Unless you’re a fan, it must be bemusing to observe Joe Bonamassa’s career with a disinterested eye, the constant releasing of new albums must make them blur into a kaleidoscope, hard to distinguish between.
His industry is admirable.The (v corny) punning ‘Royal Tea’ is the third release this year behind the revamped ‘A New Day Yesterday’ and the fabulous instrumental project under the banner of the Sleep Eazys. The big question for the casual listener is “does this constant output result in a dilution of quality?” The answer is no!
I must confess to being a big fan of his, one of the reasons being that his guitar playing is always so, well, tasteful. This album is no different, full to the gills of interesting, well thought out multiple layered guitar parts, whether chord-based picking, melodic motifs, rocking riffs or flowing lead lines, it’s a delight for guitar fans. Recent studio albums by the maestro, like ‘Blues for Desperation’ and ‘Redemption’ were really strong, cohesive collections of songs through which common themes seemed to flow.
The inspiration for the new album, recorded here at Abbey Road, was his admiration for the British guitar heroes he listened to in his formative years (er, didn’t you do this with your recent ‘British Blues Explosion’ album Joe?). To be honest, it’s a bit loose as a theme and isn’t particularly evident on this album, despite innumerable listens. There are little musical nods to influences like the ‘Boris The Spider’ bass that leads into ‘Lookout Man’ (some fantastic harmonica playing on this track); ‘A Conversation with Alice’ has the Cream era Clapton sound down to a tee, and the solo in the title track has a guitar tone strongly reminiscent of EC period Bluesbreakers etc; however, these occasional musical references aside, there is no consistent thread running through these songs.
The song writing is as you would expect, of high quality but, lyrically, there is not a lot to get your teeth into. Cream lyricist Pete Brown helped out with co-writing along with Bernie Marsden, but it’s hard to see where. The songs sound great but lyrically (something I normally couldn’t care two hoots about) seem to be a collection of skilfully composed phrases rather than anything more meaningful.
The album kicks off strongly with the epic ‘When One Door Opens’, the powerful orchestral opening giving it a cinematic feel and was no doubt influenced by the arrangements necessary for the Sleep Eazys album. This contains a host of different sections, all beautifully intertwined; a memorable chorus and a breakout, introduced by a “Beck’s Bolero” drum pattern over which a haunting brass instrument plays an almost discordant phrase and a howling guitar moans away before more Beck like riffing start and the songs rocks out, before inevitably closing with a whisper.
You can’t of course maintain this monumental impact on every track (not unless you are creating something truly memorable) but it would have been interesting to see the intermingling of orchestra and guitar on more tracks, which would have given more of a stylistic flow to proceedings.
The title track is another belter and special praise must be given to his long-time backing vocalists on this, whose voices blend together on the high harmonies in a way that is truly distinctive. Reese Wynans’ playing is excellent, adding to the richness of the arrangements for each number.
Each track is enjoyable in its own right: ‘High Class Girl’ has a Booker T and the M.G.’s feel and groove with snarling guitars played down the low end of the bridge that sound like those contributions by English guitarists heard on 60’s albums by visiting Blues legends. ‘A Conversation with Alice’ is another big number with an abundance of guitar hooks (and no doubt different guitars given JB’s collection mania) and varying tones. ‘Savannah’ is a strong Country Rock number that sounds like it could have been the starting point for another project, altogether. The album ends with ‘Lonely Boy’ which must be the track featuring our own national treasure, Jools Holland, and sounds like one of those enjoyable romps when a luminary joins his big band on Hootenanny and the combined efforts take the roof off. It’s great, but doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album, which is a bit of a stylistic mixture, that would be a really neat idea for a whole collaborative album.
It’s a strong album and Bonamassa fans will love it, however it feels like he was striving for something that wasn’t quite achieved. Having said that, given his high standards, falling short still means he’s head and shoulders above the competition in his field.