Album review: DEBORAH BONHAM – Spirit

Deborah Bonham, track by track, May 2014 (Part 1 10:43, Part 2 11:43)

Deborah Bonham - Spirit

Spectra [Release date 28.04.14]

Being part of the Bonham dynasty is both a blessing and a curse for Deborah Bonham. Stripped of her family tree, she would still make waves in her own right, with her arresting voice and an ear for good melodies.

But her name comes with the misleading expectation that she’s a rocker, while touring and performing with the likes of Bad Company and Paul Rodgers merely reinforces that misconception.

But there are contrary signifiers on the album that quickly disabuse us of that notion, as ‘Spirit’ was mixed in Nashville by former Mavericks/John Prine and Patty Griffin engineer Mike Poole, with the emphasis on harmonies and melodies. It’s also co-produced by former Debbie Harry/Lighthouse Family cohort Glenn Skinner and both of them work in a field far removed from Classic Rock.

The result is as refreshing as it is surprising. ‘Spirit’ is a song driven album with at least 3 potential singles and a dozen tracks full of rich harmonies, smooth melodies and plenty of catchy hooks.

Deborah Bonham
Pete Feenstra (PF): It’s your fourth album in quite a long time – there’s a period when you weren’t recording at all?
Deborah Bonham (DB): The debut got so much great press – ‘For You And The Moon’ – but the label I was signed to completely screwed it up.  I also signed over my rights to the label and it took ten years to get out of it.  The following albums were all self-financed and then licensed to labels.  So I always had to work out “how do I do this?”
PF: It seems that with this album you’ve come full circle because you started out rootsy and you’ve gone back to it…
DB: That’s exactly what I’ve done.  And working with the drummer Marco Giovino – he’s a real rootsy kind of player.
There was no sort of planning for this, I didn’t have a drummer; Jason (Bonham, Deborah’s nephew) was busy with other projects and it just didn’t come together.  Shortly before my Mum died I met Marco at the Robert Plant gig in Birmingham.  He had the ‘Duchess’ album and I asked him if he’d play on the new album.  Although we’d recorded together in England, when he returned to the States the recordings lacked his vibe so we also recorded at his own studio in Nashville.
PF: Did you have an overall vision for the album from the outset?
DB: I think Marco’s input steered it to a more rootsy feel but it took a while to get there.
PF: It’s an album about the hurt, pain and joy of life.  Is it cathartic?
DB: Each album has been a bit like that, with the tragedies I’ve had I’ve found it a big struggle.  We recorded the album after my Mother passed away, it was emotionally charged.  To be able to do my songs, play them live and talk to the audience about it…there’s an immense amount of strength to be gained from knowing you are not alone.  But it’s not all doom and gloom…I hope the overall feel of the album is positive!

Deborah has a soulful heart with a commercial bent that is responsible for the gap between the song-driven reality and the rock-led expectation of her potential audience.

The result is a vibrant album that lives up to its title, with inspired playing and glistening harmonies, albeit with a retro heritage feel.

Perhaps she’s taken note of Robert Plant’s career shift towards Americana, because ‘Spirit’ wears those influences proudly, and delivers material worthy of the genre.

The album opens confidently with the exhilarating ‘Fly’, which features great phrasing, soaring harmonies, a puzzling violin line and a big Zeppelin wall of sound. A cover of Sparklehorse’s late 90’s single ‘Painbirds’ sets the marker for the kind of harmony drenched Americana that much of this album seeks to emulate.

The relationship song ‘I Feel So Alive’ has a potent stop-time hook and a mighty slide break, while the acoustic-to-electric ‘Spirit In Me’ levers Deborah into some angelic harmonies on another beautifully crafted song.  It’s full of fine harmony vocals, and segue’s Pete Bullick’s lead guitar into BJ Cole’s aching pedal steel, but it curiously drifts to an understated close, rather than delivering a climatic finish.

‘Killing Fields’ references the Buckingham/Nicks-meets-Tom Petty era, on a smoothly produced slice of west coast soft rock with a stressed drum sound and a very catchy hook. ‘Take Me Down’ is equally good, and a radio friendly slice of Americana with a country-rock vibe that topped the ReverbNation rock charts for 8 weeks.

The similar Mac influenced ‘Stop Now’ plays to her strengths on a slow build with a harmony laden resolution on one of the best produced tracks on the album.

So far so good, but what the album lacks is a shot of dynamism as the surfeit of mid-tempo song craft is in danger of sounding a little too contrived. It’s self evident that Deborah has got a soulful voice and a band that is capable of realizing her full potential, but she nails her mast to a mid-70’s west coast vibe.

She digs deep on the slow-building, soulful ballad ‘I Need Love’ and revels on the booming chorus of ‘Stop Now’, while the tougher ‘What It Feels’ showcases a short, sharp, blues-harp honk from Robert Plant.

‘I Won’t Let You Down’ is full of jangling guitars, mandolin and harmonies and is another potential single with Radio 2 pretensions. ‘Good Times’ is more interesting. It’s a sultry blues groove and pedal steel driven gem with sumptuous tones, but it’s buried deep in the tail-end of the album, and deserves a higher place in the sequencing.

‘Spirit’ certainly lives up to its title and is perhaps one up tempo rocker short of realizing its equilibrium. The vibrant material, passionate vocals, sun kissed harmonies and intricate playing is stamped through with quality and an optimistic crossover ambition predicated on the belief that rock fans will tap into west coast influenced Americana. ‘Spirit’ gives them plenty of reasons for doing so.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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