Sunday, September 19, 2021

Joanne Shaw Taylor - The Blues Album

Another month, another album of covers by an established artist.
After the recent release of Bernie Marsden’s Kings I had a lively discussion with a reader about the value of outings such as these, and it’s certainly a discussion worth having.  How much intrinsic value is there in this kind of collection of modern takes on old songs?  Is The Blues Album possibly a gateway for some fans of Joanne Shaw Taylor to explore unfamiliar blues artists?
Joanne Shaw Taylor - happiness is a new album
Pic by Christie Goodwin
Whatever.  One thing to be said about The Blues Album is that it’s stylistically different from another Joe Bonamassa/Josh Smith-produced outing from earlier this year.  Joanna Connor’s 4801 South Indiana Avenue may also have leaned heavily on old tunes, but where it majored on
raunch, The Blues Album tends to head in a more subtle, more soulful direction.  And in that context, it has to be said that the JoJo production team have coaxed some convincingly soulful vocals out of Ms Taylor – which is a significant point, because while I’ve always liked the husky tone of her singing, I’ve sometimes found it wanting in other respects.
So among the highlights on the album are soul-blues ballads like ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’, ‘Let Me Down Easy’, and the absolute cream of the crop, ‘I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me)’.  Written by Don Covay and originally recorded by Little Richard in a far from wop-bop-a-loo-bop mode, it’s an old classic given an old classic treatment, and Taylor gives it her all with a soul-fuelled vocal, backed up by gospel-influenced guest Mike Farris in the supporting vocal role.  For me the gold medal winning rendition is still Ian Siegal’s on his album Swagger, but this isn’t far behind.
It’s not hard to guess that the horn-backed slowie ‘If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody’ was once recorded by Aretha Franklin, and though JST is no Aretha she still delivers an emotive vocal, and backs it up with a pinging guitar solo that edges into Gary Moore’s romantic blues terrain.  And she captures the emotional vibe on ‘Let Me Down Easy’ too, assisted by waves of organ from Reese Wynans, with horns flowing over the top and trills of piano in the margins, while the guitar stays in the background until a spiky solo scratches its way into earshot.
The frequent use of horns evokes a jazzy vibe here and there, so that ‘If That Ain’t A Reason’ manages to be both swinging and strident, Taylor’s rhythmic vocal delivery swollen by classy female backing vocals, the assertiveness underlined by the quivering but tough guitar tone on her solo.  She then gets sassy with her singing on ‘Keep On Lovin’ Me’, over some slinky bass from Steve Mackey, with sax punctuation from Mark Drouthit.  Taylor’s guitar then trills its way
Turbo-charged messing' round on stage
Pic by Christie Goodwin
into solo action, carrying a flavour of Sean Costello, ahead of some guitar/sax counterpunching to close.  There’s more horn and organ layering on ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing Me’, but it’s the undulating bass line that really drives the groove, laying the foundations for some stinging, squealing guitar work, latterly turbo-charged by a key change.  Then there’s a rather weak fade-out – an option that has its place, but detracts from the power of a few tracks here.
There’s fun stuff too, with the opener ‘Stop Messin’ Round’, a 1968 Fleetwood Mac tune resuscitated by Gary Moore on Still Got The Blues and given a similar rambunctiously swingin’ treatment here, La Taylor having fun vocally and delivering some biting guitar breaks, while Wynans goes to town on a rocking piano solo.  The perky Memphis-style R’n’B of ‘Two Time My Lovin’ has a crisp backbeat counterpointed by lazily bobbing bass, and Taylor serves it well with a shimmering, sparkling and teasing solo.  And the album closes with the boogie of ‘Three Time Loser’, a strutting rhythm backing a chugging riff, while Wynans chucks in piano and organ licks from different angles before knocking out another barroom piano showcase.
Oddly, a couple of throwaway items sit in the middle of the album – the fun but slight ‘Don’t Go Away Mad’, on which for reasons passing understanding Bonamassa feels the need to saddle up for a duet, and the instrumental fragment ‘Scraps Vignette’.
Does The Blues Album add anything to the sum of blues knowledge?  Not really.  But with its top-flight cast list it’s still a satisfying production, full of strong arrangements – and it’s good to hear Joanne Shaw Taylor hit the mark with her vocal contribution as much as her guitar.

The Blues Album is released on 24 September by KTBA Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town - A Blues Odyssey

First of all, hats off to Tommy Castro for trying something a bit different.  “Concept album” isn’t a phrase one hears bandied about much in relation to roots music, but A Bluesman Came To Town fits the bill, with its tale of a young man from 'Somewhere' who gets hooked on the blues and hits the road with his guitar.
It’s a nice enough idea - an opening out of the Johnny B. Goode story, if you like, over 13 tracks.  I’ll let you discover the story for yourself, but for me, over the piece, the narrative feels a bit
prosaic as it relates the ups and downs of the anonymous hero’s life on his “blues odyssey”.  The melodies on a couple of songs feel somewhat predictable too.  But these misgivings aside there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least because Castro makes use of a number of roots styles to good effect.
Tommy Castro crosses a black cat's path
Pic by Victoria Smith

Take the plenty satisfying brace of ‘You To Hold On To’ and ‘I Wanna Go Back Home’ for example.  The first is a slice of Springsteen-esque soul, Castro’s aching vocal depicting the kid’s reflections on the girl he’s leaving behind for the road, set to a slow and steady arrangement with some country-ish twang and a sweet guitar solo.  The latter is in a similar vein, with Castro making like Ben E. King over a Memphis soul sound of mellow organ and subtle rhythm guitar, enhanced by an emotive sax solo.  And reaching further back into the soul vibe, ‘Child Don’t Go’ is a gospel-driven duet by Castro and Terrie Odabi, offering parental advice about the big bad world over backing with pots of brio courtesy of Kevin McKendree’s boisterous honky tonk piano and Castro’s steely guitar solo.
Castro and co can rock too, whether it’s the upbeat rock’n’roll of ‘I Caught A Break’, with its  infectious chorus and overt musical and lyrical allusions to 'Johnny B. Goode', or the mid-paced post-Hendrixism of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’, its sturdy riff punctuated by bright, offbeat chords and needle-sharp guitar licks as it gradually whips up energy.  The funky inflections of the latter get fuller expression too, on ‘Hustle’, which has a lot more to do with James Brown than Van McCoy, with jingling rhythm guitar and sassy horns, and Castro even indulging in a spot of rapping.  Well, kinda.
When it comes to slower stuff, the downbeat blues-rock of ‘Draw The Line’, with its shimmering keys, has more to offer than the slow-blues-by-numbers feel of ‘Blues Prisoner’, capturing the mood well as the lyric offers a response to the tribulations of ‘Women, Drugs And Alcohol’.  And still in straightforward blues territory, the insistent ‘I Got Burned’ has more personality than the rather pedestrian tune of ‘Bluesman Comes To Town’, even if both feature stinging guitar solos.  More ear-catching than either of those, though, is ‘Bring It On Back’ on which Castro’s buzzing slide guitar and Tommy MacDonald’s bass bring juddering urgency to the riff, played off against a tense drum rhythm from producer Tom Hambridge.
I like Tommy Castro.  As a songwriter he’s capable of evoking atmosphere and a sense of place, he has a convincing, soulful voice, and he wields his six string effectively in a number of styles.  It’s a shame that the over-arching story on the album isn’t more gripping, but at least Castro hasn’t overplayed his hand and tried to produce a “blues opera” of Wagnerian proportions.  Thanks to that self-discipline, A Bluesman Came To Town isn’t weighed down by filler, and Castro’s qualities are still able to come to the fore and shine.

Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came To Town is released by Alligator Records on 17 September.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Samantha Fish - Faster

Here she comes again, dancin’ ‘neath the starry skies.  Yep, it’s the moving target that is Samantha Fish.
“You know, any time I feel like we’re closing to getting – um, figured out,” Ms Fish said to me when I interviewed her a couple of years ago, “when people think that this is exactly who you are, and this is what you’re gonna be, and it becomes an expectation - it makes me wanna change.”   And listening to Faster, you know she wasn’t kidding.
Let’s start with the album cover, with its vivid picture of Fish lasciviously running her tongue up
Samantha Fish, glossy sheen and all
Pic by Kevin King
the neck of an, er, upright guitar.  What’s that all about?  Well, it’s attention-grabbing for sure – anyone idly catching sight of it is going to do a double take.  But it’s also a world away from the vulnerable fairy tale heroine suggested on the cover of Wild Heart.  I’m thinking it’s a don't-give-a-shit visual statement, declaring that Samantha Fish will do whatever she goddamn pleases, thank you very much.  You know what else?  Intentionally or not, that picture references the artwork on the 1979 single ‘Picture This’ by Blondie, that bunch of New York punks who mutated into chartbusting power-poppers, turning their hands to disco and rap along the way.
Picture this indeed, in readiness for the aural rollercoaster ride of Faster, as Fish and her producer/collaborator Martin Kierszenbaum smash styles together like a rock’n’roll Hadron Collider.  Get ready, people, for crunching rock riffs, scrabbling post-punk guitar breaks, glistening keys, dance grooves, electro-pop bleeping – and more besides.
The title track kicks in with a buzzing, tough riff fit to rank with ‘Show Me’ from Wild Heart, but also introduces a thumping drum sound akin to the gated reverb variety that dominated the 80s.  There’s a tantalising frisson to the yada-yada-yada lyric of the chorus: “I wanna ooh-ooh-ooh, You’re gonna ooh-ooh-ooh, That’s how I’ll make your heart go faster.”  It's one of a number of songs about sexual attraction and - at the risk of sounding interleckshul - the power dynamics of relationships.  A screaming guitar break will hit the bullseye for long-standing Fish fans, but the sonic gloss and sheen is something different – and she’s just getting started.
‘All Ice, No Whiskey’ has plenty of sexy swagger, and buried within it a groove that’s on familiar terms with Chic’s ‘Le Freak’ gets its little socks rocked off.  Discordant keys sweep here and there, and the chorus is burnished by sleek, multi-tracked vocals, but what’s inescapable is a
Not Samantha Fish, not Faster
 dance floor rhythm track that’s enough to get even this old git practising his white man’s overbite (© Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal).  And if ‘Twisted Ambition’ has not one but two gritty guitar riffs getting sonically warped, they’re also jostling with throbbing, synthy bass lines, and bright pulsing keys that create tension before Fish lets loose on guitar.
By this time old school blues-rock fans may be feeling seasick as they lurch between loving some of the gutsy guitar, and dropping their jaws at some of the other sounds flying around.  And you ain’t heard anything yet.
‘Hypnotic’ slides seductively into earshot with a gasping vocal about “casting a spell that binds you”, over beeping like electronic raindrops.  It comes over like something from an 80s Brit synth-pop outfit - until Mademoiselle Fish lets rip with a grungy guitar interlude that would give electronica twiddlers heart failure.  On the other hand ‘Forever Together’ takes the “bomp-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp” vocal refrain of Cream’s ‘I Feel Free’ and bends it into the deformed riff for a punky pop song with the perkiest of catchy, where-have-I-heard-that-before choruses.
The opening verse of ‘Crowd Control’ reveals one of Fish’s few weaknesses, a tendency that’s cropped up in years gone by to waver a mite on notes at the bottom end of her register.  What follows is a slice of dreamy pop that at first blush seems serviceable rather than outstanding, but as she relaxes into the vocal and adds some neat guitar fills it begins to sound like Samantha on more familiar soulful ground.  ‘Imaginary War’ never really achieves escape velocity however, notwithstanding its fuzzy Morse Code backing and a typically spiky guitar solo.
But if that’s something of a lull in proceedings, ‘Loud’ gets things back on track.  A mellow verse with soulful crooning á la Kill Or Be Kind’s ‘Love Letters’ explodes into a chorus that’s all slamming chords, swelling organ and forceful vocals.  And then – steps back in amazement, supersonic Sam – a fella starts rapping!  Will this be a bridge too far for some guitar rock
"The future is this way!"
aficionados, or will they take the rapid-fire delivery of Tech N9ne in their stride?  Answers on a postcard, please.
And having dropped that stylistic bombshell, ‘Better Be Lonely’ switches tack with a repetitive, scratchy guitar line that’s taken up by Sam’s smoother vocal, over a cool, swinging bass groove and a thumping backbeat.  It’s a simple enough tune, but it’s also an insistent, infernal earworm, topped off with a trademark wiry guitar solo.  Then things get even wilder with the punk-pop guitar wig-out of ‘So-Called Lover’, which is more or less ‘Love Your Lies’ Mark II with a Blondie-esque stratospheric chorus and a buzzsaw guitar solo.
If you’re feeling breathless after all that, ‘Like A Classic’ cools things off, its wordless opening lines sliding into a swoonsome, coo-ing vocal, with a sweetly rising and falling chorus over squiggly background noises.  And then ‘All The Words’ is a classic Fish slowie, easing in with Beatle-ish softly softly guitar notes, then leaning on sparse electric piano below Samantha’s reflective, emotional vocal about how “the caged bird never flies”, ultimately bringing down the curtain with some sweetly soaring singing.
“That’s part of being an artist,” the lady said to me back in 2019.  “You’re going to do things that are either gonna incite happiness, or upset people.”  Some people may be upset by Faster.  Others may catch up with it.  Me?  I’m sold.  Faster isn’t perfect, but it’s radio-ready dynamite in a similar way to the Black Keys’ El Camino.  And Samantha Fish is a determined, ambitious young woman who’s carving out new possibilities for her music, and doing it with flair.
Faster is released by Rounder Records on 10 September, and is available for pre-order here.