25 Mar 2017

Samantha Fish: Chills and Fever

I love it when an artist you enjoy and you feel you know their work suddenly throws you a subtle swerve and comes up with something that catches you right between the ears. That is exactly what Samantha Fish has done with her great new album 'Chills and Fever'. As someone with a well embedded roots music background, she grew up surrounded by blues and rock in Kansas City and first came to wider notice on one of those wonderfully rowdy Ruf Records' albums 'Girls with Guitars' Since then she has released a number of albums of mainly edgy rock-blues. Now she has corralled all of that back history and passion into one boisterous grab-you-by-the-throat collection in one place....and boy, she is absolutely at home there! 

It appears that she took herself off to Detroit, found herself a Detroit producer - Bobby Harlow - and a fabulous hugely experienced dynamic band in the form of the Detroit Cobras. The result is a terrific sassy album overflowing with kick-arse music sustained by an absolutely rocking crew of musicians. I love the range of this piece of work – many familiar tracks in here, from the likes of Jackie DeShannon and Alan Toussaint and there are some really smart and original arrangements to old favourites. Here we have some great shouty blues-rock, some tracks that verge on joyous pop, some Memphis soul cuts and some cooled down numbers from a proper blues singer. All of this is supported by the perfectly pitched Detroit Cobras who, with their punk blues background, bring her the whole package from rocking brassy New Orleans to sweet Hammond and guitar mix. On top of this perfectly formed backdrop, Samantha brings us some soul, some up-tempo blue-grass, a taste of get-off-your-butt and dance, some hot guitar-slinging and a touch of torch singing diva.

Although the album opens with the wonderful hundred miles an hour 'He Did It' and seldom lets up, there are some beautiful slower numbers where you can take a breath and listen to someone who knows how to tweak your emotional buttons. In particular, the fine Van McCoy/Nina Simone track 'Either Way I Lose', breathes some great passion into those killer words – Amy Winehouse and the tearful 'Love is a Losing Game' – comes to mind and the Barbara Lewis sad song 'Hello Stranger' has a super-cool jazz arrangement which lets Samantha fly like a bird. The CD has a couple of extra tracks but the last 'official' track is a spectacular rendition of the Skip James standard 'Crow Jane'. This brings to bear the powerful brass line up, some heavy guitar and Samantha's great smack-you-in-the-face version of those vengeful lyrics. 

This is an exciting, fresh, exhuberant and accomplished album. On here, Samantha has found a band, producer and mix-master who have given her the perfect vehicle to display her huge talent. Now, if they could bring the whole album to a live performance, I guarantee the walls would tumble and the roof would float away. Out at the end of March. Go buy.

7 Feb 2017

Jo Harman: People We Become

It is always interesting to read what an artist has to say about themselves – and not just about their influences, their favourite colour and their childhood ambitions. Buried in amongst the tsunami of words, publicity releases and reviews of her quite spectacular latest album 'People We Become', are some words from several of her pre-launch interviews...”I have only ever tried to be me – and that's what (this album) is. It's me.”
There, I suspect, lies one of the keys to this extraordinary singer's success. 

Uncomplicated and uncompromising and focussed. I first saw her live nearly four years ago, headlining a festival and her voice made an indelible impression. A couple of years later when reviewing 'Found a Place', I wrote “her voice is an extraordinary, unique, powerful and emotional blessing.” It still is, but in Jo's own words, her voice 'has matured in the same way as her songs and song-writing have matured' - she is still moving forward, learning, developing, exploring and still imbuing her songs with that rare and total vocal emotional commitment and yes, 'being me' is an excellent place for her to be.

'People We Become' is an absolute tour de force. It gathers together in one place, that huge tapestry of range, depth, style and emotion that we have come to expect from this artist. The tracks move from the anthemic to desperately sad and tender soul and almost pop-based finger-clicking and upbeat Motown. Her song-writing is incredibly personal and you know you are in the company of someone who has travelled down that road. For this writer at least, this is where she touches your heart best and tracks like 'Person of Interest', 'Silhouettes of You' and 'Changing of the Guard' bring it all up close and personal. There is a lot of pain, hurt and sorrow here. 
Her song-writing, employing phrases like 'I will carry you', 'I don't want you to be like me', 'I've tried and tried' and 'walk away' provides her with the perfect emotional platform from which to float her voice. This is someone who can pick a note from the floor and then touch the sky with it. There are also tracks on here, like the amazing 7minute piano driven 'Lend Me Your Love' that lead you along quietly ('it's so easy') and build up to a gut-wrenching climax only to finally let you down.
Everything about this production shouts class. Jo went to Nashville and collaborated with Fred Mollin to produce the album and it shows. She is surrounded by the finest musicians (buy the album to find out who they are!) and in consequence, every little bridge, fill, intro and outro, or whispering backline is beautifully constructed, the pauses and silences beautifully nuanced and every time - whether it be the atmospheric guitar work, the sometimes delicate and sometimes rocking piano interventions or the careful swell and feel of the backing singers – they get it just right.
I've only touched on a few tracks here, rather than list them all - they are all good, powerful, poignant and moving. If you have an ear you will enjoy the listen - again and again. It is a wonderfully crafted piece of work and deserves all the plaudits that are coming its way. Every track on here is totally accessible and will carry you with it - and it will still be played many years from now. 
If 'learning, maturing and being me', as Jo puts it, can produce an album of this quality, then let's hope Jo keeps on being Jo...

23 Jan 2017

Sean Taylor: Flood and Burn

Sean Taylor's last album (I reviewed it here about a year ago) was a beautiful paean to the exigencies of love and drew heavily on his many literary influences as a songwriter. His latest, the soon-to-be released 'Flood and Burn', similarly gives us some insights into what drives this talented song-writer along. This time he calls in various different genres and artistic styles, but the articulacy and craftmanship remain as vibrant and smart as ever.

There are eleven self-penned tracks on here (plus one curious Elvis cover) and together they provide a fascinating panorama of an intelligent artist at work. The opening track 'Codeine Dreams' is a beautifully arranged, floating and atmospheric piece, which immediately brings in the stylish support sax of Joe Morales and the multi-instrumentalist Mark Hallman. This, as with most of the arrangements on the album, is a subtle affair and respect to Sean and Hallman, the Austin-based producer, for picking such a curious and potentially risky number to open up the album. I recently heard it as the opening track on a UK blues programme – so they got that pretty spot on(!)

The next two tracks come from either end of his musical spectrum with 'A Good Place To Die' - a nod to singer/poet Townes Van Zandt - being ushered in with some brisk snare drum and a spare and spacey guitar while the sly and pointed 'Cruelty of Man' brings his voice to the fore with some wonderful whispering backing vocals and great fills from Ephrain Owens' perfectly judged muted trumpet. Btw, there is an excellent video of this track on YouTube here.
When a troubadour writes a song entitled 'Troubadour', you know that Dylan will not be far away. 
The lyrics here are full of pin-sharp references to a road life with a guitar and even the opening guitar picking mainlines straight from Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice'. A delightful track that will surely resonate with the many who have travelled that road. 'Run to Water' is a busy mix and has a nice bluesy feel, with Sean showing us his harp prowess and the Hallman Hammond opening up.

This reviewer happens to prefer Sean Taylor when he is in his more relaxed and reflective mood. His distinctive voice - often inevitably compared to many distinguished others - can be both a relaxed rasping whisper as well as a more urgent but confidential tone. The next three tracks move into that totally absorbing mode. The droll 'Life Goes On' sees a nervous glimpse of optimism, the title track 'Flood and Burn' is an edgy piece that sharply profiles his take on the inconsistencies of having a God in your life and the slow and introspective track 'Beautiful Mind' has Sean and Mark Hallman combining again to provide the perfect backdrop for his eloquent words.
The ironic 'Bad Case of the Blues' manages to reference both Skip James and Bukowski but I suspect Tom Waits too might have happily had some input here as well. 'Until The End of Time' is a cheery up-beat affair full of hope and an optimistic commitment to love.
The final track 'Better Man' is a superb example of how well the arrangements on the album serve the artist. A rather poignant piece about the joys and disappointments of being a musician are wrapped around with the wistful violin of Hana Paranha and the perfect bass of Danny Thompson raising it to a very special level.
Listening to the last few Sean Taylor albums is like discovering a seam of premier poetic gold amongst all the dross. 'Flood and Burn', like its predecessor, shines as a beautiful and uniquely satisfying piece of work. As with all good stuff on our shelves, it will make you want to go back to it again and again. A fine album from an artist who just goes on getting better. Out in early February. Go buy it and tell your friends.