Album review: BLACKTOP DELUXE – Turn Up Be Nice Play Hard

BLACKTOP DELUXE – Turn Up Be Nice Play Hard

Blacktop Deluxe [Release date 13.05.14]

Blacktop Deluxe are a Cornish based power trio featuring Keith Howe on guitar and vocals, Tim Chapple on bass and Alan Ibbotson on drums and vocals, with producer Gareth Young doubling on keyboards.  ‘Turn Up Be Nice Play Hard’ offers much more than its workaday title suggests. It’s that rare thing, a lyric driven blues-rock album full of good songs in search of true meaning and context.

The 10 tracks are built on rock solid grooves,  good hooks, sparkling playing and a vivacious, spontaneous feel that enables the band to seamlessly incorporate the stripped down ‘Always Been A Sinner’ and the perfect instrumental outro ‘Short Walk Home (St. Jude’s)’.

Everything from the classy art work to the thoughtful lyrics – complete with brief explanatory notes – as well as the tight arrangements and the original material gives the album real substance.

‘Turn Up Be Nice Play Hard’ has much to say and sounds like something Blacktop Deluxe needed to record rather than just churn out as a conveyor belt release.

The elements of contemporary disposable culture explored on ‘But Not Today’, are proudly refuted by the album as a whole. It’s a song that benefits from a change of guitar tone and sharply focused lyrics: ‘Someone else’s talent, someone else’s tone, you focus on the haven’t, instead of what you own’.

If we live in an age where people prefer to instantly download their favourite track, Blacktop Deluxe proudly nail their mast to the old fashioned idea of an album as a coherent piece of art.

To that end, there’s a palpable linear thread that enables them to absorb the spontaneity of the stripped down ‘Always Been A Sinner’. It’s given a thoughtful explanatory note and works perfectly as a link piece, being nicely sequenced three quarters of the way into an impressive album.

The opening ‘Mustang 429’ is a ZZ Top influenced boogie with a lyrical glance over the shoulder at a rose tinted past. The lyrics reference Hendrix, Gallagher, Cream and Free, though they neatly finish with a 1994 Travis Tritt line: ‘I was ten feet tall and bullet proof.’

The poignant ‘Outta The Red’ is a pounding rocker that nicely encapsulates the hard working lifestyle of a band that long ago took a leap of faith and signed up to an unwavering commitment to the cause, though it’s partially tempered by apprehension and doubt “We ain’t going forward like I know we should, Tellin myself it’s for greater good.’

And it’s their unflinching honesty and willingness to share such doubts and link personal obstacles to familiar universal themes that gives their songs their potency.

From collective financial struggles to Keith own ill health – a significant inspiration for his dreamy blues ‘Colour Me Gone’ – the combination of grit, determination, focus and an inexhaustible drive lies at the heart of a song that stands as a mission statement for both the band and the album as a whole.

‘Colour Me Gone’ is worthy of further exploration. The subtle pregnant pauses shape the song as the band adds instrumental depth to match one of Keith’s best vocals on the album.

‘Should Ha’ Gone Yesterday’ is a stop-time drifting slow blues full of cool dynamics and a gospel finish on the outro. It’s a Trower style trip into the subconscious flecked by Peter Green influences.

The combination of Keith’s tremulous tone, Mike Hawkey’s rich toned sax and the band’s deft us of space, beautifully colours the piece and gives it an emotional charge that anchors much of their material.

The cleverly arranged ‘Cascade’ adds more light and shade with a subtle meeting of Knopfler and Santana over Alan Ibbotson’s feather light percussive touch and Keith’s notably warmer vocal phrasing.

‘Turn Up Be Nice Play Hard’ connects on both an emotional and visceral level. The blend of meaningful songs, tight band interplay and concise solos give the album its integral shape and equilibrium. The brushed strokes, delicate weeping tone and restrained arrangement of the closing instrumental ‘Short Walk Home’ is the perfect finish to a job well done.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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