Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar - The Reckless One

Three thoughts to begin with:
1.  Firstly - Samantha Martin sings like she really, really means it.
2.  If such a thing existed, I’d say that Martin and her co-writers – 11 out of the 12 tracks on The Reckless One are originals – were alumni of the Little Steven Diploma School for Disciples of Soul and R’n’B.
3.  The Delta Sugar gang know their green onions when it comes to arrangements and delivery.  I mean, seriously.  Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar hail from modern-day Toronto, but it sounds like their hearts are in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Motown – in the Sixties.
Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar - happy singing about heartbreak
Pic by Paul Wright
On the first point, I refer you to track number five, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, the tentpole from which the rest of the album hangs.  A gospel-tinged slowie, it starts off with restrained backing, over which Martin holds herself in check through the verse, while demonstrating how solid she is at the bottom end of her range.  And then, with the chorus, it starts. She stretches out and takes off with full-throated passion, gathering intensity as the song progresses but still showing terrific vocal control.  By the time it’s done, Janis Joplin wrung out with emotion springs to mind.  Never mind what the rest of the band are doing, Martin is the focal point and then some.
As for the material, it ducks and dives around different soul styles and angles with savvy and blistering conviction.  The opening couple of numbers, ‘Love Is All Around’ and ‘Don’t Have To Be’, come off like Stax soul, the former all staccato horns and spring-heeled bass while Martin introduces herself in drawling fashion, the latter neatly twisting a verse with a drum-and-vocal-only delivery.
In the wake of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ they take a turn through Spector-country.  On ‘Sacrifice’ an acoustic guitar rattles along over a cantering rhythm section, while they also usher in some strings, crank up the reverb on the backing vocals, and Martin makes like a female Gene Pitney.  The following ‘So I Always Know’ is slower, rolling along on romantic waves, with “Tell me, tell me!” backing vocals suggestive of The Ronettes or somesuch, and overall sounding like it should be filmed in grainy black and white, know what I mean?  And ‘Pass Me By’ sounds like the Asbury Jukes having a blast at the Wall of Sound, with a whomping beat, urgent bass, twirls of guitar, and tense horns that eventually get a chance to relax in the bridge.  There’s a lot going on, but Samantha and co know how to leave you wanting more – none of these three songs clock more than four minutes.
This is an album where guitar is primarily part of the rhythm section, but Curtis Chaffey – who also co-wrote four tracks - does get out to play a couple of times.  On the bitter-sweet ‘Loving You Is Easy’ he delivers a slide solo that skates through nicely before the horns give wings to the ending.  And on the old-fashioned torch song ‘Better To Have’ (as in better to have never loved, upending the usual aphorism) he sets out an economical solo, in the eye of Martin’s emotional tornado, that Steve Cropper would be happy with.
I’m reminded of that other Samantha, Ms Fish, reflecting on the lyrical themes of her R’n’B album Chills & Fever: “That’s the human condition. Love, desire, heartache . . . ,” she observed in an interview.  That’s the vibe of The Reckless One summed up right there – and boy do Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar make it sound convincing.

The Reckless One is out now on Gypsy Soul Records.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Larkin Poe - Kindred Spirits

One of the obvious side effects of the Covid pandemic nixing live music is that many artists have headed back to the studio and tried to come up with something fresh to engage with their audience.  In that vein, Larkin Poe’s Kindred Spirits is an album of covers, delivered in stripped back fashion – and when I say stripped back, I mean to the bone.
Instrumentally, Rebecca Lovell contents herself with the simplest of acoustic guitar accompaniment most of the time, embellished by sister Megan’s lap steel, and here and there a kick drum, a few handclaps, or similar minimalist percussion, letting most of the focus fall on the sisters’ voices as a result.
Rebecca and Megan Lovell - say cheese, ladies!
The majority of the eleven tracks downbeat and reflective, even if that wasn’t the approach taken by the original artist, and now and again the formula strikes pure gold.  Their magical re-imagining of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is the prime example, austere and disconsolate in contrast to Neil Young’s electric fury, with halting chords and a lovely lap steel solo from Megan.  Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Fly Away’ becomes something wistful and genuinely evocative of bird-like flight, while Elvis’s ‘(You’re The) Devil In Disguise’ becomes something the King would never have contemplated, all spooky undertones and exquisite harmonies fashioned into – what, Americana desert blues?  And they bring a slinkier kind of nostalgia to Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock', with a neat twist on his “lah da-da-da-da-da” vocal bridge and a slowly dissolving fade-out to close the album.
Sometimes they come up with winners even when closer in tone to the original.  Their ‘Night In White Satin’ may be sombre, but it feels more human and intimate than the rather po-faced proto-proggery of the original.  Post Malone’s ‘Take What You Want’ is well served by stripping away the hip-hop beats and concentrating on the emotion.  Even better, they capture the spirit of ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ perfectly, their divine harmonies trumping Clapton’s own fine vocal, getting positively ethereal on the “I don’t want to fade away” lines, while Megan Lovell adds squeaking lap steel interjections.  They don’t really add anything to Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ however, and certainly don’t find anything to take place of that iconic drum fill.
There are upbeat songs too, in case you thought it would be navel-gazing from start to finish.  They do a brisk turn on Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’, with Rebecca’s guitar more to the fore in pummelling fashion, the signature rhythm merely implied.  She drives along a fairly straight reading of the Allmans ‘Ramblin’ Man’ too, with handclaps and a sparkling acoustic solo adding to the joie de vivre, en route to a touch of wit in the ending.
The only question in my mind is why their opening shot at ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ is nothing more than a twinkling 44 second snippet, leaving me feeling a tad short-changed.
It’s in the nature of Kindred Spirits that it’s a relatively slight album, but better that than the Lovell sisters trying to gild the lily with half a dozen more tracks.  As it is, it’s a polished, less-is-more little gem – not some multi-carat diamond, to be sure, but a work of quality nevertheless.
Kindred Spirits is out now on Tricki-Woo Records.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Listened to lately - Kat Riggins, Malaya Blue, and Hurricane Ruth

Kat Riggins – Cry Out
If you’re a fan of Sari Schorr’s brand of gutsy blues delivery, then you may well find things to like in this album from Kat Riggins, who has a similarly resonant voice, if without Schorr’s operatic undertones.
Have a listen to ‘Wicked Tongue’ for example, all strut and swagger and enlivened by some grizzly, spiky guitar from Mike Zito, and a rollercoaster turnaround.  Or better still the defiant ‘Burn It All Down’ with its jabbing beat and rolling riff, on which Riggins delivers the vocal with

Kat Riggins gets slinky
real conviction.  Opener ‘Son Of A Gun’ is in a similar vein, with spangly guitar breaks from Zito and some funky bass from Doug Byrkit, but is let down by its hackneyed lyric.
If there’s a samey-ness to some of these tracks, then there’s pleasing variety to be found elsewhere. ‘Cry Out’ itself, for example, is a slice of swinging, shuffling blues on which Riggins redeems herself lyrically, knocking out reflections on social justice with urgency, accompanied by flashes of harp, and an appealing riff and spot-on solo from Mike Zito.
Zito is in the producer’s chair, co-writes most of the material, and supplies the necessary guitar-twanging throughout, and considering the number of projects he’s worked on in the last eighteen months he keeps things creditably fresh for Riggins’ benefit.  Horns expand the sound on the funky and swinging ‘Meet Your Maker’, while Zito deploys a Morse Code guitar riff and Riggins demonstrates the depth of her register.  And more horns give a Southern soul dimension to the brisk and bubbling ‘On It’s Way’, a good tune with a fun arrangement, with Riggins varying her delivery and phrasing to good effect.  Meantime ‘Catching Up’ is one of the rockiest, and best, things on offer, with fuzzed-up guitar and buzzing bass while Riggins gets all sassy and punchy in a tale of mama getting home and wanting some action from her man.
I could live without the schmaltzy children’s choir on ‘Heavy’, a gospel soul number on which Riggins wears her heart on her sleeve on the subject of faith, while the backing largely gets out of her way.  But they close the album strongly with ‘The Storm’, a slow blues with a simple but haunting arrangement and subtle, quivering guitar and slide from Zito, and if the lyric isn’t exactly freshly minted Riggins still invests it with some drama.  All in all Cry Out is an enjoyable debut outing from Ms Riggins, hopefully a foretaste of more to come.
Cry Out is available now on Gulf Coast Records.

Malaya Blue – Still
When I was a kid, gravitating from glam rock to Status Quo and then the broader horizons of hard rock, there were still songs of a different hue could make a lasting impression.  I recall, for example, ‘Lovin’ You’ by the stratospherically-voiced Minnie Riperton, and Roberta Flack with the remarkable ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’.
Now, I don’t mention this in order to suggest that Malaya Blue could stand shoulder to shoulder
Malaya Blue - late-night, softly-lit
with these ladies.  But if Blue has a sweet spot, I think it’s in a similar realm of intimate soul ballads, as indicated by the opening title track ‘Still’, with its late-night, softly-lit feel, and subtle guitar work from Nat Martin.  Penultimate song ‘I Can’t Be Loved’ dials things down even further, a spare ballad with piano accompaniment from co-writer Sammi Ashforth that’s bordering on musical theatre – which isn’t, y’know, the end of the world when done well.  Best of all perhaps, is ‘Love Of Your Life’, a breathy ballad on which Blue takes her time and dovetails beautifully with Stevie Watts’ delicate piano.
But Blue sounds rather less at home when things get funky.  She makes a decent fist of ‘Kiss My Troubles Away’, on which she sounds like she’s having fun over Watts’ jazzy piano and Eddie Masters’ bubbling bass.  But elsewhere, as on ‘Down To The Bone’ and ‘Love Can Tell’, she lacks the oomph to inhabit the groove.
She captures the gospel-tinted soul of ‘Why Is Peace So Hard?’ effectively though, matching up to Watts’ church-flavoured organ playing.  And she’s on good form for the smooth soul of ‘Down To The Bottom’, adding interesting variations in her phrasing, and even her own backing vocals, to another catchy bass line from Masters and sweet organ.  ‘These Four Walls’ is one of her better stabs at going uptempo, a well-constructed bundle of bouncing soul punctuated by some gutsy chords.  But as a statement of female assertiveness the closing ‘Hot Love’ sounds uncomfortable and unconvincing – edgy it is not.
With honchos like Nat Martin and Stevie Watts on board, and an impressive rhythm section in Eddie Masters and Mike Horne, Still never falls flat.  But Malaya Blue really needs to discover what kind of singer she really is, and commit to that style, if she wants to give of her best.

 is out now on Blue Heart Records.
Hurricane Ruth – Good Life
Hurricane Ruth LaMaster hails from Illinois – and I use the word “hails” advisedly, because the lady hasn’t acquired that Hurricane moniker for nuthin’.  What we have here is an old-fashioned R’n’B belter, and when she cuts loose on Good Life it ain’t half fun.
Opening track ‘Like Wildfire’ is one of the best cuts here, with LaMaster strutting and hollering like Ike-era Tina Turner over a locomotive riff and the booming, lock-step rhythm section of
Hurricane Ruth - not so sugar and sweet
Calvin Johnson on bass and Tony Braunagel on drums.  They tone it down a mite for the following ‘Dirty Blues’, but it still lives up to its title, with our Ruth delivering vocals with full-on commitment and guitarist Scott Holt adding buzzing rhythm guitar, piercing slide licks, and an enjoyable solo with plenty of tension and release.  Oh yeah, and they chuck in some shouted backing vocals worthy of a Suzi Quatro hit from the Seventies, just to give LaMaster some full-throated company.
Later they re-launch the R’n’B raunch with ‘Black Sheep’, a chunk of heads-down no-nonsense boogie that’s far from adventurous but should do the business in a sweaty live show, with throbbing guitars and a buzzing, echoing solo from Holt, while the Hurricane herself bawls “I was a tough little badass, not so sugar and sweet!” to all and sundry, in a manner fit to whack Joan Jett for a home run.  And just in case you haven’t got the idea, they later add ‘Late Night Red Wine’, with more Nutbush-like guitar chugging fleshed out by organ flourishes from Bruce Katz.
When they depart from this tempestuous template the results are less convincing.  ‘Good Life’ is a painted-by-numbers slow blues tune, and though it’s well delivered the lyrics are too maudlin for me.  The lyrics on the closing piano-led ballad ‘I’ve Got Your Back’ get similarly mushy, undercutting Katz’s tastefully jazzy ivory-tinkling.
The laid back and swinging ‘What You Never Had’ is lightweight but still fun, benefitting from some more fine flurries of organ from Katz.  And LaMaster does well on the reflective but warm and positive ‘She’s Golden’, catching the right tone for a tale of a woman achieving liberation from hard times, while ‘Who I Am’ is an assertive chunk of mid-tempo funk.
Good Life may be inconsistent, but it still contains the ingredients to fire up a rock’n’roll party.  “Can I get a ‘Hell yeah’?” the Hurricane enquires at one point.  Yes Ruth, I believe you can. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Storm Warning - Different Horizons

It’s a shame that the first thing that most people will mention about Different Horizons, the fifth album from Storm Warning, is that guitarist Bob Moore passed away following its completion.  But I reckon the second thing many people will say is that Moore’s fine playing contributes greatly to making Different Horizons an impressive exploration of classic rock possibilities.
There’s blues in there to be sure, reflecting their blues-rock roots, most notably in the bright and
Storm Warning - eminent hipsters
 energetic boogie of ‘Come On In’.  But symptomatically, it’s R’n’B buffed up with extra refinements.  So singer Stuart Maxwell may deliver classy, old-fashioned harp, but he does so in the midst of Moore injecting fresh’n’fuzzy guitar breaks and keys man Ian Salisbury adding a synth solo.  Elsewhere, they get more adventurous.
They like to spread themselves, do Storm Warning.  The nine tracks here all run to over five and a half minutes, and they make good use of the time.  The opener ‘Horizons’ is certainly a positive example – a mid-paced, contemplative affair that starts with the swelling of ominous organ chords, pulsing drums and ticking guitar.  Then Moore picks out a subtle guitar motif, and with mounting urgency they create a platform for a range of striking guitar themes and textured breaks, before they downshift into an intriguing Moore solo that’s melodic, thematic, and even borderline proggy.
There’s a enjoyably Purplish quality to ‘Feeling Something’ with its intricate riffing over waves of organ, allied to a bluesy melody, over snappy drums from Russ Chaney, to which Salisbury then adds a rocking piano solo and Moore a zippy guitar break.  The closing ‘Questions’ is similarly rock that’s breezy rather than heavy – though it is the one track that drifts on a tad longer than it should.
But elsewhere they stretch themselves to good effect.  ‘Stranger’ deftly captures a sense of alienation, with its brooding opening of sparse chords over a machine-like drum rhythm, and Maxwell’s measured, ruminative vocal – the guy may not have the greatest range, but he uses what he’s got expressively. Then after a bluesy organ showcase they ramp up into a big
Bob Moore - going beyond the blues
passage in which Moore’s tasteful solo jostles with the organ over booming bass from Derek White, till it resolves into another memorable theme.  Similarly ‘Long Road’ builds from a mellow intro, with organ underpinning a reflective melody and lyrics from Maxwell, before Moore weighs in with Knopfler-esque solo, all fluttering notes and clear tones.  Indeed the track as a whole, with the guitar and keys dovetailing elegantly, hints at Telegraph Road-era Dire Straits, at once tasteful and daring.
‘Tell The Truth’ starts off slow, with twanging bass from White, but they soon leave that simplicity well and truly in their rear-view mirror, overtaken by tumbling guitar flitting in and out of Salisbury’s washes of organ, and an adventurous, suspense-laden mid-section of layered guitar lines.  On the following ‘Call It Midlife’ Maxwell’s wry vocal delivery and amusing lyrics bring to mind the late Tony Ashton, while Moore weighs in with bristling guitar chords and a tempo-shifting solo that ventures towards Steely Dan territory.  And ‘Can’t Sleep For Dreaming’ is intelligently constructed, with a subtle, Floyd-like swing, stalking, reverberating bass, and edgy slide remarks from Moore ahead of the bluesiest of his solos.
Different Horizons is not a hook-laden album to have you singing your head off.  It isn’t anything ground-breaking either.  What it is, is the sound of a gang of old lags channelling the classic rock music they love, and shaping it into something of their own – and you can feel their enjoyment.  As the winter nights draw on, you can stick on Different Horizons, lay back and close your eyes, and bathe in its warmth.

Different Horizons was released on 6 November on Lightnin' Fingers Records.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

When Rivers Meet - We Fly Free

When it comes to setting out your stall, When Rivers Meet – the musical moniker of British husband and wife duo Aaron and Grace Bond – do a fair old job on ‘Did I Break The Law’.  The opening salvo on their debut album We Fly Free, it weighs in with a grinding rhythm guitar riff over a stomping drumbeat, and before long works itself up into a fair old lather.  You’d have to reckon, listening to this, that life chez Bond can be a pretty LOUD affair at times.
This raw and primitive aesthetic isn’t exactly unique – compare Lincoln Durham, fr’instance.  But
When Rivers Meet - they make a cute couple, dontcha think?
Pic by Terry Crouch
When Rivers Meet do have a unique selling point, namely the way in which Grace Bond’s voice stalks the album’s landscape like that of a windswept and mysterious sorceress, right from her “Oh yeaah, oh yay-yay-hey-yeaah” hollering on that opening track.
Now, I don’t mean that she gets her wail on from start to finish, though our Grace certainly has the pipes to compete with the surging guitar and pounding drums on the likes of their single ‘Battleground’, to name just one example.  Nor do I mean that her voice dominates proceedings, bearing in mind the underpinning harmonies often provided by the deeper voice of her other half, who also provides the lead vocal on a couple of tracks.  No, what I mean is that her voice has the quality and personality to make When Rivers Meet standout from the herd like neon.  Her pure, clear vocal contributes to the light and shade on ‘Bound For Nowhere’, for example, alongside Aaron Bond’s doomy, midnight-graveyard guitar line, before they explode into stridency with the aid of producer Adam Bowers’ clattering drums.  And she shows real delicacy on the quieter, enigmatic ‘I’d Have Fallen’, over gently sawing violin and off-kilter percussion.  It’s the sort of track that I reckon might have latterday Robert Plant nodding his approval for its distinctive, not-just-same-old-blues-rock approach, right down to La Bond’s slide resonator mandolin (yes, you read that right) outro.
Not that this is a one-woman show.  When Aaron Bond takes the vocal reins on ‘Breaker Of Chains’, over a restrained bluesy guitar refrain and with background harmonies from his missus, they again manage to deliver something different, with the feel of an English folk song or maybe even a hymnal as they sing about reaching out for the last time “through the door of evermore”, and add a brief bridge of drums paradiddling away under sweeps of sombre fiddle.
Some songs are more straight up, like ‘Walking On The Wire’, which opens with a dirty blues slide riff, and sounds like the sort of tune Elles Bailey might cook up – except delivered with the aid of a sledgehammer, amid serpentine injections of fiddle and washes of Hammond organ.  It also demonstrates their penchant for an oft-repeated vocal line – in this case “Are you the fortunate son?” – that could seem lazy but in fact takes on a mantra-like quality.  ‘Kissing The Sky’ is a tale of love sickness like a stripped back funky rocker, with trampolining bass and a slide mandolin solo that sounds like a ghost emerging from a crypt.  And ‘Take Me To The River’, matches another vocal from Mr Bond to a swaggering blues rock riff and a squeakingly high-pitched slide mandolin break.
But the longest track here, ‘Bury My Body’, offers simplicity of a different kind.  Melodically sweeter, it combines the couple’s voices beautifully, over little more than gentle acoustic guitar and some strokes of piano and organ.  The end result is elegance that sounds effortless.
There are twelve songs on We Fly Free, and they’re all good, some of them startlingly so.  What’s more, When Rivers Meet deliver them with a real clarity of vision, in a distinctive style that’s full of grace and danger. I predict great things.

We Fly Free is released by One Road Records on 20 November, and can be pre-ordered here. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Mike Ross - The Clovis Limit Pt.2

Incongruities – there’s a good word.  A couple of examples spring to mind when considering Mike Ross’s album The Clovis Limit Pt.2.  For one thing, the cover features a space helmet, and the contents include intermittent snippets of bleeping and droning, but the music is far from other worldly, being an earthy soup of Skynyrd, and the Black Crowes, and Creedence, and Joe Walsh, and – well, you get the picture.  And for another thing, Mike Ross lives in Brighton, on the South coast of England, but his voice sounds like he hails from Jacksonville, Florida.  Verily, the guy inhabits the vibe he’s exploring.
Mike Ross auditions for a remake of Easy Rider
And that vibe is well represented by opening track ‘Thanks A Lot’.  A sci-fi electronica intro is interrupted by crunching chords, heralding a sturdy riff of layered, or one might say Lynyrd, rhythm guitars.  A couple of verses later it suddenly changes gear and turns into a hurtling rock’n’roller, before downshifting again into a languid solo.  There’s a passage of falsetto-voiced, slide infused honky tonk, then it drifts away with a steely, pin-pricking solo outro over that robust riff.  It’s a five and a half minutes mini-suite of what Mike Ross is all about.
If that hard rockin’ segment in ‘Thanks A Lot’ suggests that Ross is prepared to get heavy, he confirms it on ‘None Of Your Business’, on which he transports a ‘Stormbringer’-like juddering riff to Dixie, takes things down into a dreamy guitar solo over cooing backing vocals and subtle organ, then hits the throttle again.
Joe Walsh echoes are evident on the witty and swinging ‘The Only Place You Ever Take Me Is Down’, and later on ‘Don’t Say A Word’, both tracks featuring crackling, abrasive slide playing.  The former also benefits from an expressively contemptuous vocal, and some swaggering slide/organ interplay en route to its amusing vibraslap finish, while ‘Don’t Say A Word’ kicks ass with a stomping beat and fuzzy rhythm guitar.
Ross has more clubs in his bag though.  ‘Hammer’ belies its title in wistful, plaintive style, with soaring harmonies and glittering guitar picking, a shimmering bridge and an airy solo.  ‘The Loser’ combines acoustic guitar and Rhodes piano in a simple, understated and rootsy way.  ‘Leviathan’ is something else again, evolving from an Electric Ladyland psychedelic intro until it acquires more shape with a slithering electric guitar reading of the melody from ‘The Loser’, before Ross comes in with an echoing vocal to evoke an eerie blues vibe – the song is delightfully off-kilter.
A couple of instrumentals are more straightforward.  Fizzing guitar opens ‘Tell Jerry’, which shifts shapes between two guitar motifs over carefree, bopping bass from Ricky Kinrade.  ‘Unforgiven’, meanwhile, is an Allmans-like shuffling affair on which Darren Lee’s swinging drums are essential to the lightness of mood, while Ross’s guitar switches effortlessly between its catchy theme and sparkling soloing, and Stevie Watts weighs in with a typically groovy organ solo.  And the latter is dreamily reprised on the closing ‘Unforgiven (Ramport Transition)’, its elements of acoustic guitar, cosmic synth lines, and ethereal harmonies repeating the title played off against fuzzed up guitar.
But before that there’s the nine minutes’ worth of ‘Shoot You If You Run’, which is a game of two halves.  Upfront there’s serrated slide over fuzzed up rhythm guitar, creating an edgy tense atmosphere reinforced by the stumbling rhythm, pushy, competing voices, and a squealing solo.  Then it all dissolves into an arresting, if decidedly oddball, second segment, comprising spooky, unaccompanied guitar over barely discernible radio voices and Sputnik signals.
It’s easy to find late Sixties/early Seventies American rock points of references across The Clovis Limit Pt.2.  But Mike Ross draws them all together with his own personality, and makes them sound fresh and contemporary.  And aside from the rhythm section and organ, it’s just him deploying a swathe of instruments to deliver this many sided, hugely enjoyable, fun album.
I just have one question.  What the hell is the Clovis Limit?
The Clovis Limit Pt.2 is released by Taller Records on 30 October.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Connor Bracken and the Mother Leeds Band - Nightbird Motel

Right, let’s get the obvious bit out of the way first.  Who the hell is Mother Leeds, and what’s she got to do with the price of fish?
Well, legend has it that Mother Leeds was the mother of twelve children in the backwoods of Noo Joisey, way back sometime.  Child number thirteen was the last straw for mother dear, who cursed it – and it metamorphosed into a creepy creature with wings and hooves known as the Jersey Devil.  And Connor Bracken and the gang come from New Jersey, see?
And what Connor and co seem to have been getting up to in the land of the Sopranos is cooking up their own brew of Gaslight Anthem-esque, post-punk, scratchy Strokes-like pseudo-Iggy garage rock.  Or something of that ilk.  I bet they like to get all sweaty into the small hours on the cramped stages of NJ clubs.
Connor Bracken and the Mother Leeds Band - no wings, no hooves
As a singer, front man Connor Bracken makes for an energetically spiky guitarist.  His vocal style is of the throw it out there and see if it locates the melody variety – not bad, but a bit shaky, and now and then prone to wander.  Which, to be fair, kinda fits with the shouty backing vox his pals chuck in here and there.  That barbed wire guitar playing is engaging though, bringing a likeable edge to proceedings.
The opener, ‘When The World Stops Turning’, combines jagged riffing from Bracken and his guitar sidekick Jeff Linden, the aforementioned teetering vocals, a propulsive bass line from Chris Dubrow, and a spiky guitar solo.  It’s also said all it’s got to say about a minute before it ends.  But all in all, it’s pretty good fun.  And that pretty much sums up these rock’n’roll Jersey Devils.
They do like to incorporate some light and shade now and then though, in the form of prickling, intros like the ones on ‘Read On You’ and ‘Nightbird’, before they burst into exuberant life.  Actually, ‘Read On You’ sounds a bit like the less sophisticated little brother of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up’, but in a good way.  On ‘Nightbird’ though – well, did I mention that they hail from Asbury Park, New Jersey?  No?  Well I didn’t want you making assumptions.  On ‘Nightbird’ though, the twinkling intro ultimately leans into some distinctly ‘Darkness On Edge Of Town’ chords, and a Springbean-like plaintive Sixties-ish vibe, and they dial things down quite nicely too, notwithstanding Bracken’s sometimes caterwauling vocal.
On ‘Blame On Me’ they make good use of nearly six minutes, emerging from a droning intro into a reflective verse before getting all angsty and fiery to the strains of a somersaulting guitar line. They follow that up with the simple fun of the jingle-jangling ‘Liquorstore’, a slice of punky pop with a bridge decorated by jostling, ringing guitars that would suggest The Undertones if only they valued brevity a bit more.
That last comment sums up the key learning point for the Mother Leeds boys’ – when the song’s done, move on.  They don’t always overdo it though – on both the aforementioned ‘Blame On Me’ and ‘Voice On The Radio’, with its pulsing bass and drums overlaid with scraping, ghostly guitar, they extend themselves to imaginative effect.
Anyway, you know what?  I like ‘em despite their flaws.  So what if they’re not the finished article?  There are some decent hooks kicking around, Bracken’s guitar work has a ragged charm, and it’s kinda hard to sneer at their naïve enthusiasm.
Connor Bracken and the Mother Leeds Band are still a bit immature, still learning their trade, but Nightbird Motel shows promise.  I expect better things to follow.

Nightbird Motel was released on 25 September, and can be ordered from Bandcamp here.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

King King - Maverick

Family, love, brotherhood, bereavement, togetherness in the face of the storm, defiance in response to music biz frustrations.  These are themes that King King main man Alan Nimmo sings about with heart-on-sleeve conviction.  Really, this album should be called Manifesto, rather than Maverick.  But maybe someone had already taken that one.
It’s been three long years since King King’s last release, Exile & Grace, and three-quarters of the line-up at work here didn’t feature then.  But when Maverick kicks off with ‘Never Give In’, it’s right in the Bad Company/Whitesnakey kinda territory they’ve made their own over the last decade, with big ringing chords, surging organ, and the new rhythm section of Andrew Scott and
Alan Nimmo delivering his manifesto
Pic by Jon Theobald

Zander Greenshields giving the bottom end a big fat sound, while Nimmo expresses his determination to overcome obstacles put in his way.  And later, on ‘I Will Not Fall’, a lyrically biting reaction to the sourness of business relationships, the rhythm boys are at it again, with a thumping backbeat from Scott and throbbing bass from Greenshields laying down a funky foundation, augmented by tidal waves of organ and bubbling clavinet from Jonny Dyke.
Verily, the foursome sound like a band.  But it’s impossible to ignore the contribution made by keys man Dyke.  He’s had to wait a while to make a record on which he could emerge from the shadow of his predecessor Bob Fridzema, but boy what an impact he has here.  And it’s not just the power of his organ playing on the upbeat stuff, or his work on the arrangements with Nimmo, it’s what he brings to the more reflective material – and these are the songs that really raise Maverick to another level.
The absolute standout among these, the cream of the crop, is ‘When My Winter Comes’, a ballad for piano and voice alone, co-written by Nimmo and Dyke, which is so much more than its minimal parts.  With Nimmo’s delivery of an inescapable melody intertwining with Dyke’s subtle piano chords and embroidery, and some perfectly pitched harmonies, it’s a meditation on roots and the ageing process that will have the hairs on the back of your neck prickling.  Guaranteed.
Not far behind that highlight comes ‘Whatever It Takes To Survive’, a song about loss graced by subtle and soulful verses that take me back to the smouldering tunes on Standing In The Shadows.  It toughens up for the assertive chorus though, with Dyke’s organ again swirling purposefully in the mix.  And there’s a harmonised guitar segment - which will just beg for new recruit Stevie Nimmo to get stage front with his brother for a twin guitar moment - as a prelude to a scorching Nimmo solo and a big climax.
Being honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced by ‘By Your Side’ at first.  Which goes to show that sometimes I can be a schmuck.  With another piano-led intro, this is a grower with what feels like a deeply personal lyric about relationships and observing a loved one’s suffering, and a lovely melody enhanced by wonderful harmonies.  It builds gradually, until Nimmo carves out another spine-tingling solo.
Upbeat songs like ‘Fire In My Soul’ and ‘End Of The Line’ may not carry the same emotional heft
Cheer up guys - the album's a winner!
as the slowies, but there’s still depth to the lyrics amid the radio-friendly swell of the sound.  On the former, keyboard flourishes from Dyke combine with gritty riffing from Nimmo, while Andrew Scott gives his kit a fair old walloping.  Album closer ‘End Of The Line’, meanwhile, may not mention Nimmo’s brother Stevie by name, but it more or less anticipates his recent recruitment to the band as it contemplates past adventures and future possibilities.  It’s an easy-going, lightly funky tune, with a great little guitar solo, but it’s still earnest in expressing the belief that “Together we can face this world, and never be alone.”
Along the way ‘One World’ harks back to societal themes previously explored on Exile & Grace, against the backdrop of a vibrant sound built on stuttering bass, bubbling keyboards and stabbing chords, and ‘Everything Will Be Alright’ is similarly bright and confident, ranging from swelling organ and backing vocals to warm electric piano and a stinging guitar solo as Nimmo sings about faith and trust.  And ‘Dance Together’ is a kilt-swingin’ party tune with an underlying metaphor about community, its pumping bass and propulsive drums driving a that big sound, embellished by prickling chords and a spot-on Nimmo solo squeezed out like toothpaste.
Was this album a moment of truth for Alan Nimmo, after all the vocal problems, the line-up changes, and whatever else over the last three years?  If so, he and the new look King King have hit back with a bang.  Maverick is a big-hearted, uplifting record – a musical and emotional antidote to these trying times.

Maverick is released on Channel 9 Music on 6 November, and can be pre-ordered here.