Sunday, January 24, 2021

Selwyn Birchwood - Living In A Burning House

I like Selwyn Birchwood.  And one of the reasons I like him is that he dares to be different.  Not in a radical way like, say, Fantastic Negrito.  But in a way that makes the most of his assets to stand out from the modern blues crowd.
He’s blessed, of course, with a molasses-rich bass voice that’s guaranteed to draw attention.  But his sound has also capitalised for years on the baritone sax playing of bandmate Regi Oliver, bringing extra depth to the bottom end.  Add in the lap steel playing that Birchwood brings to bear alongside his regular six-string skills, and the freshness of his lyrics, and you get a distinctive, winning combination.
Selwyn Birchwood - you can't steal his shine!
Pic by Jay Skolnick
Much of this is apparent from the git-go, on ‘I’d Climb Mountains’, a funky affair driven along by Donald ‘Huff’ Wright’s gurgling bass, with Oliver folding in layers of tenor sax and even chirps of piccolo, and Birchwood’s zinging guitar solo providing contrast.
Birchwood’s lap steel is in evidence on the following ‘I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned’, describing a scorched earth response to being cheated on.  “Love is a blessing should be celebrated, not just another burden to be tolerated,” sings Birchwood, over rumbling drum rhythms from Philip ‘Squeak’ Walker and his own jagged guitar, before teasing his way into a slaloming lap slide solo. And ‘Freaks Come Out At Night’, a paean to the last surviving juke joint in Florida, is another lap steel showcase, as Birchwood scrapes, squeals and moans his way around the thudding beat of a grinding boogie that shifts gear into the punchy chorus, and then again into a stinging lap steel solo.
They have a fondness for curious rhythmic turns, as with the stuttering interjections into the shuffling soul of ‘Living In A Burning House’, and the odd little rhythmic twitch that ends some couplets on the mid-paced, lyrically reflective ‘Searching For My Tribe’.  “They wanna put you in a box, so you’ll be square like them,” Birchwood sings on the latter, underlined by bass and sax that are all corners, while the guitar and Walker’s impressive drums get to explore more freely.  The staccato rhythms of the downbeat ‘Rock Bottom’ work less well though, feeling more like a rut than a groove, in spite of Birchwood’s skating lap steel solo.
But this is also a band who can sure swing.  ‘She’s A Dime’, about a partner who’s a “10”, combines a lazy, behind-the-beat rhythm, wiggling bass and some slinky sax in support of an old-time kind of melody, to create faint echoes of trad jazz.  Better still, the swinging blues verses of ‘Mama Knows Best’ trigger a witty mother-and-son dialogue, with Diunna Greenleaf’s finger-wagging vocal nailing the role of Mama.  “Mama turned around,” reflects Birchwood, “brought her cigarette to her mouth, and exhaled her doubts.”  With its perky bridge, ‘Mama Knows Best’ works a treat.
Birchwood and co can boogie too, as on the effervescent ‘You Can’t Steal My Shine’, with chiming rhythm guitar double-timing over a snapping snare drum, and the low down honking sax and cantering bass counterpointed by tweeting organ from Walter ‘Bunt’ May.  It’s a tune that packs plenty in, including a quirky, layered guitar bridge from Birchwood.  And ‘Through A Microphone’ is similarly bright, with a bouncing intro featuring a ringing guitar break, and later an energetic solo over swinging drums and quick-quick-slow bass.
‘My Happy Place’ closes the album in a different and dreamy vein, laid back and acoustic, with a muted rhythm section and subtle sax accompaniment combining in a mellow, engaging finale.
Photographs of Birchwood, with his beaming smile and wild afro, suggest a carefree, happy-go-lucky figure, and that’s the vibe at the core of Living In A Burning House.  When it comes to keeping the blues alive, Selwyn Birchwood is doing his bit - this is electric blues that's fresh and modern and comfortable in its own skin.

Living In A Burning House is released by Alligator Records on 29 January.

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