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.

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