Sunday, June 4, 2023

Selwyn Birchwood - Exorcist

Exorcist may sound like a pretty menacing title for his latest album, but I reckon there ain’t much darkness on the edge of Selwyn Birchwood’s town.  The Floridian singer and guitarist’s modus operandi is generally of the upbeat variety.
Sure, the title track conjures up some metaphorical voodoo for an imaginative lyric about being trapped in a bad relationship, but the music is cool and rhythmic, heightened by a moaning tenor sax break from Regi Oliver, rather than heavy and threatening.  And this is still about as gloomy as our Selwyn ever gets – which isn’t, y’know, any kind of crime.
‘Underdog’ may tell the tale of someone who’s written off by others, but the message is one of
Selwyn Birchwood smiling up a storm
Pic by Jay Skolnick
resilience, of someone who says “I thrive on doubt, and this dog bites back”, set to a bubbling, loosely funky groove, with fizzing guitar tones surfacing now and then around Birchwood’s insistent vocal, and with a cheese-wire sharp lap steel solo.  And if ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ is a litany of self-criticism, it kinda feels like Birchwood’s heart isn’t really in it, to the extent that the tune and guitar work may be okay, but overall it feels a bit underwhelming.
Yup, positivity and fun are where Selwyn is really at.  ‘FLorida Man’ is an amusing take on batshit crazy behaviour in his home state, “Where the Wild West meets the Dirty South”, bopping along to a lurching rhythm, with Birchwood firing off some grinding, squealing slide along the way.  ‘Swim At Your Own Risk’ is a companion piece, a comic take of law and disorder, with a bubbling bass line from Donald ‘Huff’ Wright to go with some aquatic sound effects and conversationally squeaking lap steel.  Meanwhile ‘Hopeless Romantic’ is a celebration rather than a lament, a slice of spiky, twitchy funk given some caramel sweetness by cooing backing vocals from Charlyce Simmons and Vanessa Hawkins, while Birchwood sprays plenty of guitar glitter around.
By and large Birchwood goes for a very modern blues sound, but a few songs suggest he’s also a keen student of blues roots.  ‘Call Me What You Want To’ is straight up jump blues, with Jim McKaba on piano plinking away with his right hand while rocking with his left, bolstered by stand-up bass from Andrew Gohman, and Birchwood cutting a rug with some flip-flop-flying, jitterbugging guitar.  Opening track ‘Done Cryin’’ is in a BB King/Robert Cray soulful blues mode, Birchwood’s molasses-rich growl supplemented by Oliver’s smoky sax, and counterpointed by stinging, cleverly phrased guitar.  The slower ‘Plenty More To Be Grateful For’ takes this further, Birchwood encouraging an optimistic outlook over some smoochily old-fashioned backing, with female backing vocals adding to the mood – although Birchwood’s fluttering solo gets a bit too jazzy for my taste.
The wackily titled ‘ILa-View’ is swinging blues that deploys a ‘small big band’ sound, full of rinky-dink piano from McKaba, while Birchwood trots out a heap of similes for the strength of his love, á la “I love you baby, like a wino loves grapes”, and adds a skating lap steel solo.  And there’s room for gospel too, as he gets into a biblical vein with ‘Lazarus’.
Losing a couple of tracks, and trimming a couple of others, would have made Exorcist tighter and more focused.  A couple of stronger hooks wouldn’t have gone amiss either.  But hey, there’s still plenty good stuff to enjoy here – and who wouldn’t want to spend an hour or so accentuating the positive in the company of a cheerful fella like Selwyn Birchwood?
 is released by Alligator Records on 9 June.

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