Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Ally Venable - Real Gone

Uneven, there’s a word.  Predictable – there’s another.  Honeyed, well that’s a more positive sounding thing, so let’s start there.
Ally Venable delivers some very good vocals on Real Gone.  The song on which this thought first struck me is ‘Blues Is My Best Friend’, which starts off stripped down to just voice and guitar, and yes, Venable sings in pleasingly honeyed tones that at times hint at Bonnie Raitt.  Then the rhythm section kicks in to frame a guitar solo that starts off nicely, before subsiding into the kind of twiddling fare that occurs too often here.
Whenever Venable gets the room to make her singing the focus, her voice starts to shine through. 
Ally Venable - tell 'em about the vocal honey!
Pic by TIno Sielin
Take ‘Any Fool Should Know’ for example.  It sounds like a soulful pop ballad from days of yore.  Like something by Sam Cooke perhaps, delivered yearningly by a quality country artist who sings clear and steady – and with a neatly complementary guitar break too, as well as some sweeps of horns.  Or there’s ‘Going Home’, a dreamy song visualising her native Texas, as if watching the landscape from the window of a Greyhound bus.  Venable captures this wistful air well – and then things change gear as she heads into a guitar solo, and the patient delivery gives way to predictability.
Venable is good on ‘Gone So Long’ too, a meditative tune about memory and change, delivered in subdued fashion and with a guitar solo that this time fits the bill nicely.  Even on the slowly pulsing ‘Hold My Ground’, a song about relationship breakdown that’s lyrically a bit clichéd, she lends some truth to the verses, and also conveys some emotion with a patient guitar turn.
It's when things get more uptempo that standards slip, as on the opening ‘Real Gone’.  Bright and chugging, the sound is certainly great, with chunky rhythm guitar and walloping drums and bass, but the autobiographical lyrics are so-so, and the wah-wah guitar licks strewn everywhere are an example of quantity over quality.  Much of this is also true of the crunching ‘Justifyin’, a pretty clunky bit of social commentary on which that wah-wah pedal gets cranked out again.  Meantime ‘Kick Your Ass’, rolls out yer typical “useless boyfriend” story to the accompaniment of a grinding, revolving riff, and while it’s punchy, it says all it’s got to say in the first verse, and Venable’s lead guitar defaults to a widdling tone once again.
Thankfully there are a few exceptions to these rules.  Buddy Guy turns up to duet on ‘Texas Louisiana’, enlivening an infectious if predictable boogie with his distinctive voice and guitar playing.  To be fair Venable concocts an enjoyable guitar break herself, but Buddy’s ability to veer outside the white lines brings extra zip to matters.  ‘Don’t Lose Me’ is funky á la Ana Popovic, with a steady, tugging beat and horn flourishes, while Venable delivers a neat solo devoid of wah-wah and showing more imagination.  And ‘Two Wrongs’ reveals the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, with a jabbing, gritty riff and stop-start vocals reminiscent of ‘Crossfire’, though the licks that Stevie interspersed between lines were more pointed and restrained, and Venable’s solo is her standard fare.
See what I mean?  There are good things going on here.  But the quality of the songs is erratic, with some mundane lyrics kicking around, and Venable needs to find some different angles and tones on the guitar front.  Producer Tom Hambridge, who also has writing credits on all 12 tracks, has to take some responsibility for these issues. This may be Ally Venable’s fifth album, but she’s only 23 fer cryin’ out loud, and a much vaunted pro like Hambridge should really be coaxing more out of her.
So Real Gone is a "not bad" album rather than a standout.  But if Ally Venable can accentuate the positives on display here, and eliminate some of the negatives, there’s still plenty to suggest she can have a bright future.
Real Gone is released by Ruf Records on 24 March, and can be ordered here in Europe, and here in the United States.

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