Album review: JAMES OLIVER BAND – Twang

Pete Feenstra chatted to James Oliver for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio in April 2020.

James Oliver Band - Twang

The Last Music Company [Release date 03.04.20]

When it comes to the concept of ‘Twang’,  Deke Leonard’s last book about guitarists, ‘The Twang Dynasty’, may have beaten fellow Welsh guitarist James Oliver to the punch, but this breakneck album pays its own impressive homage to 3 generations of guitarists spanning rockabilly, blues, R&B, surf, country and twang damn it!

James Oliver draws his influences from the 50′s 60′s and 70′s on album rooted in American twang – think Dick Dale’s surf twang meets Link Wray distortion.

He is also influenced by Albert Lee’s hot picking, Mick Green’s high octane rhythm-into- lead r&b, Wilko Johnson and Dr Feelgood’s minimalist British R&B and Elmore James’s slide guitar, while he bring’s things up to date with some Brian Setzer rockabilly twang for good measure.He cleverly fuses the different eras together with his own updated material laced with stunning guitar playing that is a match for anyone out there today.

He veers between the manic and polar opposite restraint as he recycles his heroes with a mix of original and cover material.

He’s smart enough to know his vocal limits, while he soemtimes reigns in his guitar playing to pay due respect to the song, though you suspect anyone purchasing this album wouldn’t be amiss to more guitar overload.

If his vocals sometimes border on the perfunctory, he counters that by letting his guitar do the talking with different tonal emphasis, whammy bar bends, occasional distortion, fast changing tempos and a stylistic impatience and restlessness that sometimes means he finishes a song without fulfilling its true potential.

This is so on when he fuses a Mick Green style high octane attack with Big Joe Turner’s classic ‘Honey Hush’ to fire on all cylinders. Yet having lit the fuse it all ends far too quickly when he could have added some more of his own licks.

‘Twang’ is an album that cleverly balances different styles and thrives on diversity. So although the rip-roaring opening rocker ‘American Cars’ is the twang theme writ large, there’s plenty of contrast to keep thing interesting.

‘The Missing Link’ for example, is a telecaster driven spaghetti western piece and like the opening track once again echoes the thematic title of the album.

It’s built on a lovely shuffle drum accompaniment, before James takes off into spiralling guitar led adventures with a sudden frenetic tempo change. The stop-start track provides the perfect showcase for Oliver’s growling guitar lines.

Surprisingly for a rock and roll album, the following ‘Mean Little Mama’ isn’t the Roy Orbison tune, but its still a sizzling slice of rockabilly with one of the album’s best vocals counterweighted by good bv’s.

His vocal may just be passable and his lyrics may rely on familiar themes, but his guitar playing is up there with Albert lee, Mick Green and Setzer etc.

‘She’s The One’ adds a layer of harp and is given a short, sharp Wilko/Feelgood’s treatment right down to the snappy chorus.

He gets his solo in early and adds a glorious mangled guitar line to fill the track with real heft. And almost in spite of some laboured harp and ponderous drums, he still manages to deliver torrents of relentless drive and energy through his own intuitive playing style.

He reaches back to 1953 for the Elmore James /Big Joe Turner collaboration ‘TV Mamma’, to pair some animated vocals with scorching slide. He leaves plenty of space for his opening solo which uses a different tone, before filling the track with more judicious slide.

The rough and ready ‘Outside Help’ is a throwback to the classic mid-70′s period of Wilko and The Feelgoods. He breaks the tension with a big toned angular guitar break that is the perfect counterpoint to the rhythm track and provides one of the highpoints of an always interesting album, before a belated Dick Dale wig out.

The energy levels of the album almost certainly mirrors that of an exciting live band for whom nailing the moment is everything. There’s a palpable spark at the heart of a session that strikes out in many different rocking directions before returning to the thematic thread. The fact Oliver is able to do so while still stamping his own DNA on a rocking album, speaks volumes about his understanding of his own musical heritage, not to mention his stunning guitar chops.

‘Stay Out Of Trouble’ is Zydeco meets Dave Edmunds Rockpile, on another steamroller of a track with a sudden slide burst over accordion and lovely textures.

And just when you think he’s gone through the card, he pulls out another aspect of twang on the country tinged ‘Upside Down’, which is full of hot picking, before a speeded outro full of more outrageous twang.

Sometimes Oliver sounds almost understated. In fact he’s a guitar giant who evokes the past through the present by refreshing roots rock material in his own way, as he joins the dots and adds his own blistering solos to rejoice in several booming hooks.

On the slide-led train time rhythm and sludgy tempo change of ‘Clean House’, he sings “You know who I’m talking about.” In truth I’d venture most people don’t know,  but it doesn’t matter as he’s already made a big splash musically before the slide outro.

He rounds things off with a cover of Dick Dale & The Del Tones 1962 adaptation of the Arabic influenced instrumental classic ‘Misirlou’, to remind us of where it all this energy comes from.

James Oliver is a proud Welshman. He’s been praised by fellow telecaster player Bill Kirchen and was once feted by the late great Man guitarist Deke Leonard which brings us full circle.

Leonard obviously recognised a kindred spirit in a band called Glas. ‘Twang’ sees James Oliver take the next step to front a powerhouse rocking outfit ready to crash land on planet twang!  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra


David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 23 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 25 August 2020.


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