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.