Thursday, 29 July 2021

Joni Mitchell




Joni Mitchell - beloved of music writers and the cognoscenti for over five decades now - has never done it for me, for some reason that I cannot convincingly explain, other than that I have always had a problem with her quavering, high-pitched voice. 

I have long been familiar with the quirkily appealing Big Yellow Taxi and the iconic country-hippy rock  anthem Woodstock and I have loved Nazareth’s cover of This Flight Tonight since 1973. Joni herself, however, never made it to my student bedsit. Now is finally the time to  stream a whole shedload of her albums, however. I have dabbled with Carole King and Carly Simon so this doyenne of singer-songwriters is surely worth some attention, if only to see what Mojo magazine's writers and other music bloggers love so much. I will, therefore, dip into her most critically-acclaimed albums with an open mind, and will see what I hear. So many aficionados of hers can’t be wrong. I have a strong feeling that they won’t be. I won't cover them in a detailed, track by track fashion, though, more with comparatively short overviews. It is not a labour of love (like reviewing David Bowie or Roxy Music) but one of interest.


Incidentally, Joni loved a lyric about “stockings”, “fishnets” and “nylons”, didn’t she? I have listened to four albums today and must have heard at least five references to them. She doesn’t seem the stockings or fishnets type -  more a thick black tights or flowing floral dress girl.


Anyway, enough of that - give me spots on apples but leave me the birds and the bees...


Song To A Seagull (1968)


Joni Mitchell's David Crosby-produced debut was quiet, coffee-house acoustic and peaceful, featuring songs with an attractive mix of late sixties hippy-ish lyrics together with tender characterisations and observations. It is packed full of atmosphere and potential and shouldn't be written off a "just the debut album that no-one bothers about much". It is pretty deep and meaningful for 1968. Yes, some of the lyrics are a bit naive and earnest, but Mitchell was comparatively young when she wrote them, so that would be expected. The lovely Sisotowbell Lane stands as a beautiful example of the superb embryonic songcraft on display here as does the equally charming Michael From Mountains and The Dawntreader too. Charming - that's a good description for this amiable album.


Clouds (1969)


This was a very acoustic, folky album that was also quite beautiful. There are some seriously appealing songs on here - Chelsea Morning, Both Sides Now, Tin Angel, That Song About the Midway and I Don't Know here I Stand are particular standouts. Admittedly, the ambience doesn't change much throughout the album - it is solid 1969-style acoustic folky balladry from beginning to end, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, if you are in that sort of mood. There is always a place for reflective, thoughtful and sensitive albums like this. I must make reference to the marvellously atmospheric and airy Chelsea Morning, which is another of Joni's songs that I have been familiar with for a long time and I really like it, as I do the excellent covers of it by both Fairport Convention and Neil Diamond. 


Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)


This was a sort of precursor to Blue in that it is largely acoustic guitar and piano backed, but it is far less emotionally desperate, lyrically,  although it is still deep and thoughtful. The album has its disarming fun moments in the ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi and the sound-alike Conversation and then there is Joni's haunting version of Woodstock (her own song, of course) which remains supremely evocative too. (Big Yellow Taxi is completely unrepresentative of Joni's work overall, it must be said). Morning Morgantown is also peacefully lovely, For Free is very Neil Young-ish and there is nothing on here that is impossible to like - it is all good. It is a peaceful, early summer morning album. Check out the folkiness of The Priest as well, it could almost be Fairport Convention. The Circle Game is also an excellent song.

Blue (1971)


I am sure this was voted “the best album of all time” in some poll or other - Rolling Stone or somewhere. Well, I’m not so sure about that. It is a bleak, somewhat lo-fi acoustic album made of songs detailing Mitchell’s break-up with Graham Nash and problems with David Crosby. It is her “divorce-split-up” album, her Blood On The Tracks - where she lays her soul bare, moaning and agonising about multiple issues. She had a fine address book, didn't she? Nash, Crosby, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Jaco Pastorius among others. No wonder she got a bit mixed-up. 

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing remotely “good-time” about the album - no relief anywhere and, for that reason (among others), it would not seem to be an album to return to too often. It is too emotionally fraught and also musically quite cold and stark, although I appreciate the pure feelings of many of the lyrics. Personally, though, I much prefer Joni with a full backing band sound, and a jazziness too, as can be found on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Court And Spark. I have to say that I love the sheer blueness of the cover (I like colour-coded album covers, where the colours suit the work’s themes). Obviously she wrote This Flight Tonight, and it is a great song, but Nazareth’s version knocks spots off it. Other highlights are the moving Little Green (about a child she put up for adoption), the winsome, orchestrated Carey, the evocative River, California and the chunkiest number on the album (comparatively) in A Case Of You, written about Leonard Cohen, apparently.


For The Roses (1972)


Things liven up a little (well only slightly) on this more melodic and playful offering (again, only at times) although it is still essentially Joni as singer-songwriter accompanying herself. She does let the full band in, though, on several occasions - the upbeat highlight being the catchy and slightly Dylanesque You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio and also half way through Blonde In The Bleachers, when drums and saxophone suddenly kick in. Barandgrill is a fine song too, as is the plaintive Let The Wind Carry Me.  I  can’t help but carry a torch for Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire’s vague funkiness. Don't get me wrong - this is still a largely serious, contemplative album and one that sees Joni getting stuck into environmental and human rights issues in places as opposed to personal ones. I like this album a lot, and it is one that has remained somewhat overlooked. I much prefer it to Blue, which will horrify many, no doubt.


Court And Spark (1974)


This is where Joni gets jazzy, to an extent, and it is very much to my taste. It is something that would be utilised even more on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but it is definitely creeping in here. After the minimalism of Blue, I find it a huge relief to hear some other backing other than acoustic guitar or sparse piano. The result is an attractive mix of Mitchell’s typically meaningful balladry with CSNY-style country rock and light jazz grooves. I can also hear an influence on Joan Armatrading floating around here, and also on some of the folk rock ballads of Steeleye Span. I am sure that many probably wouldn’t notice this bit that is what I hear in it. The emotional pull of Blue has not gone, but there is a smoother, more cohesive feel about proceedings here that gives it more appeal to me. There are still plenty of angsty love songs present, but here they are delivered in a warm, almost Bacharach style with soft brass backing, occasional electric guitar and drums. I just find it all more accessible than Blue.


Highlights are the delicious Free Man In Paris, the subtly bassy People's Parties, the sumptuous Trouble Child, the Georgie Fame-esque Twisted and the upbeat and catchy but also easy-going Car On A Hill. To be honest the whole album is reassuringly pleasant. Oh, and she rocks on Raised On Robbery too. Incidentally, Bob Dylan is said to have fallen asleep when Joni played him the album. 


The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)


This is a really good album. I am a fan of Mitchell when she uses a full band backing, and we get it here, albeit mostly understated, although she rocks out a bit on the excellent In France They Kiss On Main Street and goes tribal on the surprising African-drum groove of The Jungle Line, that has Joni sounding like early Roxy Music meeting Adam & The Ants. You get some warm, subtle bass lines on here and some peaceful, seductive numbers like The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow. The former track features some lovely brass and keyboard work. For me, her lyrics are given life by the backing, whereas on, say, Blue and Ladies Of The Canyon, they can come across as more harsh and stark. This is just the way her music relates itself to me. 


I love the light, slow jazziness of The Boho Dance - really good stuff, great lyrics, great sound. The same applies to the solid jazz grind of Harry’s House - Centerpiece. The whole album is a real grower, full of hidden depths, cadences, lyrics and a subtle cleverness of conception that makes it one of her best albums, for me. I’m just annoyed that it has taken me so long to let it into my life. 


Hejira (1976)


This was where Mitchell got more blatantly jazzy in influence - the album is dominated by jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius's rubbery, fretless bass. She replaced rock musicians with more jazz-oriented ones and the result is a far more laid-back, relaxing, chilled-out album. It is - perhaps almost stereotypically - the product of a road trip Mitchell took with a couple of blokes - one of whom became her lover (or maybe both of them did, man, who knows). Several of the songs are inspired by her thoughts generated along the way. Typically seventies, wasn't it? The sound of the album is timeless, fitting into no musical trends or genres. This along with the previous two and the next one, form the group of Mitchell albums that I like the best.

Coyote is loose and easy in its acoustic and bass jazzy way and check out Jaco Pastorius's lovely bass and harmonica on the gentle Furry Sings the Blues. A Strange Boy is lyrically beguiling and musically mysterious too. Hejira features some fine jazzy clarinet. Song For Sharon is beautifully laid-back too. Black Crow's urgent guitar strummings are as close as she gets to rocking here. It is pretty much cool, airy, thoughtful stuff all the way.


Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)


This was a somewhat sprawling, very experimental acquired taste of a double album here  - made so to a great extent by the side long and actually quite tedious indulgence (only in places, I might add) of Paprika Blues, which is probably eight or so minutes too long, at sixteen of them. I love the superb rock drums and clarinet bit fourteen minutes in though! The music largely continues in the same vein as its predecessor, although the emphasis is more on noodly, improvised jazz stylings and rhythmic innovations than before. Jaco Pastorius is still on bass, however, which is never a bad thing. Overall I prefer the more concise, cohesive vibe of Hejira, but I have to concede that there are several hidden depths to be found within this album's detailed tapestries that demand repeated listens. 


Otis and Marlena is an intriguing track, as is Talk To Me, and Joni's musicians dabble in African rhythms on the intoxicating The Tenth World - a track that can't really be credited to Mitchell - and also on the excellent Aboriginal-inspired Dreamland (that features Chaka Khan on vocals). Paul Simon must have been influenced by this, surely? Even Joni's phrasing and vocal delivery sounds like him. The vaguely Dylan and Van Morrison-esque stream of consciousness Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a fine track too, as is the gently seductive Off Night Backstreet, with its sumptuous bass line. Overall, the jazzy expressiveness that would be given free rein on Mingus, two years later, began here, for sure. It is probably worth saying that this album was released at the height of punk. A more incongruous offering you couldn't hope to hear - but it is a thoroughly intriguing one.


Mingus (1979)


A slightly bizarre coupling sees the always keen on jazz Joni get in the studio with jazz legend Charles Mingus for six freestyle jazz numbers punctuated by short interjections of Mingus's aged growling about this and that. It makes for a bit of an uncohesive listen, but despite finding it pretty much unlistenable on first listen it grew on me quite a lot, especially the lively fun of the Dry Cleaner From Des Moines and Joni's take on Mingus's classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. A Chair In The Sky is subtly seductive and The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey is beguilingly bizarre. The supremely talented Jaco Pastorius’ beautifully rubbery bass playing is top-notch throughout. Check it out on a good sound system - it’s awesome. 


Beware - some of it grates a bit, but give it a chance and its status as a unique creation of experimental avant-garde music will start to shine through. This came out at the height of punk-new wave, remember. A very brave move. 


Wild Things Run Fast (1982)


Three years after her avant-garde jazz experimentation, Joni Mitchell was back with what many have considered to be her "rock album". It is to a certain extent - as tracks like the riffy Wild Things Run Fast and an almost punky cover of (You're so Square) Baby I Don't Care prove. It is certainly odd to hear big guitar and drum backing on a Joni Mitchell album, that is for certain.

However, the old beguiling lyricism is still there and some nice, laid-back songs are also present, many containing a Court And Spark-style jazziness. The mix of Chinese Café and Unchained Melody is lovely and Ladies Man is equally impressive. Some winsome clarinet punctuates parts of the album and the whole things is eminently listenable and really enjoyable. I much prefer this, along with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (and several others if I'm honest) to her widely-regarded best album, Blue. It is a fine album that suits my taste perfectly. If that doesn't tally with most critics' views then so be it.


Dog Eat Dog (1985)


Well, it was 1985 after all. What did artists do in that period? Exactly - they put out albums dominated by synthesisers and programmed drums - The Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Dylan, Genesis, Paul McCartney did it, along with many others I am amazed that Joni Mitchell did too, however. She too became infected, big time. Why oh why? Listen to Good Friends and Fiction as Joni goes all stadium rock with synthy drums, power riffs and echoey male soulful backing vocals. The same applies to Tax Free. Joni now sounds like Pat Benatar, Jennifer Rush or occasionally Chrissie Hynde. Even the cover has her looking like Cyndi Lauper (if indeed it is her). Dog Eat Dog harks back to earlier times but is couched in full-on eighties backing. I can't help but like the infectious Shiny Toys too, as I also do the beguiling Ethiopia. Impossible Dreamer is probably the album's best track, though.


I guess many long-time Mitchell fans will be appalled by this and I completely understand why, but, taken in context it is actually (surprisingly) an album that I can listen to, albeit while simultaneously acknowledging its inherent weaknesses. It is a purists' nightmare. 

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Split Enz

 













Some intriguing, challenging and highly different albums here from New Zealand's finest....

Mental Notes (1975)


They arrived on the scene as a weird lot, Split Enz - with bizarre hairdos that stuck out at incongruous angles, particularly oddball singer Phil Judd. On the cover here they all have ties on (very un-1975) but the hair was soon to arrive. Their music had neo-classical influences and also from Genesis (I'm thinking particularly of Supper's Ready and Get 'Em Out By Friday), Pink Floyd and Italian prog rock (Le Orme and Banco Del Mutuo Socorro). It was supposedly “art rock”. To me, they were, despite a few slight early Roxy Music and sixties-early seventies Bowie influences dotted vaguely around - especially on the end of Maybe - far more proggy to my ears and distinctly pretentious. This album - claiming to be influenced, in true prog rock quasi-intellectual fashion, by Mervyn Peake’s weirdo Gormenghast trilogy - was, to me, a load of old tosh. Judd’s vocals are at times utterly preposterous, as the New Zealander adopts a madcap upper class English accent, for some reason. While there are definitely some fine, inspired pieces of proggy classical-style keyboard and rock guitar musicianship to be found on the album (the drummer is good too), the overall ambience is one of wilful nonsense, particularly lyrically. If you think I’m going to analyse all the songs, think again. I do quite like the rock-funk of So Long For Now, though, but if you want to know why punk came along, just take a listen to this. All that said, by the third listen I am finding it is growing on me, to an extent, particularly the excellent Walking Down The Road with its fine guitar work, but it remains an album I listen to out of curiosity as opposed to for pleasure. 


Dizrhythmia (1977)


Split Enz by 1977 - now minus the demented Phil Judd -sounded like Supertramp, Sparks, 10cc and early Roxy Music and they were also in posession of a few pre-post punk dense basslines. Some Beatles-ish brass appears too and My Mistake sounds a lot like Cockney Rebel's Mr Soft as well. With all those diverse, eclectic influences it was a virtually impossible album to categorise, and had zero cultural relevance as punk took its febrile hold in 1977. I am literally not sure who bought this album back then, but a fair few people did. The group played my local rock club - Friars, Aylesbury - and they seemed to go down really well. Either way, this was certainly a much better album than the dreadful Mental Notes, being in possession of a really robust, pounding drum sound and plenty of art-rock innovation. I have a bit of a problem with the somewhat histrionic vocals, however, and at times the album gets worryingly vaudevillian - far too much for my liking. I find that, a bit like prog rock, all the tracks have good moments, but they are allied with some bloody awful passages too. Try as I might, I honestly just don’t know what to make of it or how to analyse it. Even now. Back in 1977, I simply had no time for it, at least now I have given it a few listens, I guess!

True Colours (1980)


By 1980, the group had completely re-invented themselves and released this excellent new wave album. All the indulgent eccentricities of their proggy years had been ditched and they now sounded like an amalgam of The Cars and XTC with The Attractions' reedy keyboard sound and a sneery early Joe Jackson vocal. Post punk-ish keyboard-driven instrumentals were on here too - it really is an excellent little album and one that, apart from its popular singles I Got You and I Wouldn't Dream Of It passed me by at the time. That was a shame because it's great. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn are now collaborating perfectly, with the former showing his knack for a catchy tune that would serve him well as he progressed to Crowded House. 

Listening to this, the group are totally unrecognisable from their earlier, oddball incarnation and they are all the better for it, finding both commercial success and credibility. The album stand as one of the finest examples of new wave merging into post punk. Nice one. 


If you want to read a proper fan (and a New Zealander)'s take on the group, check out Graham Fyfe's excellent review blog -


https://albumreviews.blog/reviews/new-zealand-music-reviews/split-enz/


Donna Summer




Some interesting albums from the soon-to-be disco diva. Follow her progression with these four....

Love To Love You Baby (1975)

This is a strange album, containing just six tracks. 

Five of them serve as a vehicle for the monumental, sixteen minute, highly erotic Love To Love You Baby.The track is a classic of sensual slowed down disco funk and the album is worth having for that one alone. It includes some excellent bits where the music strips down to just a throbbing bass and light, cymbals percussion before the wah-wahs kick in. The keyboard bits are atmospheric too, in a grandiose Euro-disco sort of way.

There is some merit is the rest of it, though, particularly the urgent but loose funk of Need A Man Blues and also 
the soulful, airy Whispering Waves and the chunky soul of Pandora's Box
The Aretha Franklin-esque Full Of Emptiness is somewhat over-orchestrated, however. None of these tracks are particularly memorable, though and one cannot help but feel that a few more tracks could, and should, have been added to the album.

I Remember Yesterday (1977)

This was an album that again saw Donna Summer really "going disco" as she merged contemporary Euro-influenced electronic disco grooves and sweeping nostalgic orchestration with various previous musical styles - the irresistible forties swing of I Remember Yesterday (which appears in two very similar versions on the album), the early sixties rock 'n' roll feel of Love's Unkind (which I really love) and the sixties girl group pop sound of Back In Love Again. I recall I Remember Yesterday from the time quite clearly, along with Love's Unkind - bringing nostalgic memories for me as well for the singer. 

Moving then from the past to the present - the old side two was upbeat modern funk, such as the cookin' Black Lady and the sexy wah-wah sound of Take Me. This was as much the sound of 1977-78's discos (along with Grace Jones) as anything from Saturday Night Fever. Can't We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over) is a beatifully-lush late-night soul ballad. Lest I forget - the album also contained the superb Moroder-Bellotte futuristic electro-disco glory of I Feel Love. The sounds on that track are just fantastic. It is a great, great, utterly mighty record, as indeed is this whole album. Who said that you couldn't get credible disco albums? It certainly wasn't me.


Once Upon A Time (1977)


In 1977, people thought disco artists could not put out credible albums, let alone double albums! Donna Summer did just that here - and it was a concept album as well. A brave move indeed. Built around the Cinderella tale, it is a linked progression of disco-ish songs and ballads with a bassy beat that tell the age-old story in a contemporary disco setting. None of the songs particularly standout, but in the context of one flowing album, they work particularly well. It is a very easy album to listen to, with a fine flow and cohesion - all the tracks segue into each other pretty much. 

The musicianship is top-notch, with some great baselines and melodious orchestration. Donna’s voice is superb throughout and the whole thing really is a very fine creation indeed. I have to admit I have really enjoyed listening to it. It is the most underrated and intelligent album, packed with atmosphere, and certainly something that many haughty critics would have said that a predominantly disco artist would not have been capable of. The same criticisms were levelled at Grace Jones, and she proved them wrong too.


Bad Girls (1979)


This is a great album, I have to say. It was another double album from Summer, too. A double disco album ? Again? Well, it is an attractive mix of upbeat, pounding and melodic disco and Aretha Franklin-inspired gospelly soul. Great bass lines and thumping drums dominate, and Donna's great voice has no trouble keeping pace. The instantly recognisable Hot Stuff and the disco funk of Bad Girls were deservedly huge bit hits - both simultaneously singalong and danceable. Dim All The Lights is a truly joyous serving of disco pop too. Journey To The Centre Of Your Heart is a classic piece of late seventies, synth spacey disco groove and One Night in A Lifetime is jazzily seductive despite its upbeat melody. Check out those funky disco grooves on Can't Get To Sleep At Night. Donna could do romantic too and we get this, mid-album, with On My Honor which is a lovely dramatic ballad and the delightfully beguiling There Will Always Be A You. Get a load of the tear-jerking All Through The Night as well. My Baby Understands is a great soul song as well.


Then the disco returns with the typically Moroder glorious oomph of Our Love. Lucky recycles I Feel Love shamelessly, however, although it is still a really good track. The album ends with the excellent disco vibe of Sunset People. Once more, it is a most impressive album and one that one would imagine may get a bit tiresome, but it doesn't. The material is quality and varied throughout. 


Modern soul - assorted contemporary artists




Assembled here are several "modern soul" or soul-influenced artists (a loose category, admittedly).  They are, in order - Curtis Harding; Leon Bridges; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats; Stone Foundation; Vintage Trouble; Soulutions and The Black Pumas....

Curtis Harding - Soul Power (2014)

This was Curtis Harding's debut album, which found him pigeonholed as a "retro soul" artist, like Leon Bridges, The London Souls and Vintage Trouble. I guess that couldn't be helped, as there are huge sixties and seventies southern soul influences, from Booker T. & The MGs to Al Green and Otis Redding, with touches of Sam Cooke in places. Dig deeper into the album, though, and there is far more to it than that. There are also rock influences too, The Rolling Stones come to mind every now and again on various instrumental breaks during the album. It is actually quite a varied album, stylistically. Sixties psychedelia, funk, riffy rock, jazz. There are bits of all of them on here. It makes for a most interesting listen. In fact, I would say it is far more of a rock album than a soul one. As I said earlier, this is a very eclectic offering and an extremely impressive first outing. Harding produced the album, wrote (or co-wrote) the songs and played guitar, so it is very much his creation.

Leon Bridges - Coming Home (2015)
                                          
This is an album absolutely steeped in the r'n'b of the early 1960s - Sam Cooke, early-mid period Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding
The music is full of early Motown doo-wop backing vocals, Stax-y horns and churchy organ. Just check out the sublime Southern soul of Better Man and the pure Marvin Gaye-influenced Coming Home. Even the cover is completely retro and Bridges' sharply dressed (in a retro style) look and typical early 60s pose. It is so refreshing to hear a contemporary soul album with no drum machines, no huge manufactured overwhelming bass sound, no synthesised vocals, no syrupy vocals using quavering vocal tricks. This is just straight up early 60s soul with music played by a proper band and sung by a completely authentic voice. There is an effortless groove to some of the tracks - just listen to Brown Skin Girl and the sumptuous Smooth Sailin'. None of the tracks on here burn the house down but they get into a laid-back soulful but subtly upbeat rhythm. This is a most enjoyable, quietly uplifting album. Recommended.

Leon Bridges -  Good Thing (2018)

After 2015's phenomenally good, but blatantly sixties soul revivalist debut album, Coming HomeLeon Bridges had a bit of a problem. As good as that album obviously was, should he keep chanelling his inner Sam Cooke-mid sixties Marvin Gaye or should he break out a bit and try and reach a wider audience, while still recording material in the basic style he loved? It would seem that on this album he decided on a bit of a compromise. Yes, he has broadened things out a bit, still nostalgic in is soulfulness, but it also bears influences from seventies artists such as Al Green and  Prince in his late eighties/early nineties period. There are even some contemporary vibes in there too. Overall, though, I can't help but feel that this is Bridges' seventies-eighties-nineties-00s album, while Coming Home was his sixties one. 
Forgive You is a bassy, shuffling number but somewhat unremarkable. It sounds very much like typical 2018 r 'n' b chart material and Lions is another one hampered by its backing. You can see that Bridges is trying to appeal to a modern audience here and the same applies to If I Feels Good (Then It Must Be), with its echoes of Prince in places. In summary, however, I have to say I much prefer Coming Home and feel that this album has lost its soul to contemporary pressure somewhat. I know why Bridges has gone down that route, in a way he had to. Thankfully, the first album will always be around to listen to.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (2015)

The first album of the two below is one of those albums that receives considerable critical acclaim and is deemed "cool" to be into by the cognoscenti. Nathaniel Rateliff appeared on the Jools Holland show too, which always adds to that impression that an artist is worthy of a listen - you know, Seasick Steve, and that other bearded bloke who plays the blues and the like. Who am I thinking of? Oh yes, Rag'n'Bone Man. Rateliff is also generously bearded too, as it would happen. He has been around since 2002 playing bluesy rock, but this album is one that broke him to to getting the sort of critical credibility mentioned above. It was released on the legendary Stax Lebel too. 
From the first notes, however, one realises that the hype is justified. This is a bit more than any run of the mill album. I've Been Failing is a powerful, bassy number, featuring some honky-tonk barroom piano and an effortlessly soulful vocal from Rateliff. He has a Van Morrison-esque ability to sound ad hoc and almost live when singing, and he exudes a feeling of being in total control of his band. This song is probably his most obviously Morrison-influenced one (from the early seventies Celtic soul period). S.O.B. starts with some sonorous, deep drums and gospelly handclaps before it literally breaks out like a bat out of hell before dropping down to the rhythm again and then is is back up again. A very unusual, inventive song - I have never really heard its like before. Yes, the music is revivalist in many ways, but in other ways it is quite unique. What a great album.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats - Tearing At The Seams (2018)

After a truly excellent first album from his Night Sweats band (he had released other earlier albums but not with this band), generously-bearded Nathaniel Rateliff returns with another dose of horn-driven, bluesy, original r'n'b rock. Rateliff had been releasing Americana-style rock for about ten years before reinventing himself with this large ensemble as a 1960s soul revivalist. This made him "credible" and he became one of the artists people like to name-drop and say they saw live, and so on. His albums are excellent, though, although you get the impression that he is one of those Springsteen, Southside Johnny-type artists who are infinitely better on stage, coming alive in away they just do not so much in the studio. (On the cover he looks like a Mennonite elder as opposed to a soul rocker, though). 
Say It Louder is just sumptuous, with a delicious Steve Cropper-influenced guitar backing and an irresistible Atlantic-Stax soul feel to it. This is the sound that Steven Van Zandt and The Disciples of Soul tried to achieve back in 1983. Rateliff does it even better, with a fuller, bassier sound. Van Morrison's influence is here, big time, all over Still Out The Running, with real echoes of Madame George on the vocal delivery, and Daring Night too - I'm always going to love that. Overall, however, this is another highly recommended album.

Stone Foundation - Away From The Grain (2010)


Stone Foundation are an English band formed by Neil Sheasby and Neil Jones in 1997. They have been an impressively prolific band and also a most talented one. Paul Weller loves them and so do I. They all look like "proper geezers" too, don't they. Promoting themselves as American deep soul with a Midlands edge, Stone Foundation's debut* was an attractive mix of gritty rock-soul, Northern Soul grooves, Chairmen Of The Board, Al Green, Paul Weller and Style Council influences and big early Dexy's Midnight Runners brass breaks. Throw in some hints of Ocean Colour Scene too. It is an appealing amalgam of soul and punchy horn-driven rock.


* I've just found out that the band released two albums before this, but I have been able to source them.


Northern soul legend Nolan Porter guests on a couple of tracks. Tracing Paper is very Northern Soul meets The Style Council and is quite irresistible. Right Track is great too, as is These Dreams (Of You)Musically, there is lots of the afore-mentioned brass, some winning soulful organ, lovely deep bass lines and Memphis-style Steve Cropper-esque guitar. There is the occasional trumpet solo too. Dogtooth is a really impressive instrumental that shows off a lot of these good points. Only the odd Tales Of Terence Rigby fails to really hit the mark. The powerful, chunky riffs of Making Time get things back on track, however. As with all of their albums, it is excellent but remains slightly under the radar and for those who dig deep only.


Stone Foundation - To Find The Spirit (2014)

This album is even more Dexy's-Van Morrison in his Celtic soul era-influenced, with more of the omnipresent Weller effect, along with some ska revival-style trombone and trumpet. The music is once more joyously soulful throughout and an air of honest, retrospective but respectful simpler grass roots musicianship pervades with every note. There are also some very Van Morrison-inspired spoken reminiscence parts which, although obviously derivative, are still effective, uplifting and moving. Check out Wondrous Place. If Morrison can take me to Heaven, so does this. Glorious. Oh, and they cover the man's Crazy Love impressively too, rubber-stamping their influences. The album gets a bit psychedelically-dreamy towards the end and it loses just a bit of continuity at the beginning of Child Of Wonder's spoken part, but that is soon reined back in.


Stone Foundation - A Life Unlimited (2015)

From the very first notes of Beverley, more Van Morrison meets The Style Council meets Dexy's brassy soul is upon us. While Stone Foundation are truly excellent, they don't change much, so if you like this sort of thing you like it and you will be satisfied. 
Runs of albums like these three, that are relatively similar do not necessitate detailed, track-by-track analyses like I would do for The Beatles, David Bowie, or Queen, for example. It is simply more sumptuous, very appealing soul with a punchy edge, funky hints and bucketfuls of ska-style brass. They go a bit jazzy and improvisational in places on this one too. Listen to Speak Your Piece. These guys can play. 


It is a very difficult call to position these albums against each other and is possibly influenced by the fact that I have listened to three Stone Foundation albums in a row. This one gets better and better as it progresses. In fact, I will put this marginally above the previous one, as that tended to tail off just a bit in its second half. It may well be my favourite of all three too as I am loving it more and more with each listen. Make no mistake though, they are all damn good. Listening to these three albums for two and a half hours this morning has been a genuine pleasure, it really has. There have recently been three more Stone Foundation albums, all of which are, unsurprisingly, eminently listenable. Does much change on them? No. They know their groove and they stick to it. 


Stone Foundation - Street Rituals (2017)


Stone Foundation struck lucky in 2016 when Paul Weller got in touch with them and suggested producing their next album. They were flattered and enthusiastic about the idea and he duly did indeed produce the album, most excellently, bringing the group to a lot more peoples attention. The album has a very Weller mid-nineties feel to it, mixing Weller-style rock with seventies-style soul grooves. The result is most satisfactory I must say, and it almost plays like a Weller retro soul-themed album with a different vocalist. So much of the album is just so very Weller. Just check out the Chic meets Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes vibe of Simplify The Situation or Open Your Heart To The World for starters.


There are tracks here too, that are very Style Council as well, on their Shout It To The Top soulful mode, particularly on the organ and strings. The Limit Of A Man, for example, sounds as if it is 1984 again and TSC are swanning around in their pure white denim once more. Weller shares vocals on several of the tracks and is instantly recognisable. Soul-funk legends Bettye LaVette and Willlam Bell guest too, the former contributing some fabulously funky vocals on Season Of Change and the latter some What's Going On-influenced soul on Strange PeopleThe music is attractively deep, warm and bassy, enhanced by soulful strings and the obligatory punchy brass breaks. The rhythmic percussion on many of the tracks is impressive too, as is the soulful organ and gentle wah-wah guitar strummings. These blokes know their soul - dare I say it - their soul foundationsMany of this album's tracks are covered in more detail on the live album review that follows. To be honest I could make a case for any of them - there is not a sub-standard cut on the album.


Stone Foundation - Everybody, Anyone (2018)


If I said this was another serving of seventies-style funky soul you wouldn’t be surprised would you? Of course, that is exactly what it is. Lots of Weller-style strummed soul-funk, Blaxploitation influences and smooth late night soul are to be found on here. The group have mastered their sound by now and, although they have become somewhat formulaic, it is a formula that certainly works and is most appealing. I find I can dip in to any of their albums at any time and enjoy them, or indeed play all of their albums on random play.


Stone Foundation - Is Love Enough? (2020) 


This latest album shows just what a prolific and underrated band Stone Foundation are. As I have now come to expect, it is packed with top quality funk-soul. In Barry White, Earth, Wind & Fire or Terry Callier style it features several short instrumental interludes between the tracks. To be honest, as on all the other artists’ albums, they are pretty superfluous (and they are a bugger when they turn up for their thirty seconds in a random playlist). We get an excellent contribution from mentor or maybe just fan Paul Weller on the superbly soulful Deeper Love. This a track that just cooks on a wonderful medium heat from beginning to end. Stone Foundation know what they like, and they know what they want to record, but they don’t change much so each album brings more of the same, something that an artist like Paul Weller is not guilty of, for example. That said, I like the albums, so there you go. I like The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and UB40 and they sound the same on many occasions too.


Vintage Trouble - The Bomb Shelter Sessions (2012)


Image result for vintage trouble the bomb shelter sessionsVintage Trouble take sixties-style blues rock and turn it up to the to the max with a full-on attack and some intuitive vocals. 
Hand Me Down Blues, for example, is an absolute storming slice of searing, guitar driven blues rock that assaults your senses like someone has just attacked you with a chainsaw. The vocals are magnificent. I saw this band supporting The Who in 2013 and their sheer energy blew me away. Particularly from livewire lead singer Ty Taylor. The half full arena at the time loved them. Lots of the songs are like those classic sixties blues rock cuts but with a booming, heavy contemporary production. If you are worried about your tender ears hurting, stay well away from this! There’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd in this band too, as well as Southside Johnny, Keith Richards and Otis Redding. Plenty of guitar and blues harmonica dipped in axle grease. I am listening to this in the garden on a roasting hot afternoon and it is raising the temperature even more. This is honest, hard-working blues rock of the highest orderThis was a pretty impressive debut from a highly credible band. Apparently in a small stand up venue they are superb. Good stuff.


Vintage Trouble - 1. Hopeful Road (2015)

This is the second album from blues-soul-rock California combo Vintage Trouble. After their grab you by the whatever debut in "The Bomb Shelter Sessions". They are rather like contemporary soul artists Leon Bridges, Curtis Harding and Nathaniel Rateliff in varying ways. If you like those three, you will probably like Vintage Trouble. Yes, like those artists, they are retro, but that doesn't bother me, of course. I was born retro. I was twelve in 1971, I was already missing 1968. 
 I always enjoy Vintage Trouble's energy, irrespressible vitality and genuine soulfulness. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Soulutions - Destiny (2017)

Firstly, the album has fantastic sound quality (in contrast to another reviewer who seemed, incomprehensibly, to have a problem with it). It is clear, sharp and with a big, booming bass too. 
On the opener, Sunday Love, they quote The Jones Girls’ Nights Over Egypt, unsurprisingly, as the track has more than a feel of it about it. Their brand of smooth, late night soul is very much in that vein. Even the next track, Listen, while more bassy and upbeat, has that easy groove to it that just washes over you. All Your Love has more than a hint of Rose Royce to it at the beginning before it goes into 80s funk territory, with some excellent percussion backing and a killer bass line. The singer, Louise Mehan, has that Rufus-era Chaka Khan sound to her voice or, as I previously alluded to, the singer in Rose Royce, Gwen something? Googled it. Gwen DickeyPhilly Line (Hit The Tracks) was the song that inspired me to buy this album, when I heard on BBC Radio Newcastle’s excellent (but now defunct) “Saturday Night Soul Show”. Listening to it, you wouldn’t believe it was a group from NE England, as they sing sbout getting on the Amtrak train in New York and going to Philadelphia, while listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. It has a real 70s funky Philly sound guitar bit too. Great track. I could go on, track by track, but I’m sure you’ve got the picture by now. If you like the artists I have mentioned, give this band a listen.

The Black Pumas - Black Pumas (2019)

The group is vocalist Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada and associated other musicians. Despite their militant-sounding name, they have a refreshing attitude in that they eschew the making of political statements in favour of simply making quality soul music, which they certainly do. They are described as a "psychedelic soul" band, but I fail to detect too much psychedelic influence, it sounds more straight forward funky-ish soul, to me. There are late sixties Temptations influences in there, I guess, but I don't hear the album and instantly think "psychedelic". I think more of that Al Green-Willie Mitchell Hi Records sound. This is impressive stuff, great to hear a contemporary group sounding so respectfully retro. Not a beat box or programmed drum loop in earshot. Great horns and twangy guitar breaks in here too. Excellent. This album is an example of merging the contemporary with huge past influences. Burton's vocals remind me a lot of those of Ty Taylor of Vintage TroubleMost impressive stuff all round.