Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Kenneth Brian Band - Keys To The Kingdom

Sometimes the most interesting things are the ones you’re not even sure you like.  Maybe 15 years ago someone sent me a download of the first album by White Denim, and as the bizarrely-titled opening track ‘Radio Milk How Can You Stand It’ clattered into action I found myself thinking “What the hell is this?  Punk-jazz?  Jazz-punk?  Some kind of wacko Devo tribute?”
Now, this offering by Kenneth Brian Band isn’t as flummoxing as that, not by a long way.  But Keys To The Kingdom is still a puzzler.  Some songs start out strong then drift.  Others do the opposite, meandering into motion before something generates traction.
Kenneth Brian tries to remember a chord shape
Pic by Tamarind Free Jones
Take ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ itself, for example.  The opening song is bracketed, front and back, by an appealing, fuzzily bright, FX-treated riff.  In between though, the vibe cools off abruptly for the verse, then works through some Lizzy-like blocked out chords propelling the pre-chorus, leading into a pretty prosaic refrain, and then a lively but nothing-special guitar solo.  See what I mean?  This is curate’s egg territory.
Or take the slowie ‘Crazy’ – and there are several slowies among the ten tracks.  Brian’s vocal actually seems to wander off key here and there on a melody that’s intriguing for a spell and then, when it shifts direction, not so much.  But at the same time Brian’s sparse guitar fills, like gently falling leaves, work very nicely.  And when they lift matters into a piercing but lyrical slide solo I’m tempted to make comparisons with the rock of Drive-By Truckers.
And so it goes, much of the time.  The sitar-like guitar intro of ‘War’ is interesting, and the prelude to a satisfyingly jangling, revolving guitar riff.  But then the vocal, about “war” on the personal relationship front, is pretty nondescript, even if the tempo picks up on the chorus and the drums add some extra oomph when the slide guitar solo breaks out. ‘She Is The Night’ is more uptempo, and with its drawled vocal at first sounds like ersatz Tom Petty.  But with the addition of some spooky swirls of keys by bassist Brandon Owens, it gradually develops more coherence and confidence, culminating in a passage of brooding bass over Chris Cano’s snapping drums, with some choppy guitar chords and more synth for extra seasoning.
The slowish ‘California’ also has a mild flavour of Tom Petty – Brian was raised in Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, and Mike Campbell assisted on the “pre-production” of some songs – but the shivering, effects-tinted guitar over a funereal beat is more interesting than the lyric, which attempts to attach a persona to California but doesn’t really convince.
However Brian’s guitar work often elevates proceedings, whether with the low-slung, twangy guitar figure and nagging, ringing guitar refrain (á la early Edge, perhaps) of ‘Falling Again’, or the on-point soloing that makes the measured, reflective slow blues of ‘Hard Heart’ one of the best things here.  The Americana-esque ‘Love’ also features tasteful sprinkles of guitar early on, and a brief but lyrical solo, but I can’t decide if its melody is simple and beguiling, or just plain simplistic.
‘Rimrock’ is a convincing closing track though, with a twirling guitar line for openers, steady bass and twitching drums creating some tension that piques the curiosity, and then a strong, edgy, razor-like solo, before its winds itself up into some big grinding chords and crashes of cymbal and then subsides to a halt.
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?” sang Bob Dylan.  I’m kinda with Mr Jones when it comes to this album.  Has Kenneth Brian channelled his influences into his own distinctive sound?  Or does he need someone to turn the dial and give him a clearer focus?  I’ve listened to Keys To The Kingdom several times now, and I’m still not sure.  But I’m still interested.
Keys To The Kingdom is out now on Southern Shift Records, and available here.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Gimme 5 - Dan Patlansky spills the beans

Gimme 5 is a new Blues Enthused feature in which guests name five songs that interest them, five key influences on their work, and five people they’d like to get together with.  The first Gimme 5 contributor is South African guitarist and singer Dan Patlansky, who recently released Shelter Of Bones, his first album in four years.  As the Blues Enthused review of the album put it, "He can do blues-rock guitar-wrangling.  No problemo.  But there's more to Dan Patlansky than that."  

Dan Patlansky tunes up for lunch with five guitar legends
Pic by Johan Coetsee

Dan kicks off his latest British tour on Thursday, 31 March in Southampton.


Gimme 5 songs, old or new, that have been on your radar recently.  [Check out the links to hear all Dan’s selections.]


Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan: I know this might seem like an obvious choice but I’ve recently rediscovered this song and performance, and it rekindled my love for the Blues and what it means.  'Texas Flood' is the title track of the debut album by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, released in 1983.


Maydell by John Mayall: “I’ve also recently rediscovered this song. It’s one of the best examples of where a blues track can be taken.   'Maydell' is taken from John Mayall's 1993 album Wake Up Call, featuring Coco Montoya on guitar.


Morning by Beck: “This blew my hair back when I first heard it. The production is breath-taking.

Insurgentes by Steven Wilson: “I only heard this song fairly recently. I absolutely love the song and feeling it gives me when I listen to it.”  'Insurgentes' is the title track of Steven Wilson's first solo album, released in 2008.

Shine A Little Light by The Black Keys: “This one of the best-feeling tunes I’ve heard in years.”  'Shine A Little Light' is the opening on track on the 2019 album from The Black Keys, 'Let's Rock', reviewed here.


Dan was evidently so excited by the exercise that he didn't just pick five songs, he shared a sixth, from the ubiquitous Joe Bonamassa.


Mind’s Eye by Joe Bonamassa: This is the most recent single from Joe Bonamassa’s latest

Stevie Ray Vaughan - the biggest influence of all
album, Time Clocks. It sounds like an epic modern-day blues track mixed with the soul of Pink Floyd. Timeless.

Gimme 5 artists or bands who have had a big influence on your work.


Pink Floyd: Their album covers always intrigued me growing up. I felt I had to know what their music sounded like, and if the music would match the artwork.


Stevie Ray Vaughan: Like most artists I like, I discovered him through my parents’ extensive music collection. SRV still remains my biggest musical influence. 


Led Zeppelin: “Again, discovered through my parents’ music collection. Still one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever heard.


Jimi Hendrix: As a kid I would pretend to play guitar on an old tennis racket while my father played ‘Purple HazeJimi had a massive impact on my playing.


Jimmy Page chuffed with Dan's lunch invite
Audio Slave: “In my eyes they’re the best 'modern' rock and roll band. The power in the riffs is
second to none, plus Chris Cornell remains my favourite rock vocalist.

Gimme 5 living people you’d love to invite to a long lunch musicians, actors, writers,  movie directors, sports people, or whoever!


Given the chance to pick lunch guests from all walks of life, Dan goes for a regular guitarists' convention.  It might get loud!

Joe Bonamassa: He is, without a doubt, the frontrunner in the blues world today. We owe him a lot for elevating the blues. And his guitar collection is second to none!”


Steven Wilson: A musical genius with a very fresh and interesting view on music. 


David Gilmour: “This choice speaks for itself.


Eric Gales: “Eric is possibly the greatest player alive today, and a guy I’ve been a fan of since the early 90s.


Jimmy Page: “Jimmy Page is the man behind so many of my favourite songs - and I’m sure he can share a tale or two as well!”



Finally, just one track – Pick just one of your own songs that you’d share with a new listener to introduce them to your music.


“I’d go for my latest single ‘Bad Soul’, taken from my album Shelter Of Bones.  It’s all about how some people are just born bad ass, without having to try or be influenced in any way.”

Dan Patlansky’s UK tour with special guest Arielle runs from March 31st to April 12th.

Tickets available from here.

If you want to play all of Dan's selected tracks at once, then check out the playlist on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Larry McCray - Blues Without You

It doesn’t take long to establish that Larry McCray is a real McCoy bluesman.  ‘Arkansas’, the opening track on his new album Blues Without You, kicks off with a Bo Diddley beat, over which Reese Wynans’ organ swells and horns add punctuation, until one of those horn notes becomes the springboard for McCray to jump off into an attention grabbing, fleet-fingered first guitar break.  And when he starts to sing, in a weighty, BB King-like voice, you know this guy has all the tools.  All the same, it’s nice to also soak up the track’s atmospheric lyric about his home state, enjoyable horn arrangement, and intriguing bass figure, before he delivers a solo that shows off the remarkable precision of his playing, even when performing some remarkable handbrake turns.
It’s clear from that first track that McCray needs no assistance on the guitar front, but it has to be
Larry McCray is the real McCoy
Pic by Arnie Goodman
said that the guesting Warren Haynes justifies his presence on ‘Down To The Bottom’.  The song starts with just McCray singing over simple acoustic guitar, then augmented by subtle strings, until drums and bass ease in.  McCray’s vocal is heartfelt, and backed up by soaring female harmonies alongside the strings.  And if all that’s good, when Haynes weighs in on slide guitar things take a real Derek & The Dominoes turn, and become pretty darned wonderful.
The other guest turns, by Joanna Connor and co-producer Joe Bonamassa, struggle to make the same impact.  The chugging barroom boogie of ‘Drinkin’ Liquor And Chasin’ Women’, with lots of trilling piano from Wynans, is certainly fun, with McCray inhabiting the vocal brilliantly and delivering a sizzling solo.  But when Connor’s slide guitar enters the fray for a duelling finish there isn’t really enough difference in tone to up the ante.  Much the same is true on the languid funk of ‘Mr Easy’, with its ear-catching smoky bass line.  A couple of minutes in, McCray invites JoBo to “play me some blues”, which he does in quivering style, but does it really offer anything that McCray couldn’t do himself?
The elegiac slow blues of ‘Blues With You (For Paul)’ though, provides a perfect setting for McCray to exhibit his talent.  Here Bonamassa and his production buddy deploy an interesting horn segment for variety, and also sweeping, romantic strings as a restrained counterpoint to McCray’s flickering then fiery guitar, while he also delivers his finest vocal of the album.  ‘Don’t Put Your Dreams To Bed’ is similarly well assembled, an uplifting affair with good piano and organ textures and more strong backing vocals, which peak with a neat “doo doo doo” refrain that brackets another sparkling McCray solo.
Some songs are overlong, notably the otherwise enjoyable ‘Breaking News’, on which smoochy sax and lush strings set up a brisk, darkly soulful vibe for a commentary on the stress of never-ending negative news cycles.  It’s a catchy tune, but needs a twist of something different to justify its six and a half minutes.  No such problems with the closing ‘I Play The Blues’ though, on which McCray sets out his credo with just his voice and acoustic guitar – and emotional conviction.
With a few tweaks, Blues Without You could have been an outstanding album.  As it is, it’s a very impressive return from Larry McCray after a recording absence of nearly seven years. Consider this.  Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram gets lots of plaudits as a new generation of blues star, and good luck to him.  But I’d say that anything Kingfish can do, Larry McCray can do - and if not better, then with more maturity and life experience.  And that makes a difference.
Blues Without You is released by KTBA Records on 25 March, and can be ordered here. 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Albert Castiglia - I Got Love

“Well, that’s just plain nasty!”
This, I gotta tell you, was my spontaneous reaction to the intro that heralds ‘I Got Love’, the title track of Albert Castiglia’s new album.  Get a load of that 
gnarled, gristly riff, that caveman beat, and the serrated-edge squall of lead guitar licks.  And then all that’s followed up by a Stones-on-steroids chorus and an explosive solo. So when our Albert sings that “I got love, I got enough’, he ain’t taking a sentimental journey.  He’s making a fist-pumping declaration that whatever he might have lost during the Covid pandemic, he's still got the one thing he needs to bounce back.
Albert Castiglia looking plain nasty
In essence, this opener serves notice that I Got Love is Castiglia’s response to all the vicissitudes and adaptations brought on by the pandemic.  Albert has had it right up to the freakin’ gills, and the world’s gonna know.  So if you don’t wanna listen, then just take your ass and park it someplace else.
His tirade reaches a crescendo with the ferocious closing trio of songs: ‘Freedomland’, ‘You Don’t Know Hell’, and ‘Take My Name’.  Not for nothing does the grimy, strutting riff of ‘Freedomland’ throw a distinct nod in the direction of Cream’s ‘Politician’, as Castiglia berates “the ones who pull the strings and have the scams”, while ordinary joes are left to scuffle to get by in Freedomland.  Layers of guitar positively brawl for space at times, and his solo comes swathed in a suitably warped guitar tone.  ‘You Don’t Know Hell’ has a lurching, mid-tempo swagger, with Lewis Stephens’ organ trying to elbow its way into the aural turmoil.  Meanwhile Castiglia’s fierce guitar solo adds its own voluble protest to that of the lyric, that some people don’t know what hard times really look like.  And the closing ‘Take My Name’ is a slow, grinding blues on which Castiglia’s slide guitar sometimes sounds like he’s angrily taking a hacksaw to a sheet of metal, as he scowls a warning that “Before you talk about me, take my name out your goddamn mouth”.  There’s a classic blues turnaround in there, and a lower-pitched slide solo juxtaposed with tinkling piano from Stephens – plenty to enjoy, in other words, if you don’t mind Albert getting in your face.
I’ve mentioned the Stones and Cream along the way, but the great thing about Albert Castiglia is that whatever comparisons one might draw, in the end he always sounds like his own good self.  So while ‘Don’t Pray With The Devil’ may have a rhythmic drive vaguely reminiscent of Hendrix, the overall sound - with bobbling bass from Justine Tompkins underpinning some screeching guitar, and a vocal that’s snarled rather than drawled – is trademark Castiglia.  And while ‘Long Haulin’ Daddy’ may be an old-fashioned shuffle, it has a stomping energy, and Castiglia’s scudding slide guitar makes like a harp on the intro.  He may be singing about being “sicker than a dying dog”, but this is sheer fun, with barroom piano from Stephens, and barroom backing vocals for that matter, to add to some razor-slashing slide soloing.  
Ain’t no ballads on this outing, so the melodic and laid-back ‘Sanctuary’ is as chilled as things get, romantically acknowledging the refuge that his partner offers “from life’s wicked storm”, reinforced by a fluid, trilling solo.  And there’s a lazier tempo too for ‘What’s Wrong With You’, an “if I ain’t good enough for you then there’s the door” blues with elasticated bass from Tompkins and offbeat drums from Ephraim Lowell laying down woozily danceable groove – well, until Castiglia lets loose with some frenzied, scrabbling guitar.  And why not?
With more goodies along the way, I Got Love maintains the momentum from start to finish. It may not have the light and shade that made 2019’s Masterpiece such a killer album, but in the end it not only nails Castiglia’s “mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” Covid experience, it translates it into wickedly ragged glory.

I Got Love is released by Gulf Coast Records on 25 March.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Sugaray Rayford - In Too Deep

Okay, sit back and relax.  Imagine it’s the late Sixties, and you’re in Memphis – Stax studios in fact.  Isaac Hayes and David Porter have come up with a song – this is before Isaac gets all Black Messiah, mind – and Booker T & The MGs are working up an arrangement for it on the fly.  Or maybe you’re in Royal Studios a couple of years later, with Don Bryant and Ann Peebles trying to sort a new tune, while the Hi Rhythm Section stand by, ready and waiting.  Or maybe it’s not Memphis, maybe it’s Philly, and you’re sitting in while Gamble and Huff are putting together a soulful statement about black pride for The O’Jays – but going easy on the strings.
Sugaray Rayford - the man knows how to get down!
Pic by Robert Hansenne

Can you feel the vibe?  Good.  Don't get too comfortable though, because now you’re ready to enjoy the kind of Southern soul, R’n’B sound served up by Sugaray Rayford on his latest album In Too Deep.
The opening ‘Invisible Soldier’ sets the tone, with its stop-start funky groove, tripping drums, bright horn interjections – and most of all the towering, molasses-rich tones of Sugaray himself.  Maybe it’s a tad energetic for a meditation on inner conflict and the elusiveness of dreams, but the tense bridge with its ghostly backing vocals helps to make the point.  This is the kind of strong soul musical mood that’s carried right through to the closing ‘United We Stand’, with its ‘Love Train’ kinda party-in-solidarity thing, on which Sugaray declares it’s “Time to get on the dance floor” to its foot-shuffling groove.  The cackling encouragement he offers as it draws to a close captures the joie de vivre of a guy who in his live shows – believe me – knows how to get down.
In between, ‘No Limit To My Love’ is a smouldering soul affair with a stuttering bass line from Taras Prodaniuk and twinkling guitar fills from Eamon Ryland, with some swoonsome chord changes contributing to a delicious pre-chorus.  ‘Under The Crescent Moon’ is a strolling, bouncing paean to the second-line funk of New Orleans, with warmly grooving electric piano and a catchy chorus, spiced up by great little bursts of horns and flute.
‘Please Take My Hand’ walks a different path, with a field song vibe based on moaning backing vocals and handclaps.  It’s a simple tune, but weighted with meaning – a magnetic summing up of the Black American experience in just three minutes, that still hangs on to hope, with a committed, heartfelt vocal from Sugaray.  It is, in its singular style, the best thing here.  ‘One’ is a more conventionally soulful hymn to togetherness, mixing the personal and political.  But it still works, with pricklings of strings creating atmosphere under another affecting Rayford vocal.
Is ’Gonna Lift You Up’ genuinely danceable?  Maybe if you can rustle up a St Vitus Dance twitch to go with the busy bass line and Matt Tecu’s shuffling drums, never mind the abrupt horn injections.  Whatever, it’s an upbeat, good-time tune, with a pin-pricking guitar solo from Rick Holmstrom and a honking sax break from Aaron Liddard.
There are other treats you can uncover for yourself - and if you like song-led Southern soul stylings, with a seriously big singer who’s worthy of that tradition, then you really should make the effort.  Maybe In Too Deep doesn’t have all the modern snap, crackle and pop that made its 2019 predecessor Somebody Save Me a real standout, but Sugaray Rayford and his songwriter/producer buddy Eric Corne still deserve a high five for delivering the goods.
In Too Deep
 is out now on Forty Below Records.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Adam Norsworthy - Infinite Hotel

Eclectic.  Smorgasbord.  Singular.  Elusive.  These are some of the words that spring to mind listening to Infinite Hotel.
Sophisticated pop-rock is how I might describe this solo outing from Adam Norsworthy, sometime main man with The Mustangs and guitarist with The Milk Men.  But that’s just an umbrella term for this selection box of material.
‘Bridges To The Moon’ launches proceedings with a solid beat, courtesy of drummer and producer Wayne Proctor, as the platform for a brace of catchy, fuzzy riffs, augmented by some Sputnik-bleeping keys.  There are injections of Stonesy “woo-hoo” vocals for extra seasoning,
Adam Norsworthy raises a cain
and a neat slaloming slide break too.  All of which is, for me, appealingly reminiscent of Del Amitri’s ‘Always The Last To Know’.  But is all the material on Infinite Hotel in this vein?  It is not.
The following ‘Now I’ve Got Your Love’, combines another sturdy drum groove with a two-finger-typing synthy riff and some chiming, choppy rhythm guitar in catchy fashion.  Add in a tense vocal and mellow keys, and the end result is disarmingly akin to a slice of 80s pop by – the Thompson Twins?  And if that doesn’t do it for you, don’t worry, because there’ll be something different along in a minute.
For example, my favourite track is ‘Rise With You’.  Here the dreamy acoustic vibe, supplemented by long organ chords, is sporadically interrupted by booming drum fills, until the guesting Oli Brown takes off on a controlled, Gilmour-esque solo that gives the song an epic, standout quality.  Meanwhile ‘In Time I Will Forget You’ is on one level an Aynsley Lister-like bluesy ballad, but on another, as Norsworthy semi-croons his vocal, it reaches for a more other-worldly vibe.  But I’m left thinking that if his singing had a more sonorous, Bowie-ish quality, the song could be much more striking.  This is not a fly-by-night perception.  Norsworthy has a perfectly tuneful voice, but it’s also light and at times even rather winsome, and though the production spices it up here and there with double-tracking or distortion, I could wish for more punch and resonance throughout.
The musicianship is impressive throughout though, as you’d expect with the likes of Proctor on drums, Bennett Holland on keys plus Rich Young on piano, and Brown performing bass duties in addition to a couple of lead guitar turns.  They produce some tastefully textured arrangements together, especially on ‘Turn Your Love Around’, with its Santana-toned guitar, and ‘Lost In The Cinema’ with its descending ripple of piano and dinky bass line.  Meanwhile ‘Jericho’ is another highlight, with its rootsy pop vibe – think Hothouse Flowers, maybe – and ‘You’re My Song’ bounces along in cheerfully snappy fashion.
There are a couple of folk-influenced tunes that aren’t really my cup of meat, but this is a question of taste, not quality.  And in fact that’s the story of Infinite Hotel for me: lots of admirably well-constructed, melodic songs, stylishly delivered – but in need of more intense flavours to really satisfy my rustic palate.
Infinite Hotel is out now, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Quickies - The 2:19, True Strays, and Micki Free

The 2:19 – Revelator
Fire and brimstone.  Damnation.  Apocalypse.  The 2:19 are fond of lyrics that explore the dark side.  Musically they can’t quite muster the same infernal edge, one or two tracks apart.  But the Belfast band know their way around a stack of blues formulations all the same, and across this all-original collection they swing and strut their way through them in handy fashion.  No flash, but good solid fare.
The 2:19 - on hot rails to hell!
They’re happy to show their influences at times, as on ‘All Kinds Of Evil’, on which Howlin’ Wolf looms over their collective shoulders as they twang along to a funereal beat, with appealing piano remarks along the way and squawking harp interweaving with slide guitar.   Singer Chris Chalmers can’t match the heft of the Wolf – and not many can – but he still has a rich and resonant voice, and good phrasing.  And while ‘Bad Blood’ may be a weary tale, its melody is essentially a downbeat take on Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’.  No shame in that mind, since Walter’s hit was basically a reworking by Willie Dixon of the gospel standard ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’.
More upbeat moments include ‘Dancer’, with its rolling melody set to a Bo Diddley beat, and some big raunchy chords adding punctuation before they slip into a quicker rhythm, embellished by some gutsy harp and a rippling piano solo.  ‘Diamond In The Dust’ has a jagged riff and a stabbing beat, as the groundwork for flurries of harp, a whirl of lead guitar, and some on the money boogie-woogie piano. And there’s some Johnny Cash-like storytelling on ‘Lee Shelton’, throatily delivered by Chalmers, with some good interplay between harp and piano, finished up by a tough wah-wah guitar break.
Aside from 'Revelator' itself, they get closest to that ink-black lyrical mood on some of the later tracks.  ‘Black Dog Moan’ starts off spooky, with prickling Resonator guitar, and retains a Robert Johnson-like quality even as it develops into a grinding, shave-and-a-haircut rhythm, augmented by swirling organ and a slithering slide solo.  ‘Abandon Hope’ may trip along neatly, but the eerie, bendy guitar twanging and wailing harp do suggest a sense of despair.  It’s the closing ‘Old Days Comin’ Back’, though, where they finally embody the lyrical darkness, with scraping guitar notes, subdued plonks of bass, and reverb wrapped around Chalmers’ vocal.  For once they resist the temptation to rev things up, and instead make good use of a spoken bridge straight out of Revelations, delivered in a menacing Celtic brogue, before a ghostly finish.
Getting right down to it, I reckon The 2:19 are your typical good-time blues band, well capable of entertaining a crowd.  But they show a spirit of adventure too, and even if they don’t always manage to stretch far beyond their comfort zone on Revelator, good luck to ‘em for trying.

Revelator is available now.
True Strays – Heart Of The Matter
Bristolian duo True Strays, comprising Josh James and James Cameron, have apparently garnered a reputation in Americana circles in recent years.  And on ‘Campesina’, the catchy opening track on Heart Of The Matter, there are some cod-American sounding vocals going on.  But don’t be misled.  Most of the time True Strays sound as English as fish and chips.
Yeah, there’s maybe a smidgin of country in their sound.  But there are also pinches of blues, and a big dollop of indie-folk.  And they like to rock a bit too.  It’s roots music that defies easy labels, and it’s pretty engaging.
It’s all about servicing the songs, really.  ‘God Damn My Soul’ starts out relatively cool, but then ringing chords herald a big chorus, with chant-along vocals that are really a precursor for an even more anthemic bridge, underpinned by walloping drums.  Oh yeah, and when they want some extra oomph they unleash surges of organ..  ‘Salt Dog (Howling For You)’ has another big chorus, but it opens with an intriguing, world music-style bass and drums combination, and is carried along on a wiry guitar refrain in a similar vein.  ‘War Cry’ similarly foregrounds the bass line, with backing vocals humming a wordless theme, before they wind up the tempo with bongos, boost the chanted chorus with organ again, and then throw the kitchen sink into the ending.
‘This Is An Emergency’ eases in with mournful guitar lines over restrained, rolling drums, an ear-catching tune that balances tension and urgency in intriguing fashion, with less boisterously layered harmonies.  ‘Golden Age’ offers some social commentary, with some tortured slide guitar and howling harp conveying the anger.
‘Rosalea’ is an indie-folk ballad with percussive harmonised vocals and a mournful vibe that’s disturbed by more of that wiry guitar before they build an epic, cymbal-crashing crescendo.  The penultimate track ‘In Your Hands’ has another appealing chorus, but not much more until some discordant sax and slivers of guitar start worrying away over metronomic bass towards the end.
Micki Free dresses down for the day
Pic by Marie Gregorio-Oviedo
The brief title track rounds off the album nicely though, its running water, acoustic guitar and flute evoking Zeppelin in folkie mode – but without the Jimmy Page guitar workout.
There’s a lot to like in Heart Of The Matter.  True Strays write some good songs, and produce some refreshing arrangements.  At times I’m reminded of Curse of Lono, and Fleet Foxes, and even without the depth of the former, or the ethereal quality of the latter, those are good benchmarks.  But then at times their liking for those belted out layered vocals puts me in mind of Mumford & Sons – and while that might appeal to a horde of people, I assuredly am not one of them.

Heart Of The Matter is released on 18 March, and can be ordered here.
Micki Free – Turquoise Blue
When Micki Free and his pals start to crank out ‘Bye 2020’, a middle finger salute to a frustrating year, I am – ironically – in one of my happy places.  Stand well back, because here comes a big, grinding slab of a riff rolling down the highway!  There’s a snarky sounding pre-chorus thing redolent of ‘School’s Out’, a fist-pumping chorus, a rockin’ guitar solo, and a “hey-hey-ing” bridge.  What’s not to like about a 70s-like garage rock stomp like that?
This is not typical of what follows on Turquoise Blue however.  Oh, Micki Free can write a big earth-moving riff alright, and there are a few to choose from.  But that sense of release evident on ‘Bye 2020’ is mostly absent from the rest of the album.
What you do hear though, are the influences of Hendrix and Santana.  The latter is avowedly at the heart of ‘World On Fire’ for example, which features Cindy Blackmon-Santana on drums as well as Santana vocalist Andy Vargas, while Free does his best Carlos tribute on guitar.  And ‘Spring Fever’ is similarly Latin in intent, with a ‘She’s Not There’ vibe and airy vocal to match the title.
On the Hendrix front, meanwhile the heavy, bendy rhythm guitar riff of ‘Heavy Mercy’ is clearly drawn from Jimi, as is the fluting, distorted guitar soloing, which builds impressively to an air raid siren two-tone.  Oh yeah, and there’s a straight-up Hendrix-style rendition of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ too, which is – well, pretty redundant really.
‘Judicator Blues’ jogs along in an easy mid-tempo, with hints of funk and a nicely dry lyric, while Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram pops up to deliver an enjoyable solo.  But the bump’n’grind of ‘Come Home Big Mama’ is better, largely because the vocal contribution of Trish Bowden brings a more soulful feel into play.
‘My Big Regret’ demonstrates a lighter touch, with a ‘Rain Song’-like chord sequence and a tasteful “nylon guitar solo” by Steve Stevens, guitarist to Billy Idol.  And ‘Blue Memories’, with its acoustic strumming, is similarly mellow and summery.
But yeah, the riffs, right?  ‘Invitation Love’ sound menacing rather than romantic, with its big dirty chords chugging away, and scrabbling wah-wah guitar solo.  ‘Woman’ twists and turns, and is really all about the funky riffing and the solos, the first of which comes from Gary Clark Jr.  And ‘Heaven Or Heroin’ is a rumbling thing with screeching lead licks, however calm Free’s vocal may be.
Listening to this album it’s hard to credit that Micki Free spent nine years of his career with the soul group Shalamar.  No call for lead-heavy guitar work in that environment.  But if Turquoise Blue is big – and I mean really big – on riffs, then the songs are less impactful.  Except ‘Bye 2020’, of course.  More of that kind of thing, Micki!
Turquoise Blue is out now on Dark Idol Music.