Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Connolly Hayes - Remember Me

Some things just slip under the radar, y’know.  Like London band Connolly Hayes, fr’instance. Earlier this year they won a UK Blues Award as Emerging Act Of The Year, and seems this debut album came out on 14 June.  News to me, until some PR bumf crossed my path the week after that.  But hey, better late than never, because Remember Me is decidedly worth the candle.
That PR e-mail came with a link to opening track ‘Frank’s Song’, and one listen to that was enough to make me sit bolt upright and pay attention.  It rides a whip-cracking blues-rock riff with a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it familiarity, topped off with urgent, double-barrelled vocals from Jess Hayes and guitarist.  I’m logging a cymbal-crashing, bass-burbling collision between Bad Company and southern rock – and by the latter I don’t mean something of the ubiquitous Black Crowes-imitating variety.
Connolly Hayes - happiness is a thumbs up from Blues Enthused

There’re fewer of those Bad Co echoes as the album progresses, but that’s no matter.  When they dial it down on ‘Secret’, into a more soulful Southern domain of tripping drums and sweetly intertwined guitars from Connolly and six-string buddy Richard Clark, I’m still on board.  There’s a shimmying looseness about the sound that makes me dredge up the name Little Feat from the memory banks, and it’s embellished with a low-pitched, bird-like warbling guitar solo. And then there’s Jess Hayes’ voice, which takes the lead here (till Connolly chips in on the second verse), and brings to mind the likes of Gráinne Duffy and Susan Tedeschi – pretty positive comparisons, and she brings her own brand of grit too.
And lo, a couple of tracks later they cover Tedeschi Trucks Band’s ‘Midnight In Harlem’.  Yep, Hayes handles the sensitivity of the vocal in Tedeschi-like fashion alright, over an ensemble performance of subtle, laid back accompaniment, twinkly guitar work brushing up against washes of organ from Joe Mac, and occasional vocal harmonies from some of the guys.  They take their time over it to good effect, with some plenty dynamic guitar explorations along the way, counterpointed by ear-catching bass promptings from Barnard.
It's not the only cover here.  The album closes with a live take on ‘Love The One You’re With’, which is right in their wheelhouse.  It comes with a touch of funk, and jaunty, jittery guitars, while Hayes and Connolly alternate vocals.  Wilder’s supple drumming twirls along with a kinda Latin feel, and in the slowed down bridge Connolly also gets to show off a bit vocally with some wordless soulfulness.
Doing classic covers justice is all very well, but it’s the way their originals stand up to be counted that really impresses me.  ‘Something’s Gotta Matter’ combines swirling slide, staccato chords and a crisp beat to propel Hayes’ soulful vocal. The lyrics may not set the heather on fire, but there’s an uplifting middle eight that leads to a darting, stop-start guitar break, and they go through the gears for the ending.  ‘Remember Me’ itself has an offbeat, twitching rhythm and easy-going, teasing guitar to go with its tension-and-release melody.  They contrive a neat change-up into the bridge, and then some nifty interwoven guitar lines, one of Connolly and Hayes going with slick slide to offer different tones.  Oh yeah, and Hayes continues to do the business.
As she does on the sweetly aching opening to ‘Hung Up On Your Love’, a patient thing with a simple chorus and another guitar break that starts off low-slung before going on to scintillate.  Not for the first time, they flirt with dragging it out too long, but keep enough plates spinning to hold the attention, peaking with another bravura guitar solo.
‘Tired Of This Love’, meantime, is a slow blues – and genuinely weary-sounding, in a good way. To begin with there’s just guitar and Hayes’ voice, then organ, drums and bass weigh in carefully, while Connolly takes a turn at the mic.  The chorus is subtle, tasteful, and harmony-draped, and there’s another subtle, understated solo to bathe in before Hayes soars her soulful way to the close.
I’m sorry I didn’t cotton on to Connolly Hayes sooner.  This lot know what they’re doing, and they do it with panache.  Remember Me is a fine debut, so go get introduced.
 
Remember Me is out now, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . Mike Zito

C’mon everybody take a trip with me, down the Mississippi from St Louis – a clunky rhyme that doesn’t even work if you’re an American, I must admit.  Whatever, we’re going on the latest Ten Top Tracks journey, to celebrate the work of St Louis-born bluesman Mike Zito.  As ever, this isn’t an attempt at some definitive ranking of Zito’s best songs, but a personal guide that could take in a whole different batch of material if I compiled it tomorrow.  As ever, look out for the links to the ten selected tracks on YouTube - and there are links to reviews of some of the albums too.
Mike Zito - a blues artist and more
Now, I described Mike Zito as a bluesman in that opening paragraph, and the guy sure can play the blues.  But the thing with Zito is that he’s not purely a blues guy, as he observed to the website Rock & Blues Muse earlier this year:  “I don’t really think I’m completely a blues artist.  I mean, I’m a white guy from South St Louis who listened to rock’n’roll who just loves blues.”  As a listener who appreciates Zito’s ability to not just play the blues, but to journey down other rock’n’roll roads to great effect, I reckon it's a perceptive comment.
Zito’s recording career already went back 15 years when I first came across him with his 2013 album Gone To Texas, recorded with his then band The Wheel.  So yeah, I was pretty late to the party really.  But as belated introductions go, it was good enough to be the start of a lasting relationship, so to speak.  I’m spoilt for choice with tracks to illustrate the quality of Gone To Texas, such as the title track (reflecting positively on the move to Texas that had given him a fresh start in life some years previously), the upbeat ‘Rainbow Bridge’ with its clever everyday imagery, the touring musician’s lament/celebration ‘The Road Never Ends’, or the witty ‘Subtraction Blues’ – and so on and so on.  But I’m going to go with the mellow ‘I Never Knew A Hurricane’, which sports some wonderful, sensitive lyrics, and on which Susan Cowsill is an outstanding vocal foil.
The impact of Gone To Texas was enough to make me explore two of Zito’s earlier albums, 2009’s Pearl River, and 2011’s Greyhound.  The former grabbed me more, with the likes of the fun opener ‘Dirty Blonde’ and the funny, funky ‘Big Mouth’.  But the standout was ‘Pearl River’ itself, a sombre track looking into the dark past of the South that gives a clear nod to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – and a worthy winner of the Song Of The Year award at the 2010 Blues Music Awards.
Ready to rip it up
Zito’s next (and last) album with the Wheel was the 2015 release Keep Coming Back – my favourite album of that year, and probably still my favourite Zito record.  Again, there are plenty of candidates for inclusion here, starting with the terrific quintet of songs about addiction and sobriety that open the album – Zito having been a mess of booze and drugs around the millennium until he finally got sober in 2003 with the help of his wife Laura.  But my first pick from the album is ‘Girl From Liberty’, a classic example of Zito spreading his wings to produce an invigorating slice of storytelling rock’n’roll.  You could liken it to early Tom Petty, maybe, but really it’s pure Zito.
I appreciate Keep Coming Back so much though, that I have to share another song, and it’s ‘I Was Drunk’.  Recorded with Anders Osborne, it’s the last of the aforementioned quintet, and a devastating Americana slow burn of self-disgust and regret at the impact of drink and drugs.  I dare say there are other songwriters who could explore the theme with similar results, but by god Zito punches you in the gut with this.
Skipping forward to 2018's First Class Life, Zito’s provides a lighter note on 'Back Problems', a chunk of drawling funky blues, with a wearily witty lyric about being weighed down with trials and tribulations – a style for which he’d often shown a facility before, not least with ‘Don’t Break A Leg’ on Gone To Texas, and on some of his work with the Royal Southern Brotherhood “supergroup”, such as ‘Sweet Jelly Donut’.  The funkiness is easy and slinky, and our Mike’s way with this kind of tongue-in-cheek lyric is part of his ongoing charm.
The Covid pandemic presented musicians with a host of challenges – in Zito’s case including thesudden abandonment of a European tour.  But you have to admire his response to adversity by putting together an album with his bandmates in a matter of weeks to plug the gap.  But it’s not just the fact they did it that’s impressive – Quarantine Blues is a corker of an album, bristling with spontaneous energy.  Several tracks could illustrate what I'm talking about, but let’s go with ‘Quarantine Blues’ itself – well he is still a guy who loves the blues after all, and this is a grinding, stomping demonstration of his credentials.
Resurrection, perhaps titled to celebrate the emergence from lockdown, showed off more of his range, especially in creating a sense of drama.  ‘When It Rains’ is a classic example, sharing a stomping kick drum with ‘Quarantine Blues’, but going off in an entirely different, subtler and
Here's looking at you, Mike!
more suspenseful direction, featuring smouldering sax from Eric Demmer.
Notwithstanding his songwriting range, the blues remain a cornerstone of Zito’s repertoire, and it’s also worth emphasising that he’s (a) a blisteringly good live performer; and (b) a helluva guitarist.  These three elements come together on his live album Blues For The Southside, recorded in his home town of St Louis.  Here Zito gets down to some serious axe wrangling, such as when he goes toe to toe with Eric Gales on ‘Voodoo Chile’ (not the Slight Return version).  But I can’t resist picking the live version here of a favourite from Gone To Texas, the bright and bopping ‘The Road Never Ends’, which is pepped up by some guitar duelling with Dave Katz.
Zito is rarely far away from a collaboration with someone, and in recent years one of his most significant sparring partners has been Albert Castiglia, another guy capable of both guitar fireworks and songwriting quality.  The pair delivered Castiglia’s album Masterpiece without any help from other musos, and did it so well that for me it was the best album of 2019. Then they got together again for their 2023 Blood Brothers project which, while pretty good, wasn't as explosive as I was expecting.  But damn did they put that right with the dynamite Blood Brothers: Live In Canada outing.  So let’s hear ‘em boogieing hard on ‘My Business’ for starters.  And while you really should hear them getting stuck into ‘Rocking In The Free World’ – a great choice of cover – my other selection is the dramatic ‘In My Soul’, which starts out aching and works itself up into a real lather.* 
And so, to bring us up to date, there’s just Mike Zito’s latest album Life Is Hard, released in February this year.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s essentially a memorial to Zito’s wife Laura, who died of cancer in 2023.  It’s as dark as you would expect in places, though Zito also tries to find relief through some more upbeat songs.  But really, there’s only one track I can pick to signify what the album is all about, and that’s the gut-wrenchingly emotional ‘Forever My Love’.  I’m not going to labour over describing it – just go listen to it to get the drift.
Mike Zito is a down to earth artist who doesn’t give himself any airs and graces, and that’s part of his appeal to me.  But that doesn’t mean he’s just some common or garden musician.  No, Mike Zito is a fine songwriter, a great guitarist, and a characterful singer, and if you’re not familiar with his work you need to put that right.  Soon.

* The links here are to a show in Illinois, rather than from the album itself.

Friday, June 28, 2024

The Bad Day - The Irish Goodbye

When a band sounds like they’ve said, “Fuck it, let’s do what the hell we want”, then set about it with a will, and then live up to that spirit of adventure from start to finish – well, wotchya gonna do?  You stand up and applaud, that’s what you do. So get ready to put your hands together for The Irish Goodbye.
Once upon a time of course, they were The Bad Day Blues Band, and pretty vibrant they were too back then.  They still do some rootsy manoeuvres here, and we’ll get to them in a minute. But it’s their personality-laden rock’n’rolling that makes The Irish Goodbye stand out at first blush.
Right from the off, ‘Heartbeat’ grabs you by the short hairs, its ker-thump-thump rhythm living up to the title, reinforced by some crunking chords, Nick Peck then adding some squiggly, scratchy guitar
The Bad Day - that pub doesn't look promising, fellas.
like a cardiogram gone haywire before they plant the simple chorus between your ears.  And then there’s bassist Adam Rigg’s quavering, sometimes whinnying voice, which here - though not everywhere - sounds like David Byrne and brings a distinctive edge to the Bad Day sound.
There’s plenty more where that came from too, especially with the prickle’n’crunch riffing and whomping beat of the simple but irresistible ‘High Maintenance’, with its toothache-nagging verses and ferrety, bleeping guitar break.  ‘Powerless’ with its chugging harp and guitar, belies its title, then joins agitated verses to an anthemic chorus worthy of The Clash – if The Clash had a guitarist like Peck to add some hard rock muscle and a Vocoder-like theme on the bridge, plus Sam Spranger cracking out a squealing harp solo.
There’s some bristling energy on ‘Welcome To The Show’ and ‘No Love For Sale’ too.  The former is a stuttering, harp-seasoned affair with a moan-along section redolent of Zeppelin, sorta, a warped rock’n’roll solo from Peck, and a frenetic, all-hands-on-deck outro.  ‘No Love For Sale' is better though, led by throbbing bass from Rigg while Andrea Tremolada whacks out a quasi-mechanistic beat, contrasting with sweet guitar lines from Peck until the punchy chorus arrives, propelled by dirtier chords.  There are conversational harp and guitar exchanges too, to pique more interest, and a razor-like Peck guitar solo for good measure.
And then there’s the other side of the coin, with songs like the mellow and tender Mr Regret, which gets more rousing as its hero proclaims “My name is Regret, my address is The Past”, embellished by some tootling harp from Spranger.  It’s got a vaguely Celtic feel, and there’s more of that on the plangent, romantic ‘A Long Shot’, with its post-punk vibe and sweetly spiky guitar solo.
‘Old Lovers’ is country music in the same way that Alabama 3 aren’t, with a gently lilting melody, moaning harp remarks and elegiac slide mutterings, leading to a nightingale-like harp solo from Spranger and Peck’s guitar playing around with the melody.  Meantime Rigg’s voice gets all yearning in a Mike Scott of the Waterboys fashion – or maybe Joe Strummer trying to be more tuneful.  There’s a Clash-like quirkiness to ‘Sliding Doors’ too, reminiscent of ‘Jimmy Jazz’ perhaps – offbeat, with chirruping guitar, washes of organ, and a squawking Rigg vocal.
Which just leaves the closing pair of ‘Bag Of Bones’ and the title track ‘The Irish Goodbye’.  ‘Bag Of Bones’ is as rootsy as they get, starting slowly with acoustic chords, harp, and bluesy storytelling, before bursting into rattling country-folk-blues rock’n’roll that’s all ragged charm.  Then ‘The Irish Goodbye’ is a slow affair, opening with sombre piano, and progressing with low slung, melodic bass and moaning harp.  It’s not what you’d call epic in style, but it does explore light and shade, exemplified by a hustling bridge that features soaring harp and alternately growling and scraping guitar.  Peck’s guitar weaves perfectly around the melody as they ramp it up, and then they’re done.
An Irish goodbye is when you leave a party without taking your leave of everyone.  But there’s nothing surreptitious about this third album from The Bad Day.  I enjoyed their second, eponymous outing, but thought its conceptual nature was maybe a bit of a stretch.  Not so with The Irish Goodbye.  This is a cracking album where The Bad Day do what they like and do it damn well.
 
The Irish Goodbye is out now, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Robert Jon & The Wreck - Red Moon Rising

When they’re good they’re very good, and when they’re not so good - yeah, they’re still pretty good.
It’s a given that the Wreck are a songwriting gang of the first order.  They crank out good tunes, hooks and arrangements with remarkable regularity.  Some of this output naturally leans towards the Southern rock style with which they generally get pegged.  But what makes Robert Jon Burrison and co stand out for me is their ability to break out of that territory and do the business in different ways.
That range is alive and well in the stretch of songs here that starts with ‘Ballad Of A Broken Hearted Man’, and eases through ‘Red Moon Rising’ to ‘Dragging Me Down’.  ‘Ballad . . .’ is, to be sure, a ballad, and one with country-ish tinges to its melody and steely, spiralling acoustic picking.  But it’s evocative enough to take on an epic, mesmeric quality, with Burrison’s convincing story-telling augmented by big guitar chords, typically strong harmonies, and some
Robert Jon & The Wreck - a little Southern comfort goes a long way
Pic by Allison Morgan

slithering slide guitar from Henry James Schneekluth.  Then with the title track they take a sharp turn into cool funkiness, Andrew Espantman’s laid back drums setting the grooving course for a clever arrangement featuring spikes of guitar, surging organ, and chantalong segments.  Then ‘Dragging Me Down’ conjures an intriguingly dark and stormy vibe out of twisting and turning riffs and Burrison’s angst-tinged vocal, leading to a barbed-wire solo from Schneekluth, and a downshift into a section with cool keys from Jake Abernathie.
The second half of the album finds the Wreckers taking their foot off the gas in various styles, as the accompaniment to some philosophical lyrics, gradually shifting down the gears from the sunny Southern rock vibe of ‘Down No More’ to the relaxed honky tonk of ‘Help Yourself’, and then the low key and intimate ‘Worried Mind’.  ‘Down No More’ comes with acoustic strumming, a good hook, and some twirling guitar and toots of organ to go with the Burrison’s assertion that “I’ve been down, I ain’t down no more”.  It’s lightweight, but a useful contrast to some of the earlier songs.  ‘Help Yourself’ is an easygoing take on the homespun philosophy that “You gotta help, help, help yourself (woah-oh)”, and ends up going round in circles a bit towards the end. But ‘Worried Mind’ is more interesting in its downbeat rootsiness, Burrison’s quiet vocal set against acoustic guitars and swirls of accordion, and eventually a weeping slide solo from Schneekluth.
‘Give Love’, the closing track on the vinyl album, tops off this strand of songs with tinkling, meandering piano commentary and Warren Murrel’s brooding, deep-down bass underpinning Robert Jon’s characterful, thoughtful vocal.  It’s a well put together song, putting across the notion that “We could all use a little more love in the world” with conviction, garlanded with some fluttering guitar embroidery and in due course a sparkling, suspenseful guitar solo.  And then they add some distinctly Allmans-like guitar harmonies which – and I dare say I’m in the minority on this – are a tired old trope that they really don’t need to indulge.  (The fact that they repeat the trick on ‘Hate To See You Go’, one of two CD bonus tracks, underlines the sense of unnecessary Southern rock cliché.)
I like the Wreck better when they elbow those Southern rockisms and just rock’n’roll, and the headshaking opener ‘Stone Cold Killer’ delivers those goods, with its jab-and-move riff, window-rattling bass and singalong chorus, not to mention its scrabbling, screeching slide solo.  But it’s a bit short-sighted to follow that tale of a badass woman with the grinding stomp of ‘Trouble’, about another pretty-but-poisonous female who is “Trouble, from her head to her feet”.  Personally I’d have promoted the judderingly urgent bonus track ‘Rager’ to the top end of the album.  A driving, gritty rocker with propulsive drums from Espantman, it features an imaginative, edgy solo from Schneekluth, and an accelerating finish of Blackmore’n’Lord like guitar/organ harmonising.  Now we’re talking!
So yeah, Robert Jon & The Wreck fall a little short of their best here and there on Red Moon Rising. But hey, it’s still another strong album from one of the best rock’n’roll outfits around. So go get it for the good stuff.
 
Red Moon Rising is released by Journeyman Records on 28 June, and can be ordered here.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Bison Hip - Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life

Strong songs, smart arrangements, quality playing. What’s not to like?
A few weeks back I did a Quickies piece doubling up reviews of the new albums by Gun and FM, and if I’d listened to this second album by Glasgow band Bison Hip at that point it could have slotted very neatly into that company.  But you know what?  Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life deserves its own moment in the sun.
Bison Hip aren’t really an out and out blues-rock outfit.  They’re more of a melodic rock band with bluesy tendencies.  Some of the best songs here, like ‘The Bullfighter’, ‘Blues For The Unforgiven’, and closer ‘Take It Out On Me’, carry significant echoes of Aynsley Lister – on one of his good days.
Bison Hip - Welcome to the great outdoors!

‘The Bullfighter’ is an atmospheric slowie, with a breathy vocal from Paul Sloway that’s right in his sweet spot, and I’m guessing that he’s responsible for most of the excellent backing vocals and harmonies here and elsewhere.  There are ripples of piano from Steven Radziwonik, foreshadowing a dappling solo, and there’s a dynamic, expansive guitar solo from John Gilmour Smith too, plus some eddying guitar notes on the fade-out that are typical of the little flourishes they add here and there to perk up your ears.  Oh yeah, and if the lyrics aren’t Dylan-profound they still – and this applies across the piece - steer clear of hackneyed rock humdrum.
‘Blues For The Unforgiven’ is a slow blues with an ear-catching guitar motif, while Sloway’s vocal catches the mood perfectly.  Fuzzy guitar chords and tinkling piano fills interleave with the melody to pique yer attention, along with occasional bursts of more energetic drums from Malcolm Button.  There’s another subtle, beautifully toned solo from Smith, backed up by some music box keys – hell, basically the whole thing hangs together like a very expensive bottle of red wine.  And ‘Take It Out On Me’ rounds things off in similar fashion, from its solemn organ intro, through its voice-and-piano balladic main course, with neat backing vox interjections along the way, to Smith’s exquisitely melodic solo, niftily complemented by Graeme Carswell’s bass, with a peppery guitar break to top it off.
There are different blues leanings on a couple of other tracks too.  ‘The Money’ is a strolling, rolling thing, with slow pulsing bass from Carswell and relaxed, warm piano from Radziwonik, and a considered, well delivered vocal from Sloway.  Meanwhile ‘Grateful’ is a slow and steady back porch blues that pairs a rootsy vocal with simple blues strumming from Smith, and latterly adds some gently wheezing harp for extra blues bonus marks.  It’s a down-home affair that makes for a good contrast with the more elaborate arrangements elsewhere.
But the Hipsters also convince when they pick things up a bit.  ‘Surrender’ is mid-tempo, with a stop-start riff, a swinging rhythm augmented by some crafty drum fills from Button, en route to a nifty tumbling bridge that triggers a stinging solo from Smith.  ‘Parasite’ is more uptempo, with tub-thumping drums, a staircase-ascending riff, some hurdy-gurdy keys, and thrumming, wriggling bass from Carswell.  It’s got dynamics, good harmonies, and a suitably mosquito-buzzing guitar break.  ‘Don’t Follow Me Down’ has a bit more grit, with tough chords complemented by a restrained guitar figure, while Sloway’s vocal gets more agitated – not exactly his comfort zone, but he still gets by well enough.
More lightweight – though it’s not really a criticism – is  the soul-swinging ‘Still Something Left In The Tank’, with another strong hook, a slick arrangement showing off jazz-lite keys and savvy drum placement, and a smart lyric built around the lines “Feel good, or at least a little better / Got up on the right side of the bed”.
To be blunt, Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life does not sound like the haphazard work of a bunch of semi-pro wannabes – and believe me, I’ve heard some.  It sounds like a band of experienced musos who have set the bar high, and got themselves into a damn good groove. I’m impressed.  Give it a listen – you could be too.
 
Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life is out now, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Joanne Shaw Taylor - Heavy Soul

As an indicator of where Joanne Shaw Taylor’s music is at these days, the title Heavy Soul is pretty accurate, as I’m sure she knows.  As with her previous album Nobody’s Fool, Taylor has put together a collection of songs that’s strong on classic soul vibes and catchy choruses - a good fit for her husky voice – but given a more muscular slant by her sharp and bluesy guitar work.
Fr’instance, the title track may not have the most interesting tune on offer here, but the pair of tough, stinging solos that Taylor knocks out add an extra dimension to its snapping backbeat and her insistent, rhythmic vocal.  Later on, ‘Devil In Me’ takes the axe aspect a step further, with
Black Country girl Joanne Shaw Taylor
Pic by Stacie Huckaba
some urgent blues-rock riffing á la ‘Mudhoney’ and a zinger of a solo to kick things up a gear.
Those two shots of adrenaline stir things up nicely, but Heavy Soul still rubs along very happily when the material is more easy-going.  ‘Sweet ‘Lil Lies’ makes for an appealing opening, with its nagging, Morse Code guitar motif and chunky bass and rhythm guitar – the latter developing an ear-grabbing fuzzy twang during the pre-chorus.  There’s a good hook that bears repetition, Taylor’s vocal catches the soulful, and as it progresses there’s a rising sense of agitation in the bigger chords, the punchier drums, and Taylor’s second solo, to justify its 5 minute length.  ‘Black Magic’, contrastingly, is a loose and finger-snapping pleasure.  How can such a simple rhythm be so damn good?  It takes a ‘Nutbush’-like melody and swings along in über-relaxed fashion.  To be honest, I’ve no idea what Taylor is singing about half the time here, but she flexes her voice in such liquidly melodious style that it really doesn’t matter – something I often used to think about her fellow West Midlander Robert Plant, as it happens.
‘Wild Love’ combines a rolling riff and eerie waves of organ to create a fresh, evocative mood for a crisp tale of an illicit relationship, and though it may not be the steamiest song you’ll ever hear it still conveys the temptation and guilt of forbidden fruit pretty convincingly. In fact of the original material, only the more languid ‘A Good Goodbye’ raises any doubts.  It’s a decent song, and well put together, but . . . it just seems a little too familiar, formulaic maybe, suggesting our Jo needs to be careful she doesn’t repeat herself.
There are three cover versions along the way.  The readings of Joan Armatrading’s ‘All The Way From America’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Someone Like You’ are both sensitively done, and fit in well even if she goes down the respectful route rather than trying to put her own stamp on them. But then so they should, as they’re both great songs.  I could live without her rendition of Gamble and Huff’s ‘Drowning In A Sea Of Love’ though – nothing wrong with it except it feels too safe, too nice, notwithstanding the spangly guitar solo.
But the last word goes to the closing ‘Change Of Heart’, a bright and positive slice of soul with a cracking hook, Taylor dropping guitar licks in seamlessly to produce an uplifting finish.
Heavy Soul isn’t a blockbuster album, but it does add to the impressive array of soul-driven material Joanne Shaw Taylor has at her disposal. Arguably though, she could do with finding more opportunities for her guitar playing to take flight.  A bit more rock to go with the roll next time, perhaps.
 
Heavy Soul is out now on Journeyman Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Troy Redfern - Invocation

He keeps surprising me, does Troy Redfern.  Being honest, every time he pops up, I get ready to write him off as just another one-dimensional latterday heavy metal thunderer.  But then I give something a listen and think:  “Actually, that’s quite good.”
And so it goes as the opening three tracks unfurl on his new album Invocation.  ‘The Strange’ bursts into life with trampolining drums’n’bass and Redfern’s swooping slide, and after easing back for the first verse, crashes into a not ‘arf catchy chorus.  Redfern adds a zinging slide solo, and a subtle (sorta) bridge adds some extra gloss.  Nice work, gang.  A rattle of drums announces ‘Getaway’, and then it explodes into life with a cracking riff – subterranean and seismic, then punctuated with a couple of splashes of colour.  It’s elevated by another earworm
Troy Redfern - not cast in The Hobbit
Pic by Jason Bridges
of a chorus, given a lift by a couple of neck-snapping delayed chords, while Redfern’s screeching solo is rammed home by the piledriving combination of Dave Marks’ bass and Paul Stewart’s drums. Then ‘Van Helsing’ arrives, with just chiming guitar under the verse apart from some sporadic, crunching chord interjections, in readiness for another belting hook.  I’m telling you folks, it’s “Bop-along-with-Troy time”!
There are a couple of points worth underlining here.  First, underneath all the stürm und drang, Redfern has quite the pop sensibility going on between his ears, reminding me now and then of the tunesmithery of Supergrass, say.  And secondly, the bass playing of producer Dave Marks doesn’t just bring power, it elevates matters with its harmonic qualities.
And so things progress with the moody, dynamic ‘The Calling’, which in places – like Redfern’s intriguing, spacey slide solo – brings to mind the off-kilter vibe of Muse.  ‘Native’, with its American-Indian rhythm (at least as we’ve learned it from the movies) goes even further down the crepuscular atmospheric route, and is really all about the vibe, until the churning crescendo through which Redfern’s slide cuts like a butcher’s knife.
Stewart’s tub-thumping drums bring a glam-rock undertow to ‘The Fever’, with its pleasing staccato riff, and then, right on cue – yes, handclaps!  There should be more of ‘em, Troy – and a bleedin’ cowbell too!  But still, that “Holding me, you’re holding me down” hook does burrow its way into your noggin.  And the same is true of the simple but effective chorus on ‘All Night Long’, a turbo-charged rocker which pretty much strips down the riff to Whitesnake’s ‘Sweet Talker’ and then hits the gas pedal.
‘Blind Me’ is, blimey, an almost romantic slowie.  It has an aching chorus on which Redfern adds some pretty savvy vocal overdubs, and some slide playing that, just for a moment, reminds me of Blackmore in its tone.
The thrash-along ‘Voodoo Priest’ is the only track here that’s a bit below par.  But ‘Take Me High’ gets things back on track, a bluesier affair with a surging stop-time riff and another airy chorus trying to escape from the firestorm of Redfern’s guitar and Marks’ bass, and the herd of buffalo that is Stewart’s drums.  Then ‘The Last Stand’ rounds things off in measured style, its throbbing guitar, pulsing bass and behind-the-beat drums creating an evocative mood, topped off with Redfern getting even more Blackmore-esque on a haunted slide break.
Troy Redfern’s voice is, to be fair, a bit of a limited instrument, ranging from a rasp to a bark with little more than volume shifts in the way of variation, but he still goes at it with creditable conviction. In fact everything is invested with that same conviction – and producer Dave Marks has done a fine job of harnessing that.
So yeah, Troy Redfern has made me think twice. With his saturnine appearance he may look ready to audition for the role of some outcast prince in a Tolkien movie, well suited to a core sound resembling siege artillery, but the brighter strands of rock'n'roll DNA in the veins of Invocation make it well worth a listen.
 
Invocation
 is out now, and can be ordered here.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Toronzo Cannon - Shut Up And Play!

Oh yeah.
Toronzo Cannon is back, with an album that shows a modern master of Chicago blues at work. On Shut Up And Play! you get 12 songs spread over 52 minutes, there ain’t none of ‘em below par, and the end result is even better than his last album The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp - and that was hot stuff itself.
First up among the reasons for this – the guy writes real, modern, sharp songs.  Whether it’s social commentary, emotional reflection on personal relationships, or good ol’ fashioned blues boogie fun, the Cannonball hits the nail on the head.
Second, his singing and playing are up there with the best of ‘em.  His voice is resonant and assertive, with a bit of a rasp on top when he wants it, and he knows how to make a lyric convincing.  And he has his own guitar “voice” too, a tone all his own as he delivers scintillating licks and breaks that catch the ear and demand nods of appreciation.
Toronzo Cannon - blues is his business, and business is good
Pic by Roman Sobus
Third thing.  What a goddamn band he has playing with him. Hats off to bassist Brian Quinn, Jason ‘Jroc’ Edwards who contributes drums on 10 of the tracks, and keys man Cole DeGenova, who all show their mettle and ensure the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The album is bookended by ‘Can’t Fix The World’ and the title track, both of which offer a tart take on the experience of ordinary, and especially black, people. “Can’t fix the world right now,” sings Cannon, but he still has plenty to say about it, asserting that “We know the problem, right from wrong / But why does justice take so long?”, against the backdrop of a terrific funky bassline from Quinn, jittering clavinet from DeGenova, and his own punchy licks and expressive, fuzz-enhanced soloing.  Meanwhile ‘Shut Up And Play!’ is an ironic retort to those who would like musicians to do just that, rather than expressing an opinion. It pulls together grinding, reverberating chords, organ that swells and swirls, and a ‘Hey Joe’-like rolling bass line as Cannon observes that there’s “No forty acres for my family, that America promised us when they set us free.”  And you’d better believe he delivers the goods on guitar too, with some powerful, serrated-edge soloing right out of the top drawer.
In between these two tentpoles there’s a different kinda positive protest twist, with the gospellated ‘Had To Go Through It To Get To It’, all handclaps and chiming piano as Cannon observes that his grandad “caught hell in Mississippi”, and how it took resilience to make a new life in the North and become a proud black man.
There are a couple of more soulful outings, the first being ‘Message To My Daughter’, a meditation on the reverberating impact of a marriage break-up, which tries to find positives alongside the pain and comes with more top flight bass playing to go with Cannon’s sensitively delivered vocal. Then later there’s ‘Guilty’, which contemplates our everyday sins, and all of us being open to judgement, decorated by some warm piano from DeGenova and pinging guitar fills from Cannon, who closes with a controlled, conversational solo.
Cannon peeks into a trio of different bluesy avenues with ‘I Hate Love’, ‘Him’, and ‘If I’m Always Wrong’.  The first is a slower sorta swing’n’sway, locked in behind the beat by Edwards’ drums, with Cannon declaring “I hate love, it’s just a made up word” amid more great bass playing, and keys that fill in around the edges brilliantly, while Cannon also gets down to business with a terrific, teasing and spinning solo. ‘Him’ is liquid funkiness full of fluid guitar work, with a winding, perfectly weighted final solo.  And ‘If I’m Always Wrong’ tells the story of a guy who’s fed up of being put down, with melodic, anthemic piano chords providing something fresh to go with the searing guitar.
And there’s plenty fun stuff too, like the snappy, witty ‘Something To Do Man’, a variant on the ‘Ice Cream Man’ of blues lore that swaggers and shuffles along, Cannon delivering a surging, irresistible solo backed up by rattling piano, culminating in the cocky affirmation that “This is a public service announcement: I’m here for you”.  ‘Unlovable’ is a chugging mid-tempo boogie, lit up by gritty slide licks and bright, trilling piano. ‘Got Me By The Short Hairs’ is a rock’n’rollin’ frolic about the ins and outs of shotgun marriage, with a cavalier Cannon solo and propelled by crisp, punchy drums.  And lastly the slinky and funny ‘My Woman Loves Me Too Much’ is a harp and acoustic led slowie – slow because our hero is worn out by the demands of his baby, who started “acting all frisky, ‘bout the age of 45”.
I’ve banged on about the whole kit and caboodle to make it damn clear that while electric blues may be Cannon's business, he gives it diversity with his fresh, smart songwriting, and no matter the style the execution by him and his buddies is right on the freakin’ money.
I'll wager Shut Up And Play! will be the best straight-up blues albums to land this year.  And for me Toronzo Cannon is the natural successor to Buddy Guy – accept no substitutes.
 
Shut Up And Play!
 is out now on Alligator Records.