Alligator [Release date: 19.05.17]
Mentored by Sonny Rhodes and now some 7 years into his own solo career, Selwyn Birchwood’s second album ‘Pick Your Poison’ is a celebration of everything that makes him a unique presence on a blues circuit too often constricted by familiar expectations.
From the fife and drum opening of the explosive ‘Trial By Fire’, via the thrillingly jammed out title track finale, through to the snaking funky workout of ‘R We Krazy’, Selwyn Birchwood announces himself as an independent blues force.
Put simply, he’s an all rounder who stretches himself on thoughtful material and slick band interplay
The album dips into a blues related melange of r&b, soul, funk, gospel and jazz, in a new take on the blues with meaningful lyrics and deep grooves that always support the song.
‘Heavy Heart’ is the big blues track that anchors the album. The stuttering sax-led relationship song is a lilting groove topped by an aching, lived-in vocal and emotive lyrics on a heartfelt chorus: “Love you baby and I did from the very start, with a heavy heart, you and me, we, we must be apart”.
His solo coveys his inner voice which expresses the feel and anguish of the lyrics. He racks up the tension and intensity with a second figure that neatly resolves the piece over some mellifluous band interplay that finishes far too abruptly.
He’s a versatile guitarist who plays both electric, acoustic and lap steel guitar with a variety of attacks and tones. He’s also a good songwriter, equally adept at imagining fictive narratives as well as exploring universal truths.
Above all, he has a unique husky voice that sometimes teeters on the brink of being hoarse, but always nuances feel, mood and the meaning of his songs. He’s a contemporary blues man with something to say, meaning there’s not a wasted note or an ambiguous lyric on the whole album.
He phrases with emotive conviction and he’s an adventurous spirit who makes most of what the blues genre offers him.
Whether exploring the humorous reflective irony of ‘Guilty Pleasures’ or playing an unexpected wah-wah tinged solo leading into the breathless jazzy finale of the title track, you are in the presence of a contemporary blues musician rooted in the old school values of the importance of the song, the voice and real playing ability.
His own broad based style includes the cinematic noir filled narrative ‘Weeping Time’, and a brace of political songs, ‘Police State’ and ‘Corporate Drone’, which suggests he’s an analytical songwriter with plenty to say and the musical ability to back it up.
He stretches his musical canvas in whatever direction his songs lead him. He’s unencumbered by the weight of historic expectation, though you suspect he’s well versed in his musical antecedents. The refreshing thing about ‘Pick Your Poison’ is the way he finds his own voice and direction. And if that means several repeated plays before all the subtle grooves, licks and songs fully reveal themselves, then it’s a small price to pay for such a huge talent.
He wisely uses his road band on the album, locking horns with the versatile sax/flute player Regi Oliver – the king of tone – and a peerless rhythm section of bassist Huff Wright and drummer Courtney “Big Love” Girlie, who give Selwyn so many different options and colours.
His band’s exhilarating interplay jumps out of the tracks on the baritone led, jaunty rhythmic feel of ‘Haunted’ and the tightly wrapped gospel of ‘Even The Saved Need Saving’, while he adds his own clean toned solo leading into the blistering band finish of ‘Are Ya Ready?’
‘Pick Your Poison’ is almost an exercise in bridge building, as it embraces familiar lyrical and musical themes and updates them with refreshing arrangements, lyrical depth and intuitive band interplay.
The band’s organic feel pulls us in different musical direction which always lets the songs breath and develop. And right there right at heart of it all is Selwyn Birchwood, whose understated talent subtly draws us in and suggest contemporary blues is in safe hands. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00
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