Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Ian Siegal - Stone By Stone

A maverick.  A troubadour.  A curator.  A provocateur.  Ian Siegal is all of these things and more.  While he’s ostensibly a blues artist – and he’d probably refute that label – every album he delivers is capable of stirring the pot and producing new twists on classic recipes.  So what’s he up to this time?
Well, Stone By Stone has a stripped back vibe similar to his Picnic Sessions album, but with some new prime accomplices in the form of Robin Davey and Greta Valenti.  It’s also like two mini-albums folded together – a batch of downbeat, man-and-guitar focused material on the one
Ian Siegal - never blows smoke up your ass
Pic by Rob Blackham
hand, and a clutch of brighter, more percussive tracks on the other.
The album opens in the latter mode, with the clapping, clanking, clunking gospel-derived ‘Working On A Building’, with elasticated bass from Davey contributing to a juke joint rhythm while Siegal is joined at the mic by Jimmie Wood and JJ Holiday, who respectively add harp and guitar to the mix – in Holiday’s case including a delightfully scratchy solo.  It runs to six minutes, and is worth every second.  The gospel thread then continues with the Sam Cooke-meets-civil-rights-anthem soul of ‘Hand In Hand’, a chirpily positive affair on which Siegal duets with Shemekia Copeland, the latter on top form and sounding particularly carefree.  It edges towards New Orleans along the way, with Davey making his slide guitar sound like toots of trumpet around some gorgeous harmonizing from Siegal and Copeland.
This upbeat side peaks with ‘I’m The Shit’, a co-write by Siegal and frequent conspirator Jimbo Mathus that comes over like the theme for some gleefully lurid David Lynch movie.  It’s witty both musically and verbally, swings like a trapeze, and has a killer chorus that’ll drill its way into your brain for the day.  And between them Siegal and Davey get clever on guitar, to make like fiddle and mandolin adding some twirling accents towards the end.  There’s more fun too with ‘Monday Saw’, returning to the gospel feel with handclaps, footstomps, tambourine shakes and little else as backing for Siegal’s voice, as he tosses out shaken’n’stirred biblical images about “Mary Magdalen wearing a little cocktail dress”, and “The devil with five aces, smiling on both faces”.
Meantime the album’s more reflective aspect begins with ‘The Fear’, a slice of acoustic Americana redolent of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings.  “The last time you were wasted brother, did you even taste it going down,” asks Siegal in a low-pitched vocal, receiving complementary toots of harp from Jimmie Wood, before progressing into an exhortation to “let love be the guiding light”.  ‘Psycho’ is a macabre tale of brooding violence dating back to the 60s, given a suitably claustrophobic treatment that combines faint guitar strumming, plonking bass, and Siegal’s magnetic, close-up crooning.  And ‘KK’s Blues’ is a collaboration with Mathus that sets the sad tale of a girl who won’t dance to country anymore to a sweet, irresistible melody and a lilting acoustic guitar motif.
For me the balance of the album leans a tad too far in the direction of this sombre side, but there’s still no arguing with the quality of songs like ‘Gathering Deep’, an elegiac ballad featuring Mathus supplying mandolin and vocal harmonies, or the rolling, two-guitar-weaving ‘This Heart’, with echoes of Springsteen á la Nebraska.  And ‘Onwards And Upwards’ is a worthy curtain call, just Siegal and his guitar in Townes Van Zandt mode.  Along the way though, ‘Holler’ injects more rhythm and grit into the minimalism – a pure country blues with acoustic guitar that’s both glittering and percussive, while Siegal’s voice well and truly lives up to the title.
Ian Siegal is a character, who can come over like a doesn’t-give-a-shit contrarian.  But his albums never go through the motions.  Stone By Stone is another outing that’s full of freshness and depth.  This is roots music for grown-ups.
Stone By Stone is out now on Grow Vision Records, and can be ordered here.

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