Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a technically accomplished guitarist, with a reputation of long standing. And if he’s good enough to be a collaborator with Stephen Stills in The Rides, then surely he can’t be easily dismissed. So how come I have qualms about his new album Lay It On Down?
The trouble is that I find a chunk of the material here under-seasoned, and the condiments in short supply are personality and emotion. There are times when things are just too neat and tidy. For example the vocals of long-time KWS singer Noah Hunt, on ‘Baby Got Gone’
and the title track, sit at
the upper end of his register, and are slickly thickened with harmonies, so
that however sincere the sentiments might be, any individuality is squeezed out
in favour of an identikit modern country singer.
|Kenny Wayne Shepherd driftin'
That country reference isn’t accidental. The PR bumf for the album talks about Shepherd visiting to Nashville to work with a bunch of writers on the songs for this album, and if I say it shows I don’t mean it as an unalloyed compliment. Songs like the two mentioned above, ‘Louisiana Rain’ (no, not a Tom Petty cover, but a paean to Shepherd’s home state), and ‘Hard Lesson Learned’ with its pedal steel guitar, sound like songwriting-by-numbers MOR country fare, albeit from experts in the genre. It boils down to Shepherd playing it way too safe with stuff like this.
Happily a healthy portion of the material is more appealing. For a start, I prefer it when Hunt drops to a lower key and they ditch the double-tracking, allowing his voice to sound both richer and more natural, enabling a degree of humour to permeate the likes of ‘Nothing But The Night’ and ‘She’s $$$’ (as in ‘She’s Money’). The latter has a country rockin’ vibe akin to John Hiatt’s ‘Tennessee Plates’, and if it doesn’t have Hiatt’s level of wit at least there’s a spark of fun evident.
Things are always better when they step beyond those pesky country inclinations, as with the horns and squelchy guitar tones of ‘Diamonds & Gold’, and the funky undercurrent of ‘Nothing But The Night’, with the hint of staccato in its guitar riff and the phrasing of its verses, which does credit to the rhythm section of Chris Layton on drums and Scott Nelson on bass. Similarly the strutting blues feel of ‘Down For Love’, with stabs of organ from Riley Osbourn, has a pleasing swagger that they take all the way to the bank. ‘How Low Can You Go’, meanwhile, rocks’n’rolls in toe-tapping, rough and tumble fashion, with the insertion of a witty descending riff in imitation of the title. ‘Ride Of Your Life’ closes proceedings with a chunky slab of a riff, a heap of automotive metaphors and a burst of guitar frenzy that may well tempt Shepherd into extended noodling onstage.
All in all Lay It On Down is an instance of one step forward and one step back, as instances of genuine, well-seasoned blues rock vie with tame and glossy Nashville fare. On the whole the real deal may just about win on points, but it’s a close run thing. Shepherd would do well to find a producer who will make him rough things up more next time round.
Lay It On Down is released by Mascot/Provogue on 21 July.