Laura Rain and the Caesars • Closer

LRC CLOSER

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Closer

LRC, 2014

Available from cdbaby.com and amazon.com

laurarain.net

 

Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars seem to have internalized everything good about blues, R&B, funk, and soul, and in the process created something smart and soulful of their own: a retro modern vision of soul and blues music, immediately familiar yet completely fresh. This set expands on last year’s debut Electrified with more great songs, killer arrangements, a broader range of styles, and a deeper blues feeling that permeates every track.

The core group of Caesars remains the same: Ron Pangborn (drums and percussion), Phil Hale (keyboards, including left-hand “bass”), and George Friend (guitar, co-writer, recording and mixing engineer). For Closer, Rain and bandleader Friend had very definite notions about how the completed songs ought to sound, and to that end brought in ringers in some cases to achieve specific goals. The album credits list drummers Terry Thunder, Todd Glass, and Rick Beamon, with Sheila Hale on tambourine; Leon Powell and Jim Simonson (electric bass); Duncan McMillan (organ); and Johnny Evans (saxophones) and John Douglas (trumpet). This Detroit All-Star team has laid down a record that sounds full when it needs to and spare elsewhere. Uptown and lowdown, hungry, vivid, and confident, Closer is just plain badass.

In the album opener, “Seasons,” the Caesars build a funky brick house on a bone-crunching, AC/DC-worthy riff. Rain’s impassioned call-and-response vocal sanctifies the grounds. “Super Duper Love” (not the Sugar Billy song covered by Joss Stone) is a knowing, instant-classic 21st Century soul blues hit that grafts a gritty guitar break and an indelible vocal hook onto a syncopated, bass-and-organ figure that could have come straight from an early-‘80s side by Prince or Rick James. Another unforgettably catchy melody tops “Dirty Man,” an ultra-funky slice of modern-leaning, mid-tempo R&B. Slightly more classical in form, “Meet Me in the Middle” is an irresistible dance number, filled with swirling organ, hard-hitting horn blasts, and a slamming rhythm section. Rain’s phrasing and timbre are ideally matched to the song, and absolutely delicious. Her sass and enthusiasm are reminiscent of another great Detroit singer, a legend whose initials are A.F. An infectious, straight ahead blues, “Squawkin’” updates Little Milton’s immortal “That’s What Love Will Do” with an especially hip bass line, ferocious drumming, and the stinging guitar of Caesar-in-chief Friend. Rain’s on-the-money wails are heart-stoppingly effective.

The Caesars visit the deep South on several numbers. Soulful backing voices and an insistent rhythmic pulse give “He Is” a distinctly gospel-inflected, Muscle Shoals sound that would make Mavis Staples envious. Friend’s terse lead guitar neatly cuts through an atmosphere thick with electric piano and clavinet. “Awful Sin” comes straight from the swamp. A dark, brooding tonality puts the song in a class with Tony Joe White’s “Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You,” but Friend’s slinky guitar lines, wobbly with tremolo, and a greasy, ominous groove stamp it with that difficult-to-capture Staple Singers feeling. “All Of Me” could be a lost O.V. Wright or Ann Peebles record. Its bluesy groove, something like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” sets a rock-solid rhythmic hook that frees Rain to do her thing; a sophisticated middle section moves the song to another, transcendent level. Finally, still in the Royal Studio mode, “Closer” has all the hallmarks of a creamy Willie Mitchell production for Al Green. From the drumming (and the drum sounds) up through the deep-grooving electric bass, horns, Hammond organ, and spare, precise guitar, the silky feel sets the mood for Rain’s simply beautiful melody line. Lovers of Memphis soul will recognize this affectionate tribute as a great song.

Rain excels at the slowest tempos, too. With swelling horns in the deep soul tradition, tough guitar, and a stirring vocal that moves with ease from subdued to flamboyant, “Your Love Is Not Broken” evokes the depth and searing intensity of James Brown’s devastating Live at the Apollo ballads. When she hears this song, Bettye LaVette will wish she had it first. The disc ends with “My Heart is Open,” a soul ballad with all the stunning sweep and scope of a Hollywood epic and none of the schmaltz. A Marvin Gaye vibe comes across in the song’s elegant chords as outlined by Phil Hale’s piano and strings, and in its sonics, an impossible combination of intimacy and spaciousness. Much of its success rests on Laura’s amazing performance: a masterpiece of dynamics, pure, unaffected, and deeply emotional.

I tried to describe the wondrous singing of Ms. Rain in my review of Electrified (see http://alturl.com/4t3vo) and will confine myself here to reiterating that very few vocalists are in her class when the discussion gets serious about technique, instrument, emotion, and absolute freedom of expression. Laura Rain is a real soul singer, period. She is recorded better this time out as well, with frankly incredible results. The arrangements are first-rate, and the songs extend the arc of blues and soul music in unexpected ways, while paying respect to their influences. Closer is a varied album of soul and blues that could have been made by Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Johnnie Taylor. Anyone serious about soul and blues music ought to hear this meticulously crafted, heartfelt record.

TOM HYSLOP

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A.C. Myles • Reconsider Me

Myles

A.C. Myles

Reconsider Me

2014

http://acmyles.com/

 

Concentrating on his solo career after some very respectable positions as sideman, including work with Fillmore Slim and a stint with John Németh, the talented Northern California-based singer and guitarist A.C. Myles is set to release his second solo album (after a live record, now out of print) very soon. I was privileged to hear an advance copy of Reconsider Me!

Produced by Kid Andersen at his Greaseland studio, Reconsider Me! spotlights Myles’s tough guitar playing and devastating singing. Its playlist is designed to touch on some of Myles’s influences and professional associates. Nearly half of the set consists of rockers. “Livin’ A Lie” owes much to Johnny Winter’s flamboyant 1970s recordings. Interesting sections and tempo shifts give the song a complex, hard edge that is softened, slightly, by an anthemic, radio-ready chorus. On the pumping boogie “Three Ways To Fall,” Myles evokes the sound of Winter’s Alligator period, positively nailing his slide guitar style and vocal mannerisms. The swaggering rocker “Call ‘em All Baby” is marked by hammering piano and sweet backing vocals over the chorus, with harmonized lead guitars emphasizing its unmistakable inspiration in Southern rock. Myles turns in a fierce and funky version of Rory Gallagher’s “Do You Read Me,” and transforms “Rock My Soul” into something a bit less country-fried than Elvin Bishop’s original, tipping a hat to the revival-tent enthusiasm of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and including some very Clapton-esque guitar playing. Myles’s powerful voice is well suited to these rocking numbers, and–to judge by his enthusiastic screams–he has a blast singing them.

Blues are amply represented on Reconsider Me! Myles adapts Fillmore Slim’s superbad version of “Blue Monday” in an arrangement built on percolating drums and bass, organ and funky keyboards, and wah-wah guitar. His vocal is lovely and soulful, the guitar solo and chicken-picked fills perfectly conceived. Myles’s guitar absolutely stings on the gritty “Queen Bee,” with rubbery bends, wild double-stops, and killer instinct straight out of ‘60s-era Buddy Guy. “Death Bed Blues,” a slowish, midtempo straight blues with a relaxed shuffle feel, lands in the West Coast neighborhood of Lowell Fulson, groove-wise, with elegant guitar lines that could have come from Fenton Robinson, whose “You Don’t Know What Love Is” appears here, fleshed out with percussion and electric piano, with sublime guitar and a beautiful vocal. The entire album, in fact, is wonderfully sung, but the title track merits special attention. The country soul classic by Johnny Adams gets a simple, effective arrangement of rhythm section, organ, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and guitar, and while the Tan Canary is often cited as one of the best pure singers to work in blues and R&B, Myles’s performance yields nothing. Subtle shifts in timbre give his voice a country feeling; his phrasing is devastatingly expressive; and his glides into falsetto during the choruses are breathtaking. “Reconsider Me” is a show-stopper.

One number splits the difference between the rockers and the blues songs. “What Is Love” was originally done by The Loved Ones, a great and underappreciated Oakland-based band whose two albums on Hightone achieved a potent distillation of the rock-and-soul of the early Rolling Stones, the mid-‘60s R&B-on-the-cusp-of-funk of James Brown, blues attitude à la Junior Wells, and a faultless pop sensibility. Obviously Myles remembers them fondly, too, for he recreates their highly original sound flawlessly. Three cheers!

While it is likely that the purists won’t admit to liking everything here, they will surely find the blues-based material deeply enjoyable. It is also likely that those who perhaps came for the rock-inflected songs will stay to hear the soul and blues, and that non-purists will love all of Reconsider Me! That makes A.C. Myles’s new album just the sort of gateway drug I thoroughly endorse. Reconsider Me! promises to provide some of the most memorable moments of 2014.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided the review copy of this CD.

Strong

Strong

Billy Price

Strong

DixieFrog, 2013

http://billyprice.com/

www.bluesweb.com/

Billy Price should be considered a national treasure for keeping his brand of soul music alive and relevant, far beyond his home base of Pittsburgh. He has been singing professionally since the early 1970s, first with Roy Buchanan, and later with the Rhythm Kings and the Keystone Rhythm Band. Following an excellent pair of albums in which the French guitarist Fred Chapellier shared the marquee, Price has just released a new CD with his name alone at the top of the bill, in collaboration with his longtime support unit, the Billy Price Band, with some very special guests. Strong doesn’t begin to describe it.

Chapellier co-composed three tracks. “Can’t Leave It Alone” is a hard-driving number from the intersection of blues and R&B, in the manner of early-‘60s sides by Junior Wells or Willie Cobbs. The Nighthawks’ Mark Wenner blows tough harmonica and trades phrases with guitarist Steve Delach during the middle instrumental section. “Sweet Soul Music” lives up to its name with a breezy, lilting feel closer to Tyrone Davis’s immortal Brunswick sides than to the frenetic Arthur Conley classic that shares the title. Price’s testifying rides atop a bouncing groove; perfectly charted horns and Chapellier’s melodic, yet biting, guitar solo make this a standout. “Let’s Go For A Ride,” arranged with a terrific second-line beat, a rowdy horn chart, and Professor Longhair-inspired piano from Jimmy Britton, is pure New Orleans.

Britton is Price’s writing partner on the other originals. “Gotta Be Strong,” another sweet-sounding tune, is given weight by dramatic horn swells and a lyric, firmly delivered, that insists on perseverance and optimism. The horn section opens “Diggin’ A Hole” with the sultry swagger of a ’70s Hi Records hit before the arrangement tilts toward a funky, roadhouse blend of styles. The elegant ballad “The Lucky One” is another co-write with Britton, who builds a majestic piano chord progression. Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade adds crucial fills and a spot-on solo, and Price’s vocal is outstanding, now and again slipping into falsetto to accentuate the deep emotion. Price and the band turn on a love light with “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” the explosive, gospel-inflected track that closes the set.

Three covers round out the album. A fine “Driving Wheel,” funkified with clavinet and organ, and beefed up with heavy-riffing horns, shows where a tight soul outfit can take the blues. Bobby Byrd’s “Never Get Enough” is an absolute, super bad blast, with Bob Matchett (trombone) stepping forward in the Fred Wesley role, and Price, urged on by the interjections of the Nighthawks’ drummer Mark Stutso–appearing here as James Brown–displaying unbridled enthusiasm. A sublime reading of Little Johnny Taylor’s immortal slow blues “Part Time Love” finds Price singing with great force and feeling. He has to, in order to stand up to the jagged, intense guitar of guest Monster Mike Welch.

The Billy Price Band today sounds better than ever, playing with soul, maturity, and taste. Gone are the rock inflections heard on previous outings: Delach here never overstates his case, not even when soloing. Economical, punchy, and present, his playing on Strong marks a modern gloss on the spirit and feel of the genre’s defining stylists–players like Cropper, Johnson, Womack, and Hinton. And Price is at his peak. Although perhaps not blessed with the incredible instrument of his avowed favorite, O.V. Wright, Price has great technique and enthusiasm, and his voice has enough of that frayed quality so essential for soul singers; unerring instincts make him a most effective communicator.  The pitch-perfect Strong ranks among Price’s finest achievements, and ought to be remembered when year-end best lists are made.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.