Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sue Foley - Pinky's Blues

Sue Foley may be Canadian by birth, but after 30 years living in Austin, her latest album Pinky’s Blues has ‘Texas’ stamped all over it.  It was recorded in Texas, with Texan Hammond organ maestro Mike Flanigin doing the knob-twiddling, and there’s a guest appearance from guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan – hailing, of course, from Dallas, Texas.  Hell, the lady probably wears boots labelled ‘Made In Texas’.
But leave all of that to one side, and the sound of the album still hollers ‘Texas blues’.  It’s there in the feel of ‘Hurricane Girl’, one of the best tracks on offer, which may have a sturdy, stop-time thing going on, but still has drummer Chris Layton and bassist Jon Penner bringing the swing. 
Happiness is . . . Texas blues and a pink guitar
Pic by Todd Wolfson
Meantime the guitars of Foley and the aforementioned Vaughan ripple, shiver, and skim over the top, and if her vocal doesn’t have the command of Etta James declaring she’s a ‘W.O.M.A.N’, it’s still satisfying assertive.
There’s a cinematic feel to songs like ‘Two Bit Texas Town’ and ‘Southern Men’, as if David Lynch were demanding stacks of twang.  The first is an interesting bit of storytelling, but fizzles out a bit.  The second is stronger, with a rumbling, sub-Diddley rhythm, an interesting tune, and a spooky guitar break, though the limitations of Foley’s girlish voice start to become apparent.
She’s better on the romantic slowie ‘Say It’s Not So’, bringing a breathy quality to bear as it opens with just guitar and vocal, while Penner adds a moody bass line to Layton’s restrained drums.  And Foley’s playing here on her guitar 'Pinky' is resonant, human, old-school stuff perfectly tailored to the song – unlike the fade-out that undercuts the emotions.  She delivers a suitably aching vocal on the shimmering ballad ‘Think It Over’, which reaches for the soulfulness of Sam Cooke, assisted by Flanigin’s hesitant and romantic organ solo.
There’s good stuff too in the brisk shuffle of ‘Dallas Man’, with its nagging riff, even if it feels a bit perfunctory.  ‘Stop These Teardrops’ is a great find for a cover too, a catchy slice of shoe-shuffling blues with a stuttering guitar line, penned by (Miss) Lavelle White.  And the jazzy swing of ‘Boogie Real Low’ sounds just like the kind of old-time 50s bluesy rock’n’roll it is, even if the vocal seems almost like an afterthought.
The quickie instrumental ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ is slight but fun, with Foley’s ducking and diving, witty guitar nicely complemented by the snap and swing of the rhythm section, and Layton’s cymbal stings.  Meanwhile the closing Junior Wells cover ‘When The Cat’s Gone The Mice Play’ is essentially ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ Mark II, without Wells’ convincing growl but Tex-ified by slipping in bursts of Freddie King’s ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’.
I do like a bit of Texas blues.  It’s direct, uncomplicated stuff, in which great guitar playing often seems like ego-free fun around the expression of simple emotions.  There are weaknesses evident in Pinky’s Blues – Foley should have been pushed harder on the vocal front, and a few songs should have been rounded out more definitively.  But it’s still an outing to raise a smile and warm the heart.

Pinky's Blues is out now on Stony Plain Records.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Kentucky Headhunters - That's A Fact, Jack!

The Kentucky Headhunters do their own thing.  They’ve won country music awards, and they’ve been pegged as Southern Rock, and yeah I suppose those labels fit now and then.  But mostly they’re a bunch of rock’n’rollers who’ve been doing whatever they wanna do for a long, loooong time, and judging by That’s A Fact, Jack! they’re still having a ball doing it.
The opening ‘Gonna Be Alright’, for example, is mid-paced and laid back, with Fred Young deliciously behind the beat on drums.  It’s infectiously simple, with trilling guitar fills from Greg
The Kentucky Headhunters - barn-burningly good!
Pic by Joe McNally

Martin along the way, until it gains intensity towards the end.  That lazy beat from Fred Young
returns later in the service of ‘We Belong Together’, a warm and mellow slice of romance with typically expressive vocals from bassist Doug Phelps, and an immaculate bitter-sweet solo from Martin – whose playing, I may say, is outstanding throughout.
They can do country-ish Southern Rock balladry like falling off a log, as on ‘Susannah’ for example, factoring in subtle dynamics as they gradually raise the temperature via a shift in the riff and some walloping drum fills, leading up to a chiming outro.  There’s organ in the mix there too, as there is cushioning the similar, heartsick ‘Lonely Too Long’, the bass and drums bouncing off each other as Martin adds some elegant guitar embroidery.
But they can rock too, as on the hooky ‘How Could I’, on which Fred Young’s snappy snare drum perfectly punctuates a cracking little riff, while Martin contributes some deliciously slippery slide.  But that’s just a warm-up for ‘That’s A Fact, Jack’ itself, on which churning guitars herald a gruff, finger-pointing vocal from Richard Young, while that punchy snare drum locks things together and Martin comes up with a suitably sizzling solo.  And still, that’s nothing compared to the bonkers penultimate track, ‘Shotgun Effie’, a tyre-squealing rocker with a grabber of a riff, on which Greg Martin takes a turn behind the mic.  He’s only a little fella, but he doesn’t half sound mean, like Billy Gibbons on the morning after the night before, with thumping drums and some skidpan-worthy slide guitar for good measure.  Oh yeah, and they knock off some old-fashioned rock’n’roll along the way, on ‘Heart And Soul’, with bopping bass from Phelps, swinging drums, satisfying harmonies, and a couple of effortless guitar breaks, all in the space of three minutes.
And in addition to all that, they’re funny too.  ‘Cup Of Tea’, with its Byrds-like ringing and weaving guitars, is a catchy, smile-inducing number, the kind of tune you feel you’ve known forever and a day.  But in place of the Byrds’ soaring harmonies drummer Fred Young delivers vocal that’s croaky, relaxed and humorous, and still romantic in an everyday kinda way.  Meanwhile the closing ‘Let’s Get Together And Fight’ is an ironic, booze-infused Christmas song, nodding heavily towards ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ but painting a picture of bickering and fisticuffs rather than peace and goodwill.  Yea and verily, it deserves to become an alternative festive classic.
Listen up good people - The Kentucky Headhunters may be a bunch of old geezers, but they’re also the gen-yoo-wine article, as That’s A Fact, Jack! demonstrates.  I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but you’ll like it, like it, yes you will!
That’s A Fact, Jack! is out now on Practice House Records, and available on all digital platforms here.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Davy Knowles - What Happens Next

How to avoid repeating yourself.  How to stand out from the herd.  Seems to me these are key questions for many a modern-day blues-rockin’ artist.  Some don’t bother of course, and just keep on keepin’ on, following the same old course.  But others go in search of different angles of attack, looking for new grooves rather than getting stuck in a rut.
In the case of Chicago-based Manxman Davy Knowles and his new album What Happens Next, the result is a focus on songs in differing styles, sometimes retro-sounding to go with the
Davy Knowles gets all sophisticated for the camera
Pic by Timothy M Schmidt
"salvaged vinyl" look of the cover art, but with a few nifty embellishments to deliver a modern twist - drawing on the skills of producer Eric Corne I suspect, who has added similar freshness to the soulful sound of Sugaray Rayford.
Take the opener ‘Light Of The Moon’ for example, or a little later ‘Get Lucky’.  Both tracks carry echoes, however distant, of The Black Keys.  With its stomping backbeat and grinding guitar chords, the first in particular suggests the bluesy neo-Glam Rock vibe of the Keys’ El Camino.  It comes with tweeting keyboard notes, brief and edgy guitar breaks, and a couple of anthemic “Hey! Hey!” interludes, if not quite the grapnel-like hook of, say, ‘Gold On The Ceiling’.  On ‘Get Lucky’, meantime, the verses may be a tad lightweight, but the catchy chorus compensates, heightened by a simple, but effective, bubbling keyboard line.
Knowles has a good rather than outstanding voice, but he uses it with conviction, especially a slowie like the Corne composition ‘Roll Me’.  A bluesy ballad one might say is in John Mayer territory, Knowles delivers it with more character than Mayer could muster, over a foundation of low down, spaced out guitar notes and subtle washes of organ, to which he adds his own restrained and well-judged guitar work.  And he does moody and reflective well too, on the haunted vibe of ‘Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, with its tinkling piano and most Bonamassa-like slow and epic riff, to which Knowles adds some squeaking slide that turns rather more razor-edged on the outro.  The same is true of the melodic and mellow ‘River’, a simple affair on which Knowles gets increasingly impassioned, underlined by some beautifully complementary guitar licks.
These ballads are the real standouts, rather than poptastic outings like the stuttering ‘Solid Ground’ and sprightly ‘Side Show’, though the latter piques more interest with its fuzzed-up guitar tone, its rubber band bass, and the way the tense, buzzing riff butts up against the relaxed rhythm.
‘Wake Me Up When The Nightmare’s Over’ is strident stuff, and if Knowles could do with summoning up more vocal raunch, it’s still got guts, with crunching guitar chords, walloping drums, surging organ and rocking piano, going out on a burst of taut and wiry guitar.  Then by way of contrast the album closes with the folkie ‘If I Ever Meet My Maker’, sparkling picked guitar the main backing for its sensitively sung, lilting melody.
What Happens Next is a grower.  It’s not a straight-up blues-rock album, and Davy Knowles may not always hit the stylistic targets he’s aiming for, but when he’s good – on those slow numbers in particular – he’s very good indeed.
What Happens Next
 is out now on Provogue Records, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Southern Avenue - Be The Love You Want

Let’s get straight to the point, eh?  Or to two points, to be more accurate.  To wit:

1.   At their best, Southern Avenue evoke classic Memphis soul à la the heyday of Don Bryant and Ann Peebles, for example, but in a modern style of their own.

2.  They’re a damn fine, tight ensemble, the whole exceeding the sum of their parts.  But their trump card is lead singer Tierinii Jackson.  Seriously, we’re talking about a Superbowl standard vocalist who can go from gossamer light to stratospheric power while maintaining the purest of tones.

Smile along with Southern Avenue

All of which is evident on the title track of Be The Love You Want, which opens with some rattling percussion triggering staccato guitar chords, before slipping into a more comfortable groove propelled by rubbery bass and bright horns.  Meantime Tierinii Jackson starts warming up her tonsils, and right off the bat they’re delivering something special, topped off a fizzing guitar break from Ori Naftaly.
The following ‘Control’ takes it easy on the verses, with Ms TJ slipping and sliding around the melody, over cool bass lines from Evan Sarver, fluid horns, and offbeat drum patterns from TIkyra Jackson – who also contributes to the spot on vocal harmonies on the lively chorus.  ‘Don’t Hesitate (Call Me)', meanwhile, dials things down into dreamy mode, Jackson delivering her vocal over minimalist backing, with injections of more sumptuous harmonies, while Naftaly works up a melodic guitar motif that steps out of the everyday soul/blues vein en route to a brief but sparkling solo.
The backwards shuffling rhythm of ‘Push Now’ carries hints of North Mississippi hill country – little surprise perhaps, with the writing contribution of North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson - but is still stamped with Southern Avenue soul.  There’s some edge as the tune strains against the rhythm, while Jeremy Powell brings warm piano and Naftaly adds another interesting solo.  ‘Fences’, in a different vibe, really is like an old-fashioned soul track from the late 60s/early 70s, with Jackson stretching herself into an ethereal domain worthy of Minnie Riperton, and Naftaly adding another nifty little supporting solo.
As the tracks go by though, I begin to find the relentless presence of the horns somewhat irritating – smooth and slinky too often for my liking, as on the rather flimsy soul-pop of ‘Love You Nice And Slow’ for example, and leaving little room for Jeremy Powell’s keys to contribute.  And with its floating vocals over shimmering guitar, ‘Too Good To Be True’ is a sophisticated enough ballad without the horn interpolations that nudge it in the direction of easy listening.  Southern Avenue have enough clubs in their core five-piece bag without needing the assistance of brass at every turn, as ‘Heathen Hearts’ demonstrates with its gospel-like vocal delivery by the Jackson sisters over backing that consists of little more than rhythmic clapping and a whomping kick drum.
Still, ‘Move Into The Light’ is a bubbling chunk of funk, with another restless, offbeat rhythm, and ‘Pressure’ derives some satisfying oomph from its staccato feel, Jackson’s occasionally edgier vocal, and some gutsier guitar from Naftaly.
Be The Love You Want demonstrates all the quality that brought Southern Avenue a Grammy nomination, ten-a-penny though those may be.  I’d like to hear Naftaly spread himself a bit more on guitar just once or twice, and a couple more killer hooks wouldn’t go amiss.  But this is a classy album, no doubt, with an impressive strike rate of winning songs – and Tierinii Jackson’s astonishing voice always ready to knock you sideways.

Be The Love You Want is out now, on Renew Records/BMG.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Liz Jones & Broken Windows - Bricks & Martyrs

“Ready to order, sir?”
“Yes, I think so.  Let’s see – I think I’ll have the Van Morrison à la ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to start.”
“Certainly sir.”
“Then for the main I’ll have the Songs About Those Puzzling, Appealing, Disappointing, Frustrating Things Called People.”
“An excellent choice sir.  And for the sauce?”
Liz Jones and John Bruce get serious
“Yes, the Lightly Smoked Female Vocals please.  And could I have some Rod Stewart and The Faces In Sensitive Mode on the side?”
“Of course, sir.  And would you prefer white or red with that?”
“Actually I’d prefer the Blues, if that’s okay?”
“You have marvellous taste sir, if I may say so.”

Which is one way of explaining what Bricks & Martyrs by Liz Jones & Broken Windows is all about.  And I could say that this musical bistro is worth at least one Michelin star, but that kind of elitist cuisine isn't how I roll.  This is tasteful stuff to be sure, but it’s still music with roots.
Enough of the food metaphor.  The opener ‘Before Me’ has a loping Latino rhythm, and sparkles of guitar interweaving with tinkling piano, over which Liz Jones’ warm voice delivers a lovelorn lyric set to a delightful, hooky melody.  And there’s more of that Latin feel on ‘Stain’, with Hispanic-tinged guitar from John Bruce, bendy bass from Rod Kennard, and warm piano chords from Jamie Hamilton that lift off into rippling syncopations, while Suzy Cargill’s bongos maintain a steady clip.
Over the piece, this is roots rock with subtlety.  ‘Jo’ rests on a simple motif akin to Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, while Jones opens up with a low, resonant vocal, accompanied by conversational interpolations of guitar and organ, topped off with a sinuous slide guitar solo from Bruce.  ‘Candle’ strips things back further, with acoustic guitar and mandolin easing into a gentle, lilting, waltz time feel, some interesting chords getting stirred into the mix en route to a pinging guitar break that’s symptomatic of John Bruce always finding the right tones to fit the song.
The album pivots around ‘Lover’, on which more mandolin strumming from multi-instrumentalist Cargill is underlined by twangingly low guitar notes before nudging into a lighter mood, with layered guitars providing depth.  Jones keeps her singing simple on another delicious melody, with a simple but definitive upward-flickering guitar line the killer touch. Shortly after, there’s the upbeat trio of ‘Wendy’, ‘Call Centre Blues’, and ‘Angel’.  The first of these is a late period Beatle-ish tune, maybe.  Maybe not.  Whatever, there’s lightly funky rhythm guitar, and sharp breaks from Bruce underpinned by grooving bass, while Gary Davidson keeps the drums simple and lets everyone slide perfectly into the pocket as they produce nifty little shifts in the backing.  “Whoo!" Jones toots to herald some sharp lead guitar playing, and who can blame her – these peeps sound like they’re chilling out with smiles on their faces.  ‘Call Centre Blues’ is a loose and nimble protest about nuisance calls and their crap timing, with an arrangement like a mechanism assembled by a master craftsman.  Then ‘Angel’ has Liz Jones thrilling convincingly about a bout of sexual attraction, over some gritty guitar, swinging bass, and Winwood-like organ from the guesting Ali Petrie.
And to finish they serve up the swaying, sensitive ‘On The Ride’, with Jones supplying a gorgeous vocal, enhanced by floating harmonies, over clicking bongos and sparse drums, embellished by piano from Jamie Hamilton that’s like a sun-dappled stream, eventually reaching the sea with an exquisite dying fall of an ending.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said enough about Liz Jones’ songwriting, or the suppleness of her voice.  These are the elements at the core of Bricks & Martyrs, but the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts.  This is an album in which all concerned seem to delight in what they’re conjuring up, in the most ego-free way, and it's captured by producer Jen Clarke with admirable clarity.
It so happens that Liz Jones & Broken Windows come from round my way.  It also so happens that Bricks & Martyrs is a classy collection of blues/Americana/folkie/jazzy roots music that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of that ilk that Britain has to offer.  I kid you not.  Do yourself a favour – give it a listen and make your own mind up.

Bricks & Martyrs is released independently on 29 October, and can be ordered here.

Check out the review of the debut album from Liz Jones & Broken Windows (plus some other stuff) here.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Carolyn Wonderland - Tempting Fate

Carolyn Wonderland’s name may be familiar to some people from her gig in recent years as the guitarist in John Mayall’s band.  But if that makes you think Tempting Fate will be a wall-to-wall parade of 12 bar blues, think again.  This album ain’t her first rodeo, and it demonstrates that she’s got a variety of strings to her stylistic bow.
Sure, she knows how to play dem blues.  ‘Broken Hearted Blues’, for example, is a sturdy chunk of bump’n’grind, a simple arrangement on which hints of organ are the only embellishment beyond its guitar/bass/drums foundations. Wonderland delivers some conversational guitar
Carolyn Wonderland displaying different roots leanings
Pic by Marilyn Stringer
playing that both stings and flutters, underlined on her closing solo by some kinetic drumming from Kevin Lance.  And she makes lightly funky work of John Mayall’s ‘The Laws Must Change’, with tripping drums providing the basis for hard-hitting guitar work and some guitar/vocal harmonising to which she adds a scat-like jazzy twist.
But Wonderland spins in different directions elsewhere.  The state-of-the-nation opener ‘Fragile Peace And Certain War’ may rock big time, with her skating ringing slide to the fore, but the melody has a tough country air redolent of her fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks, with Wonderland lending a full-on holler to lyrics about “Charlatans and preachers recruiting day and night”.  And she delves even further into country terrain with the ballad ‘Crack In The Wall’, with a melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kenny Rogers collection, adorned by accordion from Jan Flemming and lap steel guitar courtesy of Cindy Cashdollar.  Meanwhile Wonderland delivers a sensitive, heartfelt vocal as she wears her liberal heart on her sleeve with lines like “She sleeps on the floor in a cage in the land of the free”.  You get the picture?
Gotta say, on first acquaintance I found Wonderland’s Texan drawl more than a little distracting.  But on subsequent spins it became clear that she’s got power to burn, and also plenty of emotion and control in those pipes, whether getting mischievous on the chugging fun of ‘Texas Girl And Her Boots’, with its twirling, steely-toned solo, or starting off laid back on the swinging, piano-led blues of ‘Fortunate Few’ before upping the ante on the chorus.  Hell, she even manages to make like a female Johnny Cash on her slowed down reading of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’, which clacks along patiently while she her fluid guitar plays around with the melody.
There’s a zydeco vibe to Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Honey Bee’, which she takes for a romantic turn around the dance floor before giving it a lift with her guitar solo then yielding to Flemming’s accordion.  And ‘On My Feet Again’ is a slice of swing featuring rinky-dink piano from Red Young, to which Wonderland bends her voice in suitably bright and upbeat fashion.  I could do without her whistling solo though.
But if what you’re after is something of a more classic rock tenor, then Wonderland has the last word with an epic rendition of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Loser’.  The first-person tale of a delusional, down-at-heel gambler, it rises from a subdued opening with spangly guitar, through spells of impressively controlled dynamics, to a howling guitar solo, with producer Dave Alvin supplying additional lead guitar – and another blast of full-throated singing from Wonderland.
Like I said, if all you’re after is meat and potatoes guitar-comes-first blues, look elsewhere.  But if you favour a more varied roots music diet, Tempting Fate offers a satisfying menu of different flavours, from Texas blues to gutsy country music, Americana and beyond, with impressive vocals from Carolyn Wonderland to add to her fingerpickin' guitar repertoire.

Tempting Fate is released by Alligator Records on 8 October 2021.