Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Quickies - Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry, James Oliver Band, Jimmy Lee

Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry – Purple Kittens
Kimberley Rew, in case you didn’t know, was in Katrina & The Waves, and wrote their hits ‘Walking On Sunshine’ (featured in the movie of High Fidelity) and Eurovision-winning ‘Love Shine A Light’, as well as songs covered by The Bangles and Celine Dion.  There are a couple of things I take from this.  First, Kimberley Rew knows how to write a pop song.  Second, he’s made enough loot from these efforts to do whatever he goddamn likes.
Kimberley Rew & Lee Cave-Berry - gonna have some fun tonight!
Seems to me both these factors are at play with Purple Kittens, the new album from Rew and his singing/bass-playing missus Lee Cave-Berry.  There are tracks here that have the hallmark of precious-metal-level pop songsmithing – not gold standard perhaps, but still pretty shiny.  And then there are moments of “Oh why not” whimsicality to match that twee album title
On the plus side, ‘You Can Rely On Me’ is catchy and scratchy, all rolling tom toms and staccato riffing.  Rew claims inspiration from Santana, but what I'm hearing is a second cousin to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’.  ‘Kingdom Of Love’ is even better, a hooky slice of power pop that descends in a direct line from the Kinks, with nifty wordplay and crisp, ringin’ an’ twangin’ guitar.  Makes me think that Rew has a liking for the edginess of punk, if not the accompanying sneer.
‘Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream’ is another fun jangle-pop confection, with a lyric that runs all the way from raspberry ripple to rum’n’raisin, boosted by another punchy, grungy guitar break. ‘Black Ribbon’, its words and melody courtesy of a couple of six and eight year-old kids, is a two-minute tribute to  their grandad, a late bandmate of Rew’s, and if that sounds mawkish the upbeat results aren’t, again garlanded by a rock’n’roll guitar solo.  And the closing ‘Daytime Night Time’ is straightforward lightweight chug-a-boogie that may not be ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ but can still rock all over your kitchen.
The opening ‘Penny The Ragman’ may be a paean to Morris dancing and the Women’s Institute, but the whimsy ante is upped by the languid ‘Wrong Song’, even with its flute and spiky, jagged guitar, while the following ‘Unsatisfactory Cats’, with Cave-Berry on vocals, could come from a children’s singalong collection – though an appealingly jolly one, to be sure.
Purple Kittens may be mostly about Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry pleasing themselves, but in its best moments it’s got quality to go with its naïve charm.

Purple Kittens is released on 18 June, and can be pre-ordered here from 30 April.
James Oliver Band – Goofin’ Around
I know it’s only rock’n’roll and all that, but while ‘Goofin’ Around’ may be an okay title for a two-and-a-half minute Bill Haley instrumental, it’s hardly a strong sales pitch for a five track EP.  And it has to be said that this follow-up to the James Oliver Band’s 2020 album TWANG! is, indeed, inconsistent.
‘Welsh Rockin’ Blues’ kicks off with a good twanging groove, and if its lyrics are pretty disposable
James Oliver - rockin' in the Rhondda
and the chorus feels hurried, it still benefits from a simple but effective solo from Oliver.  The rock’n’roll farmyard metaphors of ‘Chicken And The Duck’ may be passing fun, but the distorted vocals on the verses seem pointless, and certainly less interesting than the harp interventions of Billy Lee Williams, or the redeeming Chuck Berry-with-a-twist solo from Oliver.
‘Goofin’ Around’ itself is a pretty much common-or-garden rockabilly instrumental, in spite of some interesting twists and turns from Oliver and a succession of tub-thumping drum breaks from Ollie Harding.  But things perk up a bit with ‘Only Thing I Lack Is A Cadillac’.  It may owe a few quid to the Stray Cats’ ‘Look At That Cadillac’, and the vocals may be a bit squawky, but it’s energised by rumbling riffing, and a change of gear into Oliver’s guitar break and a Williams piano solo lift into a different league, showing what this band can do.
The most interesting thing here, though, is an extended take on Hendrix’s ‘Red House’, here re-titled in Welsh as ‘Ty Coch’.  Reflective and bluesy, it shows that Oliver and co have the ability to do something different, adopting a semi-spoken storytelling vocal style over Patrick Farrell’s meditative bass lines, and moulding the tune to his own pin-sharp toned style, culminating in a pretty darned impressive solo.  Hell, he even changes Jimi’s line “There’s a red house over yonder” to “There’s a red house up the Rhondda”, so bonus marks for the chutzpah.
James Oliver is a talented guitarist, and he has a good band around him, but he needs to aim for a more consistent standard than Goofin’ Around displays.  As it happens, this EP was followed on my digital turntable by a Lightnin’ Willie and the Poorboys live album – now there’s a lesson in putting your stamp on good ol’ fashioned rock’n’roll.

Goofin' Around is released by The Last Music Co on 14 May.

Jimmy Lee – Broken
Every picture tells a story, they say.  Well, on the cover picture of Broken, Jimmy Lee’s acoustic guitar is sporting a sticker with Woody Guthrie’s slogan “This machine kills fascists”.  He’s got a serious, moody look on his face too, and on the back cover he’s got a harmonica on a rack draped round his neck.  All this says Dylan-esque folk-blues, right?
Jimmy Lee gets mean and moody
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.  Sure, Lee’s music has its roots in folk traditions, but there’s little of Dylan’s edgy, twisted vision in evidence.  He sure as shootin’ doesn’t have Dylan’s corncrake voice either, and while it could be argued that’s a blessing, it doesn’t help Lee any in grabbing the attention.
Gotta say, this kind of folksiness ain’t my usual stomping ground, so others may get more out of it.  But across 14 tracks I’m often hard pushed to find handholds to get a grip of.  The lazily trotting opener ‘Lonesome Frail And Blue’ sounds like a cowboy on the trail, with Lee's mournful harp break heightening the mood.  And in fact Lee’s harp-playing is one of his key strengths throughout, intensifying the contemplative, elegiac ‘Absent Friend’, adding character to the brisk and brief, cantering ‘Truth Be Told’, and giving another dimension to the faintly Celtic folk of ‘Torn Down The Middle’.
‘Ghost In Blue Jeans’ is one of the stronger songs, with hints of darkness in the vocal and moans of violin adding to the atmosphere.  ‘Cosmic Wheels’ combines rippling guitar and harmonies to good effect, with some sombre strings and ethereal piano also catching the ear.  And ‘3-4ths Drunk’ is a cut above too, with electric guitar adding some bite, bass guitar adding muscle, and some distorted vocals adding variety.
Often though, it’s pretty frictionless fare, into which Lee’s light, sometimes fey voice fits all too easily.  A song like ‘Old No.7 Blues’ may be a sun-dappled, Sixties-style folky blues ramble, which is nice, but that’s about all.
Jimmy Lee may be a handy acoustic muso of a folk-blues bent, but for me he needs to develop material with a bit more depth – a bit more of the jagged edges, as it were, of something “broken”.

Broken is released on 30 April, and available here.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Steve Cropper - Fire It Up

“I remember yesterday like it’s right in front of me,” goes a line in the track ‘Two Wrongs’.  Which sums up Steve Cropper’s new solo album Fire It Up rather well, as its effortless retro sound makes it feel like we’ve gone back to the future with a soulful mid-Sixties Memphis vibe.
The best songs on Fire It Up sound just like the kind of hits that poured out of Stax, Ardent and Royal Studios way back when – grooving R’n’B that wrote itself into the DNA of American popular music.  Take ‘One Good Turn’ for example – a great blend of horns, guitar, organ and
Genial soul wizard Steve Cropper
Pic by Michael Wilson
piano around a hooky melody that hints at melancholy, with a neat, relaxed guitar solo from Cropper.  It sounds like just the kind of tune from which Springsteen must have drawn ingredients for soul-pop excursions like ‘Hungry Heart’.
Or there’s ‘Far Away’, an infectious, strolling groove that also features a social commentary lyric that one of the more interesting pieces of wordsmithing on the album, to go with some more nifty guitar breaks from Cropper, a man generally known more as a rhythm guitarist, songwriter and producer than as a fully fledged axeman.  Not that his soloing ever sails off over the horizon here – with thirteen tracks adding up to a total of 39 minutes, Fire It Up is never an exercise in self-indulgence.  (Well, there are notionally 13 tracks – I’ll get back to that.)
‘Heartbreak Street’ and ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ are standouts.  There’s that positive feeling of déjà vu about the former, in the sense of a comforting familiarity like putting on a favourite pair of old slippers, and it benefits from a strong chorus that introduces a neat change of direction.  And ‘The Go-Getter Is Gone’ is another pleasing tune, with probably the most energy and brio on the whole album, with wit in the lyric, backed up by a classic horn riff and another vibrant guitar break.
There are a couple of problems though.  One of them is singer Roger C. Reale.  Yes, he sings with authentic soulful grit, and communicates all the melodies with ease.  But for me he doesn’t offer enough personality to bring distinctiveness to some of the songs.  And they need that personality, because over the piece too many tracks feel samey.  ‘Fire It Up’ itself, for example, is bright and jaunty over a lazily shuffling rhythm, but never quite achieves lift-off.  ‘I’m Not Havin’ It’ is more driven, with a pumping groove and something of a strut to it, but it doesn’t really develop enough.  And the same is true of ‘She’s So Fine’, a bit of bouncing R’n’B with a twinkling guitar motif that’s given a push and a shove from the drums, but really needed a stronger bridge to give it a lift, rather as a key change in the middle eight helps to perk up the slower, more reflective ‘Two Wrongs’.  ‘Out Of Love’ is better though, in spite of some perfunctory lyrics, with a laid back groove. a cool, pinging guitar solo, and further assorted licks to match, while all the while it swings like a Sultan.
The album closes with the instrumental ‘Bush Hog’, engagingly built on a rolling, revolving guitar line and staccato horns, with a descending turnaround that feels naggingly familiar.  It’s enjoyable – but I can’t help wondering what the two snippets ‘Bush Hog Part 1’ and ‘Bush Hog Part 2’ add to the equation, the first opening the album and the second preceding ‘Bush Hog’ itself.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s never a bad moment on Fire It Up.  It just feels like it could have done with a bit more wildness thrown into the mix.  A bit more fire in the belly, in fact.

Fire It Up is released by Provogue Records on 23 April.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Gary Moore - How Blue Can You Get

How Blue Can You Get is about as good as it gets.  Set aside any fears that this posthumous Gary Moore release might be an incoherent batch of outtakes.  It’s the real McCoy.
This eight-track collection hangs together beautifully, split evenly between covers and originals but with Moore putting his stamp on everything in the breeziest fashion.
The opening take on Freddie King’s ‘I’m Tore Down’ sets the tone, with swinging drums, jogging bass and grooving organ creating a tight but relaxed vibe.  Moore’s vocal feels totally at home,
Gary Moore - bluesy from any angle
Pic by Jesse Wild
and if his first solo is on the money his second outing is even better, with a clear and biting tone as he goes to town without ever overdoing it.  There’s bags of tension and release, and as he raises the stakes towards the end the drums complement his moves to good effect.
The cover of Memphis Slim’s instrumental ‘Steppin’ Out’ that follows is spot on right from its staccato opening.  Moore’s playing around with the theme is fluid, and sets the scene for soloing that’s by turns witty, conversational, and then scorching, over more corking backing even if the organ feels a touch too high in the mix, competing with Moore at times rather than complementing him.
BB King’s 'How Blue Can You Get' is a classic slow blues that floats along beautifully, with patient bass and drums providing the foundation for slow, slow, quick-quick-slow Moore licks on the intro, before he brings the lyric to life with his vocal.  There’s a stop-time bridge, and then Moore embarks on the most tasteful of less-is-more solos, suspense colliding into fluttering quick passages.  Restraint isn't the word I’d most associate with Gary Moore, but his relaxed playing here is a model of it.
Of the four covers, Elmore James’ ‘Done Somebody Wrong’ feels most like a makeweight, but still hits the mark as a slice of straightforward blues in a ‘Who’s Been Talkin’’ vein.  It swings in lightly funky style, and Moore has fun on a squealing, high tension wire solo.
Of the four originals, three are slowish affairs.  ‘In My Dreams’ could be ‘Parisienne Walkways Mark 2’ with Moore’s use of heavy sustain, and a simple arrangement that privileges precision over fireworks, while Moore adds a good, suitably romantic vocal – in spite of his repeated, frankly preposterous, proncunciation of the word “night”.  ‘Love Can Make A Fool Of You’ is a soulful ballad, again kept simple, with vocals, lyric and guitar all working in harmony even as Moore ramps things up with a cracking solo to close.  And the closing ‘Living With The Blues’ is a romantically inclined slowie that nods towards ‘Still Got The Blues – a strong song, well-constructed, with a perfectly pitched vocal and guitar work that’s full of feeling.
Which just leaves ‘Looking At Your Picture’, which is perhaps the most interesting song here – even if it’s not the best – simply because it’s a little bit different.  It combines an unusual, shuffling rhythm with tense, prickly guitar and brooding bass, while Moore’s vocal is low-pitched and hushed.  Superficially a song about heartbreak – “I’m looking at your picture through my tear-filled eyes” – it conveys an unsettling sense that somebody might be about to come to harm, self-inflicted or otherwise.
These songs may have been captured at different times, but there’s a relaxed air about them all that’s warm and engaging.  Leisurely but never lazy, even when Moore is opening up the throttle there’s no sense of strain or going over the top.  How Blue Can You Get is the perfect reminder, ten years after his death, of just how good Gary Moore could be.

How Blue Can You Get is released on 30 April by Provogue Records.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Mary Stokes Band featuring Sarah Michelle - Comin' Home

Ever watch Masterchef on the telly?  You know when they get a likeable contestant, who cooks something that tastes good, and looks okay, but which the judges think lacks the “wow factor”?  That, in essence, was my initial response to this “live in the studio” album from Ireland’s Mary Stokes Band.
My first impression, listening to the opening title track of Comin’ Home, was of your favourite local blues band.  That’s a compliment – they’re good enough to be reliably enjoyable, without bum notes or poor playing marring their performance.  But it’s also a reflection of a less than
The Mary Stokes Band do a good job of saying "cheese"!
adventurous first couple of verses and choruses.  Sure, the chugging groove is inviting, Mary Stokes’ vocals hit all the notes satisfyingly enough, and Brian Palm contributes some tasteful, songbird-like harmonica.  But it all seems a bit decorous, a bit tame.  Until, that is, guitarist Sarah Michelle goes to work.  She cuts in with a fuzzy, edgy guitar solo that dirties things up and brings more character to the party.  After which, to be fair, all concerned rouse themselves in pursuit of a more animated ending to the song.
And this recipe is pretty much repeated on the following ‘Moonshine’, which swings well enough but also sports some prosaic lyrics.  So at this point I’m asking myself if they’ll continue to play it safe and rely on Michelle’s guitar work to enliven proceedings, or if they can get out of their comfort zone and serve up something different.
Fair play to them though, they do find some fresh ingredients to spice things up.  ‘Mattie Won’t Write’ is a stuttering slowie, with a minimalist, repetitive lyric – and it’s a mood piece that works.  There’s more depth to Palm’s harp playing, more variation in Stokes’ singing, and a sense of more dynamics all round.  ‘Fine And Mellow’ is exactly what it says on the tin.  Slow and jazzy, it plays to Stokes’ strengths vocally, and she ups the interest quotient accordingly.  Harp and piano make fluttering contributions – the latter, courtesy of Dermot Stokes, not much in evidence hitherto – and a Sarah Michelle guitar solo adds extra guts.  The following ‘Mola Di Bari’ adds a different flavour too, with a funky guitar riff and slinky bass from Chris Byrne, and another less-is-more lyric.  A Palm harp break slots in well, but the real centrepiece – again – is a teasing solo from Michelle.
Along the way ‘Baby How Long?’ combines a bright and bubby riff with harp filigrees, and Stokes’ piano flits into earshot to good effect.  It swings for sure, and if it’s still a little on the safe side there’s still some urgency to the harp solo, with an extra helping of guitar solo sizzle.  And later on ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ and ‘Help Me’ both cut the mustard, the former with its strong, winding riff and guttural guitar solo, and the latter with its enjoyable turn around and ‘Green Onions’ groove.
The highlight though, is ‘Story Of Bo Diddley’, a seven minute plus excursion that still manages to be brisk and spiky, leavened with light, shade and wit, and with Michelle at her best as she stretches out on some slithering, scraping, serpentine guitar work.  And after the live-without-able ‘At The Christmas Ball’ they close strongly with ‘Long Way From Home’, locking into a strutting, gritty riff, with stabs of piano and an energetic vocal, while Michelle sharpens her six-string blade and slices through the middle like Sweeney Todd feeling peckish for a fresh pie.
The Mary Stokes Band do what they do like pros, and when they stir some imagination into the pot they create some pleasing fare.  It’s only right that guitarist Sarah Michelle is given a specific namecheck though, because where there’s a “wow factor” on Comin' Home it’s down to her confident, assertive playing.

Comin' Home is available now, and can be ordered here.