Mascot/Provogue [release date 22.09.14]
My granddad always told me to read the small print, so having read that this was Joe’s first self penned album for years, I checked the afore mentioned small print to discover that he’s spent time in Nashville, working with pro-writers like James House and Jerry Flowers, both of whom who have significant links with country music. But whatever their background, ‘Different Shades of Blue’ is still a blues album and whatever Joe has learned from his collaborations, he’s still a rocker at heart.
Having got the opening 90 seconds of Hendrix out of his systems on ‘Hey Baby (New Sun Rising)’, he heads for some heavy Zeppelin riffs via an acapella intro on ‘Oh Beautiful!’ Ironically, all that really missing is here is a Glenn Hughes vocal. BCC anybody?
But there’s more, as he introduces some subtle percussion and a signature guitar lines that builds up imperiously to remind us just who Joe Bonamassa really is.
Joe has said this album has; “new stories and new approaches”. And it’s true that ‘Different Shades of Blue’ is a song driven album, and for all the excellent solos, subtle textures, bristling production and frequently layered sounds, there’s a disciplined focus on the art of the song.
It’s all there on some of the best vocals of Joe’s career and the way he reigns in his solos just as he’s about to burn, before paying due attention to the rigours of the song.
It all points to the work of a mature blues man who has achieved more than most and then finds himself in the position of having to do it all over again, except that in this case he’s smart enough to look for help from the best in the business.
Blues songwriters don’t come much more experienced than Gary Nicholson and he duly pops up on ‘Trouble Town’, a tightly wrapped funky piece worthy of its swaggering horn arrangement, courtesy from the Tower of Power’s Lee Thornburg. It may be the penultimate song of an engaging album, but it’s a re-statement of the core principals of what’s gone before.
‘Love Ain’t a Love Song’ also features funky horns and a confident call and response vocal on a sparkling arrangement that jumps out the tracks, while ‘Living on the Moon’ is a perfect meeting of a songwriter with a bluesman’s tool of the trade, a shuffle. Joe adds a slightly distorted guitar tone which rises above another booming horn line, on a ripping track.
If ‘Living on the Moon’ is a highlight, the album dips slightly on ‘Heartache Follows Wherever I Go’ which is a regulation blues, while the Jonathan Cain co-penned ‘Never Give All Your Heart’ opens with a close to the mic breathy vocal that promises lyrical intimacy, but can’t quite escape the dirgy power chords. Joe still fires on all cylinders, but the solo is a salvation job rather than an inspired moment.
‘Get Back My Tomorrow’ suckers you in with its bubbling groove, distant mandolin, slide and a soaring solo as Joe emotes intuitively. The riff driven song could have been placed much higher up the track listing but still works well in a musical journey with a purposeful linear feel.
‘I Gave Up Everything For You, ‘Cept the Blues’’ injects some spark into the sequencing on another shuffle blues, but unlike ‘Living on the Moon’ the guitar parts evoke Elmore James and Chuck Berry and the lyrics have an overly familiar feel. You can still see this being a big live favourite, but it wouldn’t make the cut in a best of JB album.
They say the best things are worth waiting for and up pops the title track, which is a perfect exercise in song craft, as the James House/Bonamassa collaboration gracefully heads towards the chorus with its defining line delivered over a sparkling acoustic
The lyrics are cool too: ‘You’ve got the past ten years written on your face, your whole damn life’s been one big race’, leaving Joe to deliver a perfect vocal with a subtle acoustic and electric guitar resolution.
The album flows nicely and contributes to the overriding whole. It’s almost feels as if the artist and producer had an overall vision in place before cutting the songs, and if that’s the case they’ve succeeded in producing a mature blues album that reflects a blues artist who is always searching for the next level.
Not everything works on this album, but there’s enough highlights to keep long time fans happy and newcomers interested. Joe’s closing ode to Ray Charles and Cornell Dupree reflects the kind of self confidence that pushed him towards a project like this in the first place. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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