Friday, December 13, 2019

Listened to lately - Sloe Train, and Highway 491

It's not quite planes, trains and automobiles, but there's a bit of a transport theme to this instalment of Listened to lately, with albums from Oxford-based Sloe Train, and Glasgow's Highway 491.

Sloe Train – Eclectic Blues

Sloe Train say on their Facebook page that “Live performance is our passion, we love to entertain”, and I can well believe that if I caught them doing their thing in the corner of the pub then I’d have a pretty good time.  Besides, I’d fit in seamlessly with this bunch of greybeards, appearance wise, so obviously I’m simpatico, right?
Well, yeah.  Getting your sound down on an album is a rather less forgiving environment of course, where limitations are liable to be exposed.  But still – in their better moments on Eclectic Blues Sloe Train really aren’t bad, if you know what I mean.
As on the opening ‘Up And Down’ for example, an energetic blast of R’n’B with a good riff
Sloe Train - Blues. Booze. Snooze. In that order.
propelled along by driving bass, and with a pretty on-the-money solo from guitarist Jerome Brand.  And Pete Carlisle goes at it with gusto on vocals, not least with some daring long notes here – while there’s sometimes a shakiness to his delivery, his enthusiasm and phrasing just about carry him through.
Their best stuff tends to chuck something of the Stones into the mix.  ‘Misty Autumn Rain’ is a highlight, as Chris McCormack’s drums and Tony Ecclestone’s bass carve out a deep, gutsy groove, allied to a Keef-like riff, while Carlisle gets his tonsils round a decent chorus in a ‘Wild Side Of Life’ vein, and Brand solos with some rock’n’roll conviction.  There’s a spoonful of ‘Brown Sugar’ in the riff to ‘Could Have Been The One’, and some pleasing Knopflerisms in Brand’s soloing.  There’s some decent swing to ‘Nobody’s Business’ too, with Chris Burrows’ piano motif paraphrasing the melody of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.
Elsewhere the eclecticism of the album title is evidenced by the ska-influenced organ line in ‘Feel Like Going Home’, wedded to semi-reggae beat and rhythm guitar, while ‘Family Man’ cracks open some funky riffing, underlined by a pleasing offbeat rhythm and grooving bass.  There’s also a 'Whiter Shade-ish' aspect to the organ on ‘Here To Stay’, a plaintive song about emotional commitment until they start tripping the light fandango on the chorus.  Sort of.
But their best pivot in another direction is ‘Gone Too Soon’, which brings to mind The Searchers as they comfortably occupy a laid back beat with a doo wop bass line, with Carlisle’s crooning vocal beefed up by some decent harmonies, all topped off by a tasteful guitar solo.
Other songs could do with more spark to hit the mark, though they’re delivered well enough and show some nice touches here and there.  But I imagine a band whose interests are listed as “Blues, Booze, and the Occasional Snooze” had fun assembling the album regardless.

Highway 491 – These Places, In This City

If you take a gander at the track listing for this debut album by Highway 491, and see ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’, you may well anticipate that you’re going to be served up a full slate of vintage-style electric blues.  In this you would be wrong.
Sure, their take on the Howlin’ Wolf classic, recorded as a duo by main men Cameron Arndt on harp and vocals and Leo Barrie on guitar, is a fairly traditional if haunted reading, with squeaking guitar and gruff vocals, although Arndt is no match for the Wolf in the latter department.  And John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’ is also also delivered in a pretty straight and energetic fashion, especially when they rock things up on the instrumental breaks.  But there’s a hint of punkish vibrancy around it, and Arndt’s vocals, apparently making use of a bullet mic, hint at something more edgy.
Highway 491 - Blues with an edge
Pic courtesy of John McIntyre
And indeed the rest of the album does explore a more off kilter vibe in which the band’s blues foundations are less apparent.  Opener ‘The Record’ is all jungle drums, hoots of harp, ominous bass and bleeping guitar, which taken together with more distorted, discordant vocals amounts to something dark and slightly twisted.  The following ‘In The Loop’ has a doomy riff supplemented by scratchy guitar licks, although Arndt’s angsty voice also combines encouragingly on some harmonies with Barrie and drummer Derek Whiteford, and there’s a neat drop into a quieter, ruminative bridge.  And ‘Feet To The Fire’ thrives on some driving, punkish energy, with snarling vocals from Arndt, distant ‘woah-oh-backing vocals’ and a squall of guitar from Barrie, but is undermined by some rather naff downbeat passages.
‘Third Time Lucky’ goes for something different, opening with off-key chords that draw in a stalking bass line from Jack Oliver to create a macabre vibe that’s enhanced by subtle organ and piano colourings from guest keyboard whizz Bob Fridzema, and a bendy guitar solo.  All in all it sounds like The Doors summoning up the ghost of Muddy Waters, though at seven and a half minutes it overstays its welcome.
‘Crime And Punishment’ is more R’n’B-like, and has a bit of swagger conveyed by the guitar riff and the guest harp of Chris Small, and also some well-suited slide guitar.  But the simplest pleasure is probably ‘A Lie Agreed Upon’, on which Arndt and Barrie serve up appealingly counterpointed guitar riffs, and decent harmonies create something of a retro feel, though again it’s overlong.
I have the sense that Highway 491 are still trying to find their voice.  Blues may be their roots, but it feels like they’re being pulled towards something more outside the box.  There are interesting things on These Places, In This City, but they’ll need more focus all round to define their sound.

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