Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Aynsley Lister - Along For The Ride

I’ve got a lot of time for Aynsley Lister.  He’s a really talented guy.  But . . . well, we’ll get to that later.
When you hear tracks like ‘Eve Part I’ and its counterpart ‘Eve Part II: Love You To Death’, as well as ‘World Is Falling’ and ‘Made Up My Mind’, plus ‘No One Else But You’ and ‘Masquerade’, it’s clear the man has some handy tools in his bag as a songwriter, singer and guitarist.  These songs are stylistically diverse, but they all carry a kitemark of quality.
Aynsley Lister gets all moody and atmospheric
Pic by Alexandre Coesnon
The ‘Eve’ pairing, inspired by the TV thriller Killing Eve, exemplify a cinematic vibe that Lister has explored with success in the past, notably with ‘Il Grande Mafioso’ from his last album Eyes Wide Open.   “Part I’ conjures up a moody, mysterious atmosphere, with a high-pitched vocal from Lister over isolated piano chords, sparse guitar, ticking drums and bendy pulses of bass.  The lyrics produce a character sketch in smart and economical fashion, and Lister adds an elegant, thematic solo, which after a pause he elevates to ramp up the sense of drama.  And ‘Part II’ gradually turns the mood from merely sinister to threatening, with tough, ominous chords, bigger bass and drums, more urgency, and ultimately a blazing solo to close the album.
In contrast to these brooding, epic affairs, ‘World Is Falling’ is a brisk, staccato injection of energy into the middle of the album, with crunching chords and surges of organ the accompaniment for an oblique reflection on pandemic confusion, topped off with a gutsy, edgy solo.  ‘Made Up My Mind’ rocks too, but with a sidestep into funkier territory.   Hendrix-toned chords are played off against a kinetic, twitching rhythm from drummer Russ Parker in a manner redolent of Jimi’s ‘Fire’.  It’s tough and snappy, with a good hook, a weighty tug of war bridge beefed up by swirling organ, and some driving, wiry guitar soloing to which producer Scott McKeon makes a contribution.  At which point it’s worth noting that McKeon and Parker, plus Gavin Conder who adds backing vocals here, have previously combined in the band Rufus Black.
Contrastingly, ‘No One Else But You’ is a minimalist slow blues delivered with warmth and personality, demonstrating how simplicity can work.  ‘Masquerade’, meanwhile, is a musically playful jaunt into a European-sounding milieu, for a tale of escape from relationship deceit, which Lister decorates with a couple of solos that play around with the main theme to good affect.
But – yes, there is a but.  As good as the above songs are, elsewhere things get rather too comfy at times.  The title track is just one example of a song that feels stylish, but ultimately a bit thin, with a melody that’s tasteful, and nicely sung, abetted by some nice harmonies.  Nice, but not something to grab your attention, in spite of some sparkling, glittering soloing.  ‘Bide My Time’ and ‘Wait For Me’ concern different kinds of stuff getting in the way of relationships, but for all their qualities neither generates real traction.  The former exhibits subtle changes of pace and has a restrained, silvery guitar solo, and the latter includes an appealing guitar break with a vaguely Steely Dan-like jazzy leaning (a direction he could probably explore further), but both could do with more dynamics to make a real impact.  And our Aynsley could also do with being a bit more biting on the lyric front now and then, a bit more salty – even if he does observe on ‘Amazing’ that the online world “fucks with your mind”, underlined by a stinging solo and some swooping guitar on the outro.
There are other good moments, but over the course of 13 tracks Along For The Ride leans towards cruising along safely a mite too often, when sometimes a heavier foot on the gas is needed.  Meantime Aynsley Lister is still a really talented guy, who I look forward to seeing live in a few weeks.
Along For The Ride is out now on Straight Talkin’ Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Gerry Jablonski & The Electric Band - 105

KERRANG!  That seems to be the most apt descriptor for the thunderous squall of the intro to ‘Breaking The Stones’, the opening track on this new album by Scotland’s Gerry Jablonski & The Electric Band.
And yep, if you’re after a hard rocking riff, then Gerry Jablonski’s your man.  There are plenty of ‘em on 105, from the grinding chords of the aforementioned ‘Breaking The Stones’, to the driving affair on the uptempo ‘Goddamn’, to the mean’n’nasty beast that rears its head on the dynamic ‘Heavy Water’.  And more besides.
Gerry Jablonski and chums get electrified
So yes, the Electric Band are a hard rock band.  But they’re not yer typical hard rock band, due
to the presence of harmonica blower Peter Narojczyk.  The prowling, electric intensity that Narojczyk offers on stage is difficult to get across on record, but his playing still adds a different dimension to the sound.  He shakes up the stuttering, Purple-esque riff of ‘Strange Love’ with an early harp break, and on the more relaxed Paul Kossoff tribute ‘Koss’ his shivering sound beefs up the chorus.  He complements the spiky guitar riff on ‘Tiny Thoughts’ in zig-zagging fashion, then shows that he can wail with the best of ‘em on ‘Goddamn’.  But he also brings a mournful, cowboy-like aspect to the intro of ‘Heavy Water’.
Sometimes though, his harp and Jablonski’s guitar feel like uneasy bedfellows.  Whereas harmonica lends itself easily to blues and rock’n’roll vibes, Jablonski has a penchant for more exotic guitar territory, illustrated by the closing ‘Dark Island’, on which he gives a romantic Scottish song from the 60s a positively ‘Star Spangled Banner’ solo guitar treatment.  He pulls that off with conviction, but the Van Halen-like squiggling of the solo on ‘Strange Love’ is an example where the tonal difference with the harp sound jars a little.  When they funk things up a bit on ‘Tiny Thoughts’ though, Jablonski’s zingy guitar solo and the call and response with Narojczyk’s harp work well together.
The Jablonski/Narojczyk axis isn't the be all and end all of GJEB, mind you.  The rhythm section of Lewis Fraser on drums and Grigor Leslie add plenty of muscle to the riffage, with the frothing bass and whip-cracking drums playing their part in making the bluesier rock of ‘Goddamn’ a standout.  Fraser also steps forward to share the elegiac lead vocals on ‘Hard Road’, a meditation on the Ukraine war on which all concerned demonstrate both sensitivity and power.  Meanwhile Grigor Leslie complements Jablonski’s spangly guitar with tastefully meandering bass on ‘Breaking The Code’, setting a romantic tone that’s reinforced by some trilling Narojsczyk harp and Jablonski’s best vocal.  And Fraser and Leslie also combine to provide notable backing vocals at times, including the Yardbirds-like choral segments on ‘Breaking The Stones’ and the harmonies that lead into and beef up the chorus of ‘Tiny Thoughts’.
The Electric Band never let songs outstay their welcome, I'm pleased to say, but now and then they have too many ideas for their own good.  The wah-wah guitar overdubs on ‘Strange Love’ and the martial coda on ‘Tiny Thoughts’ are both examples of unnecessary frills.  Sharpening their focus a bit would allow the essence to shine through more clearly.  But hey - the riffs, the musicianship and the intelligent lyrics on 105 are all quality fare.  Give it a whirl and see if it takes your fancy!
105 is released on 25 November, and can be ordered here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Liz Jones - Bounty

You could be forgiven for thinking, when the title track ‘Bounty’ kicks off this solo album by Liz Jones, that it doesn’t sound so very different from the two albums she has made with her band, Broken Windows.  Here’s a warm and inviting tune, with Jones’ distinctive, engaging voice to the fore, backed by quietly insistent acoustic guitar, gentle piano and a clip-clopping rhythm, enlivened here and there by a trilling, trippy guitar line, and ultimately a pin-sharp solo from Windows guitarist John Bruce.
Liz Jones - lady sings the roots
As subtle as this sound may be though, for the most part Bounty tones things down even further, initially capturing the songs with just Jones’ voice and acoustic guitar.  She and producer Jennifer Clark then elicited contributions from a gaggle of other musicians to provide additional textures according to their own lights.  And if that sounds like a risky kind of “lucky dip” approach, the results are both coherent and delicate.
Most importantly though, Liz Jones’ alluring voice is front and centre throughout.  Here we have a roots singer with bags of range and variation in tone, who can be as sensitive, relaxed or powerful as her songs demand.  Indeed several songs on Bounty feature Jones harmonising with herself to exquisite effect.  Overdubs curl around her lead vocal like smoke rings on the meditative, swaying ‘Green’, to which Jamie Hamilton adds some richly soulful organ embellishment.  ‘Temple’ is even more startling on this front, the harmonies starting simple, then growing into delicious spirals.
Characterising the styles of these songs isn’t straightforward.  Given that London-born Jones sings in her own accent, without recourse to Americanisms, I’m loath to use a term like Americana.  But ‘Little Song’ carries some echoes of Geraint Watkins, the Welshman who has collaborated with Nick Lowe among others and who sometimes attracts the Americana tag.  Meanwhile ‘Mother Earth’ has an ethereal aspect that takes me back to (very) early Joan Armatrading, with understated shadings of pedal steel as Jones offers the typically evocative image “What have I tasted so sour on my tongue?”  ‘Temple’ puts me in mind of Deacon Blue in downbeat mode, like ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’ perhaps, sweetly delivered in antithesis to acerbic lines like “Our body is a temple until Friday night”, and with starlit pedal/lap steel decoration from Jon Mackenzie. And the sombre ‘Magnet’, with its prickling guitar, reflects on the attracting and repelling poles of relationships in a manner suggestive of the darker moments Justin Currie brought to Del Amitri.
Thirteen tracks is possibly too many, though I’m not complaining – this is an album to lay back and wallow in.  But there are some other favourites along the way.  ‘Accused’ starts with another patient, throbbing rhythm and ticking guitar, and then Jamie Hamilton weighs in with trombone to add more heft and depth as Jones’ vocal gathers more force for the pay-off: “I should have done all those things you accused me of, honey I’d have had way more fun”.  ‘Show Me The Way’ rolls along on an easygoing, pattering rhythm from Suzi Cargill’s djemba, providing an upbeat soundtrack for a tribute to someone who rolls with the punches, with more harmonies that this time culminate in a soaring choral effect.
Bounty is a sophisticated album, with producer Jen Clarke and the cast of collaborators finding just the right degree of elaboration to bring out the quality of the material, and burnishes Liz Jones’ credentials as both a songwriter and a singer.  I know it ain’t rock’n’roll, but I still like it.
Bounty is released on 18 November, and can be ordered here.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Steve Hill - Dear Illusion

Wait, what?  This is Steve Hill, right?  Long-haired Canadian dude, pretty intense looking?  Purveyor of hard-riffing blues-rock and shimmering acoustic blues?  Generally to be found playing as a one man band these last ten years or so?  This is that Steve Hill?
So what in Sam Hill is going on with all these horns plastered all over his new release Dear Illusion?
I’ll tell you what’s going on – Steve Hill is having a shitload of fun, that’s what.
Okay, so ‘All About The Love’ kicks off with a trilling guitar riff and a simple stomping beat that sounds very much like Hill in his one man band mode – but then the swell of horns preceding his rat-a-tat vocal makes you prick up your ears.  As well you might, because when he hits the
Steve Hill has himself a quiet night in
Pic by Scott Doubt
chorus – BLAM! - there’s a virulent outbreak of horn-blaring gospellation fit to have Jake and Ellwood Blues jigging about like a pair of loons.  And that’s just for openers.
Swear to god, I could well imagine Mick Jagger prancing about at the end of a catwalk to the likes of ‘Keep It Together’ and ‘Everything You Got’.  The first kicks off with a harp riff that’s taken up by guitar, with perfect punctuation from The Devil Horns, while Hill hollers “Wake me up when it’s over, please somebody spiked my drink,” given extra oomph by spot on backing vocals.  And the razor-edged slide guitar that plays off against the hook is a pretty cool too.  ‘Everything You Got’ opens with a horn fanfare that swiftly gets elbowed out of the way by a nailed-on, ZZ Top-like fuzzy guitar riff over swinging, punchy drums and more horn interjections.  It’s stuffed with vitality, everything fitting together hand in glove, and catchy as hell.  (Be sure to click on the link for the video, which captures the good-time vibe brilliantly.)
In a similar upbeat vein, ‘Steal The Light From You’ is a whomping good-time shuffle, with a carefree ascending riff and the horns flaring brightly, and expertly twanging guitar breaks.
So who are they, these Devil Horns that are so much to the fore?  No, they’re not some legendary outfit like the Muscle Shoals gang.  It’s just the moniker Hill has given to the various groups of brass exponents he conscripted at different times, and in different places, to beef up particular songs – the point being that regardless of their disparate recruitment processes, somebody or somebodies have done a A1 job of getting exactly the right contributions out of them.
Oh yeah, and those swinging, punchy drums?  It’s worth noting that Wayne Proctor does the skin-walloping on six of the tracks here, bringing extra groove to proceedings as well as mixing and mastering the whole caboodle.
But Hill also makes room for his sensitive side.  ‘Dear Illusion’ itself is a yearning contemplation of self-deception in love, the chorus borne aloft by the horns.  ‘So It Goes’ is a reflective, iridescent acoustic breather, and the closing ‘Until The Next Time’ is laid back and romantic, with Hill’s crooning vocal accompanied by swooning horns and some sparkling guitar. 
It has to be said that Hill’s voice sounds in particularly good fettle too.  On both ‘Don’t Let The Truth Get In The Way (Of A Good Story)’ and ‘She Gives Lessons In Blues’ the name of Paul Rodgers sprang into my mind.  Not that Hill could seriously be taken for Rodgers – who could?  But I could imagine Rodgers offering a polite round of applause for the soul Hill applies to these tracks.  The first comes with an irresistible snappy rhythm, another decent hook, and a twirling solo.  The second is a funky sorta blues, with more on-the-money horn moments, and Hill’s guitar ramping up the swaggering fun quotient.  And there’s more soul in ‘Follow Your Heart’, of which Hill admits nicking the chords from a song played at his mum’s choir’s Christmas show, though he can’t recall the song itself.  Well, my money is on the jazz classic ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, and he does it justice with this swinging, sunny, but measured take, including some splendidly free’n’easy guitar work.
Some albums you like because they intrigue you, some because they push the envelope and show some imagination.  Dear Illusion is an album to be enjoyed because it’s terrific entertainment, pure and simple.
Dear Illusion is out now on No Label Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Robert Connely Farr - Shake It

Mississippi-born Robert Connelly Farr likes to keep it down, down, deeper and down.  Have a listen to the opening track on Shake It, a reading of Charley Patton’s ‘Screamin' And Hollerin' Blues’, and you’ll get the idea - screaming and hollering, ironically, ain’t what’s on the menu.  Warped, bent out of shape guitar chords drift into earshot like tumbleweed, while Farr moans pleas for the Lord to have mercy on his wicked soul.  It’s real slooow, and minimalist to boot, with drummer Jay Bundy Johnson and bassist Tom Hillifer making like Farr gave ‘em a sedative before hitting the Record button.
Robert Connely Farr tries to leave out more notes
Pic by Anita Van Weerden
It all adds up to a spooky sound that reflects the lessons in the Bentonia blues tradition Farr has learned from his mentor Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, whose ‘Going Away To Leave You’ is second up.  Here Hillifer’s bass is subterranean,  Farr’s guitar break is barbed-wire-spiky, and it has all the haste of a man hurrying to catch a train.  Tomorrow.
The less-is-more vibe is evident elsewhere too, with the pinpricks of guitar over another funereal beat on ‘Ain’t No Other Way’ prompting the thought that these guys may enter the studio asking themselves “How much can we leave out?”  The closing ‘Sugar Momma’ is just voice and bass at first, with Farr at times practically whispering the despairing refrain “Sugar momma won’t you please come back to me”, and adding smatterings of edgy, discordant guitar.  And along the way ‘Going Down South’ is also slowed to a crawl, with foot-dragging drums, a plaintive, strung-out vocal, and guitar that rings like a cracked bell.  It takes discipline to play this slowly and sparsely.
That off-kilter sound is present on ‘Knock On Wood’ too, with lagging brushes of drums and metronomic bass laying the foundations for Farr’s splintered shards of guitar and drawled vocal, before things get a bit more muscular and he adds a couple of often atonal guitar breaks that suggest he’s adopted the obscure ‘Open W-T-F Tuning’.
It’s not all eerie gloom.  ‘Miss My Baby’ is built around hypnotic grooving bass and a lazy snare drum, over which Farr intones some semi-spoken “blues rapping”.  His guitar doesn’t even arrive till nearly two minutes in, sounding fuzzy and wiry like he’s playing with a knackered amp, while the introduction of a shaker towards the close underscores the track’s rhythmic charm.  It may be super-simple, but it hits the spot in an easy-going way that evokes comparison with Steve Earle.  ‘Lefty’, meanwhile, is positively hyperactive by comparison with much of the album.  Drummer Jay Bundy Johnson was presumably delighted not to have to play with one hand tied behind his back on this one, and be able to crash a cymbal now and then, as they all rouse themselves to give it some welly as Farr delivers some stinging guitar.  And the title track ‘Shake It’ is an offbeat shuffle, with Hillifer given an extra allowance of notes on bass to help liven up the insistent groove, and there are echoes of early Black Keys as Farr knocks out some distorted, ringing guitar.
This sure ain’t party music, but Farr and friends counter the dark energy with just enough daylight to strike a satisfying balance, and at just under half an hour there’s no excess fat.  It may be rooted in old-fashioned blues, but Shake It is no dusty antique.  It's a modern day quiet storm.  
Shake It is out now, and you can buy it here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Quickies - The Howling Tides, and Sunjay

The Howling Tides – Blue Moon EP
Between you, me and the world wide web, I don’t really listen to that many new, straight up hard rock or metal bands these days.  A major reason for this is that I rarely like the rhythmic approach of the ones I come across – they ain’t got no swing, but instead opt for an aural bombardment worthy of a pneumatic drill.
The Howling Tides are a hard rock band, but they don’t go down that cul-de-sac.  ‘Thalia’, the
Cheeky chappies The Howling Tides
opening track on their Blue Moon EP, starts with an eerie, throbbing intro, and then its staccato riff is backed up by stuttering, skittering drums from Steven ‘Herbie’ Herbert that suggest broader horizons than yer typical bunch of riff merchants.  They slip into a different rhythm later, dial things down for a bit, and with a guitar solo that sounds like it’s bleeped its way from the Forbidden Planet, they never let things settle into the predictable.  In the midst of this Rob Baynes may be a straight-down-the-middle rock singer to be sure, but he’s a good one, with plenty under the bonnet.
‘Cut Your Losses’ may have a more orthodox hard rock tone, but with an interesting bass part from Adam Brewell there’s an air of offbeat Zeppiness going on.  ‘Fortune Never Favoured Me’ aims for epic balladeering, Baynes vocal melding well with some melodic guitar in a bluesy and relaxed fashion before they ramp things up halfway through.  It may not be especially original, but it’s still well executed.
‘Blue Moon’ itself opens with a subdued, Wishbone Ash-like intro, some suppressed vocals hovering in the background, then shifts through a few different phases.  They’re scarcely priggish, but they do seem to enjoy playing around with the tune a bit, combining muscle and twiddle in a fashion that’s a long way from thud and blunder metal.  And if they do opt for a more crunking rhythm section assault on the stop-start ‘White Crow’, it’s as accompaniment to a twisting and turning riff and a swooping and slithering guitar solo, with some dynamics introduced by a quieter segment along the way.  Okay, so the sort-of-bridge is only so-so, and the track’s overlong, but it still has its moments.
The Howling Tides probably aren’t a band I’ll follow avidly in the future, but as contemporary hard rockers go, I’d venture that they have more to offer than many of their peers.
The Blue Moon EP will be released on 18 November, and can be pre-ordered here.
Sunjay – Black & Blues Revisited
When Sunjay settles into his comfort zone on this collection of 11 blues covers, what you get are tunes that are nicely sung, nicely played – and Anglified in a very genteel and decorous manner.
Take Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Monday Morning Blues’ for example.  His acoustic guitar picking may be on point, and sometimes a bit mesmeric, but it also sounds rather prim and proper.  
Sunjay takes the load off for a while
Pic by Jane Jordan
And his winsome rather than weary voice really doesn’t convince when singing lines such as “Been layin’ in jail six long weeks”.  Similarly his take on Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Freight Train’ doesn’t really do anything to overcome the too-sweet-to-be-wholesome folksiness of the song itself.  ‘The Easy Blues’ meanwhile, is neat and tidy and given a pinch of seasoning by some harp from Lee Southall, but it’s no more than okay when compared with the conviction and personality brought to the song by John Martyn.
A few tracks have a bit more life about them, I’m pleased to say.  There may be no chance of him matching the heft of Howlin’ Wolf on the opening ‘Built For Comfort’, but he does commit to the vocal, adding a rasp here and there to bring more character to his far from heavyweight voice.  It rolls along nicely with a swaying rhythm, some flutters of organ, and toots of harp, and Sunjay solos with a bit of dash to match up to Bob Fridzema’s piano turn.  The following ‘Statesboro Blues’ is subtle and skipping, with afterthoughts of organ from Fridzema, and an interesting guitar part that holds the attention, while Sunjay essays another decent vocal in spite of the boyishness of his voice.  ‘Dust My Broom’ carries a bit of emphasis too - vocal included.  There’s some steeliness to the guitar, and a trilling harp solo from Southall that hits the mark, but there’s still not a great deal of edge to go with the swing.
There’s one success in more muted mode though, with ‘Come Back Baby’.  It’s languorous and shimmering in a way that piques the interest, with some understated keys from Fridzema that are worth straining to catch.  It still sounds decidedly Anglified, but on this occasion it offers something different and positive.
I’m sure there are people who will enjoy the folky country blues acoustic guitar picking that is the mainstay of Sunjay’s sound.  But I like my blues to have more depth and personality than is evident on much of Black & Blues Revisited.
Black & Blues Revisited
 is out now on Mighty Tight Records, and can be ordered here.