Ana Popovic – Like It On Top
Outstanding. If what you’re after is power chords and shredding, then move along, nothing to see here, ‘cause there ain’t none of that on this album from Ana Popovic, largely co-written with, and produced by, Keb' Mo'. More fool you though, because this is, like I said, outstanding.
What we have here is a collection of slinky funk that melds the Pointer Sisters’ ‘Slowhand’
|Ana Popovic - Look, no hands!|
The title track features Robben Ford, who I guess is responsible for the top quality lead guitar, and probably contributes to the jazzy, “everything falls apart” moment. The funkiness is ramped up on the likes of ‘Sexy Tonight’, a Kenny Wayne Shepherd composition on which he contributes both guitar and vocals on an excellent bout of punch-packing bump’n’grind. And ‘Funkin’ Attitude’ has the sassiness you might expect from the title, with squealing guitar, out of the ordinary backing vocals, and some Stevie Wonder-ish keyboards in the margins.
This is nothing though, compared to ‘Slow Dance’. Here we have a delicious turn around the floor, and an interior monologue in which the female voice explains that her dance partner, the poor schmuck, should absolutely not regard her as a sure thing. It’s a dreamy affair, with a breathy vocal and almost whispered guitar, set to a lilting tempo. Perfection.
That may be the peak moment, but other highlights include ‘Virtual Ground’, a less-is-more exercise with supple drums, a Steely Dan sheen, and sprinkles of guitar fairydust from Popovic, and the laid back, bluesier ‘Brand New Man’, with a sizzling guitar solo that’s made to sound effortless. And just for a bit of variety there’s ‘Matter Of Time’, a stripped down blues with minimalist guitar that folds some slide into the mix, and nothing else but voice and tapped percussion.
There’s more besides, but if you’ve listened to that lot the message should be clear – it’s the songs, stupid! And if I’d collared this when it was released in September I’d have drooled over it at greater length. Like It On Top is, frankly, one of the best albums of a very good year.
Go to Ana Popovic's website for details of tour dates in Britain and Europe in 2019.
Amanda Fish – Free
In case you didn’t know, Amanda Fish is the big sis of Samantha Fish. But if you’re expecting them to sound like two peas in a pod then think again. Sure, there are a few blues rock songs here that could easily have fitted into Sam’s early albums. ‘Not Again’ for example, with its ominous, throbbing riff; the intense, heavy and gritty ‘Going Down’ – nothing to do with Freddie King, folks; and the moody, back-to-basics ‘Bullet’, But vocally Amanda has much more in common with fellow Kansas City soul-blues singer Danielle Nicole – and Danielle Nicole at full throttle at that.
And indeed there are a couple of Nicole-like outings of muscular, funky soul early on. But the second half of the album underlines Fish’s lung power even further. ‘You Could Be’ starts off slow and steady, with just piano and voice, before taking off into power ballad territory. ‘Here We Are’ ratchets that up further, slow and tense to begin with, but with good use of dynamics and peppered with slide guitar en route to a big crescendo. But this all just warming up for ‘Don’t Mean A Thing’, a song of agonised relationship betrayal that features some truly gut-wrenching vocals, leading up to a Holy Moly moment in which Fish’s singing takes on full force gale proportions.
She isn’t a one trick pony though, and the best thing here is in a different vein. ‘The Ballad Of Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ is the kind of blues-country crossover Shemekia Copeland does so well, a well-crafted tribute to the disappearing wild characters of late night American radio, founded on acoustic strumming but with excellent slide colouring that may well be down to Bob Margolin, who guests on the track.
Contrastingly, ‘The Bored And Lonely’ is an edgy affair that draws a line back through grunge to Noo Yoik New Wave aesthetics. And then to close Fish flips from that to a soulful piano and vocal intro on the title track, and then as Chris Hazelton’s organ swings into earshot it explodes into a full-tilt gospel workout.
Free is probably a bit overlong, and could do with a couple of its twelve tracks being trimmed to give it more focus. But with all the material penned by Fish, who also plays bass throughout as well as contributing various guitar, piano and mandolin parts, this second album suggests there could be a lot more to come from her.
Broken Windows – Songs By Liz Jones
Having scribbled a few words recently about a support slot performance by Broken Windows, and referenced their contribution to the Jock’s Juke Joint Vol.4 compilation, I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a bit more about their album, released earlier this year.
Broken Windows aren’t a blues band, though they’ll play a blues now and then. What they are is something fresh and singular, revolving around the songs and voice of Liz Jones. If you want a comparison, then KT Tunstall might be a reasonable touchstone at times, or Nerina Pallot perhaps. Or maybe neither - you choose.
|Broken Windows - not a blues band, just a shade of blue|
Songs like the eponymous ‘Broken Windows’, with its subtle, smoky opening, and ‘Dangerous Game’, incorporate elements of jazziness, not least in the sometimes ultra-bendy bass of Rod Kennard, and the swing of Suzy Cargill’s percussion which, augmenting Marc Marnie’s drumming, often gives a Latin feel to proceedings. In turn that gives licence to guitarist John Bruce to explore some Santana-esque sounds, as on the ‘Sambi Pati’-like guitar figure of ‘Make My Night’, over some sweet acoustic strumming and smoochy singing from Jones. He brings some similarly clear-toned soloing to ‘No Gold’, a showcase for the subtle phrasing and variety in Jones’s singing, as she draws out the sensitivity of the song.
Jones has a way with an intriguing, intimate lyric, as on ‘Wild’, which plays off acoustic jangling against Cargill’s rhythms, until the rhythm section sidles into play in readiness for a jazzy fiddle break from Andrew Hennessey. ‘Stay’, with its line about "When I wake I see your naked shoulder", is a sunny and energetic affair, and reminds me of the softer side of the Faces, of all people, while ‘Roll Me In’ starts in restrained, dream-like fashion, with moody keyboards from Ali Petrie, before changing gear into an up-tempo middle section featuring bursts of scrabbly guitar licks from Bruce. Must confess I haven’t entirely unpicked those lyrics yet, but I’m working on it.
Fittingly though, the final word goes to Jones, with the delicate intertwining of voice and sparse acoustic guitar on the brief and contemplative ‘Wise’. As the originator of this album she deserves a round of applause for coming up with such an interesting batch of songs, inspiring the rest of her Broken Windows gang to do them justice.
Songs By Liz Jones is available on digital download from Bandcamp, via www.lizjonessings.co.uk.
Suzie Vinnick – Shake The Love Around
I’m indebted to fellow blogger Rocking Magpie for putting me onto this album by Canada’s Suzie Vinnick, released earlier in the year. If you like the way Bonnie Raitt ranges across blues and country-ish roots music, then you may well like this.
Vinnick has a characterful voice, that carries the day nicely on the opening track ‘Happy As Hell’, in conjunction with a shuffling intro and twiddly blues riff, before bass and vocal harmonies are gradually added to the mix. The other side of her Americana style is onshow in the following ‘The Golden Rule’, a folky affair that brings to mind Joni Mitchell, with a catchy melody, some sweet falsetto phrases from Vinnick, and a lyric reflecting on social justice – or the lack of it.
The best song here though, is ‘A Hundred And Ten In The Shade’, which is set in the cotton fields and manages to convey the sense of sweltering heat with its lazy tempo and cicada-mimicking percussion – and again a perfectly pitched vocal from Vinnick.
It’s indicative of Vinnick’s range that she can bracket that with ‘Watch Me’, all guttural guitar riff and real bluesy feel, and ‘Crying A River For You’, a spare and convincing love-and-regret song delivered over pattering drums. And she’s more adventurous still on ‘The Danger Zone’, a downbeat blues about a “world in uproar”, cleverly arranged for just voice and bass.
Things maybe get a bit samey as the album progresses, though a touch of accordion brings some variety to ‘Beautiful Little Fool’, along with a sparkling guitar solo. The good stuff outweighs those reservations though, and Shake The Love Around is yet another in this year’s growing pile of keepers.