Ruf [Release date 11.05.18]
‘First Class Life’ is Texas based Mike Zito’s 14th album. It’s is a stripped down blues album on which he sets himself the challenge of penning some meaningful narratives to fill the genre with fresh input
He achieves this in part, with a handful of outstanding tracks of which the opening slide-led narrative of ‘Mississippi Nights’ is very evocative and sets the standard, while ‘Mama Don’t Like No Wah Wah’ is a humorous duet with special guest Bernard Allison (a co-member of the 2018 Blues Caravan). It also offers a subtle contrast between Zito’s piecing lines and Allison’s seamless, warm toned wah wah that does its best to upset Allison’s former boss Koko Taylor, the ‘mama’ in question and the person the song was written about.
Better still, is the noir filled narrative of ‘Old Black Graveyard’, which is a deep groove punctuated by Zito’s slide guitar that neatly underpins one of his most impassioned vocals.
Then there’s the blue collar funk of ‘Back Problems’ on which Zito’s trebly lines cut though the groove with a jagged edge. He utters an exclamatory “oh yeah”, before leaning into an intense solo that mirrors the title of the song, while adding the ironic lyrics: “My boss at work, he’s cutting me to the bone, the more hours I give him, the less money I bring home.”
He’s at his best when recalling his own life experiences, which fill the groove filled title track with impassioned intent as he shares his mission statement with real gusto: “I got a second chance at living a first class life.”
And it’s from this self affirmation that all good things pour out of him and into an album that works hard to share his view on life. The simplicity of ‘The World We Live In’ for example, makes its mark by drawing the listener into some heartfelt lyrics and tasty licks.
‘First Class Life’ is a well written and seamlessly constructed blues album with funky and R&B edges. Given the quality of his own material we could probably have done without an obvious cover such as the Bobby Bland favourite ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treat Me)’, even if it is delivered with real feel, panache and a John Fogerty style growl that gives most of his Zito’s vocals real gravitas.
The problem is that having broadened his brushstrokes with Royal Southern Brotherhood, expanded his musical horizons on ‘Keep Coming Back’ and scaled the heights with ‘Make Blues Not War’, it’s almost as if he’s reigned in his musical ambitions on an album that strips things down to the basics.
The net result is the kind of mid-career release that an established artist makes in the course of re-stating his core musical values. New listeners will lap this album up, while longer term fans will be drawn to those moments when his song craft leads him to the outer edges where his unfettered playing and Fogerty style vocal cuts loose.
As it is, he lets his guitar do the talking on the laid back-blues of ‘Damn Shame’ with some cool expressive lines in tandem with his locked-in band.
The closing rocker ‘Trying To Make A Living’ is a perfect book-end to an album that just does enough to satisfy both the above schools, as Mike Zito continues to live a musical ‘First Class Life.” ****
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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