Album review: MUDDY MANNINEN – River Flows

Pete Feenstra chatted to Muddy Manninen about the album ‘River Flows’ for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.  First broadcast 8 November 2020. (45:38)

Muddy Manninan - River Flows
Presence Records [Release date 23.10.20]

Muddy Manninen’s ‘River Flows’ is an aptly titled album that has a sense of time, space and just like the name of his label, presence.

It’s an album that drips with feel, experience and at times explores a retrospective feel.

It’s the work of an independent musical spirit who obviously has much to impart outside of the somewhat more restrictive musical straight jacket of his former band Wishbone Ash.

And if his first post-Ash combo Hipkiss announced his willingness to venture deeper into funk, soul and blues, and his first solo album further embraced enveloping grooves, then this album is his most concise so far.

It reveals a full range of textural nuances, ranging from a rich array of tones, to some feverish wah-wah and contrasting intricate acoustic guitar work.

In short, his playing always serves the song. His interwoven lines and sparkling solos subtly bring colour and emphasis to a piece while amplifying melodic ideas and evoking lyrical feel of tracks like ‘Daytona Beach’.

He employs 5 vocalists – Melanie Denard, Gregg Sutton, Richard Johnson, Kev Moore and Chris Melhuish – and a pool of top line musicians who all bring their own talents to bear on music that balances deep grooves with exhilarating playing and meaningful lyrics, all part of an overall songcraft that serves the album well.

‘River Flows’ might well be regarded as a vehicle for Manninen’s expressive guitar playing, but it’s much more than that, as he glues together a project that just like the album title itself, flows from beginning to end.

His choice of subtly woven solos and judicious guitar work is actually in strong contrast to the big riff driven opener ‘Make Believe’.

The latter features the gusto of Melanie Denard who contributes three telling vocals in all.  She’s the perfect foil for Manninen’s lap steel playing on the Little Feat influenced ‘Money’, (Manninen being cast in the role of the late Lowell George and Dennard as the latter-day Shan Murphy), while she’s in a more introspective mood on the ballad ‘The River’.

‘Make Believe’, has the same drive and intensity as ‘Bastard’, the opening track of Manninen’s previous release ‘Long Player’, but it’s propelled by the irresistible combination of legendary Free drummer Simon Kirke and Manninen’s own high intensity riffs.

It’s no coincidence that Kirke’s other appearance on the album comes on ‘(Don’t Let Them Put The) Hoochie On You’, on which Richard Johnson provides the vocal husk, while Muddy switches to imperious slide on a track with self affirmative lyrics and a musical structure which owes much to Free’s ‘Mr. Big’.

As with the notable stylistic diversity of the album as a whole, the song is one of a number of building blocks that underpins a sequential equilibrium.

In this case it provides a balancing link between Manninen’s sculptured wah-wah, Kev Moore’s pithy vocals and Jerry Soffe’s throbbing bass line on the colourful imagery of ‘Daytona Beach’ and the acoustic/electric American verses of ‘Take These Blues From Me’.

Moore also provides a post-Beefheart vocal on the slide-led reworking of lyricist Ian Harris’s ‘Hey You’, from his Wolfman project, but it’s on ‘Take These Blues Away’ that Manninen fully reveals his guitar playing prowess.

The song evolves into a beautiful, full toned Zappa style solo, before he offers us a brief glimpse of his harmony guitar contribution to Wishbone Ash down the years, which he then transforms into a further imperious melodic solo with uplifting Floydian bv’s.

An extra verse and a gentled cushioned fade then leave us with a slight dynamic void, which he quickly fills with a short opening crescendo and some long languid linear guitar lines on Gregg Suttons funky ‘Last One To Know’.

It’s a track which combines a deep groove with clever word plays on a repeated infectious chanted hook, on which Gregor Wilson-Con adds significant bv’s before Muddy’s weeping guitar takes us into the fade.

Structurally it’s a pivotal moment on an album that flows mellifluously and cleverly shoe-horns stylistic diversity into a composite whole, making it feel like an old-fashioned album with contemporary sonic values.

Just like the title suggest, ‘River Flows’ has a coherent inner core which leaves the listener in no doubt as to where the album is going, even when Manninen resolves a tension in a solo, or pulls the album into yet another unexpected direction as on the funky fusion instrumental ‘The Wedge’.

Tomi Malm’s subtly layered synth parts bring another colourful wash to the album, as he trades lines with Manninen’s chunky rhythm guitar work and a wah-wah break.

It’s a beautiful arrangement that is anchored by the percolating rhythm section of funky bassist Mark Butler and crisp drummer Tom Gilkes. They let the melody breath on a lovely jammed finish with an all too soon fade, as Manninen adds more lashings of wah-wah.

The album works its way towards the lap-steel laden ‘Money’ and the stripped down acoustic sparkle into slide and Meana Dennard sung ‘The River’, there’s a palpable sense of destiny, a feel that the whole project is inexorably drawn towards the ethereal instrumental title track finish.

If ‘The River’ provides a lyrical philosophical framework, then the sudden fade and subsequent atmospheric intro to ‘River Flows’ pulls us into a track with a prescient feel, that provides the perfect resolution to all that has gone before.

It’s amazing to realize that this enveloping track features just Muddy on bass and guitar and Tom Gilkes on drums. The guitar work alone would surely make Robin Trower smile.

It’s a beautifully conceived and superbly produced finish to an engaging album full of substance, loving care and creativity ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

The latest Facebook Live session from Canadian singer-songwriter Josh Taerk Sunday 21 February, 16:00 EST, 21:00 GMT

More about Josh:

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 14 February 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week.

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 9 February 2021.

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