Self Release [Release date 01.05.17]
‘Back ‘N Blue’ is a loving crafted DIY song driven blues-rock album with a funky fusion undertow.
James Litherland’s musical credentials go all the way back to Colosseum – check out the ‘Valentyne Sweet’ style blue and purple hues of the album cover – Mogul Thrash and Bandit.
In the interim, he’s pioneered home recording and played acoustically, before cutting this polished album on which every track supports the greater whole as an old school album used to.
He sets the template for a relaxed album on the subtly voiced funk and melodic unison guitar riff of ‘What You Want’, which is piece full of nuanced dynamics and a cool vocal.
The rhythm section of bassist Paul Francis and Les Binks gently build up a groove over which he phrases with real feel.
The real joy of this album is the way everything has its place in a perfect showcase of Litherland’s undiminished talents.
He adds some subtle slide guitar and double tracked vocals on the chiming groove of the title track. It’s a cut that wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Fogerty record, but also digs deep for a Steely Dan nuanced groove.
Ten tracks subtly reveal themselves through a mix of well structured songs anchored by deep grooves and shot through with layered sounds and up in the mix solos.
All the salient elements permeate the justifiably extended ‘Miss You Blues’. Litherland delivers an impassioned vocal over a rock solid groove shaped by distant slide tones, Allman Brothers harmony guitar parts and resolved by an intricate solo.
This is the track on which everything comes together to fully justifies its 7 plus minutes playing time and he cleverly follows it with the sharply contrasting ‘Unconditional Love’.
Effectively a reflective love letter on which Duncan Grosser’s introductory Neil Young style piano line draws us into a stripped back ballad, it showcases Litherland’s phrasing ability over Binks’s snare and a featherbed synth arrangement offset by bv’s.
Nick Pentelow’s perfect and sultry sax solo almost pushes the track dangerously close to LA style muzak, but the album has too much integrity for that, as both the weight of the song and James’s soulful delivery makes an emotional impact.
‘Back ‘N Blue’ sounds as if Litherland had an overall view of what he wanted it to be, meaning that when he slips into the funky picking and subtle slide of ‘At Least I Didn’t Bore You’, it feels like a return to a familiar base as the core trio stretch out impressively before a long, but subtle fade.
He rocks out on with some bluesy harp on ‘Pink Corvette’, with an opening Zeppelin style swagger full of a timeless sports car imagery that could be Mickey Jupp.
The song again serves the greater whole by providing a notable lift to the sequencing, before a return to white boy soul and funk on ‘Can’t Live Without You’. The guitars are neatly layered and interwoven in between another fine vocal and a clean toned solo.
The track has also spawned a promo video suggesting it’s a personal favourite of the artist.
He saves his best for the atmospheric ‘Freedom Road’. It’s a beautifully crafted song built on Binks’s tic-toc rhythm and cushioned by Steve Rawl’s judicious aching fretless bass, as Litherland adds yet another peerless vocal. Only an almost perfunctory finish robs the album of a deserved climax.
But it a minor criticism that is counter-weighted by thoughtful songwriting, ebullient musicianship and real spark that suggests his creativity has bubbled up and naturally brought him to this point.
‘Back ‘N Blue’ doesn’t kick open any new doors because it doesn’t need to. It’s an album that squares the circle for an artist who throughout his career only ever took credible musical options.
Given the chance to write, play, engineer, produce and sing on his own musical vision, James Litherland has tapped into a continuum of musical maturity that will serve him well in the future. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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