Friday, February 15, 2019

Robben Ford - Purple House

When I was looking up this album on Amazon in readiness to buy it – yes folks, I do actually shell out my own shekels on some of this stuff – I noticed that the reviews were mixed. One complains that the album’s disjointed and doesn’t flow, amongst other things, while another says it’s Ford’s weakest outing of all, and someone else moans about it consisting of just 9 tracks spread over 35 minutes.  To all of which I can only say this: phooey!
I can’t tell you I’ve got all of Robben Ford’s stuff.  But I can tell you that his 2015 album, Into The Sun, has had regular airplay in this house. Why?  Because it showed that Ford is someone prepared to think outside the same old box and explore fresh angles, which he does with cool assurance rather than any kind of show-offery.
Cool dude Robben Ford captured in a warm light
The same is true of Purple House.  If you were to tell me, for example, that Ford had spent some time listening to Fleet Foxes in the run-up to making this album, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Not that you’ll hear anything that sounds like ‘White Winter Hymnal’, all folky acoustic arrangements and soaring harmonies.  But songs like ‘Empty Handed’, ‘Bound For Glory (Underdog Rises)’ and ‘Willing To Wait’ respectively feature ambient, reverb-drenched vocals, a halting guitar motif, and ringing chords under a verse that suggest ‘Rain Song’ as much as indie-folk.  And with some evocative images thrown into the lyrics, a pastoral quality can be glimpsed in some of these songs.
But that’s not the whole story.  ‘Tangle With Ya’ kicks things off with clattering, syncopated drums from Derek Phillips, ahead of a surging, ascending riff and bursts of sax that create an air of just-contained urgency – before Ford tops things off with a sumptuous, Steely Dan-like guitar solo.  Contrastingly, ‘What I Haven’t Done’, written by Kyle Swan, has a lazy feel, with a drawling, dragging vocal and woozy horns, before a bridge that quotes ‘Soul Man’ as it triggers Ford’s solo.
What you also get are some dreamily catchy choruses, as on ‘Bound For Glory’, where it’s attached to a sparkling guitar line, and the earworm-hook of ‘Break In The Chain’.  The latter sets sail with acoustic strumming including rippling chords, and an assertive vocal from Ford, before progressing after a minute and a half to some tough guitar that heralds guest vocals from Shemekia Copeland, and then an intriguing, semi-scrabbling middle eight that carries hints of Hendrix.  On the brief ‘Wild Honey’, meanwhile, there’s a creeping, guitar line at the outset, leading to a luscious chorus, while a prickling guitar theme comes and goes.
Ford takes a step back at the start of ‘Cotton Candy’, letting it lean on a snapping snare drum, bass and vocals as it develops an implicitly funky vibe that’s reinforced by Tyler Summers’ sax.  Then the guitar weighs in with Prince-like pinging notes that counterpoint a top notch solo.  Then going down another avenue, ‘Somebody’s Fool’ is a crunching, modern day blues – nothing original about the tune, but the delivery is stonkingly good, with a gritty, swaggering vocal courtesy of Travis McCready, and squelching guitar accompaniment.
The aforementioned ‘Willing To Wait’ features a crystalline guitar intro, and a piercing, brittle solo from Drew Smithers that twists into a shimmering, psychedelic bridge, and ultimately a brief, hooky vocal outro that’s rounded out – not for the first time – by lush female backing vocals.
There’s an inventiveness at work throughout these songs that picks up where Into The Sun left off.  It only lasts 35 minutes - so what?  Robben Ford packs more content into that space than many artists would manage in an hour.  If Jeff Beck is someone who gets plaudits for pushing the boundaries, then so should Ford – and he writes good songs too, songs that aren’t run of the mill.  If it’s supersonic shredding from a guitar slinger that floats your boat then look elsewhere.  But if you’re up for some less-is-more imagination then look no further.

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