Monday, April 18, 2022

Black Pearl - Black Pearl

If two out of three ain’t bad, then three out of four must be pretty good, right?  Which I reckon is a pretty fair assessment of Black Pearl.  This new collaboration between singer and guitarist Marcus Malone, ex-Wishbone Ash guitarist Muddy Manninen, and songwriter/blues deejay/promoter Pete Feenstra scores on several fronts, namely Malone’s soulful vocals, Manninen’s arrangements and guitar, and Feenstra’s often intriguing lyrics.  What it could do
Marcus Malone rockin' the soul
with though, is stronger melodies on several songs.
When they get it right, as on the opening ‘Angel Town’ for example, and the recent single ‘Price
On Love’
, this is pretty tasty, sophisticated fare.  ‘Angel Town’ features weeping slide guitar from Manninen in the intro and beneath the chorus, while Malone does justice to an atmospheric tale of life in LA. It’s set to a steady tempo, and harmonised backing vocals build a semi-epic feel in readiness for Manninen’s sweeping solo.  Meanwhile ‘Price On Love’ is a dreamy reverie on love – as in you can’t put a price on it – that comes over like Hall & Oates, or maybe Toto having a stab at laid back funkiness.  Feenstra comes up with some decent lines, about being “one push short of a shove” and “dancing like a Roman candle”, and the chorus is sneakily earworm-like.
‘Cheap Perfume’ has a brighter tone, and sweeter slide fills, producing an AOR vibe that’s more tasteful than the lyrics about a less than elegant night on the town.  Malone is on the money vocally again – the soul dimension of the material is meat and drink to him – and Manninen comes up trumps with a twinkling, almost banjo-esque solo.  A cavalcade of intertwining guitar parts, variously rolling, stuttering and sparkling, create admirable depth on ‘Natural Light’ to go with robust drumming, matched by a satisfying melody that includes a decent hook.  And the rockier, funkier, quirkier ‘Luxury Girl’ conjures up a catchy arrangement,with a snappier rhythm section and some Morse Code guitar backing, even if the tune and lyrics are less ear-catching.
Smooth grooves and easy-going funkiness are the order of the day on a few other tracks where
Muddy Manninen contemplating guitar grooves
the melody could be stronger, like the drifting, loping ‘Delivery Man’, the dreamy ‘Handmade Pearl’ (adorned by more appealing slide commentary from Manninen), and the deeper groove of ‘She Knows Every Move’, with its cinematic lyric set to a slightly discordant melody enhanced by clinks and clanks of percussion and spells of eerie keys.
They get good with a couple of Latin-tinged outings.  The funky strut of ‘Mexican Romance’ leans towards the Eagles in rock mode, then benefits from a Latin touch to its chorus, before some jazzy twists and turns in the bridge lead the way into a swinging guitar solo.  And on the closing ‘With My Baby By My Side’ hints of Hispanic grow into the middle eight and then the twitching, funky solo, before a good, more purposefully Latin-rhythmed outro.  The slightly off-kilter melody is maybe meant to bring a surreal haze to the lyric about some born-to-run couple, and even if it doesn’t quite cut it, there’s still a convincing vibe – a true romance duo in their roof-down rag-top car, rolling down some Southern highway with the breeze in their hair.
Black Pearl feels like a bit of a throwback to the 70s and 80s at times, and if the past is another country then this album’s locale would be a California where Steely Dan are working on studio tans, and hot shot musos get together on sophisticated AOR grooves.  Sure, it could do with handful of livelier melodies and hooks, but there are always other ingredients in the mix to spice up this sunny, funky, literate platter.

Black Pearl is released by Redline Records, via Cadiz, on 22 April, and can be ordered here.

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