Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Joanne Shaw Taylor - Heavy Soul

As an indicator of where Joanne Shaw Taylor’s music is at these days, the title Heavy Soul is pretty accurate, as I’m sure she knows.  As with her previous album Nobody’s Fool, Taylor has put together a collection of songs that’s strong on classic soul vibes and catchy choruses - a good fit for her husky voice – but given a more muscular slant by her sharp and bluesy guitar work.
Fr’instance, the title track may not have the most interesting tune on offer here, but the pair of tough, stinging solos that Taylor knocks out add an extra dimension to its snapping backbeat and her insistent, rhythmic vocal.  Later on, ‘Devil In Me’ takes the axe aspect a step further, with
Black Country girl Joanne Shaw Taylor
Pic by Stacie Huckaba
some urgent blues-rock riffing á la ‘Mudhoney’ and a zinger of a solo to kick things up a gear.
Those two shots of adrenaline stir things up nicely, but Heavy Soul still rubs along very happily when the material is more easy-going.  ‘Sweet ‘Lil Lies’ makes for an appealing opening, with its nagging, Morse Code guitar motif and chunky bass and rhythm guitar – the latter developing an ear-grabbing fuzzy twang during the pre-chorus.  There’s a good hook that bears repetition, Taylor’s vocal catches the soulful, and as it progresses there’s a rising sense of agitation in the bigger chords, the punchier drums, and Taylor’s second solo, to justify its 5 minute length.  ‘Black Magic’, contrastingly, is a loose and finger-snapping pleasure.  How can such a simple rhythm be so damn good?  It takes a ‘Nutbush’-like melody and swings along in über-relaxed fashion.  To be honest, I’ve no idea what Taylor is singing about half the time here, but she flexes her voice in such liquidly melodious style that it really doesn’t matter – something I often used to think about her fellow West Midlander Robert Plant, as it happens.
‘Wild Love’ combines a rolling riff and eerie waves of organ to create a fresh, evocative mood for a crisp tale of an illicit relationship, and though it may not be the steamiest song you’ll ever hear it still conveys the temptation and guilt of forbidden fruit pretty convincingly. In fact of the original material, only the more languid ‘A Good Goodbye’ raises any doubts.  It’s a decent song, and well put together, but . . . it just seems a little too familiar, formulaic maybe, suggesting our Jo needs to be careful she doesn’t repeat herself.
There are three cover versions along the way.  The readings of Joan Armatrading’s ‘All The Way From America’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Someone Like You’ are both sensitively done, and fit in well even if she goes down the respectful route rather than trying to put her own stamp on them. But then so they should, as they’re both great songs.  I could live without her rendition of Gamble and Huff’s ‘Drowning In A Sea Of Love’ though – nothing wrong with it except it feels too safe, too nice, notwithstanding the spangly guitar solo.
But the last word goes to the closing ‘Change Of Heart’, a bright and positive slice of soul with a cracking hook, Taylor dropping guitar licks in seamlessly to produce an uplifting finish.
Heavy Soul isn’t a blockbuster album, but it does add to the impressive array of soul-driven material Joanne Shaw Taylor has at her disposal. Arguably though, she could do with finding more opportunities for her guitar playing to take flight.  A bit more rock to go with the roll next time, perhaps.
 
Heavy Soul is out now on Journeyman Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Troy Redfern - Invocation

He keeps surprising me, does Troy Redfern.  Being honest, every time he pops up, I get ready to write him off as just another one-dimensional latterday heavy metal thunderer.  But then I give something a listen and think:  “Actually, that’s quite good.”
And so it goes as the opening three tracks unfurl on his new album Invocation.  ‘The Strange’ bursts into life with trampolining drums’n’bass and Redfern’s swooping slide, and after easing back for the first verse, crashes into a not ‘arf catchy chorus.  Redfern adds a zinging slide solo, and a subtle (sorta) bridge adds some extra gloss.  Nice work, gang.  A rattle of drums announces ‘Getaway’, and then it explodes into life with a cracking riff – subterranean and seismic, then punctuated with a couple of splashes of colour.  It’s elevated by another earworm
Troy Redfern - not cast in The Hobbit
Pic by Jason Bridges
of a chorus, given a lift by a couple of neck-snapping delayed chords, while Redfern’s screeching solo is rammed home by the piledriving combination of Dave Marks’ bass and Paul Stewart’s drums. Then ‘Van Helsing’ arrives, with just chiming guitar under the verse apart from some sporadic, crunching chord interjections, in readiness for another belting hook.  I’m telling you folks, it’s “Bop-along-with-Troy time”!
There are a couple of points worth underlining here.  First, underneath all the stürm und drang, Redfern has quite the pop sensibility going on between his ears, reminding me now and then of the tunesmithery of Supergrass, say.  And secondly, the bass playing of producer Dave Marks doesn’t just bring power, it elevates matters with its harmonic qualities.
And so things progress with the moody, dynamic ‘The Calling’, which in places – like Redfern’s intriguing, spacey slide solo – brings to mind the off-kilter vibe of Muse.  ‘Native’, with its American-Indian rhythm (at least as we’ve learned it from the movies) goes even further down the crepuscular atmospheric route, and is really all about the vibe, until the churning crescendo through which Redfern’s slide cuts like a butcher’s knife.
Stewart’s tub-thumping drums bring a glam-rock undertow to ‘The Fever’, with its pleasing staccato riff, and then, right on cue – yes, handclaps!  There should be more of ‘em, Troy – and a bleedin’ cowbell too!  But still, that “Holding me, you’re holding me down” hook does burrow its way into your noggin.  And the same is true of the simple but effective chorus on ‘All Night Long’, a turbo-charged rocker which pretty much strips down the riff to Whitesnake’s ‘Sweet Talker’ and then hits the gas pedal.
‘Blind Me’ is, blimey, an almost romantic slowie.  It has an aching chorus on which Redfern adds some pretty savvy vocal overdubs, and some slide playing that, just for a moment, reminds me of Blackmore in its tone.
The thrash-along ‘Voodoo Priest’ is the only track here that’s a bit below par.  But ‘Take Me High’ gets things back on track, a bluesier affair with a surging stop-time riff and another airy chorus trying to escape from the firestorm of Redfern’s guitar and Marks’ bass, and the herd of buffalo that is Stewart’s drums.  Then ‘The Last Stand’ rounds things off in measured style, its throbbing guitar, pulsing bass and behind-the-beat drums creating an evocative mood, topped off with Redfern getting even more Blackmore-esque on a haunted slide break.
Troy Redfern’s voice is, to be fair, a bit of a limited instrument, ranging from a rasp to a bark with little more than volume shifts in the way of variation, but he still goes at it with creditable conviction. In fact everything is invested with that same conviction – and producer Dave Marks has done a fine job of harnessing that.
So yeah, Troy Redfern has made me think twice. With his saturnine appearance he may look ready to audition for the role of some outcast prince in a Tolkien movie, well suited to a core sound resembling siege artillery, but the brighter strands of rock'n'roll DNA in the veins of Invocation make it well worth a listen.
 
Invocation
 is out now, and can be ordered here.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Toronzo Cannon - Shut Up And Play!

Oh yeah.
Toronzo Cannon is back, with an album that shows a modern master of Chicago blues at work. On Shut Up And Play! you get 12 songs spread over 52 minutes, there ain’t none of ‘em below par, and the end result is even better than his last album The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp - and that was hot stuff itself.
First up among the reasons for this – the guy writes real, modern, sharp songs.  Whether it’s social commentary, emotional reflection on personal relationships, or good ol’ fashioned blues boogie fun, the Cannonball hits the nail on the head.
Second, his singing and playing are up there with the best of ‘em.  His voice is resonant and assertive, with a bit of a rasp on top when he wants it, and he knows how to make a lyric convincing.  And he has his own guitar “voice” too, a tone all his own as he delivers scintillating licks and breaks that catch the ear and demand nods of appreciation.
Toronzo Cannon - blues is his business, and business is good
Pic by Roman Sobus
Third thing.  What a goddamn band he has playing with him. Hats off to bassist Brian Quinn, Jason ‘Jroc’ Edwards who contributes drums on 10 of the tracks, and keys man Cole DeGenova, who all show their mettle and ensure the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The album is bookended by ‘Can’t Fix The World’ and the title track, both of which offer a tart take on the experience of ordinary, and especially black, people. “Can’t fix the world right now,” sings Cannon, but he still has plenty to say about it, asserting that “We know the problem, right from wrong / But why does justice take so long?”, against the backdrop of a terrific funky bassline from Quinn, jittering clavinet from DeGenova, and his own punchy licks and his own expressive, fuzz-enhanced soloing.  Meanwhile ‘Shut Up And Play!’ is an ironic retort to those who would like musicians to do just that, rather than expressing an opinion, pulling together grinding, reverberating chords, organ that swells and swirls, and a ‘Hey Joe’-like rolling bassline as Cannon observes that there’s “No forty acres for my family, that America promised us when they set us free.”  And you’d better believe he delivers the goods on guitar too, with some powerful, serrated-edge soloing right out of the top drawer.
In between these two tentpoles there’s a different kinda positive protest twist, with the gospellated ‘Had To Go Through It To Get To It’, all handclaps and chiming piano as Cannon observes that his grandad “caught hell in Mississippi”, and how it took resilience to make a new life in the North and become a proud black man.
There are a couple of more soulful outings, the first being ‘Message To My Daughter’, a meditation on the reverberating impact of a marriage break-up, which tries to find positives alongside the pain and comes with more top flight bass playing to go with Cannon’s sensitively delivered vocal. Then later there’s ‘Guilty’, which contemplates our everyday sins, and all of us being open to judgement, decorated by some warm piano from DeGenova and pinging guitar fills from Cannon, who closes with a controlled, conversational solo.
Cannon peeks into a trio of different bluesy avenues with ‘I Hate Love’, ‘Him’, and ‘If I’m Always Wrong’.  The first is a slower sorta swing’n’sway, locked in behind the beat by Edwards’ drums, with Cannon declaring “I hate love, it’s just a made up word” amid more great bass playing, and keys that fill in around the edges brilliantly, while Cannon also gets down to business with a terrific, teasing and spinning solo. ‘Him’ is liquid funkiness full of fluid guitar work, with a winding, perfectly weighted final solo.  And ‘If I’m Always Wrong’ tells the story of a guy who’s fed up of being put down, with melodic, anthemic piano chords providing something fresh to go with the searing guitar.
And there’s plenty fun stuff too, like the snappy, witty ‘Something To Do Man’, a variant on the ‘Ice Cream Man’ of blues lore that swaggers and shuffles along, Cannon delivering a surging, irresistible solo backed up by rattling piano, culminating in the cocky affirmation that “This is a public service announcement: I’m here for you”.  ‘Unlovable’ is a chugging mid-tempo boogie, lit up by gritty slide licks and bright, trilling piano. ‘Got Me By The Short Hairs’ is a rock’n’rollin’ frolic about the ins and outs of shotgun marriage, with a cavalier Cannon solo and propelled by crisp, punchy drums.  And lastly there’s the slinky and funny ‘My Woman Loves Me Too Much’ is a harp and acoustic led slowie – slow because our hero is worn out by the demands of his baby, who started “acting all frisky, ‘bout the age of 45”.
I’ve banged on about the whole kit and caboodle to make it damn clear that while electric blues may be Cannon's business, he gives it diversity with his fresh, smart songwriting, and no matter the style the execution by him and his buddies is right on the freakin’ money.
I'll wager Shut Up And Play! will be the best straight-up blues albums to land this year.  And for me Toronzo Cannon is the natural successor to Buddy Guy – accept no substitutes.
 
Shut Up And Play!
 is out now on Alligator Records.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown - Electrified

I’ve never quite been able to make my mind up about Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown.  There were good things on their 2022 album Shake The Roots and last year’s Dirty Work EP, especially on some of their down home rootsy outings. Now and then too, they demonstrate the ability to rock like bastards. But every so often they just seem to let themselves down with a song that misses the target. So does Electrified live up to its title?
‘Snake Oil’ certainly makes it clear that they can do the biz when it comes to toting some heft.  It’s hard-hitting but fluid, with some roll to go with the rock, good quiet/loud dynamics, while Bryant rat-a-tats the vocal and adds a wiry solo. And ‘Shake You Down’ is a breathless, fuzz-blasted rocker, drummer Caleb
The Shakedown - all revved up and ready to party
Pic by Zack Whitford
Crosby sounding like he’s in his happy place as he puts the hammer down to propel the tumbling riff and some screaming guitar from Bryant.
The strutting and swaggering ‘Dead To Rights’ hits the mark too, doing something different with subterranean, fuzzy bass setting the tone for Bryant’s accusatory vocal, some slippery riffing, and a squeaking, slithery solo. Then ‘Mona’ is a gripping, grinding thing, with a palpable sense that they’re getting into it. Crosby shows off his drumming power on the nagging, insistent tempo, while Bryant and Graham Whitford chuck around ringing, fuzzy guitar chords.
And yep, they get rootsy to good effect too, when they put their mind to it.  Larkin Poe turn up to lend a hand on the blues-tinged Americana love song of ‘One And Lonely’, Megan Lovell in particular adding some swooning lap steel to go with the satisfyingly romantic melody.  They follow that with ‘Movin’’, a relaxed, loping, all-join-in back porch ramble reminiscent of Mungo Jerry.
But when they explore a Western-style, cowboy blues vibe, the results can be more mixed.  Opener ‘Between The Lines’ has its moments, with its oddball rhythmic intro, cheese grater slide guitar and brisk choruses. But the bass plods, and Bryant’s penchant for having the melody follow the guitar line doesn’t do it for me.  The cowboy leanings are more acute as the following ‘Crossfire’ gets going, with desert-haunted harmonies, but this time they find a fresher sound as the harmonies progress into Plant-esque, wordless “aah-aah-aah” segments. A spooky guitar break leads to them kicking things up a notch or two, to good effect, and they get bonus marks for the adventurous squiggly ending. But I can’t get excited when they go down this kinda path a third time, on the more downbeat ‘Happy Gets Made’, with it’s pulsing, twangy guitar and plunking kick drum, and some backing vocals from Ruthie Foster too low in the mix to make a difference.
There are also a couple of tracks where they head for Southern rock territory á la Blackberry Smoke. ‘Trick Up My Sleeve’ has an Americana ballad-like opening, and a good hook, but when they punch it up it all gets a bit predictable. The same is true of the closing ‘Carefree Easy Rollin’, but in reverse as a gutsy, pounding intro dissolves into a clichéd melody and “just like my daddy did” lyrics. Still, at least that gritty riff reappears now and then to liven things up.
Okay, so it’s not the Shakedown’s fault that I can’t abide some of the tropes of Southern rock, but they’ll never win me over with ‘em.  They can still rock hard though, and with some style. And I like it when they get in the right kinda roots vein too. So I live in hope that one day they’ll make an album that does the business for me from start to finish.
 
Electrified
 is out now on Rattle Shake Records.