Cleopatra [Release date 19.05.14]
You can’t knock LA troubadour Eli Cook for trying something new. He attempts to fuse old school blues values with grungy influenced alt.rock. He does so with the help of guest appearances from the likes of Tinsley Ellis, Lesley West, Rod Piazza, Harvey Mandel and Pat Travers. Production wise he’s going for the Stonesy ‘Exile on Mainstreet’ feel, meaning that his gruff voice is sometimes backed by gospel style bv’s in a dense wall of sound.
He’s looking for a new twist on an old genre, and blues appears to be a hip enough stopping off point for this west coast rocker. There are plenty of good things cooking in the pot, but at times it’s a case of too many spices in the mix.
While Jonny Lang for example, has recently used the blues as launch pad for boarder based musical diversity, extending from rock, soul and gospel to r&b and rap, this album searches for the same possibilities without having a requisite solid blues base.
The album feels like a collection of after hours bluesy sketches with heavier heart. At times it works well, especially when he blends his earthy phrasing with a rootsy arrangement as on the dobro infected ‘Tall & Twisted’, but on the ‘Great Southern Love’, he heads for a heavier Zeppelin feel. He offsets a rasping vocal with a startling falsetto leading to a chanted hook that’s closer to big hair metal than the blues.
He opens with a brace of rockers, though ‘Warhorse’ drops down to accapella on the outro, while the distorted tone of ‘Sweet Thang’ is a heavy groove not unlike early Big Sugar. It’s a style he extends on the dirgy end-piece ‘Burying Ground’, on a dark gothic piece well suited to his vocal grange.
He’s at his best on the loose-limbed groove of ‘High In The Morning’, which features Reese Wynans’ B3, the subtle slide of Sonny Landreth (mixed way too far back) and impressive gospel bv’s.
He gets down-home on ‘Won’t Be Long’, a surprisingly laid back piece that showcases the full range of his deep baritone. It’s the also the first time on the album that he casts off the busy production and strips things down to his eloquent phrasing.
It’s back to grungy fuzz guitar on the sledge hammer rock of ‘Motor Queen’. It’s a heavy piece well suited to guest guitarist Lesley West, but Rod Piazza’s trademark wail is somewhat wasted on the overly heavy, ‘Be Your Fool’ which finishes with controlled distortion.
‘Swing A Little Harder’ offers a far better vocal on one of the most accessible tracks on the album. It’s an enveloping groove built on electronic hand claps, a catchy nah-nah refrain, and an electric/acoustic rhythm track, with doubled up vocals on a bluesy song with commercial possibilities.
‘Shake the Devil’ is equally good, with Eli’s earthy vocal, some big harmonies and an ascending hook played out over Harvey Mandel’s guitar line, while the title track is a muscular piece with grungy overtones and backwards guitars on the outro.
The album could have done with a stronger sequential flow, as tracks such as ‘Swing A Little Harder’ and the big drum sound of ‘Amphetamine Saint’ are made from a different cloth than much of the rest of the album. And somewhere at the heart of the crackling, fuzzed up guitar lines and a busy production is a soulful singer struggling to get out.
‘Primitive Son’ flickers and smoulders with intent rather than burns. It’s a few songs and a couple of strong arrangements short of realising the kind of nouveau blues niche that it claims to be looking for. ***
Review by Pete Feenstra
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