Ear MUSIC [Release date 26.10.18]
There’s a lot to be said for a blues oriented guitarist willing to explore new directions deep into a lengthy career that has straddled rock-blues, jazz and fusion.
Robben Ford makes much of the fact that he never records similar albums. This is certainly the case in recent years, as his last three recordings have included the live in the studio affair called ‘A Day In Nashville’ which was cut in one day. Then there was the polar opposite ‘Into The Sun’, on which he took his time, while his more recent CD/EP ‘Made To Last’ was a Chicago blues affair.
‘Purple House’ isn’t so much concerned with the amount of time it took to record, as the way it has embraces a bigger production, giving him additional electronic touches and an overall bigger sonic impact.
It’s also an album on which he has paid more attention to his songcraft and particularly the lyrics. His eclectic imagery engages the listener in an exercise of joining the dots between his musical feel and his words.
This is particularly so on the meditative ‘Wild Honey’, on which he strikes a gentle equilibrium between vocal and guitar as the music evokes the lyrical feel: “Feel the beautiful breeze and these lovely leaves brush against my skin. No more question now, I’m just gonna drink it in. It’s pure gold, wild honey.”
‘Purple House’ draws us in via interesting arrangements and Robben’s warm vocal phrasing. He wraps his gentle tenor round the songs without dominating them, leaving room for a series of defining solos.
His subtle tonal array also brings light and shade and contrast, as evidenced by the two crisp solos on ‘What I Haven’t Done’ and the intricate ‘Empty Handed’, with its distant acoustic and electric tones. He adds pristine diction on some evocative vocal phrasing that brings to life some great lines such as: “When I meet the sunrise I’ll wear it on my shoulder, and nothing will keep me from you.”
‘Empty Handed’ is arguably one of his best ever songs and breaks new ground with dreamy lyrics embedded in an ethereal musical accompaniment.
It’s a masterful track that benefits from a nuanced production full of layered spacey sounds with a post psychedelic 60′s feel. It ends in with a collage of electronic sound over gently thumbed bass, resonant guitar tones and cymbal splashes.
There’s diversity too on the rootsy ‘Bound For Glory’, which pushes him into the West Coast, Crosby Stills & Nash vibe. He blends fine harmonies with a nicely distorted buzz tone on a song that again draws us in with poignant lyrics: “Like a smokers cough, reveals a bitter truth, please dont kid yourself, now’s the time to stop.”
But ultimately we’re nearly short changed as the song settles into a guitar led groove, but could have been extended.
This is also the case on the all too sudden fade of the closing ‘Willing To Wait’, which is a soulful, spacey piece (think Bowie’s upflifting ‘Space Oditty’) with a lovely ascending guitar solo by Drew Smithers over an acoustic wash. The full production kicks in on an impressive wall of sound, with harmony vocals before the fade.
And in many respects both ‘Bound For Glory’ and ‘Willing To Wait’ offer us an insight into why Robben Ford hasn’t crossed over to a bigger audience.
Put simply, aside from his evocative guitar playing, technical mastery and his feel for the blues, he rarely lets the mask drop in terms of emotion.
On this album he counter balances that with interesting lyrics that are all too rarely found in the blues genre. He’s both innovative and reflective while immersing himself in his art.
As a result, ‘Purple House’ probably isn’t the album that will provide him with a gateway to a bigger audience, but it is a mature work of a restless artist who even after nearly 50 years is still looking for new and interesting ways to tackle the blues.
He also likes getting funky and raises the bar high on the opening riff driven ‘Tangle With Ya’, which features a sight echo on his vocal, significant bv’s and a catchy refrain.
The track builds imperiously with some up-in-the-mix drums and punchy horns, before a resolving mellifluous solo with a slight Latino feel that mirrors Devon Allman.
He revisits a similar funky feel on ‘Cotton Candy’, with a doctored voice, acoustic guitar and horn stabs on tightly wound piece with a cool flowing solo as part of a sumptuous groove.
Like many albums with genuine musical depth, ‘Purple House’ is an album you will want to revisit. It’s not so much a slow burner as an album with plenty of variety and different layers.
He unexpectedly duets with Shemekia Copeland on ‘Break In The Chain’, a complex track full of shimmering tones, heavy riffs, percussion and a gospel feel.
Then there’s the harder rocking ‘Somebody’s Foolin’ featuring guest vocalist Travis McCready, which if you include Supersonic Blues Machine, is the third version of this song in 12 months, suggesting he’s a perfectionist.
It provides the album with a belated shot of energy and a big crunching solo over a powerhouse rhythm section. It makes a big impact as it’s sequenced between the funky ‘Cotton Candy’ and the big production finish of ‘Willing To Wait.’
‘Purple House’ is an adventurous album that you couldn’t imagine the early -90′s Robben Ford making. But he’s matured as an artist and he’s still setting himself new challenges, many of which are successfully realised on an well produced song driven album. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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