howling, dizzying levels.  It could be the soundtrack to the Wolf turning in his grave.
Heavy Load Blues is supposedly the first blues album Gov’t Mule have ever recorded.  You could have fooled me.  The half dozen originals on offer here dovetail perfectly with the oldies sitting alongside them, and the end result is a standout collection.  Now you’ll have to excuse me – I need to go and dig out some more Mule albums.

Heavy Load Blues is out now on Fantasy Records.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bernie Marsden - Chess

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a whole spate of covers albums and tribute albums pouring forth right now, a lot of them by big name artists.  Bernie Marsden has already contributed to it this summer with his album Kings, a tribute to BB, Albert and Freddie.  And before you can say “sweet home Chicago” he’s back with the second volume in his Inspirations series, Chess, reflecting the influence of classic blues label Chess Records.
This, I would suggest, is a different kind of proposition from its predecessor.  Whereas the focus with Albert and Freddie King, if less so BB, often lay on their guitar playing, the Chess material
"Where do I plug this in then?"
Pic by Fabio Gianardi
Marsden has selected here tends to be of a simpler, more singer and song-led nature.  And on some tracks, it seems to me, that presents our Bernie with a bit of a challenge in the vocal department.
Marsden is a good singer, but I doubt if even he'd claim that he’s a great one.  But the issue isn’t so much quality, as personality.  On ‘I’m Ready’ he lacks Muddy Waters’ resonance, so that if he sounds laid back about being ready, it’s possibly out of necessity as much as choice – though he opts to chuck in some double-tracked/harmonised vocal lines that add a different flavour.  On ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’, which rattles along nicely on a skiffle-esque drum rhythm, and features a zinging guitar break, he can’t really match the oomph brought to the tune by Bo Diddley.  And while Chuck Berry wasn’t the most powerful of singers, the twinkle in his eye always came across, whereas on ‘Back In The USA’ Bernie sounds – well, too English really.
These examples aside though, Marsden shows the kind of feel for the material that you’d expect, right from the opening ‘Just Your Fool’, on which Alan Glen’s harmonica is much to the fore, reflecting the song’s origins with the harp legend Little Walter, while jangling piano and some bursts of organ from Bob Hadrell decorate the simple R’n’B riff, and Marsden contents himself with a brief, patient, but piercing solo to close.  Little Milton’s ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ is a given nice working over, with a modern sound and a punchy arrangement.  Jim Russell’s shuffling drums and John Gordon’s bass bring hints of funk, complemented by peals of organ from Hadrell, while Marsden gets himself into a vocal zone that’s satisfyingly strong and soulful.  On ‘I Can’t Hold On’ he finds similar vocal attack to go with some big, ringing slide guitar to do justice to Elmore James – all and sundry sounding as if they’re having fun as they suggest a singalong vibe with the “Talk to me baby” segment.
They do some slow stuff nicely too, firstly on ‘Won’t Be Hanging Around’, where a touch of reverb on the vocals helps him to produce extra feeling to go with some tasteful, on the money guitar interjections.  Meanwhile on ‘Who’s Been Talking’ Bernie wisely opts for a regretful vocal tone rather than competing with the weighty bitterness of Howlin’ Wolf, while successfully ‘British-bluesifying’ the song in a spooky and melancholy Peter Green fashion, courtesy of bags of sustain in his guitar tone and some haunting organ from Hadrell.
There are a couple of brief, self-penned instrumentals.  ‘Lester’ features some discordant guitar work counterpointed by the organ, over a snappy backbeat, while ‘Johnny’ is a strutting affair akin to the Fabulous Thunderbirds ‘Wait On Time’.  But nifty as they may be,  both tracks are fairly perfunctory.
Chess doesn’t perform any kind of alchemical transformation of its base material, but it’s a pleasing and respectful nod to some of Bernie Marsden’s inspirations.  But as I’ve suggested before, I’d prefer to hear him plough some fresh blues-rocking ground.
 
Chess is released by Conquest Music in association with Little House Music on 26 November, and can be ordered here.
Bernie Marsden has released a YouTube video about the making of Chess, with snippets from the songs, which you can watch here.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Five Points Gang - Wanted

“You might think we’re just a little blues band” suggest Five Points Gang on ‘All Points Bulletin’.  Well, no actually, I don’t think that.  And I very much doubt that the FPG fellas do either.  The blues may be in their musical DNA of this Welsh/Brazilian/French trio (yes, you read that right), but they sure as hell don’t sound like Muddy Waters on this first studio album.
No, they sound like a rock band who’ve bent their ears to Hendrix more than a little, in a similar fashion to Philip Sayce and Dan Patlansky.  And somebody in there has a fondness for Stevie
Five Points Gang - looking real cheerful after raiding the dressing up box
Wonder methinks, in funky ‘Living In The City’ mode.  And I dunno if they’ve ever paid much attention to Cream, but there’s a tendency towards all-action rhythm section syncopation of a jam band persuasion coming from somewhere.
So when they announce themselves with ‘How Long’, it’s with a twiddly guitar riff and rattling drums that raise a fair old head of steam, while lead singer and guitarist Joe Pearson kicks in with a strong, clear vocal - reinforced by well-pitched backing vox from his buddies – and a pretty zippy solo to close.  ‘All In All’ continues in a similar vein, Gaet Allard’s booming drums driving a strong and sturdy riff, while Pearson contributes a wah-wah solo – and then they slip in a Police-like “white reggae” rendition of the third verse to shake things up.
Later on though, they up the funk ante on the likes of ‘What Kind Of Man’ and ‘All Points Bulletin’.  The former is all round funkified, with Dinho Barral’s bass bobbling everywhere, a wiry guitar solo from Pearson and later a wailing wah-wah effort, and there’s a nifty passage of guitar riffing/drums interplay too, with Allard giving it large on the skins.  ‘All Points Bulletin’, meanwhile, is a rock’n’roll party tune, but with a Wonder-ish funky riff thrown into the mix, along with a slithering guitar solo before it reaches a screeching finale.
They can cool things off effectively too, as evidenced by ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with its elasticated bass and offbeat rhythm, and semi-plaintive vocal on the verses before picking up on the chorus with its ooh-oohing backing vocals, ahead of a razor-like guitar solo and Allard getting a whole lot more active on drums – and cymbals – as it seems is his wont.
If anything though, I’m most impressed by the snappy, commercial-as-all-hell AOR sound of ‘Deep Inside’, with its tush-shuffling rhythm, catchy to the nth degree melody, and more simple but effective harmonised backing vocals, en route to a hyperactive closing instrumental section.  It’s a mighty fine piece of pop-rock writing and arranging.  But lest anyone think they’re a bit soft, the following ‘Made Man’ goes a bit overboard in trying to establish some rough’n’raw credentials, with Pearson working himself into a lather vocally.  By the same token the slow number ‘Love By The Gun’ is better when he relies on the clarity of his voice than when he goes for rasping anguish.
He does deliver plenty of interesting guitar work though, whether it’s the jazz-inflected soloing on ‘Drifting Away’, the ‘Little Wing’-like mellow intro and distinctive, Stylophone-like tones on ‘All She Said’, or the jagged riffing on the agitated ‘The Secret’ – on which he again gets a mite too worked up vocally for my liking.
There’s lots of good stuff on Wanted – too much really, with 13 tracks clocking in at 55 minutes.  (Yeah, I know, I’m always moaning about albums being overlong.  But here’s the thing: I’m right.)  If Five Points Gang had held back three tracks for another day then this would have been a more focused album, and better for it.  All the same, Wanted is a pretty kick-ass calling card, and I strongly suggest that Five Points Gang are kept under close surveillance from now on.
 
Wanted is out now on Lunaria Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

When Rivers Meet - Saving Grace

Bang, bang, bang, on the door baby – bang, bang, on the door!  That hammering is the sound of When Rivers Meet, back with their second album Saving Grace, and demanding your attention.  The husband-and-wife duo of Grace and Aaron Bond, aided and abetted by their multi-instrumentalist producer Adam Bowers, like to make a rocking racket, and that alone will be enough to keep many headbanging fans happy.  But they’re not just one-trick ponies, as we’ll see.
There’s no ignoring the clatter-and-wallop dimension to the album though, so let’s start there, eh?  In this respect WRM’s go-to sound is frequently a primitive, skeletal, neo-Zeppelin vibe.  Take the song ‘Lost And Found’, for example.  A mucho Zep-like stop-time riff and drum rhythm
When Rivers Meet - strike a pose, there's nothing to it!
Pic by Rob Blackham
lay the foundations for Grace Bond’s edgy vocal, which then erupts into siren mode on the urgent, “Run for your life!” chorus, while Bowers adds rubbery bass, and then some paradiddling drumming towards the end.  Or there’s ‘Do You Remember My Name’ which combines an insistent, tense rhythm with a grinding guitar riff to bore into your brain, given a Page-like lift by a couple of snazzy slide mandolin motifs and some oddball sound effects, en route to a whipped-up finish.  Or there’s the stomp-along Bonzo-like shuffle of ‘Shoot The Breeze’, this time combined with a dipping slide riff, while Grace Bond adds a scraping break on what I take to be violin, before they change up the riff for the ending.  And there’s more – namely the furious closer ‘Make A Grown Man Cry’, its subterranean sledgehammer riff and landslide drums underpinning reverb-drenched hollering from the lady of the house.
Other heavy units show that they can lean away from the stripped-Led template though, and sometimes with extra credit. There are soul leanings discernible in Grace Bond’s terrific delivery of the chorus on ‘Never Coming Home’, for example – well, soul leanings from the Motor Town of Dagenham rather than Detroit, perhaps.   And joking apart, with Bowers adding some swirly organ backing and Jack Bruce-like bass, the song has a satisfying late 60s twist to it.  Meantime ‘Testify’ takes a snatch of ‘Watchtower’ riffing, then mixes in hurdy-gurdy keys and grooving bass from Bowers, while Mademoiselle Grace goes full throttle vocally, and also uses her violin to do a bit of harmonising with her other half’s Yardbirds-style moaned backing vocals.  There’s a whole lot going on in three-and-a-half minutes.
Hard rockin’ ain’t the whole deal though, and they explore different avenues elsewhere.  As straight up as the verses of ‘Have No Doubt About It’ may be, it still takes on a darkly Gothic quality, with Grace Bond’s eerie scrapes of violin, and potent, crystalline vocals - one could imagine it set to a nightmarish, black and white video.  Better still is the absorbing ‘Eye Of A Hurricane (Friend Of Mine Pt 2)’, which comes over like an old folk-blues tune à la Leadbelly, resurrected in ghostly fashion.  It’s Aaron Bond who renders the brooding lead vocal, but it’s the haunting, wordless vocal counterpoint provided by his missus that’s really striking.
But a pair of quieter tracks also shine.  ‘Don’t Tell Me Goodbye’ is simple and soulful, with a resonant melody.  It could go down an ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ road but ends up style-straddling with an Americana feel to great effect.  And ‘Talking In My Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting affair, combining melancholy harmonies with sparse acoustic strumming in exquisite fashion.
That diversity of material is good, because the Bonds do face one challenge with their heavier stuff – they don’t leaven their arrangements with much in the way of traditional “soloing”.  It’s evidently not Aaron Bond’s thing on guitar, and they seem wary of Grace Bond highlighting too much of her violin and slide mandolin.  And that’s fine.  But that being the case, they need to work harder on interesting bridges, codas and so on – even the false ending with mock spoken interruption on ‘He’ll Drive You Crazy’ – to maintain listeners’ interest.
For now though, When Rivers Meet are on a roll.  Their Saving Grace, as it were, is that their sound is so distinctive.  It can surely make many a casual listener sit bolt upright and think “What the proverbial . . . is that?”  Bang, bang, bang, on the door baby!

Saving Grace is released on 19 November on One Road Records, and can be ordered here.
Read the Blues Enthused review of debut album We Fly Free by When Rivers Meet here.
And you can read the review of The EP Collection here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Mississippi MacDonald - Do Right, Say Right

Mississippi MacDonald is a blues aficionado, a devotee.  “You think you’re from Chicago,” goes a line in his song ‘I Heard It Twice’, and listening to his latest album Do Right, Say Right, you could easily be convinced he’s from the Windy City.  Or maybe Memphis. And you’d be wrong either way – he’s from London.  But having immersed himself in electric blues and Southern soul since he was in short trousers, that’s the kind of sound he produces.
Mississippi MacDonald - eyes down for a full house of blues
The style of Do Right, Say Right is easy to sum up.  This ain’t no blues-rock, boys and girls.  Rhythm guitar riffing is conspicuous by its absence.  The pace rarely threatens to break a sweat.  The rhythm section values groove over flash, with cool organ adding to the foundations, and horns wafting rather than bursting into earshot here and there. Meanwhile MacDonald adds flurries of guitar notes in between his soul-inflected vocal lines.  I can easily picture him hoisting his guitar behind his back à la BB King, while he sings about classic blues subjects like back door men, cheating wives, and it being five o’clock in the morning and needing to clear his head.
Now, if all that sounds like the nine songs here might get a bit samey, well yeah, you might have a point.  Thing is though, that really doesn’t matter, because it’s so well put together.  All the pieces are assembled with hand-crafted precision and, one imagines, no small amount of luuurve.
Take the opening ‘I Was Wrong’, fr’instance.  It’s laid back, easy going, the organ backing is subtle, with wiggling bass from Elliott Boughen over a steady beat from Mark Johnson-Brown, while MacDonald’s vocal displays impressive, conversational phrasing, and he knocks out a couple of stylish, relaxed solos in addition to his flutterings elsewhere.
‘Drinker’s Blues’ is a straight-up slow blues, with MacDonald chucking in bendy guitar notes galore over subtle piano strokes from Phil Dearing, while his soulful vocals interact with both the piano and his guitar playing, and Lucy Dearing adds some swells of gospel-ish backing vocals.  It’s a well-constructed tune all round.
But if languid, contemplative, turn the lights down stuff is MacDonald’s métier, he still finds room for a couple of shifts of gear, albeit raunch-free ones.  ‘I Heard It Twice’ bops along pleasantly, propelled by Boughen’s walking bass, while MacDonald delivers a series of nifty guitar breaks.  Meantime ‘That’s It, I Quit’ is an enjoyably energetic stroll in the company of swinging drums and carefree bass, punctuated by some stops and starts to underline the witty lyric, and 'It Can't Hurt Me' is loose and kinda funky.
MacDonald is at his happiest when he’s taking his time though, on the likes of ‘If You Want A Good Cup Of Coffee’.  Its tone is set by sedate, sparse piano and long organ and horn notes, while MacDonald gets down to some biting guitar work, with teasing passages of tension and release.  And ‘Keep Your Hands Out Of My Pocket’ is a dreamy old thing, with quivering guitar and late night piano musings.  It’s a good vibe, well captured, and they let themselves spread out on it a bit, MacDonald flinging a variety of discordant and well-bent notes into the mix.
One could say that the sound of Do Right, Say Right is old-fashioned.  But with all but one of the tracks on the album self-penned, I prefer to think of it as Mississippi MacDonald stirring together all his songwriting, six-string and vocal influences, and putting his own personal stamp on them.  At a time when blues covers albums by big names seem to be all the rage, full marks to him and his gang for doing their own thing, and pulling it off.
 
Do Right, Say Right is released on 19 November, on APM Records.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Colin James - Open Road

There’s a lot to like in Colin James’ latest album Open Road.  On every song the feel is good, the playing is good, and the production is good.  I just have this nagging feeling that over the piece I should enjoy the album as a whole more than I do.  How come?  Let’s see if I can explain.
The album opens with 'Open Road' itself, a loping tune with sparkles of guitar over a grooving bass line, while James deploys an understated, rhythmic vocal to deliver atmospheric lyrics about every life being an open road.  It’s got a swampy vibe, with some buzzing guitar breaks bringing added edge.  That’s followed up a cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘As The Crow Flies’ that
Colin James - guitarist photographed without guitar shocker
Pic by J O'Mara
starts out with some retro-sounding steely guitar picking, before upping the ante with some punched out, gritty chords, while James’ lead guitar echoes the melody.
Then there’s the impressive slow blues of ‘That’s Why I’m Crying’, on which subtle guitar and shades or organ are interlaced with a convincing, soulful vocal.  It’s kept simple, relying on feeling not fireworks, and works a treat.  As does, in a different way, the following funky cover of Otis Rush’s ‘It Takes Time’, a danceable affair with walking bass, sharp injections of horns, and a nifty harp solo from Steve Marriner.
All that makes for a strong, satisfying opening, and on its own terms the following slowie ‘Down On The Bottom’ continues the streak, at times reminiscent of the Black Crowes, especially in James’ singing.  It’s evocative, with strong guitar licks bouncing off the vocal, and an intense closing solo.  Thing is, it also starts a run of four successive tracks that are all, in their own ways, slow to mid-tempo.  Of these, a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘I Love You More Than Words Can Say’ can’t match the aching simplicity of the original, while the ‘Stormy Monday’-style slow blues of ‘There’s A Fire’ is well-executed but a tad predictable. And if the spiky, discordant riff brings a bit of edge to the brooding ‘Change It’, it’s still a mid-tempo tune that feels a mite too comfortable to shake things up.
All of which makes the central core of the album sag a bit – and too much to recover the momentum right away with the relaxed, low-key boogie of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’.  And for all that Albert King’s ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me’ has an appealing, bobbing and weaving riff, underpinned by bubbling bass and snapping drums, it too is in a middling tempo.
Happily, the following ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Raging River’ go down some different avenues, even if they don’t apply much pedal to the metal.  The former is an old-fashioned blues, with prickling and scraping slide guitar over a minimalist, dragging beat, and the latter ventures in the direction of ‘Bad Company’, by the band of that name, with its weeping guitar sound and “out on the prairie under the stars” vibe.  Which just leaves ‘When I Leave This House’ – which is, praise be, a slice of upbeat boogie!  Okay, so it doesn’t kick your ass like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘The House Is A’ Rockin’’, but it does generate a good-time, dancin’ shoes mood.
So you see, taken individually all of the 13 songs here are good – a few of them very much so.  I enjoyed Open Road, and if Colin James had saved two or three of these tunes for another day, trimming its 54 minutes and creating a better stylistic balance between light and shade, I’d have enjoyed it even more.

Open Road is out now on Stony Plain Records.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Starlite Campbell Band - The Language Of Curiosity

They’re a bit bonkers, I think.  Bonkers about each other, and bonkers about making the kind of music they love, the way they want to make it.  And long may Suzy Starlite and Simon Campbell be that way.  Their debut album, Blueberry Pie, was a wonderful surprise that landed in my lap nearly five years ago now.  And happily, The Language Of Curiosity is similarly appealing.
They ease into proceedings with ‘Distant Land’, the whomping backbeat from drummer Steve Gibson backed up by crunching chords, and decorated by spiralling lead guitar lines from 
The Starlite Campbell Band - ready to rock!
Campbell.  There’s a melodic bridge – they do like to do something different with a bridge - and a guitar solo that buzzes and flutters like a bee hot on the trail of nectar.  It’s catchy too – but not as much as the following ‘Gaslight’, which rides a riff that’s so Stonesy it’s coated in brown sugar, en route to a shout-it-out chorus.  It has pointed lyrics about blowhard political liars too, and some razor-sharp slide guitar fills along the way.  And the first single from the album, 'Stone Cold Crazy', has a tough strut of a fuzzy riff,  coming over like one of Purple's lighter moments.  A bit.
These tunes may reaffirm their devotion to Sixties British blues and early Seventies British rock, but it ain’t nuthin’ compared to the wig-out they deliver halfway through the album.  ‘Said So’ stomps all over the riff from ‘You Really Got Me’, then mashes it together with a snippet of the melody from The Temptations’ ‘Get Ready’.  After belting along breathlessly for a couple of verses they downshift into a contemplative bridge.  And then, my friends, they stamp on the gas pedal, the bass’n’drums of Suzy Starlite and Steve Gibson start racing each other, and Campbell goes nuts on a wild, distorted solo, tearing down the road like an F1 car.  They find the brakes, just, for another verse or so, and the whole thing shudders to a halt to the accompaniment of some Jon Lord-style Hammond B3 doodling by Jonny Henderson.
But rockin’ it up is not, stylistically, the be-all and end-all of The Language Of Curiosity, no sirree.  For one thing, Suzy Starlite was a folk-rock singer before she learned to crank out a bass guitar groove, and on ‘It Ain’t Right’ she delivers the dreamy melody in blissed-out fashion, over pattering drums, acoustic guitar strumming, and simple, warm piano chords.  Hell, there’s even a wordless harmonised passage that sounds handed down from the Mamas and Papas.  And if the closing ‘Ride On Cowboy’ evolves from a metronomic kick drum to a four-on-the-floor funky
A little bit bonkers, a whole lotta rock'n'roll
vibe, all grooving bass, chirping guitar and Fender Rhodes frills, her vocal is English rose rather than sassy soul siren – except when her other half breaks out a sizzling solo and she gets all breathy and sexy in the background.  And the title track is a real curve ball, which kicks off injangly post-punk pop fashion redolent of ‘Echo Beach’, the two of them harmonising in lock-step, before taking a left turn into Campbell crooning like Midge Ure dancing with tears in his eyes over washes of keys.  And if that sounds mad, it’s still a bum-wiggling little winner.
Other highlights are in a more reflective vein, most impressively on ‘Take The Time To Grow Old’, where a ‘Dear Prudence’ guitar motif combines with sustained organ chords and tinkling piano chords, while Campbell sings about defying the dying of the light.  It’s a post-Beatles pop-rock ballad that could easily con its way into Johnnie Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies radio show, and it’s topped off by a big, ultra-fuzzy guitar solo.  ‘Lay It Out On Me’, meanwhile, is a more melancholy affair, with a ruminative bass line and delicate piano while Campbell drifts between Peter Green and Dave Gilmour stylings with some spare, almost whispered guitar work.
Simon Campbell seems like a walking encyclopaedia of classic British axe heroes.  But overall his guitar sound is his own, and it’s remarkable that he eschews effects pedals in search of it.  Just as importantly though, The Language Of Curiosity is about well-constructed songs, about infectious melodies and worthwhile words, and the couple’s co-writing fulfils those ambitions with a bit of flair.  The Starlite Campbell Band’s bonkers devotion to their musical muse has produced another crop of goodies.

The Language Of Curiosity is released on 5 November, and can be ordered here (though the vinyl edition may not be available till 2022).

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sue Foley - Pinky's Blues

Sue Foley may be Canadian by birth, but after 30 years living in Austin, her latest album Pinky’s Blues has ‘Texas’ stamped all over it.  It was recorded in Texas, with Texan Hammond organ maestro doing the knob-twiddling, and there’s a guest appearance from guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan – hailing, of course, from Dallas, Texas.  Hell, the lady probably wears boots labelled ‘Made In Texas’.
But leave all of that to one side, and the sound of the album still hollers ‘Texas blues’.  It’s there in the feel of ‘Hurricane Girl’, one of the best tracks on offer, which may have a sturdy, stop-time thing going on, but still has drummer Chris Layton and bassist Jon Penner still bring the swing. 
Happiness is . . . Texas blues and a pink guitar
Pic by Todd Wolfson
Meantime the guitars of Foley and the aforementioned Vaughan ripple, shiver, and skim over the top, and if her vocal doesn’t have the command of Etta James declaring she’s a ‘W.O.M.A.N’, it’s still satisfying assertive.
There’s a cinematic feel to songs like ‘Two Bit Texas Town’ and ‘Southern Men’, as if David Lynch were demanding stacks of twang.  The first is an interesting bit of storytelling, but fizzles out a bit.  The second is stronger, with a rumbling, sub-Diddley rhythm, an interesting tune, and a spooky guitar break, though the limitations of Foley’s girlish voice start to become apparent.
She’s better on the romantic slowie ‘Say It’s Not So’, bringing a breathy quality to bear as it opens with just guitar and vocal, while Penner adds a moody bass line to Layton’s restrained drums.  And Foley’s playing here on her guitar 'Pinky' is resonant, human, old-school stuff perfectly tailored to the song – unlike the fade-out that undercuts the emotions.  She delivers a suitably aching vocal on the shimmering ballad ‘Think It Over’, which reaches for the soulfulness of Sam Cooke, assisted by Flanigin’s hesitant and romantic organ solo.
There’s good stuff too in the brisk shuffle of ‘Dallas Man’, with its nagging riff, even if it feels a bit perfunctory.  ‘Stop These Teardrops’ is a great find for a cover too, a catchy slice of shoe-shuffling blues with a stuttering guitar line, penned by (Miss) Lavelle White.  And the jazzy swing of ‘Boogie Real Low’ sounds just like the kind of old-time 50s bluesy rock’n’roll it is, even if the vocal seems almost like an afterthought.
The quickie instrumental ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ is slight but fun, with Foley’s ducking and diving, witty guitar nicely complemented by the snap and swing of the rhythm section, and Layton’s cymbal stings.  Meanwhile the closing Junior Wells cover ‘When The Cat’s Gone The Mice Play’ is essentially ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ Mark II, without Wells’ convincing growl but Tex-ified by slipping in bursts of Freddie King’s ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’.
I do like a bit of Texas blues.  It’s direct, uncomplicated stuff, in which great guitar playing often seems like ego-free fun around the expression of simple emotions.  There are weaknesses evident in Pinky’s Blues – Foley should have been pushed harder on the vocal front, and a few songs should have been rounded out more definitively.  But it’s still an outing to raise a smile and warm the heart.

Pinky's Blues is out now on Stony Plain Records.