Alligator Records [Release date 25.02.14]
Joe Louis Walker rips into the incendiary title track of ‘Hornet’s Nest’ with a riff heavy piece that suggests it’s a kick ass rocking album. Truth is, it’s a more adventurous album than that, but one in search of direction. His melange of blues, rock, gospel, soul and r&b takes a while to ferment, but after a few plays ‘Hornet’s Nest’ begins to make sense and locks you in.
Joe has once again teamed up with producer Tom Hambridge and co-writer Richard Fleming. The duo pen 9 of the songs, with Joe contributing 3 co-credits, alongside 3 covers. The album is shot through with plenty of vigour, drive, fervent commitment and is topped by lashings of guitar. And yet, it remains a frustrating effort, which takes a while to reveal the coherent sum of its parts.
Tom Hambridge clearly brings his commercial acumen to the proceedings and pays special attention the sequencing, as the album moves from a blustering opening, into smooth soul, a laid back groove, a pumping shuffle and some mid-album gospel, but it all takes while to click into place.
Willie Dixon once offered Joe a back handed compliment when he said: ‘your style is all over the place’. And on the evidence of this album, Joe is still pushing the stylistic boundaries. The end result is an engaging but slightly uneven record which never quite sweeps you along, but still has plenty of exciting moments to hook you in.
It’s those contrasting moments that make ‘Hornets Nest’ a slow burner, and while you have to dig deep to find a consistent thread, you are ultimately rewarded by an album that in many ways represents Joe’s career writ large. To some, he’s known as a soul-blues man, to others a gospel singer and to newer converts, a blues guitar hero, and ‘Hornet’s Nest’ does its best to accommodate all those elements.
The best moments are to be found on the powerful title track, the celebratory cover of Kid Andersen’s ‘Soul City’ and the closing gospel of ‘Keep The Faith’, as Joe dips his toes into an array of different territories. He’s at his best with some long sustained notes on the deep groove ‘As The Sun Goes Down’, and also on the jammed out, early 70’s feel of ‘Ramblin Soul’. His slide playing sparks the band to another level and into an exhilarating finish, which brings laughter in the studio
The pumping horns and a guitar led resolution of ‘All I Wanted To Do’ on the other hand, sounds a tad formulaic, almost as if producer Hambridge included the number to feature the famed Muscle Shoals Horns, while ‘Love Enough’ is a pleasant, but forgettable tune saved by Joe’s sinewy and weepy slide.
In many respects it’s Joe’s guitar playing that carries much of the album, as his previous soulful phrasing has now been replaced by a grittier vocal attack. He passionately belt out the slow blues ‘I’m Gonna Walk Outside’ alongside some steely slide guitar and adds a touch of velvet with Ray Walker, Curtis Young and Michael Black on two gospel pieces that are a glance back to his early career. And if his vocal sounds a little ragged on the Jagger/ Richard cover of ‘Ride On Baby’, it is neatly counter-balanced by a booming Springsteen style production.
His best vocal comes on ‘Not In Kansas Anymore’ which uses a Who style keyboard riff on a big rock production. Its one of the most accessible, crossover pieces that Joe has ever recorded, and finishes with a psychedelic backwards guitar squall, that reiterates Dixon’s earlier compliment.
For the rest, ‘Stick A Fork In Me’ embeds some biting lyrics in a raucous shuffle, while Jesse Stone’s rhythmic ‘Don’t Let Go’ is a stop-time, call and response gospel that brings out an earthy vocal attack from Joe.
‘Hornet’s Nest’ is an enjoyable album with a mixed musical message. On the one hand, the different musical directions might confuse older fans, while newer fans seduced by the rockier edge, might take a while to warm to the rest of the album. Repeat plays might just bring everybody on board and provide deserved success for an artist who has always followed his exploratory instincts. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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