Monday, September 30, 2019

Chantel McGregor - Bury'd Alive

Here are three things I know about Chantel McGregor.  First, she won a couple of British Blues Awards back in 2013.  Second, she's not really a blues artist.  And third – that’s fine.
It’s fine, because in the course of over an hour on Bury’d Alive (so titled because this live album was recorded in Bury St. Edmunds - ouch!), McGregor and her show mark out their real territory with total conviction.   Some hard rocking, some progginess, and some hints of jam band – these are the essential ingredients they whip together to damn good effect.
Finding windswept and interesting angles
The hard rocking is evident from the start, as the opening ‘Take The Power’ features a winding guitar riff, leading into a staccato rhythm and punchy vocal on the verses, a first bout of guitar and bass harmonising, and a sweeping chorus amid ringing guitar chords, before McGregor gets into a brooding, semi-distorted solo.  There’s an even more aggressive, crunching riff on the following ‘Killing Time’, underpinned by driving bass and rock solid drums, en route to a stuttering bridge.
There’s lots of tension too, for example in ‘Caught Out’, with its buzzing riff and choppy drums giving way to surging guitar and bass over a steady rhythm.  McGregor tops that one off with a flickering, wah-wah solo ahead of a sprint to the finishing line.  And the closing ‘Freefalling’ is another gutsy, energetic affair, with its appropriately twisting and plunging riff, strident chorus, and yet more surging guitar chords and bubbling bass.
These tracks do a good job of maintaining the momentum and energy levels, with ‘Caught Out’ in particular carrying echoes for me of latter day guitar-driven Rush, circa Vapor Trails perhaps.  But McGregor is even more effective when she gets into more expansive realms.
‘Like No Other’ lays down a marker for this more reflective sound, with its delicate guitar opening counterpointed by patient bass notes, before taking off into heavier realms, with an ascending bass line from Colin Sutton, over subtle guitar textures from McGregor, reinforcing its appeal.  But they really hit paydirt with the excellent ‘Eternal Dream’, its mellow strummed and picked opening recalling Wishbone Ash for this old git, while McGregor’s singing is clear, pure and feminine, underlining the song’s distinctiveness.  It’s suspenseful and dream-like, and indeed borderline ethereal as it approaches the halfway mark of its nine minutes and sets off on a sparkling instrumental exploration.
Happiness is a damn good live album
Is that the standout track on the album?  Difficult to say, what with similar treats being offered up by ‘Inconsolable’, a cover of a song by American folk-rocker Jonatha Brooke with a shimmering, acoustic sounding opening, and some lovely, lilting vocals from McGregor.  Sutton weighs in with dipping and darting bass notes over sparse, controlled drums from Thom Gardner, before McGregor gets into some dynamic, sustain-heavy guitar work, and they play around with various themes, but without descending into the dreaded aimless noodling.  This is prog with a sense of purpose.
And one can’t ignore ‘April’ either, a previously unreleased instrumental heralded by weeping guitar notes over rumbling drums and tinkling cymbals, leading into piercing guitar lines over a click-clack rhythm and pulsing bass and then picking up pace as they apparently jump off into jam band territory, the three of them bouncing off each other beautifully, even if its does get a bit manic towards the end.
I could go on, as there are other pleasures to be appreciated on Bury’d Alive – and with the crystal clear production and mixing by Wayne Proctor, giving the instrumentation well-nigh perfect space and balance, you won’t have to listen too hard to catch them.
Eschewing keyboards, Chantel McGregor and co deliver a singular style of guitar-led proggish rock that’s imaginative but focused.  Methinks the lady knows very much what she’s doing, and she stands apart doing it.  There’s a Scottish poet who wrote about the need “To be yersel’ and mak’ that worth bein’”.  With Bury’d Alive, Chantel McGregor is living up to that maxim.

Bury'd Alive is out now.  For details of Chantel McGregor's tour dates, look here.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Billy Price - Dog Eat Dog

Billy Price covers a few bases on Dog Eat Dog, its twelve tracks encompassing soulful blues, some different shades of funk, and ultimately Philly soul – all of which are delivered with top drawer musicianship, and channelled into an excellent sound by producer Kid Anderson, of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats fame.  And Price, a 2016 Blues Music Award winner, consistently delivers the goods vocally too.
The quality of his vocals is apparent right from the off on ‘Working On Your Chain Gang’ – relaxed and showing off characterful phrasing in a manner that recalls Delbert McLinton, underlined by some snazzy backing vox from the ‘Sons of Soul Revivers’.  With some
Billy Price - his voice is better than his jacket
Pic by Mark Simpson
rubber band bass twanging from Jerry Jemmott, a great rhythm, funky horns, and a zippy guitar solo from Anderson, it’s all enough to induce a soft shoe shuffle.
There’s a darker brand of funk on the title track, a Rick Estrin song that’s been given new lyrics to set out some despairing social commentary.  Estrin guests on harp, and the horns are restricted to some tenor sax remarks, as the patient delivery has the effect of slowly touring a decaying city.  ‘All Night Long Café’ is a slinkier affair, with a shout-it-out chorus from whoever happened to be around I guess, and a Mike Zito wah-wah solo.  It may seem simple and repetitive in form, but it works.
The pick of the soul blues bunch - and in fact of the album - is ‘Lose My Number’, on which Price and co pretty much out-Cray Robert Cray on a clever reflection about a femme fatale.  It’s laid back and measured, with a proverbially smoky sax solo and a neat descending Wurly piano motif courtesy of Jim Pugh, and Price captures the vibe perfectly with his vocal.  ‘Remnants’ is similarly blues-hued, with another witty lyric, this time about the tell-tale signs giving away a cheating partner, and shivering guitar backing.
There’s a different strain of blues on ‘My Love Will Never Die’, a Willie Dixon affair that’s given a reverb-heavy treatment, with twangy guitar from Anderson, dainty organ notes, and an aching vocal from Price, ultimately sounding like a replay of a lovelorn nightmare.
There’s a different kind of treat too, in the form of the finger-snapping ‘We’re In Love’, a cool but happy-go-lucky affair with sharp horn punctuation and an irresistible walking bass line to set toes tapping.
The back end of the album features some more Philly soul orientated songs, in the form of ‘Walk Back In’, ‘Same Old Heartaches’ and ‘More Than I Needed’, which aren’t really my bag, though it has to be acknowledged they’re well done.  More to my liking though is the closing ‘You Gotta Leave’, with its assertive lyric, stuttering offbeat rhythm, a jazzy Fender Rhodes piano solo from Pugh, and a jagged solo from Anderson that injects an edge the melody never quite acquires.
Dog Eat Dog shows off Billy Price’s mastery of soulful blues and funk, and if it tails off a bit towards the end – admittedly a matter of personal taste, in large measure – there are still a good half dozen tracks of real quality that are well worth getting your ears around.

Dog Eat Dog is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Geoff Achison & The UK Souldiggers, and Redfish - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 21 September 2019

I’m late, I’m late, for a date with a more than interesting support act.
As it turns out though, Redfish are only a song and a half into their set when I arrive at the Voodoo Rooms, in time to hear Martin McDonald serving up a fiery guitar solo and Sandy Sweetman giving the drums a fair old skelping.  And the Carlisle/Dumfries combo maintain that momentum from there till they vacate the stage.
I’ve seen Redfish a couple of times before, and a singular ingredient of their live performances is the fidgety capering of beardy, bunneted keyboard player Fraser Clark, who often looks like he’s delivering tic-tac-toe signals for a racecourse bookie.  I’m bound to say
Redfish keys man Fraser Clark listens closely for the lost chord
Pic by Stuart Stott
that in the past I've found his antics distracting.  But now, well really it seems like an endearingly daft display of enthusiasm.  And more to the point, it doesn’t detract from some entertaining piano prestidigitation on his part, rocking away on ‘Rakehells’, for example, while McDonald contributes some mean slide guitar.
‘For The Love Of A Good Woman’ is a good example of the Sixties British blues angle to their sound, underlined by the John Mayall-like stylings of Brian Harris’s vocals, and with more good guitar/piano interplay into the bargain.
They close their set with Charlie Rich’s ‘Feel Like Going Home’, a pleasingly different and soulful choice of cover, with hints of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ in Clark’s organ playing.  Awarded an encore, they get funky with ‘Phone Booth’, Sweetman and bassist Rod Mackay laying down a solid groove while Clark goes nuts to the point where his head ends up underneath his keyboard, and McDonald adds a ruff’n’tuff guitar solo to put the lid on proceedings.
Redfish have become an impressively robust outfit over time, showing energy, a real feel for what they’re doing, and some good taste in material.  Watch out for a forthcoming review of their album, Souls.
Geoff Achison finds fresh angles of funk on guitar
Pic by Stuart Stott
If Redfish are rooted in Sixties blues stylings, Geoff Achison pursues a rather more distinctive path.  As the Australian and his UK Souldiggers band kick off their set with ‘Working My Way Back Home’, the vibe is funky and free-flying, with Achison adding a husky vocal and unwrapping great tones on his pretty-as-you-please PRS guitar. They also work in some clever turnarounds, and keyboard player Paul Jobson announces his presence with some jazzy piano, adding up to a sophisticated funk-blues sound.  Their “theme tune” ‘Souldigger’ follows, with lots of witty asides from Achison on guitar, a flurry of bass from Andy Hodge, and a distinctively voiced organ solo from Jobson, en route to a characteristic Achison solo combining slide and wah-wah.
‘Walking Blues’ is a good example of what they do, with Hodge and drummer Sam Kelly laying down a swaggering groove with plenty of swing, a nimble fingered solo from Achison, and then some top notch guitar/organ interplay building up to a major funk workout.  It may be a Robert Johnson song, but as Achison observes with a grin, “We changed it a little!”  Instrumentally they’re a band who join the dots with consummate ease – upfront Achison and Jobson are each constantly alert to the other’s moves, while Hodge’s bass both counterpoints Achison’s guitar and ties it into Kelly’s rhythms.
But it’s far from being all serioso muso stuff – Jobson shakes everything but his tush as he underpins the rolling groove of the catchy ‘High Wire’, while Kelly is often to be seen and
Achison and co get down to some soul digging
Pic by Stuart Stott
heard hooting with pleasure at proceedings.  Meanwhile, with just a wah-wah pedal at his feet, Achison continues to combine it with slide playing, but on ‘Crazy Horse’ also gets into some cooler knob-twiddling and whammy bar flicking to conjure up different sounds.
A second set opens with Achison on acoustic guitar for the rootsy ‘Skeleton Kiss’, with its intriguing lyrics, and the more folkie, fingerpicking ‘Sovereign Town’.  Then with Achison back on his electric horse, ‘I’m Gonna Ride’ is a blues shuffle highlight, with a big open chorus adding a twist, and Jobson delivering a blisteringly good honky tonk piano solo, including some neat improvisations around the chorus melody.  In fact, if Fraser Clark’s keys playing demands acknowledgement, above and beyond his freaky shenanigans, I’d venture to say that Jobson is in another league, bearing in mind the jazzy, discordant and hugely impressive solo he contributes to the Average White Band-like ‘Voodoo’.
They close with a big fat groove on ‘Baby Come Back’, a fun song with a good hook and some tongue twisting vocals from Achison, who also adds some tips of the hat to ‘Alright Now’ and ‘Uptight’ on guitar.  There’s no time for an encore, but they’re coaxed back for one anyway, coming up with Muddy Waters’ ‘Sugar Sweet’ – but not, I’m sure, as Muddy would know it.  Nevertheless, with a brief guitar/bass face-off between Achison and Hodge, it’s a suitable dessert course to end an entertaining night.

Geoff Achison is touring Britain until Sunday 29 September - details available here.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Nine Below Zero - Avalanche

The other week on a long drive I gave a spin to Nine Below Zero’s Live At The Marquee, their first album dating back to 1980 and a ferocious blast of mod and soul inflected R’n’B, and very much of its time – 21 songs, most of them under three minutes, and you can practically feel the sweat in the room.
Nine Below Zero are bit more mature now, a bit more laid back, though they’re still a corking live band who will get you moving.  But Avalanche, building on the excellent 13 Shades Of Blue, shows how they’ve broadened their range over the years – and to good effect too.
The double diamond duo - Greaves and Feltham
The presence nowadays of Charlie Austen’s female voice extends their options, whether she’s taking a lead vocal or providing a foil for Dennis Greaves, particularly in exploring their soul influences.  The pick of the soulful bunch here is ‘Ter Wit Ter Woo’, a co-write between Greaves and Glenn Tilbrook – handy to have a mate like that, eh? – on which Austen’s clear, sweet voice makes the most of a great melody and hook, and some neat wordsmithing from (I assume) Greaves, while Mark Feltham contributes a typically mellifluous, songbird-like harp solo.  Almost as good though, is ‘One Of Sour, Two Of Sweet’, a neo-Motown soufflé that’s as catchy as hell, with Greaves and Austen duetting marvellously and the former adding a slithery guitar solo.  And Austen gets another turn at an aching vocal on ‘Recycle Me’, which also deploys some smoky sax from Chris Rand and gospelly backing vocals – and ache seems appropriate on a song about, literally it seems, organ donation.
They get funky too, on the instrumental ‘Hey Siri (Go **** Yourself)’ with its James Brown-like horn riff and some squealing harp from Feltham, and do even better on ‘Picture No Sound’.  The latter sounds to me like a chunk of second-line funk originating in N’Awlins, leaning on an electric piano riff from Will Barry, over a snappy beat and throbbing bass line from Sonny Greaves and Benjamin Wills respectively, and scorning yer usual verse-chorus-verse structure in pursuit of the groove.
But there’s some more direct stuff too, with the opener ‘I Wanna Be A Wannabe’ and
Charlie Austen and Dennis Greaves - like Sonny and Cher, not
‘Breadhead’ well to the fore.  The former is a bright, Jam-like affair that takes aim at the modern yearning for easy celebrity – though Greaves is too nice a bloke to really twist the knife, and the same is true on ‘Breadhead’, where the lyrics are sharp but not lethal.  Still, it’s got a driving, chunky riff and a Chuck Berry-like guitar solo, and is set fair to be a floor-shaking live stomper.
NBZ still sing for the ordinary Joe too.  ‘Race To The Bottom’ is another duet, with a lyric about the impact of economic change, while ‘Austerity Blues’ is an old-fashioned, simple blues with injections of harp from Feltham, and some nifty, stinging guitar from Greaves, which I reckon adapts an old rugby song in the lines “It’s the rich that gets the gravy, The poor that gets the blame, It’s the same the world over”.
There’s even room for some ‘Tequila’-style mambo backing on the closing ‘I Drink But I Don’t Get Drunk’, a party tune with twangy guitar, jangling piano and another sweet harp solo.  With some woozy trumpet, sax, and a suitably blurred ending, it sounds like the title is wishful thinking.
Nine Below Zero are a national treasure, still producing fresh and sparkling R’n’B sounds after 40 years.  Get yourself Avalanche, press Play, and be good and ready to enjoy a damned good night out on their forthcoming UK tour.

Avalanche is released by Zed Records on 4 October, and can be pre-ordered here.
Nine Below Zero are touring the UK from 5 October.  Check the tour dates here.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beth Hart - War In My Mind

Okay Beth, you got me. I surrender.  Ain’t no denying that War In My Mind is a winner.
Y’see, since I’ve been doing this malarkey over the last few years, I’ve largely resisted Beth Hart's charms. Never been entirely convinced. Oh, there’s been some stuff I’ve liked, particularly on Fire On The Floor.  But I’ve found the persistent banging on about her personal demons tiresome at times. And more significantly, I’ve often found her vocal style irritating – too much of that vibrato, and letting her power reach foghorn proportions.  Though I daresay that at times her singing hasn’t gone down either of those roads, but I’ve been bracing myself for one or the other to kick in.
"You talking' to me?  Well, there ain't nobody else here."
Well, maybe Beth has learned to control these tendencies better, or maybe I’ve just become more attuned to her style.  Either way, there’s no war going on in my mind – this album is the best thing I’ve heard from her yet.
And it’s a singular affair too, because while a few tracks offer shifts in tone, the album leans primarily on Hart’s piano and vocals, delivering ballads of various hues.  ‘War In My Mind’ itself, the second track in, is not only typical, it may be the best thing here – though it does have some competition.  It rests on the kind of classical piano motif you might find Muse deploying, but gives their pomp and circumstance a body swerve in favour of something dark and reflective – but not negative – played out via an excellent melody delivered with gripping dynamics.
And if that’s top dollar stuff, so is the closing ‘I Need A Hero’, on which a rippling piano line ebbs and flows, mirrored by the vocal melody, and if it’s a bit Steinman-esque then it’s more in the vein of ‘I Would Do Anything For You’ than ‘Holding Out For A Hero’, but self-effacing and personal rather than theatrical, and with a striking ending.
Meanwhile ‘Sister Dear’ is tender and dreamy, underpinning Hart’s vocal, and some great melodic moments, with little more than a rolling piano line and cello, and ‘Let It Grow’ is indeed a song that swells assertively before a dying ending, with some typically impressive backing vocal arrangements along the way as Hart sings about being “Just a penny in the stream, working on a dream”.
If all this sounds very deep, the album is set on its way by the funky R’n’B and stop-time riff of ‘Bad Woman Blues’, with its big, glossy sound featuring some real heavy bass and piano chords echoing Toto’s ‘Hold The Line’, and Hart declaring that “Got the lips, Got the legs, I was born to drive a man insane” like a veritable fatal attraction.  ‘Spanish Lullabies’ brings further variety with a controlled Latin vibe over a salsified rhythm, and a Hispanic-style classical guitar solo, and ‘Sugar Shack’ makes use of a throbbing motorik synth and stomping beat in pursuit of some dance floor action.
But there’s also a haunted European vibe at work at times, as on ‘Rub Me For Luck’ (really, Beth?), which edges out of the shadows like Radiohead without electric instrumentation, with Hart singing about “waves of ee-mo-shunn” before surging into a Bond-theme chorus courtesy of a soaring melody and dramatic piano riff.  ‘Woman Down’ is one of the less remarkable outings in evidence, but Hart still manages to make like Edith Piaf as she delivers the bitter lyric.
Who knows, maybe credit is due to producer Rob Cavallo for bringing out the best in Beth Hart on this record.  But however all the pieces have fallen into place, War In My Mind is a collection of fine songs from a highly individual artist, that justifies her reputation as something special. To quote ‘Bad Woman Blues’, Beth Hart just stuck the cherry on the chocolate cake.

War In my Mind is released by Provogue Records on 27 September.
Beth Hart is touring Europe in November/December, and Britain and Ireland in January/February.  Check tour dates here.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Geraint Watkins - Rush Of Blood

So this Geraint Watkins fella.  How come I’ve never heard of him till now?  Who forgot to send me the memo?
First I’ve heard of him is when this guy I know who does some PR work sends me this Rush Of Blood CD, with a geezer even older than me on the cover wearing a buttoned up white shirt and a baggy jacket, looking like he’s forgotten where he put his car keys. Given that said PR chap has a penchant for stuff in, shall we say, the more outlying post codes of blues’n’roots music, I’m asking myself how oddball this album is going to be.
Geraint Watkins - he plays piano and accordion
So it kicks off with ‘Rush Of Blood’ itself, and first impressions from its loping rhythm and country stylings are, well, the theme from Rawhide maybe – you know, that thing the Blues Brothers do for a few hours solid in a redneck bar?  A bit off the wall maybe, but only a bit.  And then a sizzling rockabilly-esque guitar break kicks in, and I sit up and start paying attention.
Which is good, because what follows is no kinda weirdo shit.  This is cool and mellow roots music, worldly wise and matured by musical experience in the best of company.  It sounds like, it sounds like . . .
Ry Cooder doing some authentic stuff, like Ry Cooder does, while keeping an eye on Dylan who’s looking into the distance hearing the rumble of distant thunder in the mountains and pondering what Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ would sound like if it were accompanied by a Fender Rhodes piano, and wishing that Van Morrison would stop rehearsing that cool thing with a sax in the room next door so he could think straight, ‘cause he’s also trying to remember that dream he had last night when Frank turned up in this bar next to him – yeah, Frank, with the fuckin’ trilby hat an’ everything – and started doing that whole schtick about one more for my baby yadda yadda yadda, ‘cept next time Bob turned round in his dream it wasn’t Frank at all it was that Tom Waits bastard who’s too good for his own good, grinning at him like a loon and getting all romantic about a new coat of paint. Like, Lord knows I can write a lyric about any old shit, thinks Bob, but paint, fer chrissakes?  And not even sounding like Tom Waits, but like that limey, whatsisname, Nick Lowe, that did that song about the folks who live on the hill – shit no, that was Frank too – sump’n about shakin’ on the hill – and hey, didn’t he write that ‘Beast In Me’ choon Johnny Cash did, how’d that go?  Well if you gotta have country then Cash is your man, ‘n’ some a’that Def Jam stuff was cool, like when he did sump’n with just some piece o’shit acoustic guitar.   Whatever, there goes Van doing some Leadbelly thing now, well what’s new?  But hey if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – and why is Cooder staring at me like that, and what’s he playing now, some zydeco mixed in there?  Sounds pretty darned good, hafta say, with that accordion, maybe some harp too.  An’ I know what you’re thinkin’ Cooder, you’re thinkin’ how about some violin here and there, an’ keep them drums just whisperin’ along, and stand-up bass, an’ – shit, wish I could sing like that dude Van’s got in with him now, sounds like that Springbean kid doing his beautiful reward thing.  Ah, fuck it – “Hey Ry, wanna jam for a while?  Kinda dig that stuff you’re working on, by the way.  You know that Neil thing ‘Harvest Moon’?  Let's play that - you do the vocals, huh?  I'll get on this Fender Rhodes over here.” 
And little wonder that Rush Of Blood sounds like the above.  Geraint Watkins, it turns out when I get round to reading the PR bumf, has been a sideman to some of the names mentioned above, like Van Morrison and Nick Lowe, and others big names besides. Multi-instrumentalist too, I’m surmising.  And Welsh, by the way.  And what he's done with Rush Of Blood is bloody marvellous.
Don’t hang around waiting for some track-by-track analysis from yours truly.  Check out the wacky Youtoob video of the title track, and see what you reckon.  And here’s a live version of the excellent ‘Hold Back’ – pick the bones out of that.  And I’ll be generous and point you towards ‘Heaven Only Knows’ for good measure.  And these aren't necessarily the best tracks!
Now excuse me, I need to go and do some more homework on this Watkins fella.  Did you know he played with Dave Edmunds?

Geraint Watkins’ album Rush Of Blood is released by The Last Music Co on 13 September.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Diana Rein - Queen Of My Castle

One of the side-effects of 2019 having been a stonkingly good year so far for new albums of a blues/roots rock complexion – and it really has been – is that when you come across an album that doesn’t really cut the mustard, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Which I’m afraid is the case with this third album by Southern California based singer/guitarist Diana Rein. Another time, and it might have slid by with me saying, “Well, it’s okay, y’know.”  But it’s not another time, and I'm not going to.
Diana Rein - nice flares
The other week the YouTube video of the title track from Queen Of My Castle was posted in a Facebook group, and someone commented “Nice voice”.  Hmm, nice.  Sounds like a compliment I suppose.  But “nice” doesn’t really fit the bill when you’re singing the blues.  Doesn’t really suggest passion, grit, despair or sex, does it? Being honest, I’d describe Diana Rein’s voice as “ordinary”, or maybe “pedestrian”.  Oh, she hits all the notes, but she spends most of this album singing in the same register, without much variation on the melody, or in her phrasing – or at least not enough to seriously get my attention.  Then I take a glance at her website, which refers to “her sultry and powerful vocals reminiscent of Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt”.  And I gotta tell you folks, that comparing Diana Rein’s vocals to those two ladies is downright blasphemous.
Her website then goes on to talk about “a guitar style that has been compared to the likes of BB King with the tone of Stevie Ray Vaughan”.  And I think to myself, “What the actual fuck?!”
Alright, an SRV influence is discernible here and there on this album.  But that’s as far as it goes.  Let me tell you, I listened to Queen Of My Castle the other day, and then as I sat down at the keyboard I stuck on In Step, and any comparison between those two albums is distant in the extreme.  I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to the distance between Diana Rein and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  (And yes, discerning readers will spot that I nicked that line.  But I wouldn’t have the gall to compare my writing to the guy who originated it.)
But hey, what about the songs?  Well yeah, most of ‘em are okay.  A few are even quite good.  But there are fifteen of ‘em.  Did Diana Rein and her producer Michael Leasure – yes, Walter Trout’s drummer – really believe that they all deserved to be trotted out here?  A key competence for any recording artist, I reckon, is being able to kill their babies – to recognise when that song they’ve laboured over really isn’t up to snuff and needs to be binned.  So yeah, ‘The Midnight Line’ is an okay chunk of 12-bar chug-a-boogie, apparently inspired by Magic Sam, and with some Stevie Ray chordings in the intro, while ‘One Foot In’ has a decent revolving riff.  But there’s an awful lot of filler across the first half of the album that should have been trimmed.
Thankfully Rein finds some other clubs in her bag thereafter, peaking with the swinging, ringing retro-bop of ‘Get Down’, on which she employs a lower, huskier vocal pitch and discovers her wah-wah pedal to good effect.  The heavier groove and layered guitar licks of ‘Heat’ also deserve mention, and the closing instrumental ‘Zoe’ is a seriously good affair, reflective and chiming and evocative.
Queen Of My Castle isn’t actually a bad album.  It’s just not really a good album.  And that needs to be said, even if one takes no pleasure in doing it.

Queen Of My Castle is available now from Gulf Coast Records.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Laurence Jones Band - Laurence Jones Band

So it’s goodbye to Laurence Jones, solo artist, and hello to the Laurence Jones Band.  And there they are, on the cover of their eponymous new album, looking moody and meaningful, with LJ himself out front with a new layer of face fuzz, arms folded and staring straight at the camera.  It’s all very assertive - looks like it should mean something.
I’ll tell you what it means. It means that after his last album The Truth, a soul-pop kinda thing that was okay in its own terms but felt constrained and emasculated, young Laurence and his band of brothers have decided to have some goddamned fun, that’s what it means!
I could be talking bollocks – what’s new about that, says you – but I reckon Laurence has found some inspiration by going back to the Sixties for some of this stuff, be it Swinging Sixties R’n’B or soulful funky business.
Laurence Jones Band - three parts facial hair, one part quiff
Pic by Rob Blackham
Take the opening track ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, fr’instance – which itself sounds like a statement of intent.  You know how the Dandy Warhols’ ‘Bohemian Like You’ sounds like a Stones out-take? Well, this kicks off with a piano riff from Bennett Holland that’s straight out of ‘Bohemian Like You’, underlined by some ringing chords from Jones.  Do I care if they’ve lifted it?  Nah, the main thing is that it’s loose-limbed and rocking, and it’s got a chorus that’s a rush of energy, plus some “wooh-oohing” female backing vocals courtesy of Di Reed, a nifty little guitar solo, and some more rinky-dinky piano on the outro.
In similar fashion ‘I’m Waiting’ has driving guitar and surging organ competing for attention like a modern-day ‘Hush’, over racing drums and bass from Phil Wilson and Greg Smith, to which Jones adds a wig-out wah-wah solo.  The following ‘Stay’ emerges from some blues guitar twangery to encompass more boogie woogie from Holland, and more Di Reed backing for Jones as he hollers lines like “Gimme Some Lovin”.  (Ms Reed, in fact, does sterling work across most of the album.)  There’s some organ chucked into the mix too, and even a few Sgt Peppery twiddles in quieter moments, and by the end I can visualise Phil Wilson doing some Ringo-like head-tossing as it swings along.  Oh yeah, and they do a decent cover of ‘Day Tripper’ too, which on one level seems pointless, but hey – it fits.
Does all this represent a new musical frontier?  Nope. And I’ll tell you this too – the lyrics are mostly pretty banal.  But I don’t care – ‘cause it’s fun!
The same goes for the soulful and funky ‘Wipe Those Tears Dry’.  It’s a decent little tune that captures the desired mood nicely, with understated licks and riffs hither and yon from Jones, and an appealing arrangement epitomised by the middle eight.  In a similar vein, ‘Quite Like You’ is a bit of relaxed funkiness with a lazy rhythm, bluesy little licks and soulful organ.  At times it hints at Royal Studios in Memphis in the Sixties – doesn’t hint that hard, to be honest, but you get my drift.
Even better is the utterly simple soulfulness of the mellow ‘Beautiful Place’, which is a salient reminder that Bennett Holland also played keys on King King’s Standing In The Shadows album.  So here we have a somewhere-down-the-lazy-river rhythm, spot on vocal harmonies, and even a cheeky little bass turnaround from Greg Smith.
There are some bluesier moments too, as on ‘Mistreated’, for example – no, not that one, Purple fans. Restrained blues guitar picking over deep, deep down bass, leads into a tasty, tumbling guitar riff, and if Jones’ solo starts off measured, it shifts into overdrive as Phil Wilson’s shuffling drums gain intensity.  Meanwhile ‘Long, Long Lonely Ride’ is based on even more back-porch style guitar picking over a simple beat, with a suitably bluesy vocal and solo to boot.
There’s other good stuff too, and only one instance of real filler in the humdrum ‘Low Down’. Producer Gregory Elias brings a modern polish to the sound without stifling the energy, and he continues to get better vocal performances out of Jones than in days of old.
Look, I’m not gonna tell you that Laurence Jones Band is some consciousness-expanding classic. But as I sat on a warm afternoon giving it a proper listen, I found myself being seduced by its good vibrations – and yes, even excitations.

Laurence Jones Band is released on 27 September by Top Stop Music.
For tour dates in Europe and Britain from 14 September check the band's website.