Jigsaw [Release date 17.06.13]
Marcus Bonfanti’s ‘Shake The Walls’ is the record he’s always threatened to make. It may only be the third album of his career but it has the songs and the presence of a mature recording artist.
He doesn’t so much ‘shake the walls’ as fill the building with rich imagery and guitar playing brio, to test its very foundation with 11 tracks shot through with a troubadour’s weary-eyed view of the world.
A Tom Waits disciple, he’s a narrator with the stories to match his guitar playing prowess. His deep baritone phrasing and thoughtful songs are eclipsed by handful of booming hooks that the likes of Nickelback would love to have written.
Highly regarded as a contemporary blues man, Marcus is much more than that. He uses the genre to explore moods, feelings and situations in relationship songs with reflective narratives that sometimes use familiar metaphors, but always in the context of original ideas.
‘Shake The Walls’ is a smoking album that barely pauses for breath to consider its sources. Marcus is one part a story telling poet and one part an autobiographical chronicler of life. He shapes his songs with a baritone growl and an array of different timbres to bring emphasis when required, to match his intense guitar work and intricate band interplay.
He’s an artist on the cusp of nailing his own unique style. He’s steeped in the blues, and rooted in Americana but the songs are ultimately his own. They are given expression by a musical arc that encompasses rock-blues, roots rock, southern rock and acoustic picking. He may identify his style as ‘North London blues’, but it’s part of a wide ranging musical canvas that in the case of the smouldering ‘Honey’ thinks nothing of dipping into a meandering shuffle groove and the gumbo feel of Otis Blackwell’s ‘Fever’.
‘Blind Alley’ also stretches the blues label with a big twang alt. country guitar motif on another cool shuffle with a nuanced production.
Marcus sings from the heart on tight arrangements that suit his grizzled baritone. It’s a husky voice that once you step over the parapet of the curiously muted intro of ‘Alley Cat,’ finds its range on a subtle blend of voice, song and delicate instrumentation
His vocals draw you into lyrics that originate from life on the road and are anchored in universal themes that we all recognize. But what sets ‘Shake The Walls’ apart from many other contemporary releases is the catchy, sometimes chanted hooks, such as on ‘Alley Cat’: ‘Should have known better, She’s got the claws out like an alley cat, she got the impact of a heart attack’, she got the whole room hypnotized’. He also adds a clever stutter on repeated second line and a final Stonesy ‘whoo-hoo’ for good measure. The chorus points to a new crossover direction that promises rich reward.
His phrasing is never less than expressive, especially on a full throated Beefheart growl on the wistful southern rocker ‘Cheap Whisky’. The arrangement is full of jangling guitars and benefits from a slight pause just before the straight to the vein hook. Barely two songs in, he’s hooked you with his whisky soaked bluster.
The following ‘We All Do Bad Sometimes’ is a cool ballad and could have been penned by another of his influences Tony Joe White. It’s a tautly structured song that wracks up the tension and finally explodes with a soaring vocal in a perfect meeting of artistic sensibility and a deft production. Listen carefully and you can hear his emotive vocal mirrored by the evocative guitar tones.
And as one track flows into another, ‘Honest Boy’ fills the room with a processed voice, slide guitar, busy percussion and some oxymoronic phrases that he revisits on the closing ‘The Bittersweet’. The band sounds like they’ve been playing together for ever, as different vocal mikes and distant guitar feedback fills a rhythmic track that perfectly fuses a contemporary sound with a down-home feel.
Marcus’s Zeppelin influences bubble upon the stuttering, staccato guitar lines of ‘Stone Me Sober’. It’s another drinking song with the kind of uplifting chorus that would surely fill any self respecting radio slot. Marcus’s alchemy comes from quietly raiding the past to rewrite the present and then polish it with a contemporary sheen.
‘Bang Of A Gun’ for example, blends the grungy slide of Gordie Johnson’s Big Sugar with the ‘woo-hoo’ refrain of Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’, on one of the few songs on the album that over reaches itself.
But it’s the marriage of ambition and adventure, with observational lyrics that gives ‘Shake The Walls’ its substance. Marcus has built his reputation both a solo artist, band leader and guest guitarist with Saint Jude, but this album provides him with a career defining release that bottles all his influences and deserves its five stars for its fresh take on rock-blues. ***** (5/5)
Review by Pete Feenstra
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