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.

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