Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Elles Bailey - Ain't Nothing But

Necessity, so the saying goes, is the mother of invention.  As professional musicians around the world have been forced off the road by the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve had to do things to try to offset the resulting loss of income.  Not all of these “inventions”, will be artistically successful.  Ain’t Nothing But, however, is an endeavour that delivers the goods with easy charm.
Drawn from two professionally filmed and recorded livestream shows at White Noise Studios this summer, Ain’t Nothing But is an unplugged covers album that captures two different sides of Elles Bailey’s musical personality.  On the one hand there are the opening seven songs, of a
Elles Bailey nervously awaits the Blues Enthused verdict
Pic by Alan Dunkley
 singer-songwriterly, Americana-leaning disposition.  And on the other hand there are nine rootsier, blues-driven songs.  Both elements work, but as to which works best – well, I refer you to the title of this blog for a clue to my thinking.
The scene is set with John Prine’s ‘I Remember Everything’, with a country-inflected melody that’s delicious in its simplicity, with Bailey’s delivery right on the money.  On these songs she’s backed by Phil King laying down a foundation of acoustic guitar picking, while her regular guitarist Joe Wilkins adds embroidery and colour, in this instance with some hints of the Hispanic in his solo.  And the gents also add some impressive harmonies to the mix, enhancing the earworm of a chorus on ‘Crowded Table’, for example.
Personal favourites from this set include Jeff Tweedy’s ‘You Are Not Alone’, which is heralded by some wonderful bendy notes from Wilkins and all crystallises around the line “Open up, this is a raid”, before going on to feature some iridescent guitar, like Hendrix gone folk, and ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’, on which Bailey brings delicacy to the verses before the guitars intertwine to give the chorus a swinging jauntiness.  And they also extend themselves well on the social commentary of Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’, the intermeshed guitar picking again excellent.
For the blues set Wilkins is joined in the engine room by Joe James on double bass, and right away they bring muscle on Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Love Me Like A Man’, drawing more oomph and dynamics from Bailey’s vocal, while Wilkins adds not one but two exquisite slide solos.
Some of the song choices may be predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the performances.  On Tom Waits’ ‘Way Down In The Hole’, for example, James’ bass is sumptuously to the fore, while that rasp in Bailey’s voice is a perfect fit.  She’s right in the zone on the following ‘When The Levee Breaks’ too, over rolling and rippling blues guitar from Wilkins, with a sublime James bass solo into the bargain.  ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’, meanwhile, is caramel-smooth and rich, with excellent harmonies, until Wilkins cuts through with an edgier guitar break.
‘Spoonful’ is laid back instrumentally, but Bailey lets loose with a bit more raunch and some interesting phrasing, and Wilkins knocks off another bluesy-as-you-could-wish solo.  Stephen Stills’ ‘For What It’s Worth’ offers something a bit different, with harmonies underscoring the chorus, and a bass solo from James that twists and turns around the roots of the melody, and nifty punctuation from Wilkins’ guitar prefacing another cracker of a solo.  Then the rattling rhythm of Bo Diddley’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’ brings things to an upbeat close embellished with more chutzpah-laden soloing.
An affair like this may be small-scale, but like a miniature painting that can mean the details need to be all the more precise.  So salutes and medals to all concerned for getting it right, including Richard Stockley for the mix.  Ain’t Nothing But may be an album that was born of necessity, but it sure as hell underlines Elles Bailey’s quality – especially, I reckon, when the lady sings the blues.

Ain't Nothing But is available on CD only from 11 December, and can be ordered from her website, here.

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