Provogue Records [Release date 13.03.20]
‘Harlem’ is the classic example of how American roots music recycles itself by supporting up and coming talent. It surrounds them with experienced hands to revitalise blues covers and interpret related material in the hope that after a while they will find their own style and prosper.
24 year old King Solomon Hicks does have the redeeming feature that his own material provides some of the highlights of a worthy but uneven album, suggesting that given more time and less pressure, he has it within himself to really step out in his own right.
Hicks sounds like eager young talent in search of his own musical voice. He is treading the same sort of career footpath as fellow contemporary Quinn Sullivan, by releasing an album that tells us more about the people behind him than the artist himself.
Hicks has already brought an unintended weight of expectation with his album titles alone. His last album was presumptuously titled ‘Carrying The Torch Of The Blues’ while the cultural significance of the new ‘Harlem’ album suggest he’s ready to draw on that famous neighbourhood’s significant musical history to come up with something new and interesting.
The fact that he doesn’t do so on this album shouldn’t lessen our interest in a young artist who is an accomplished guitarist and decent interpretive singer.
It’s the paucity of related material here that blights an album that does have some sparkling moments, but feels like a work in progress with an aggregation of song ideas rather than a coherent album structure.
And that’s a shame as Hicks’ time will surely come. On the evidence of ‘Harlem’, he’s been schooled in early 70’s riff driven rock as much as in classic blues.
The problem with ‘Harlem’ is that the best moments are too often blighted by poor choices. The opening ‘I’d Rather Be Blind’ introduces us to a confident singer and guitarist on a song that offers no sense of resolution on a sudden fade.
On the following re-titled ‘Everyday I Sing The Blues’ we’re dropped into the middle of a jam with an overbearing layered sound which doesn’t suit a song most famously given a big band arrangement by Count Basie to highlight Joe Williams’s emotive vocal. Here’s it’s re-imagined as a Cream number complete with the riff from ‘Cross Road Blues’.
Worse still, is the awful closing ‘Help Me’. The end of an album should always aim to be a concise re-statement of what has gone before, but this track is the opposite and undoes much of the good work that has gone before. His vocal makes no emotional connection with the lyrics at all, while the final guitar solo stutters into an uncertain fade.
While the album is self evidently a few song short of a being coherent whole and the recycled covers add little to the originals, there is a counterweight in the shape of 3 instrumentals, 2 of which provide album highlights.
The rampant instrumental shuffle ‘421 South Main’ is best, featuring succinct lead guitar lines flanked by significant organ sweeps, piano and hand claps. This song provides the moment when you can finally hear him breathe and find his own space.
He equally good on the funky sax inflected ‘My Love Is Alive’, as he effects a cool switch from a George Benson style sinewy attack to a more muscular tone, while the jagged edged funky instrumental ‘Riverside Drive’ features double tracked guitars on a number that doesn’t quite have the intensity of the previous brace.
He successfully searches for a working equilibrium on ‘What The Devils Loves’, a mid-tempo affair with a nice warm guitar tone and more double tracked guitar parts, on a bluesy ballad that could be Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
The KWS comparison also applies to the album highlight ‘Have Mercy On Me’, as we’re swept up in an incendiary shuffle beat that overshadows some clichéd lyrics.
Some years down the road, Hicks will surely look back on this album and perhaps quietly reflect that he really did have something going on with tracks like the heavy duty rumble of ‘Headed Back To Memphis. He might also recognise the mistakes too. After confidently slipping into a Latino reworking of Al Cooper’s ‘I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know’, he opts for an awful buzz tone guitar and synths.
Nothing can compare to the Donny Hathaway version of that song, but that won’t trouble an album that is aimed more at a mainstream rock audience who will surely be more at home with the languid Joe Walsh influenced ‘It’s Alright’.
In sum, the umbrella title of ‘Harlem’ might get King Solomon Hicks noticed quicker than might otherwise be the case, but on the evidence of this album he’s an up and coming talent who could do with hooking up with some like minded contemporaries to help forge his own clear musical direction. ***
Review by Pete Feenstra
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