LOVE IS AN ARMY
Fathead Records/Blue Elan
Music That Transcends Both the Blues and Even Soul
Although this is Janiva Magness’ 14th album I only discovered her 4 years ago and have been slowly working my way through her back catalogue ever since; so was pretty damn excited to receive two copies of her latest release……one from her American PR and the other the European one.
As usual I have to start by explaining that the Blues comes in a million shades and Janiva Magness plys her trade in the cooler more Soulful end of the spectrum.
The opening track Back To Blue is a perfect example of why Janiva was a Grammy nominee in 2016, her distinctive velvety voice soars on an absolute heartbreaker that is perfect for people of a certain age who remember the halcyon days of Dusty Springfield and Aretha in their glory years.
Things get a little more spikier on the next track Hammer; with a punchy drumbeat fighting with Charlie Musselwhite on a sparkling harmonica as Janiva ‘shakes her thang’ as the band get in a groove well worthy of the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
As is the way when you have a reputation like Ms Magness a couple of guest stars make appearances on a couple of tracks; with the legendary Rusty Young supplying some sublime pedal-steel during On And On which is a bit of a departure for the Blues Diva; but not too far left of centre that it doesn’t fit in.
Delbert McClinton makes an appearance on the lonely love song What I Could Do; taking this duet into ‘timeless territory’ and just perfect for late night radio somewhere in Lonelyville.
RMHQ favourite Cedric Burnside brings his urban Roots specialities to Home; which has a choir of Angels backing the pair on a song so atmospheric you can virtually smell the flowers on the hills as Janiva gives the powerful lyrics everything she has in her armoury.
When I played this album in the car I found myself reaching for the dial to turn the volume up a couple of notches on Tell Me, What’s That Say About You and the Gospel drenched Some Kind of Love which finds the singer alone at a piano; not because they are ‘Rockers’ but because they all deserved to give me a sensory overload; that being simple background music wasn’t fair on Dave Darling’s sparkling production.
Where to go for a favourite song? Love To a Gunfight has to be a contender with its clever lyrics and story coupled with some sublime guitar from Dave Darling, but I’m going for the classy title track Love Is An Army. As everyone knows I’m a sucker for a love song; and this one oozes lurve like an oil slick; with the words and music and most importantly the way Janiva and Bryan Stephens weave their voices around each other the song transcends both the Blues and even Soul in the way only Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson managed many years ago.
A couple of months ago I got into a heavy debate about Artistes ‘recording the same album over and over again’ versus ‘Artistes constantly changing direction and challenging themselves.’ I fall into the latter camp and find myself being proud of Janiva Magness for having the courage to make an album that is distinctively a Janiva Magness album (what else could it be with ‘that voice’?) but creating individual songs that may be out of her core fans comfort zone; although I certainly think all of their preconceptions should disappear the second time they play this album.
Here’s my forecast……..Grammy Nominee in 2016……Grammy WINNER in 2018!
Released 23rd February 2018
STATE OF GROOVE
A Red Hot and Timeless Blend of Feisty Female Rhythm, Blues, Funk and S.O.U.L
This album has very nearly gone into the Oxfam box twice in recent weeks; not because it’s no good but simply because it arrived in October 2017 when Mrs Magpie was rushed into hospital and I didn’t do any reviews for a couple of months and the 2018 pile of CD’s is growing like Topsy every day.
But……this is far too good a record to give away and in my humble opinion deserves a much wider audience than the hirsute hipsters of Jesmondia near Newcastle.
First of all I’m not too sure I like the striking artwork on the album cover; but in it’s defence it does ‘sum up the contents’ extremely well! What you see is what you get……a red, hot and timeless mix of feisty female Rhythm, Blues, Funk and S.O.U.L
With no preconceptions at all, apart from trusting the PR who sent the disc……..my stomach spun like a turbo fan the first time I heard opening track ROCKET!
Oh Lordy Lord….everything I love about R&B and Soul Music is here…..and MORE! Nikki Armstrong aka Mama SpanX has a warm, velvety and expressive vocal style and her band The Spankers (ooh, err Missus!) Rock, Roll and Swing like a cross between The Swampers and Count Basie’s Big Band……and that’s only a slight exaggeration.
Seeing me making a cup of coffee earlier Mrs. Magpie giggled “What are you doing?” As I was shuffling my feet and actually ‘shaking my thang’ as Wild Emotion filtered out of the office speakers on the other side of the house. Caught in the act; I kept on dancing regardless of how silly I looked; it’s that good a song and too good an opportunity to miss, regardless of the location.
When she wasn’t watching I secretly danced again to the Funkylicious Being Beautiful and Alligator Boogaloo and then again on the title track State Of Groove; because that’s what this music is for……DANCING and you will too.
Mama SpanX can get low down and dirty too by the way; with Crawl and Thinkin’ being the sort of late night Bluesy/Soul crossover that is perfect for both seduction purposes and also crying your heart out into your beer when it all goes horribly wrong!
Before I get onto my ‘favourite track’ I have to heap copious praise on the Spankers; without whom this album wouldn’t be half as good….Harlan Spector’s keyboard playing is exceptional and holds the whole sound together and the horn section ….Steve Sadd and Julie Sax make a big, big sound worthy of the best in Memphis; and Ross Mullen on a six string fretless bass (?) alongside drummer David Abercrombie combine to create controlled thunder in the background while Steve Johnson provides virtual lightning on guitars throughout.
As I say I love the dance tunes here; but the two songs that tie for ‘favourite track status are the Power Ballad Wrong Side of the Garden; which is a thrill a minute and promises to be a guaranteed showstopper when sung live; yet the other finds Nikki Armstrong singing the lyrics to the heart breaking Anywhere You Are over a very gently played piano. Simple, yet emotionally destructive……just like Soul music should be.
Where do I start and stop comparing the Mama SpanX ‘sound’? Classic acts as diverse as Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Tower of Power and even Sly and the Family Stone sprung to mind at various times playing this record; but so did RMHQ Favourites the James Hunter Six and of course the late lamented Miss Sharon Jones of Daptone Records fame……and Mama SpanX and the Spankers could easily sit comfortably in any of that company.
Released October 31st 2017
Lamont Dozier and Jo Harman
REACH OUT (I’ll BE THERE)
One of the joys of being a Roots Music fan is getting to see and hear the writers of world famous songs, singing their own words; and here we have a new taster of an ‘UNPLUGGED’ album by the legendary Lamont Dozier.
Duetting with RMHQ favourite Jo Harman on the Four Tops Classic REACH OUT (I’ll BE THERE)and the result is spellbinding; leaving me salivating at the prospect of not just a whole album in the same style but a UK tour too.
“Lamont’s album, ‘Reimagination’, is an acoustic re-interpretation of some of Lamont Dozier’s most famed compositions, set to be released in early Spring. The record, which includes cameo appearances from many industry notables such as Gregory Porter, Sir Cliff Richard, Graham Nash, Todd Rundgren, Rumer and more, is followed, in June, by a first ever solo UK tour for this legendary figure from the world of Motown. The tour will be an evening of unplugged acoustic backing to Lamont’s own versions of these iconic songs with music direction by bandleader/producer Fred Mollin. Lamont will be telling the stories behind these classic songs. Jo Harman will be a featured addition to the performances.”
James Hunter Six
WHATEVER IT TAKES
The Hottest Rhythm, Blues & Soul Album of The Year By FAR!
Oh dear Lord! It appears that I’ve been a fan of James Hunter for over thirty years!!!! THIRTY YEARS! And he still looks so handsome and so young; life’s just not fair, is it?
James; or Howlin’ Wilf as we knew him then was and still is a regular visitor to the Jumpin’ Hot Club on Tyneside and I’ve not missed many gigs in that time, plus I’ve seen him and the band in London Town twice; first at the Jazz Cafe and also on my birthday at Ronnie Scott’s club which was a dream come true for me and Mrs Magpie.
So here we have his his sixth album under his own moniker and second on the majestic Daptone label; and (spoiler alert) there’s not been a lot of messing about with that winning formula at all; the James Hunter Six are as smooth and double-cool as ever; as opening song I Don’t Wanna Be Without You proves…..the notes actually melted as they seeped out of the RMHQ office stereo.
Freshly married; James serenades his lady with a sublime love song that will make even the coldest of cold hearts skip a beat.
The title track Whatever It Takes follows; and the songwriter takes a step back as he woos the woman in his life by apologising for some unknown misdemeanour with a love song deluxe and a simply swinging groove from the boys on saxophones, as is to be expected.
Next out of the traps is I Got Eyes is a jumping jive of a track, with Hunter performing his trademark strangulated yodel on each and every chorus, in a way only he can make ‘cool.’
If I’m wrong I’m sure James will quickly be on my case, but I can’t remember an instrumental before but we get an absolute doozy here; Blisters allows the boys in the band to show case their sublime skills on a track that’s worthy of any of the Blue Note albums in my collection.
Without ever being saucy in the slightest but this is very much a record of ‘grown up’ love songs; ones that ‘actually mean something’ and make ‘you think’ about your own relationships; which is the power of the man’s timeless songwriting; as Show Her and How Long will prove to even the casual listener.
As is the case with all of the James Hunter/Howlin’ Wilf albums in my collection there’s not a single bad track here; with a couple lifting themselves above the others to the for the RMHQ Favourite Track accolade; MM…Hmm and Don’t Let Pride Take You For a Ride. The former is a lovely slipping and sliding smooth as silk late night smoocher and the latter is a rip-snorter of an R&B dance tune, and a mighty fine song that we can all take heed from.
To the uninitiated I’ve never been sure who to compare The James Hunter Six to (Van Morrison? Not really, BB or Freddy King? Again, no); or even pigeon hole their music…..it’s Rhythm & Blues for sure, and it has found a perfect home at Daptone Records; but our friend from the badlands of Essex has a voice so soulful you’d swear he was born and bred in Harlem; and the band are as tight as a badger’s bum; which is what you’d expect from guys who have toured the world together for as long as I can remember, bringing joy to audiences far and wide; which is just what this album will do too.
Released February 2nd 2018
A Scrumptious Blues and Soul Gumbo With a Side Order of Country Too.
Do you ever hear an artist or band’s name and can’t remember why you know it; but you just know you like their work? Well; it happens ever so often at RMHQ (possibly because I’m getting old!) and such is the case with Jeffrey Gaines. I don’t appear to own a single track of his and two phone calls later I’m 99% sure I’ve never seen him play live either so this is all new to me (or is it?).
Anyway; the lovely artwork on the CD cover instantly caught my attention; and as I’ve said before would have made me pick it out of the rack in a Record Shop; which is usually a good sign; and in this case Track #1 the mellow magic of Feel Alright bares my ‘gut feelings’ out again. Gaines has a pleasing crossover vocal manner, blending Sweet, Sweet Soul with a Bluesy rasp around the edges; and how cool is his guitar playing and the band behind him?
This is immediately followed by the rakishly romantic love song Firefly Hollow, which conjures up images of young love on a Saturday night somewhere warm and sultry in a small town somewhere in the Southern states of the USA.
With that mood in mind; let’s jump forward a couple of tracks to the uptempo and feisty Promise of Passion…..Oooohhheeee…..imagine what might have happened if Bruce had recorded a follow up to The River in a stifling Memphis studio and this could have been the lead track. Seriously; it is THAT GOOD!
Gaines takes us on a real switchback of emotions with gorgeous ballads like Bjorn Toulouse and the heart shredding No Longer which is perfect for late night radio play.
But the guy can Rock too; albeit in a tightly wrapped and usually intense manner (this is the Blues after all). Sparks must have come off his guitar during the recording of Frowned Upon and later on Thick and Thin that River period Bruce springs to mind again, as the song has a cool melody and a hook to die for; plus even more sparky and sparkling electric guitar interplay.
Selecting a ‘favourite track’ isn’t always easy; especially in these days when bands no longer need a single for radio play; but Children’s Games which closes the album is far too good a song to be left hidden on a record. A moody, slow and deeply personal love song all rolled into one; what’s not to like?
Oh for the days when I had my radio show; as this album would easily be the backbone to several shows in the next couple of months.
Only three plays in and I’m already in love with Jeffrey Gaines soulful strut; and can’t imagine why it’s taken him 15 years since his last release to come up with this delicious gumbo of Blues and Soul with a side order of Country too.
Released January 26th 2018
Cool Rhythm and Blues From Soulful Guitarist.
Even if I hadn’t already been aware of Greg Sover the cover of this CD caught my attention before I’d even heard a note; and opening track Emotional genuinely justified my choice to slip it into the Hi-Fi on a day when I received albums from several household names.
The Blues comes in many, many variants and we will each have our favourite format; but the slick voiced singer and red hot guitarist easily straddles the Soulful Rhythm and Blues style that I’ve loved for 40+ years. Think a pumped up George Benson or Robert Cray and you will understand why I swiftly turned the dial up to 9 that first and subsequent days.
Sover slows things down and dirty on the next track Jubilee; which features his awesome slide guitar and sizzling harmonica from Mikey Junior; and the song itself is pretty damn fine too.
The Philly native really shows his Soulful side on the sweet and tender Hand on my Heart which is the type of crossover song that not only wins fans of all ages; but wins awards too.
I Give My Love is a bit of a left of centre surprise as it’s a little bit Reggae and a little bit Blues-Lite but features some spellbinding guitar playing on a very danceable tune; especially if you’ve had a bellyful of rum.
Oddly enough for a 7 track EP JUBILEE manages to feature an edited version of Hand on My Heart as a closer; possibly for radio consumption, albeit a minute and a half shorter there’s not a lot of difference between the two versions.
Also there’s a live track Temptation; slow and sultry at heart but with guitar breaks that will blow any cobwebs out of your head; and boy does it showcase Greg Sover’s amazing voice and songwriting too.
Which then brings me to my ‘favourite track’ As The Years Go Passing By, the type of sensual yet cool Blues that you’d expect from Albert Collins or Robert Cray (whom I mentioned earlier) but ooh, ooh, ooooh is this the perfect accompaniment to a late night liaison with the love of your life; or perhaps that’s just the romantic in me.
As well as loving his previous album, Greg Sover was a featured artiste on the International Blues Artist of the Year 2018 album I reviewed a few weeks ago; and now I’m a fully committed fan.
Released January 8th 2018
IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK
A 21st Century Soul Classic.
In the week my home city of Newcastle in NE England is celebrating a full year commemorating the Rev’d King being awarded the Freedom of our City 50 years ago in 1967; and a speech he made condemning the racism that blighted his home country, one of the most famous names in Soul Music Mavis Staples is releasing an album of powerfully political songs on the same heinous subject that still plagues America.
Is it wrong to use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the opening song Little Bit? Possibly but it most certainly is beautiful, in a tragic way that Ms. Staples tells her tale of a young black person’s woes in travelling at night.
To some degree it’s difficult for me, as near 60 year old white man in the North of England to truly understand where the writer is coming from with songs like Peaceful Dream and the amazing title track If All I Was Was Black; but as a working class man with a Social and Socialist conscience I can sympathise and even empathise with every ounce of passion and indeed L-O-V-E that Mavis Staples oozes across every second.
There’s a restrained anger on more than a couple of songs, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched the TV News over the last couple of years; yet on Try Harder, No Time For Crying and especially Build a Bridge Mavis shows great compassion and hope for the future in a way that pulls at the heartstrings but makes you really, really think too.
It’s possibly because I’d been listening to this album on the day I visited 3 photography exhibitions as part of the Freedom City Celebrations; but one song here captured my attention above all others; Peaceful Dream is a Gospel infused acoustic Folk Song which paraphrases Dr. Kings most famous speech but is so damn infectious it had me shuffling my feet and desperately wanting to punch the air with a clenched fist!
I’ve no idea what’s happening in the Hip-Hop culture but this album and Otis Taylor’s Fantasizing About Being Black from earlier in 2017 both show there is a valid place in contemporary music for a Black Protest Album; especially when they are of the quality of these two.
Jeff Tweedy’s production is both flawless and sensitive throughout; turning a potentially ‘angry’ set of songs into a glorious rallying call for not just Social Change but Peace, Love and Understanding too.
Released November 17th 2017
The Vietnam War (Soundtrack)
A Snapshot Of a Time That Changed Our Lives and The World.
Does the world need another compilation of 60’s Rock and Pop music? Hardly; and much like you I probably already own 90% of the songs on this double album; so why bother RMHQ reviewing it?
Well; this album is the Soundtrack to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s amazing 10 part BBC documentary on the Vietnam War; starting with the build up and ending (I think) with the aftermath and re-building; and talking to people that were involved from every perceivable side and these songs are used to set the scene for some key parts.
With that in mind I’ve tried to clear my brain of any preconceptions and listen to the songs as if they were brand new to me; as they were to the teenagers in the 1960’s who were either being drafted and fighting a seemingly never ending war in a country they couldn’t find on a map; or the ones left at home in America protesting against it.
Put into that context Dylan’s A Hard Rain which opens proceedings on Side #1 is mind-blowing and when you listen carefully…..bloody hell……it’s still relevant in 2017!
This is followed by a Country song that I’d not heard before, Hello Vietnam written by Tom T Hall and sung by Johnnie Wright. WOAH……what a brave song to write and release in 1965; just two songs in and you realise that this compilation is really quite special.
Normally I would have expected to hear We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place by the Animals; but here we get It’s My Life a far more intimate and intense song and is perfect for the portion of the film it’s included in.
An album like this is bound to have plenty of ‘obvious tracks’……but hearing the Staple Singers with Masters of War sent a tingle down my spine, and Nina Simone growling Backlash Blues is worth the entrance fee alone.
There are plenty of what went on to become Classic Rock tracks like Are You Experienced, Strange Brew, Piece of My Heart, Magic Carpet Ride and Gimmee Shelter; but when juxtaposed with Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Thrill is Gone and Otis smouldering with rage on Tell The Truth you get a whole new objective on what have become commercial pop songs on Gold Radio stations.
As well as the three Bob Dylan inclusions, a key part of the documentary is the recounting of the riot at Ohio State University and Ohio by CSN&Y is the actual cornerstone of this magical double album.
I will repeat myself by saying the difference between this release and all others is context; and the way the second album closes should and will bring a tear to your eyes and a shiver down your spine; as Ray Charles sings America The Beautiful followed by Marvin singing What’s Going On, then Simon & Garfunkel’ Bridge Over Troubled Water leads us into Let It Be by the Beatles.
For days now I wasn’t going to choose a ‘favourite song’ but I keep getting drawn back to Pete Seeger singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; which was surely never ever played on the wireless but must have struck a dark chord with American soldiers of all colours and religious persuasions.
Not only, but also the accompanying booklet is as fascinating as the music itself; and even though I am only half way through the actual series I can’t recommend it too highly; but I’ve learnt so much about the background to this key part to my life than I ever expected after all this time; and the music is well worth seeking out too.
PS There’s another double album out to run alongside this with the Original Score written and played by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross too.
Released September 15th 2017
Long Hot Summer Days
Black Hen Music
Sultry and Soulful St. Louis Blues From a Master Craftsman.
Way before you hear the music, and you will want to hear the music, you tend to get drawn into Jim Byrnes’ story. Began learning guitar in his early teens and still plays the same Gibson Hummingbird acoustic that he had then. At one point he was going to be a priest, and got as far as studying in a seminary and then for a short while was a professional shepherd, plus he is a talented actor and has appeared in Highlander and Wiseguy.
But music and in particular the Blues has clearly been in Jim Byrnes blood as it appears to be one of the constants in his life. This, his ninth album, has been produced with an ear to the slide playing of Sonny Landreth and the down home funk of Al Kooper.
There’s a few notable covers, four actually (The Band’s Shape I’m In, Bobby Bland’s Ain’t No Love in The Heart of The City, Wilson Pickett’s Ninety Nine and A Half Won’t Do and Percy Sledge’s Out of Left Field). It’s a measure of the assuredness of the band that he’s put together for this recording that even old chestnuts like these are not only listenable but, because of the work put into the arrangements, actually an actual pleasure. You’ve probably heard a dozen versions of each before and if you’re lucky, one or two might not have had you reaching for the skip button, but Byrnes versions are all nearly as good; as the originals just different. This band is cooking on all three rings!
Jim Byrnes’ voice has that road weary quality that ideally suits this material and I can’t help thinking of Leon Russell, Bonnie & Delaney and there’s even a bit of early Allmans in the mix too.
Step by Step is the opener and if you’ve a musical history stretching back to the early ‘70’s, this’ll be right up your boogaloo avenue. Instead of bashing out the same tired old blues rhythms that some of his contemporaries may rely on, Jim Byrnes has actually opted for a full-blooded attack on these songs.
There Is Something on Your Mind is a standout for me. I’m a sucker for a horn section and a Hammond B3 organ; think Wilson Pickett fronting Booker T’s MG’s and you will get the vibe. Stick those in the mix with some tasteful slide and funky chops and you can bet the neighbours will be listening to some good sounds tonight!
This is an album I’d probably have bought on the cover alone and I’d have been richly rewarded too.
Review Courtesy our new best friend Tony Pearce
Released November 24th 2017
Only Blues Music (Australia)
Soul Sister and Heartbreaker Extraordinaire.
As an old Soul Boy; finding good high quality Soul Music these days is becoming increasingly difficult, as the majority of what is being called R&B ain’t really got Rhythm and certainly isn’t what I call The Blues!
My appetite was sated a recently when I accidentally discovered a label called Ecko Records which released some really saucy and sassy albums by acts like Miss Jody, Sheba Potts-Wright and (my favourite) Barbara Carr, but it appears to have sunk without trace; leaving me with my old record collection for solace.
So it was with great delight when my favourite Blues PR man, Frank Roszack sent me this terrific album by Sri-Lankan born and Australian brought up, musical powerhouse Andrea Marr.
Even the cover artwork will get Soul aficionados blood pumping and when opening track Force of Nature comes blasting out of the speakers feet all over the world will twitch and tap as hips shake like leaves in a storm.
Andrea Marr and The Funky Hitmen sure know how to get a party started as they use every trick in the book with their swinging horn section and a firecracker guitarist coupled to a steam powered organ, drummer and bassist giving Andrea’s amazing voice a backing it well deserves.
Track #2 will give you a real idea about where Ms Marr is coming from as she tears away all of the Pop trappings from Aretha’s Rock Steady and turns it into the sassy Rhythm AND Blues song of seduction it was always meant to be!
As with all the great Soul that came out of Stax and Atlantic in that halcyon bygone age and what Daptone Records currently do better than anyone else, Miss Andrea Marr combines passion, energy and S-O-U-L with melodies and hooks to die for on What Do I Have To Do and Mama Gets It Wrong Sometimes Too, but it’s when she writes and sings from and about the heart this album surpasses any similar releases in the last 20 years.
That’s Where Love Ends and Sticks and Stones are both the type of slow song I wanted to hear when the lights went down low at the end of the night in a Club or at a party.
While not as ribald as those Ecko albums I love, Andrea includes a couple of earthy songs of seduction in Good Man and the quaintly titled Let’s Take It To The Bedroom, when she shows she’s a lady that knows what she wants and…..trust me; she’s going get what SHE wants!
That last song was very nearly (and probably should be) my favourite track here; but I’m actually going for something a bit left of centre with Grateful; a rather beautiful bittersweet love song that evokes memories of discovering the delights of Aretha, Phyllis Nelson and, of course more recently Sharon Jones; and now Andrea Marr appears to have the same ability to touch my heart with her magical words and phrasing too.
Released October 31st 2017