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.

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