Reviews

AMY BLACK: Memphis (Reuben Records)

Friday, 28 April 2017 11:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altAmy Black hails from Nashville and the musical lure of the city took her away from a successful marketing career into music. Her first albums were pigeon-holed "Americana" –hardly surprising given her roots but in 2015 she decamped to Muscle Shoals and, working with Spooner Oldham, she recorded 'The Muscle Shoals Sessions'.

Soul had found Amy and she subsequently investigated the genre and knew she just hand to record in Memphis... hence the title of this new 10 tracker. 'Memphis' was recorded at the Electraphonic Recordings Studios and amongst the players are Hi and Stax alumni – people like Howard Grimes, Charles Hodges and Bobby Manuel while ex Bobby Bland collaborator, Marc Franklin took care of the horn and string arrangements.

Produced by studio boss, Scott Bonmar, 'Memphis' is a collection of seven original songs and three covers. The covers are versions of OV Wright's 'If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody), the blues standard 'I Need Your Love So Bad' and Bobby Bland's 'Further On Up The Road'. Given Ms Black's comparative youth, she acquits herself well on these old war horses. 'If I Could Reach Out' is particularly gratifying... a proper celebration of the old Hi sound.

Elsewhere, the stark opener, 'It's Hard To Love An Angry Man' channels the sound of Bobby Bland (he's a personal hero of Amy's) while 'Let The Light In' references the Staple Singers ... mournful, repetitive and hypnotic. On those (indeed throughout the long player) Amy Black's vocals are powerful when required but she's also learned what many young singers fail to grasp; if you tone things down at just the right moment you can still achieve maximum impact. That's what the Memphis musicians know and they and Amy combine to make a great team.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 28 April 2017 11:37

 

MORGAN JAMES: Reckless Abandon (Hedonist Records)

Thursday, 27 April 2017 18:45 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altMorgan James is a blue-eyed soulstress who bases herself in Harlem. She came to NYC to study at the Juilliard School. After graduating, Morgan worked in musical theatre and she's enjoyed star roles and rave reviews in 'Motown The Musical' and 'Godspell'. Soul is her genre of choice though and after recommendation from Berry Gordy she signed a two album deal with Epic. That culminated in her Billboard top 20 hit, 'Call My Name' – a cover of the Prince song which was endorsed by the man himself.

Now, striking out on her own, Ms James has just released a self-penned 12 song set on her own label and it's a varied piece of work on which she explores all kinds of soul styles and much more. Soul connoisseurs though might well suggest that Morgan's take on soul veers toward the poppier, rockier side of the genre. The opener, 'Up In Smoke', for instance, is busy and brash with plenty of soul instrumental clichés but it's more from the Janis Joplin School of Rock that say, the Etta James Academy of Soul. The most soulful, offering is 'Ransom' – a mournful Southern flavoured ballad – hints of Stax and Hi here.

Best of the rest are 'Making Up For Lost Love' and 'Jenny' where soul meets country; some might dub 'em, "Americana". Elsewhere 'Need Somebody' is the long player's big ballad – full of building drama – totally contemporary, yes, but there's not quite enough there to lift it above the plethora of other songs of this ilk.

Morgan James is clearly a gifted singer. You don't win a place at the Juilliard if you're not and Berry Gordy, of course, knows how to recognize a great set of pipes. However, great singers don't always make great song writers and what we need here are some really special songs to allow Morgan to show us what she can really do.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 April 2017 18:50

 

JULIA FORDHAM: The Language Of Love (Red River)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:05 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altHere's a tough pub pop music quiz question: Who had a debut UK top 30 hit in 1988 with 'Happy Ever After'? I'm sure most people would struggle to name Julia Fordham. The Portsmouth-born singer went on to enjoy a few other middling hits – the best known maybe being 'Love Moves' – and then that seems to be that! But not quite! You see shortly after 'Love Moves' was featured in the 1992 Demi Moore movie, 'The Butcher's Wife', Julia relocated to Los Angeles and resurrected her recording career, winning critical acclaim with a series of jazz-nuanced vocal long players.

Her latest album has just been released and, fittingly, as we commemorate the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, Ms Fordham tries with 'The Language Of Love' to channel the Queen Of Jazz's spirit. Julia says that Ella Fitzgerald has already covered every traditional jazz song to perfection so for her album she's chosen a set of contemporary songs to cover in the way that Lady Ella covered the Great American Songbook.

So here you can enjoy songs from artists like Blondie, Janis Ian, Sting, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles (the chosen Fabs' song, by the way, is "Eleanor Rigby'). Right now we count the highlights as new twists on 10CC's 'I'm Not In Love' and Gilbert O'Sullivan's 'Alone Again Naturally'. Ms Fordham and her producer Grant Mitchell reinvent the emotionally familiar and though she may not achieve the kind of soulful nuances that Esther Phillips achieved on her version of 'Alone Again' she does allow the bitter sweetness of the message to surface.

Never a believer in hiding her light under a bushel, Julia also includes a trio of her own songs. They are a fresh reading of her debut hit 'Happy Ever After' and two new songs penned with producer Mitchell and both 'Like You Used To Do' and 'The Morning After (The Night With You)' fit perfectly with the album's overall ambience. Indeed 'The Morning After (The Night With You)' is a wondrous piece of work. I love sad songs (I guess most of us do!) and this one just keeps on tugging at my heart strings and it lifts what was a perfectly OK covers album into something really special.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 21:12

 

DARA TUCKER: Oklahoma Rain (Watchman Music)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017 21:17 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altNashville-based Dara Tucker won plenty of friends on the soul underground with her 2014 album 'The Sun Season' and now her new long player, 'Oklahoma Rain' (Dara's 4th studio album) is set to outperform it, as once again the savvy soul media and the more discerning soul and jazz radio stations get behind Ms Tucker in an attempt to bring her sweet, melodic, heart and soul warming music to the mainstream.

The tune in the vanguard of the attack is the ab fab 'Radio'. This is feel good music of the highest order and reminds you why soul and jazz are your music genres of choice! It's one of those very rare cuts when EVERYTHING - melody, voice, lyric, ambience, production and Factor X – come together beautifully. The nostalgia quotient is high too and that always helps as first generation soul folk enter the autumn of their years!

Nostalgia is the theme to another of the album's big tunes- 'Oklahoma Rain'. With a hint of Nashville, about it, the song investigates the concept that though we would like to, the "golden" past and cherished memories of it can never be re-visited or indeed be re-created and Dara presents her thesis beautifully.

The good news is that 'Radio' and 'Oklahoma Rain' aren't the only standouts – each and every track has something special to offer. Space precludes us highlighting everything but if you enjoy the drama and emotion of Barbra Streisand then take a listen to Dara's 'The Road'. It proves that that diva doesn't have a monopoly on such things. Then there's the quite lovely, 'Heartache'. Complete with a sweet country-flavoured harmonica, it will pull at your emotions. Maybe you like soul balladry? Then try 'I Fall' – a duet with Kevin Whalum. Wonderful!

By highlighting those cuts, though, we're not doing justice to tracks like 'Anytime Your Heart Breaks' and 'Moving On' or 'All I See Is Love' or indeed any that we still haven't mentioned.

2017 is only four months old yet already we've had some great, proper, truly modern/contemporary soul albums... long players that are true to the roots of this wonderful art form yet still discover new ways to present it. I'm thinking of Brian Owens' set. Now we can add to that Dara Tucker's 'Oklahoma Rain'. Highly recommended

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 April 2017 21:26

 

DON BRYANT: Don’t Give Up On Love (Fat Possum)

Monday, 24 April 2017 13:45 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSouthern soul man, Don Bryant is unknown in the music mainstream, but to proper soul fans he enjoys legendary status. Now well into his 70s, Don began his singing career in the church (you could have guessed that, couldn't you?). When the devil's music came calling he led a Memphis vocal group, the Four Canes before joining the Four Kings who were vocalists for a young trumpeter's band. The young horn player was Willie Mitchell and when he realised that he only needed one voice out front, it was Don Bryant's that he chose. As Papa Willie came to take control at Hi (as artist, then as a songwriter, then a producer and co-owner) he had Don record his own records as well as fronting the vocal tracks credited to "Willie Mitchell". Serious soul collectors will know all about the scintillating Mitchell double A side, 'That Driving Beat'/'Everything's Gonna Be Alright'. The fiery, soul-fuelled vocal on both is Bryant. If that wasn't enough for a place in the Southern Soul Hall of Fame, then also consider that Don wrote 'I Can't Stand The Rain' for a young Hi artist, Ann Peebles. That was in 1973 and the following year Ann and Don married (they are still together, by the way). As family commitments beckoned Don put the brakes on his career but returned periodically – working more and more in the gospel arena and occasionally dueting with Mrs Bryant. Indeed it was partly Ann's inspiration that took Don back into the studio to cut this new set of songs... the 10 tracker that is 'Don't Give Up On Love'.

Recorded at Memphis' Electraphonic Studios, Don has called on plenty of old and reliable friends to help him deliver....Charles Hodges (organ), "Hubbie" Turner (keys), Howard Grimes (drums), Joe Restivo (guitar), Scott Bomar (bass)... Memphis veterans, one and all, while the brass parts are supplied by Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston of the Greg Allman band. Between them, the team cook up a seriously tasty Memphis soul stew.

You can probably guess that the spirits of Hi and Papa Willie are never far away. Indeed much of the material references those classic old tunes. 'Something About You', for, instance, seems inspired by the aforementioned 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' while the opener, 'A Nickel And A Nail' is a faithful cover of O V Wright's 1971 hit. 'I Got To Know' is even more old school. It's a version of a song that Don wrote for the 5 Royales way, way back. Think a melange of Bobby Bland, a young James Brown and some biting BB King style guitar... yes, it's that good.

However, it's the ballads, here, that provide the real album highlights and pick of the bunch is Don's take on his own song, 'It Was Jealousy' ( soul fans might know it via versions from Otis Clay and Ann Peebles). This is a defining statement of what proper soul music is all about, while the lead single, 'How Do I Get There' proves again the almighty bond that exists between gospel and soul.

The sleeve notes describe 'Don't Give Up On Love' as "yesterday's now music today...completely new but with an old soul." You know, on reflection, that says more than my previous 500 words!

DON BRYANT'S 'Don't Give Up On Love' is released on Fat Possum Records on May 12th

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 24 April 2017 13:57

 

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