Monday, October 25, 2021

Davy Knowles - What Happens Next

How to avoid repeating yourself.  How to stand out from the herd.  Seems to me these are key questions for many a modern-day blues-rockin’ artist.  Some don’t bother of course, and just keep on keepin’ on, following the same old course.  But others go in search of different angles of attack, looking for new grooves rather than getting stuck in a rut.
In the case of Chicago-based Manxman Davy Knowles and his new album What Happens Next, the result is a focus on songs in differing styles, sometimes retro-sounding to go with the
Davy Knowles gets all sophisticated for the camera
Pic by Timothy M Schmidt
"salvaged vinyl" look of the cover art, but with a few nifty embellishments to deliver a modern twist - drawing on the skills of producer Eric Corne I suspect, who has added similar freshness to the soulful sound of Sugaray Rayford.
Take the opener ‘Light Of The Moon’ for example, or a little later ‘Get Lucky’.  Both tracks carry echoes, however distant, of The Black Keys.  With its stomping backbeat and grinding guitar chords, the first in particular suggests the bluesy neo-Glam Rock vibe of the Keys’ El Camino.  It comes with tweeting keyboard notes, brief and edgy guitar breaks, and a couple of anthemic “Hey! Hey!” interludes, if not quite the grapnel-like hook of, say, ‘Gold On The Ceiling’.  On ‘Get Lucky’, meantime, the verses may be a tad lightweight, but the catchy chorus compensates, heightened by a simple, but effective, bubbling keyboard line.
Knowles has a good rather than outstanding voice, but he uses it with conviction, especially a slowie like the Corne composition ‘Roll Me’.  A bluesy ballad one might say is in John Mayer territory, Knowles delivers it with more character than Mayer could muster, over a foundation of low down, spaced out guitar notes and subtle washes of organ, to which he adds his own restrained and well-judged guitar work.  And he does moody and reflective well too, on the haunted vibe of ‘Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, with its tinkling piano and most Bonamassa-like slow and epic riff, to which Knowles adds some squeaking slide that turns rather more razor-edged on the outro.  The same is true of the melodic and mellow ‘River’, a simple affair on which Knowles gets increasingly impassioned, underlined by some beautifully complementary guitar licks.
These ballads are the real standouts, rather than poptastic outings like the stuttering ‘Solid Ground’ and sprightly ‘Side Show’, though the latter piques more interest with its fuzzed-up guitar tone, its rubber band bass, and the way the tense, buzzing riff butts up against the relaxed rhythm.
‘Wake Me Up When The Nightmare’s Over’ is strident stuff, and if Knowles could do with summoning up more vocal raunch, it’s still got guts, with crunching guitar chords, walloping drums, surging organ and rocking piano, going out on a burst of taut and wiry guitar.  Then by way of contrast the album closes with the folkie ‘If I Ever Meet My Maker’, sparkling picked guitar the main backing for its sensitively sung, lilting melody.
What Happens Next is a grower.  It’s not a straight-up blues-rock album, and Davy Knowles may not always hit the stylistic targets he’s aiming for, but when he’s good – on those slow numbers in particular – he’s very good indeed.
What Happens Next
 is out now on Provogue Records, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Southern Avenue - Be The Love You Want

Let’s get straight to the point, eh?  Or to two points, to be more accurate.  To wit:

1.   At their best, Southern Avenue evoke classic Memphis soul à la the heyday of Don Bryant and Ann Peebles, for example, but in a modern style of their own.

2.  They’re a damn fine, tight ensemble, the whole exceeding the sum of their parts.  But their trump card is lead singer Tierinii Jackson.  Seriously, we’re talking about a Superbowl standard vocalist who can go from gossamer light to stratospheric power while maintaining the purest of tones.

Smile along with Southern Avenue

All of which is evident on the title track of Be The Love You Want, which opens with some rattling percussion triggering staccato guitar chords, before slipping into a more comfortable groove propelled by rubbery bass and bright horns.  Meantime Tierinii Jackson starts warming up her tonsils, and right off the bat they’re delivering something special, topped off a fizzing guitar break from Ori Naftaly.

The following ‘Control’ takes it easy on the verses, with Ms TJ slipping and sliding around the melody, over cool bass lines from Evan Sarver, fluid horns, and offbeat drum patterns from TIkyra Jackson – who also contributes to the spot on vocal harmonies on the lively chorus.  ‘Don’t Hesitate (Call Me)', meanwhile, dials things down into dreamy mode, Jackson delivering her vocal over minimalist backing, with injections of more sumptuous harmonies, while Naftaly works up a melodic guitar motif that steps out of the everyday soul/blues vein en route to a brief but sparkling solo.

The backwards shuffling rhythm of ‘Push Now’ carries hints of North Mississippi hill country – little surprise perhaps, with the writing contribution of North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson - but is still stamped with Southern Avenue soul.  There’s some edge as the tune strains against the rhythm, while Jeremy Powell brings warm piano and Naftaly adds another interesting solo.  ‘Fences’, in a different vibe, really is like an old-fashioned soul track from the late 60s/early 70s, with Jackson stretching herself into an ethereal domain worthy of Minnie Riperton, and Naftaly adding another nifty little supporting solo.

As the tracks go by though, I begin to find the relentless presence of the horns somewhat irritating – smooth and slinky too often for my liking, as on the rather flimsy soul-pop of ‘Love You Nice And Slow’ for example, and leaving little room for Jeremy Powell’s keys to contribute.  And with its floating vocals over shimmering guitar, ‘Too Good To Be True’ is a sophisticated enough ballad without the horn interpolations that nudge it in the direction of easy listening.  Southern Avenue have enough clubs in their core five-piece bag without needing the assistance of brass at every turn, as ‘Heathen Hearts’ demonstrates with its gospel-like vocal delivery of the Jackson sisters over backing that consists of little more than rhythmic clapping and a whomping kick drum.

Still, ‘Move Into The Light’ is a bubbling chunk of funk, with another restless, offbeat rhythm, and ‘Pressure’ derives some satisfying oomph from its staccato feel, Jackson’s occasionally edgier vocal, and some gutsier guitar from Naftaly.

Be The Love You Want demonstrates all the quality that brought Southern Avenue a Grammy nomination, ten-a-penny though those may be.  I’d like to hear Naftaly spread himself a bit more guitar just once or twice, and a couple more killer hooks wouldn’t go amiss.  But this is a classy album, no doubt, with an impressive strike rate of winning songs – and Tierinii Jackson’s astonishing voice always ready to knock you sideways.

Be The Love You Want is out now, on Renew Records/BMG.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Liz Jones & Broken Windows - Bricks & Martyrs

“Ready to order, sir?”
“Yes, I think so.  Let’s see – I think I’ll have the Van Morrison à la ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to start.”
“Certainly sir.”
“Then for the main I’ll have the Songs About Those Puzzling, Appealing, Disappointing, Frustrating Things Called People.”
“An excellent choice sir.  And for the sauce?”
Liz Jones and John Bruce get serious
“Yes, the Lightly Smoked Female Vocals please.  And could I have some Rod Stewart and The Faces In Sensitive Mode on the side?”
“Of course, sir.  And would you prefer white or red with that?”
“Actually I’d prefer the Blues, if that’s okay?”
“You have marvellous taste sir, if I may say so.”

Which is one way of explaining what Bricks & Martyrs by Liz Jones & Broken Windows is all about.  And I could say that this musical bistro is worth at least one Michelin star, but that kind of elitist cuisine isn't how I roll.  This is tasteful stuff to be sure, but it’s still music with roots.
Enough of the food metaphor.  The opener ‘Before Me’ has a loping Latino rhythm, and sparkles of guitar interweaving with tinkling piano, over which Liz Jones’ warm voice delivers a lovelorn lyric set to a delightful, hooky melody.  And there’s more of that Latin feel on ‘Stain’, with Hispanic-tinged guitar from John Bruce, bendy bass from Rod Kennard, and warm piano chords from Jamie Hamilton that lift off into rippling syncopations, while Suzy Cargill’s bongos maintain a steady clip.
Over the piece, this is roots rock with subtlety.  ‘Jo’ rests on a simple motif akin to Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, while Jones opens up with a low, resonant vocal, accompanied by conversational interpolations of guitar and organ, topped off with a sinuous slide guitar solo from Bruce.  ‘Candle’ strips things back further, with acoustic guitar and mandolin easing into a gentle, lilting, waltz time feel, some interesting chords getting stirred into the mix en route to a pinging guitar break that’s symptomatic of John Bruce always finding the right tones to fit the song.
The album pivots around ‘Lover’, on which more mandolin strumming from multi-instrumentalist Cargill is underlined by twangingly guitar notes before nudging into a lighter mood, with layered guitars proving depth.  Jones keeps her singing simple on another delicious melody, with a simple but definitive upward-flickering guitar line the killer touch. Shortly after, there’s the upbeat trio of ‘Wendy’, ‘Call Centre Blues’, and ‘Angel’.  The first of these is a late period Beatle-ish tune, maybe.  Maybe not.  Whatever, there’s lightly funky rhythm guitar, and sharp breaks from Bruce underpinned by grooving bass, while Gary Davidson keeps the drums simple and lets everyone slide perfectly into the pocket as they produce nifty little shifts in the backing.  “Whoo!’ Jones toots to herald some sharp lead guitar playing, and who can blame her – these peeps sound like they’re chilling out with smiles on their faces.  ‘Call Centre Blues’ is a loose and nimble protest about nuisance calls and their crap timing, with an arrangement assembled like a mechanism assembled by a master craftsman.  Then ‘Angel’ has Liz Jones thrilling convincingly about a dose of sexual attraction, over some gritty guitar, swinging bass, and Winwood-like organ from the guesting Ali Petrie.
And to finish they serve up the swaying, sensitive ‘On The Ride’, with Jones supplying a gorgeous vocal, enhanced by floating harmonies, over clicking bongos and sparse drums, embellished by piano from Jamie Hamilton that’s like a sun-dappled stream, eventually reaching the sea with an exquisite dying fall of an ending.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said enough about Liz Jones’ songwriting, or the suppleness of her voice.  These are the elements at the core of Bricks & Martyrs, but the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts.  This is an album in which all concerned seem to delight in what they’re conjuring up, in the most ego-free way, and it's captured by producer Jen Clarke with admirable clarity.
It so happens that Liz Jones & Broken Windows come from round my way.  It also so happens that Bricks & Martyrs is a classy collection of blues/Americana/folkie/jazzy roots music that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of that ilk that Britain has to offer.  I kid you not.  Do yourself a favour – give it a listen and make your own mind up.

Bricks & Martyrs is released independently on 29 October, and can be ordered here.

Check out the review of the debut album from Liz Jones & Broken Windows (plus some other stuff) here.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Carolyn Wonderland - Tempting Fate

Carolyn Wonderland’s name may be familiar to some people from her gig in recent years as the guitarist in John Mayall’s band.  But if that makes you think Tempting Fate will be a wall-to-wall parade of 12 bar blues, think again.  This album ain’t her first rodeo, and it demonstrates that she’s got a variety of strings to her stylistic bow.
Sure, she knows how to play dem blues.  ‘Broken Hearted Blues’, for example, is a sturdy chunk of bump’n’grind, a simple arrangement on which hints of organ are the only embellishment beyond its guitar/bass/drums foundations. Wonderland delivers some conversational guitar
Carolyn Wonderland displaying different roots leanings
Pic by Marilyn Stringer
playing that both stings and flutters, underlined on her closing solo by some kinetic drumming from Kevin Lance.  And she makes lightly funky work of John Mayall’s ‘The Laws Must Change’, with tripping drums providing the basis for hard-hitting guitar work and some guitar/vocal harmonising to which she adds a scat-like jazzy twist.
But Wonderland spins in different directions elsewhere.  The state-of-the-nation opener ‘Fragile Peace And Certain War’ may rock big time, with her skating ringing slide to the fore, but the melody has a tough country air redolent of her fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks, with Wonderland giving lending a full-on holler to lyrics about “Charlatans and preachers recruiting day and night”.  And she delves even further into country terrain with the ballad ‘Crack In The Wall’, with a melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kenny Rogers collection, adorned by accordion from Jan Flemming and lap steel guitar courtesy of Cindy Cashdollar.  Meanwhile Wonderland delivers a sensitive, heartfelt vocal as she wears her liberal heart on her sleeve with lines like “She sleeps on the floor in a cage in the land of the free”.  You get the picture?
Gotta say, on first acquaintance I found Wonderland’s Texan drawl more than a little distracting, but on subsequent spins it became clear that she’s got power to burn, but also plenty of emotion and control in those pipes, whether getting mischievous on the chugging fun of ‘Texas Girl And Her Boots’, with its twirling, steely-toned solo, or starting off laid back on the swinging, piano-led blues of ‘Fortunate Few’ before upping the ante on the chorus.  Hell, she even manages to make like a female Johnny Cash on her slowed down reading of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’, which clacks along patiently while she her fluid guitar plays around with the melody.
There’s a zydeco vibe to Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Honey Bee’, which she takes for a romantic turn around the dance floor before giving it a lift with her guitar solo then yielding to Flemming’s accordion.  And ‘On My Feet Again’ is a slice of swing featuring rinky-dink piano from Red Young, to which Wonderland bends her voice in suitably bright and upbeat fashion.  I could do without her whistling solo though.
But if what you’re after is something of a more classic rock tenor, then Wonderland has the last word with an epic rendition of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Loser’.  The first-person tale of a delusional, down-at-heel gambler, it rises from a subdued opening with spangly guitar, through spells of impressively controlled dynamics, to a howling guitar solo, with producer Dave Alvin supplying additional lead guitar – and another blast of full-throated singing from Wonderland.
Like I said, if all you’re after is meat and potatoes guitar-comes-first blues, look elsewhere.  But if you favour a more varied roots music diet, Tempting Fate offers a satisfying menu of different flavours, from Texas blues to gutsy country music, Americana and beyond, with impressive vocals from Carolyn Wonderland to add to her fingerpickin' guitar repertoire.

Tempting Fate is released by Alligator Records on 8 October 2021.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Joanne Shaw Taylor - The Blues Album

Another month, another album of covers by an established artist.
After the recent release of Bernie Marsden’s Kings I had a lively discussion with a reader about the value of outings such as these, and it’s certainly a discussion worth having.  How much intrinsic value is there in this kind of collection of modern takes on old songs?  Is The Blues Album possibly a gateway for some fans of Joanne Shaw Taylor to explore unfamiliar blues artists?
Joanne Shaw Taylor - happiness is a new album
Pic by Christie Goodwin
Whatever.  One thing to be said about The Blues Album is that it’s stylistically different from another Joe Bonamassa/Josh Smith-produced outing from earlier this year.  Joanna Connor’s 4801 South Indiana Avenue may also have leaned heavily on old tunes, but where it majored on
raunch, The Blues Album tends to head in a more subtle, more soulful direction.  And in that context, it has to be said that the JoJo production team have coaxed some convincingly soulful vocals out of Ms Taylor – which is a significant point, because while I’ve always liked the husky tone of her singing, I’ve sometimes found it wanting in other respects.
So among the highlights on the album are soul-blues ballads like ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’, ‘Let Me Down Easy’, and the absolute cream of the crop, ‘I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)’.  Written by Don Covay and originally recorded by Little Richard in a far from wop-bop-a-loo-bop mode, it’s an old classic given an old classic treatment, and Taylor gives it her all with a soul-fuelled vocal, backed up by gospel-influenced guest Mike Farris in the supporting vocal role.  For me the gold medal winning rendition is still Ian Siegal’s on his album Swagger, but this isn’t far behind.
It’s not hard to guess that the horn-backed slowie ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’ was once recorded by Aretha Franklin, and though JST is no Aretha she still delivers an emotive vocal, and backs it up with a pinging guitar solo that edges into Gary Moore’s romantic blues terrain.  And she captures the emotional vibe on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ too, assisted by waves of organ from Reese Wynans, with horns flowing over the top and trills of piano in the margins, while the guitar stays in the background until a spiky solo scratches its way into earshot.
The frequent use of horns evokes a jazzy vibe here and there, so that ‘If That Ain’t A Reason’ manages to be both swinging and strident, Taylor’s rhythmic vocal delivery swollen by classy female backing vocals, the assertiveness underlined by the quivering but tough guitar tone on her solo.  She then gets sassy with her singing on ‘Keep On Lovin’ Me’, over some slinky bass from Steve Mackey, with sax punctuation from Mark Drouthit.  Taylor’s guitar then trills its way
Turbo-charged messing' round on stage
Pic by Christie Goodwin
into solo action, carrying a flavour of Sean Costello, ahead of some guitar/sax counterpunching to close.  There’s more horn and organ layering on ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing Me’, but it’s the undulating bass line that really drives the groove, laying the foundations for some stinging, squealing guitar work, latterly turbo-charged by a key change.  Then there’s a rather weak fade-out – an option that has its place, but detracts from the power of a few tracks here.
There’s fun stuff too, with the opener ‘Stop Messin’ Round’, a 1968 Fleetwood Mac tune resuscitated by Gary Moore on Still Got The Blues and given a similar rambunctiously swingin’ treatment here, La Taylor having fun vocally and delivering some biting guitar breaks, while Wynans goes to town on a rocking piano solo.  The perky Memphis-style R’n’B of ‘Two Time My Lovin’ has a crisp backbeat counterpointed by lazily bobbing bass, and Taylor serves it well with a shimmering, sparkling and teasing solo.  And the album closes with the boogie of ‘Three Time Loser’, a strutting rhythm backing a chugging riff, while Wynans chucks in piano and organ licks from different angles before knocking out another barroom piano showcase.
Oddly, a couple of throwaway items sit in the middle of the album – the fun but slight ‘Don’t Go Away Mad’, on which for reasons passing understanding Bonamassa feels the need to saddle up for a duet, and the instrumental fragment ‘Scraps Vignette’.
Does The Blues Album add anything to the sum of blues knowledge?  Not really.  But with its top-flight cast list it’s still a satisfying production, full of strong arrangements – and it’s good to hear Joanne Shaw Taylor hit the mark with her vocal contribution as much as her guitar.

The Blues Album is released on 24 September by KTBA Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town - A Blues Odyssey

First of all, hats off to Tommy Castro for trying something a bit different.  “Concept album” isn’t a phrase one hears bandied about much in relation to roots music, but A Bluesman Came To Town fits the bill, with its tale of a young man from 'Somewhere' who gets hooked on the blues and hits the road with his guitar.
It’s a nice enough idea - an opening out of the Johnny B. Goode story, if you like, over 13 tracks.  I’ll let you discover the story for yourself, but for me, over the piece, the narrative feels a bit
prosaic as it relates the ups and downs of the anonymous hero’s life on his “blues odyssey”.  The melodies on a couple of songs feel somewhat predictable too.  These misgivings aside though, there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least because Castro makes use of a number of roots styles to good effect.
Tommy Castro crosses a black cat's path
Pic by Victoria Smith

Take the plenty satisfying brace of ‘You To Hold On To’ and ‘I Wanna Go Back Home’ for example.  The first is a slice of Springsteen-esque soul, Castro’s aching vocal depicting the kid’s reflections on the girl he’s leaving behind for the road, set to a slow and steady arrangement with some country-ish twang and a sweet guitar solo.  The latter is in a similar vein, with Castro making like Ben E. King over a Memphis soul sound of mellow organ and subtle rhythm guitar, enhanced by an emotive sax solo.  And reaching further back into the soul vibe, ‘Child Don’t Go’ is a gospel-driven duet by Castro and Terrie Odabi, offering parental advice about the big bad world over backing with pots of brio courtesy of Kevin McKendree’s boisterous honky tonk piano and Castro’s steely guitar solo.
Castro and co can rock too, whether it’s the upbeat rock’n’roll of ‘I Caught A Break’, with its  infectious chorus and overt musical and lyrical allusions to 'Johnny B. Goode', or the mid-paced post-Hendrixism of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’, its sturdy riff punctuated by bright, offbeat chords and needle-sharp guitar licks as it gradually whips up energy.  The funky inflections of the latter get fuller expression too, on ‘Hustle’, which has a lot more to do with James Brown than Van McCoy, with jingling rhythm guitar and sassy horns, and Castro even indulging in a spot of rapping.  Well, kinda.
When it comes to slower stuff, the downbeat blues-rock of ‘Draw The Line’, with its shimmering keys, has more to offer than the slow-blues-by-numbers feel of ‘Blues Prisoner’, capturing the mood well as the lyric offers a response to the tribulations of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’.  And still in straightforward blues territory, the insistent ‘I Got Burned’ has more personality than the rather pedestrian tune of ‘Bluesman Comes To Town’, even if both feature stinging guitar solos.  More ear-catching than either of those, though, is ‘Bring It One Back’ on which Castro’s buzzing slide guitar and Tommy MacDonald’s bass bring juddering urgency to the riff, played off against a tense drum rhythm from producer Tom Hambridge.
I like Tommy Castro.  As a songwriter he’s capable of evoking atmosphere and a sense of place, he has a convincing, soulful voice, and he wields his six string effectively in a number of styles.  It’s a shame that the over-arching story on the album isn’t more gripping, but at least Castro hasn’t overplayed his hand and tried to produce a “blues opera” of Wagnerian proportions.  Thanks to that self-discipline, A Bluesman Came To Town isn’t weighed down by filler, and Castro’s qualities are still able to come to the fore and shine.

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Call is released by Alligator Records on 17 September.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Samantha Fish - Faster

Here she comes again, dancin’ ‘neath the starry skies.  Yep, it’s the moving target that is Samantha Fish.
“You know, any time I feel like we’re closing to getting – um, figured out,” Ms Fish said to me when I interviewed her a couple of years ago, “when people think that this is exactly who you are, and this is what you’re gonna be, and it becomes an expectation - it makes me wanna change.”   And listening to Faster, you know she wasn’t kidding.
Let’s start with the album cover, with its vivid picture of Fish lasciviously running her tongue up
Samantha Fish, glossy sheen and all
Pic by Kevin King
the neck of an, er, upright guitar.  What’s that all about?  Well, it’s attention-grabbing for sure – anyone idly catching sight of it is going to do a double take.  But it’s also a world away from the vulnerable fairy tale heroine suggested on the cover of Wild Heart.  I’m thinking it’s a don't-give-a-shit visual statement, declaring that Samantha Fish will do whatever she goddamn pleases, thank you very much.  You know what else?  Intentionally or not, that picture references the artwork on the 1979 single ‘Picture This’ by Blondie, that bunch of New York punks who mutated into chartbusting power-poppers, turning their hands to disco and rap along the way.
Picture this indeed, in readiness for the aural rollercoaster ride of Faster, as Fish and her producer/collaborator Martin Kierszenbaum smash styles together like a rock’n’roll Hadron Collider.  Get ready, people, for crunching rock riffs, scrabbling post-punk guitar breaks, glistening keys, dance grooves, electro-pop bleeping – and more besides.
The title track kicks in with a buzzing, tough riff fit to rank with ‘Show Me’ from Wild Heart, but also introduces a thumping drum sound akin to the gated reverb variety that dominated the 80s.  There’s a tantalising frisson to the yada-yada-yada lyric of the chorus: “I wanna ooh-ooh-ooh, You’re gonna ooh-ooh-ooh, That’s how I’ll make your heart go faster.”  It's one of a number of songs about sexual attraction and - at the risk of sounding interleckshul - the power dynamics of relationships.  A screaming guitar break will hit the bullseye for long-standing Fish fans, but the sonic gloss and sheen is something different – and she’s just getting started.
‘All Ice, No Whiskey’ has plenty of sexy swagger, and buried within it a groove that’s on familiar terms with Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ gets its little socks rocked off.  Discordant keys sweep here and there, and the chorus is burnished by sleek, multi-tracked vocals, but what’s inescapable is a
Not Samantha Fish, not Faster
 dance floor rhythm track that’s enough to get even this old git practising his white man’s overbite (© Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal).  And if ‘Twisted Ambition’ has not one but two gritty guitar riffs getting sonically warped, they’re also jostling with throbbing, synthy bass lines, and bright pulsing keys that create tension before Fish lets loose on guitar.
By this time old school blues-rock fans may be feeling seasick as they lurch between loving some of the gutsy guitar, and dropping their jaws at some of the other sounds flying around.  And you ain’t heard anything yet.
‘Hypnotic’ slides seductively into earshot with a gasping vocal about “casting a spell that binds you”, over beeping like electronic raindrops.  It comes over like something from an 80s Brit synth-pop outfit - until Mademoiselle Fish lets rip with a grungy guitar interlude that would give electronica twiddlers heart failure.  On the other hand ‘Forever Together’ takes the “bomp-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp” vocal refrain of Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’ and bends it into the deformed riff for a punky pop song with the perkiest of catchy, where-have-I-heard-that-before choruses.
The opening verse of ‘Crowd Control’ reveals one of Fish’s few weaknesses, a tendency that’s cropped up in years gone by to waver a mite on notes at the bottom end of her register.  What follows is a slice of dreamy pop that at first blush seems serviceable rather than outstanding, but as she relaxes into the vocal and adds some neat guitar fills it begins to sound like Samantha on more familiar soulful ground.  ‘Imaginary War’ never really achieves escape velocity however, notwithstanding its fuzzy Morse Code backing and a typically spiky guitar solo.
But if that’s something of a lull in proceedings, ‘Loud’ gets things back on track.  A mellow verse with soulful crooning á la Kill Or Be Kind’s ‘Love Letters’ explodes into a chorus that’s all slamming chords, swelling organ and forceful vocals.  And then – steps back in amazement, supersonic Sam – a fella starts rapping!  Will this be a bridge too far for some guitar rock
"The future is this way!"
aficionados, or will they take the rapid-fire delivery of Tech N9ne in their stride?  Answers on a postcard, please.
And having dropped that stylistic bombshell, ‘Better Be Lonely’ switches tack with a repetitive, scratchy guitar line that’s taken up by Sam’s smoother vocal, over a cool, swinging bass groove and a thumping backbeat.  It’s a simple enough tune, but it’s also an insistent, infernal earworm, topped off with a trademark wiry guitar solo.  Then things get even wilder with the punk-pop guitar wig-out of ‘So-Called Lover’, which is more or less ‘Love Your Lies’ Mark II with a Blondie-esque stratospheric chorus and a buzzsaw guitar solo.
If you’re feeling breathless after all that, ‘Like A Classic’ cools things off, its wordless opening lines sliding into a swoonsome, coo-ing vocal, with a sweetly rising and falling chorus over squiggly background noises.  And then ‘All The Words’ is a classic Fish slowie, easing in with Beatle-ish softly softly guitar notes, then leaning on sparse electric piano below Samantha’s reflective, emotional vocal about how “the caged bird never flies”, ultimately bringing down the curtain with some sweetly soaring singing.
“That’s part of being an artist,” the lady said to me back in 2019.  “You’re going to do things that are either gonna incite happiness, or upset people.”  Some people may be upset by Faster.  Others may catch up with it.  Me?  I’m sold.  Faster isn’t perfect, but it’s radio-ready dynamite in a similar way to the Black Keys’ El Camino.  And Samantha Fish is a determined, ambitious young woman who’s carving out new possibilities for her music, and doing it with flair.
Faster is released by Rounder Records on 10 September, and is available for pre-order here.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Robert Jon & The Wreck - Shine A Light On Me Brother

Robert Jon & The Wreck are not entirely what they seem.  The easy peg to hang them on may be Southern rock, but there’s more to them than that rather lazy label suggests.  This was obvious from their previous album Last Light On The Highway, and there’s further evidence when they let loose here with ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’, the title track that kicks off their new release.
Robert Jon & The Wreck - Otis Redding dance moves unlikely
Pic by Bryan Greenberg
Surging guitar chords, and some squealing slide courtesy of Henry James herald the entrance of Robert Jon Burrison’s strong, purposeful voice soaring over the top of the arrangement – as it does across the album’s ten tracks.  But then some rocking horns get cooking, and gospellated backing vocals enter the fray courtesy of Mahalia Barnes, Juanita Tippins and Prinnie Stevens, and suddenly they’ve gone all Otis Redding, with barroom piano frills from Steve Maggiora.  This ain’t your common-or-garden Southern rock sound, not by any means, even if they don’t have the dance moves to go with the Memphis soul stew they whip up.
Thing is, Robert Jon & The Wreck aren’t really good ol’ boys from way down south, even if they may look like it, what with the hats and the beards.  They’re from California, albeit Orange County rather than some cool locale like Laurel Canyon, and listening to them you’ve gotta think the Eagles figure somewhere in their musical DNA, what with Robert Jon getting vocal harmony backing from all four of the other band members on a regular basis.
Whatever, what they really do best is nail you to the wall with stonking hooks.  Take ‘Ain’t No Young Love Song’, fr’instance.  It does have something of a Southern rock vibe, but delivered like an adrenaline rush, with drummer Andrew Espantman giving his kit a good spanking and more backing vox from the gals adding an extra whoosh, but all that energy is given focus by a killer chorus – a chorus so good they can bring it down for a breather and it loses nothing.
The harmony-drenched refrain on the following ‘Oh Chicago’ is irresistible too, with Burrison’s vocal well and truly airborne once again.  Okay, so the lyrics are maybe a bit trite, but I’ll forgive them that lapse towards Nashville-esque sentimentality when they add in some oomph from the horns and a tasty sax break from Jason Parfait.
They do melancholy well too, on the likes of ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Brother’.  The first is a tale of ill-
Robert Jon Burrison - achieving vocal lift-off
Pic by Maurice Moonen
starred fascination with a messed-up woman, all warm piano, waves of organ, acoustic strumming and keening slide guitar.  The second tackles the subject of mental illness with feeling, insisting on the importance of fraternal love to support a troubled mind, with James’ soaring guitar solo capturing the emotional essence of the song.  ‘Anna Maria’ has a countryish bent, but the bitter lyric spares it from the self-pitying tone that infects many a Southern rock ballad, and there’s no denying another top notch chorus and an impressive a cappella interlude.
Still, I like ‘em best in upbeat mode, as on ‘Everyday’, with its funky piano and shuffling drums to the fore, and squirrelling guitar breaks as it builds and builds, frenetic guitar competing with those female voices again, all the way to a clapping, cheering finale.  ‘Movin’’ is a chunkier vehicle, with a rumbling guitar intro reinforced by acoustic guitar and gutsy, dragging drums, with Maggiora’s piano sparkling in the margins.  It probes and prods its way forward, slowly gathering itself, then cools off into the bridge before coiling itself like a spring and then crashing back into motion.
Robert Jon & The Wreck are a quality outfit, too good to confine themselves to Southern rock stylings.  The songwriting and arrangements evident on Shine A Light On Me Brother may be their trump cards, but their all-round musicianship and Burrison’s voice aren’t far behind.  So forget the labels and give them a listen.

Shine A Light On Me Brother is released on 3 September, and can be pre-ordered here.