Album review: LAYLA ZOE – Gemini

LAYLA ZOE – Gemini

Self release [Release date 05.10.18]

Layla Zoe’s ‘Gemini’ is one of the most honest and hard hitting blues-rock albums of the year. She openly tackles the pain of the blues, but you always get the feeling that there’s a more optimistic upside.

It’s a double set thematically split in two. The acoustic disc-1 is titled ‘Fragile’, while disc-2 is the more brusque and electrified ‘Courage’. Together they explore raw emotion, anger, jealousy, love and compassion.

‘Gemini’ is shot through with a restlessness reflecting her dichotomous personality, which may or may not adhere to characteristics of the ‘Gemini’ Astrological sign.

Interestingly, the moments of fragility don’t always come tidily wrapped in disc-1, as both elements pop up on both discs.

‘Gemini’ feels like a partial cathartic release, mainly because uncompromising songs such as ‘Weaknesses’, ‘Bitch With The Head Of Red’ and ‘White Dog’ feel like a commentary on an unresolved part of her life.

The back story to the album is that ‘Gemini’ is her first independent release for a few years and it’s a conceptual project that her previous labels didn’t want to back.

And while there are plenty of good songs, great playing and some incredible vocals here, there’s an argument to be made for these albums being released separately as there’s simply so much emotional weight to absorb.

The fractured psyche at the centre of the opening ‘She Didn’t Believe” rears its heads several times on an album that sometimes feels like an emotional sledgehammer.

Layla’s deep phrasing and guitarist Jan Laacks shimmering notes and delicate harmonics provide the perfect musical context to put her emotions on the line.

Parallels will doubtless be drawn with Janis Joplin, but it’s doubtful even Joplin would have dug so deep as this Canadian blues singer to bare her soul.

The acoustic slide-led ‘I’ll Be Reborn Blues’ brings contrast and a welcome lightness of touch to offset her authentic blues voice, while the resonant drum and North Mississippi Hill Country feel of ‘Turn This Into Gold’, is simply deep blues.

She adds some close to the mic phrasing with the kind of pristine diction, also to be found on the later ‘Roses And Lavender’.

She opens the song with a poignant line: “I don’t know where I fit in, oh lord where do I belong,” which could be a thematic statement about her persona throughout a restless album.

But then she adds the resolving killer line to counter her “fragility”with “courage”, as she sings: “But I’m gonna turn these bad vibes your throwing at me. I’m going to turn them into gold,” on a blues of the highest order.

She’s even better on the emotive ‘Let Go’, with familiar lyrical concerns: “It’s time for me to go. I don’t belong in this world anymore.”

The additional piano and drums perfectly complement the acoustic guitar, as the track builds to a lovely uplifting sonic sweep and repeated hook: “Let go, move on, drift away”, complete with orchestral accompaniment, and a drop down to piano and voice.

She focuses on her lyrical depth on ‘The Deeper They Bury Me’:  ”the deeper they bury me, the louder my voice becomes,” in a song about Hermann Wallace, one of the ‘Angola Three’.

There’s some unexpected jazzy sophistication on the evocative ‘Mumbai’, which is juxtaposed by her big vocal presence on the John Lee Hooker guitar influenced ‘The Good life’.

Just to add to the twists and turns, we’re almost into Americana on ‘I Can’t Imagine My Life without You’. The delicate light acoustic and a distant pedal steel adds to a backwoods feel on a surprising love song.

The contrasting musical moods and sharp arrangements draws us into the lyrics, while the mandolin led ‘Rainbow Pacmen and Unicorns’ shows that she can reign herself in to nuance another love song.

Disc 2 opens with a corrugating heavy riffed guitar line that evokes the ‘Courage’ portion of the album.  And in spite of her aggressive phrasing, raw vibrato and lines such as: “Miscommunation, blackouts time, weakness, cowardice, oh and lies. Time can’t heal everything. No not his time,” she displays the fragility of a fractured soul, who gains her courage from committing her feelings to paper.

‘Dark World’ is powered another big guitar figure and features lyrics that sound as if they came from a 70′s metal band: ” she a nightwalker, getting high off your fantasies, she’s a street feeler. She knows what you need.”

‘Bitch With The Red Head’ is more of the same, but is sandwiched by a brisk opening rap on the Hendrix ‘Crosstown Traffic’ influenced ‘Ghost Train’.

It’s the seamless meeting of a sledgehammer riff and big voice leading into the hook as she explores the elements of her star sign. “I know what the I stands for in Gemini and honey it ain’t you.”

And as the band stretches out on a mix of buzz guitar slapped bass and a final shred, she sarcastically declares her independence: “We could make her a big star if she’d just listen.”

The opening riff on ‘Automatic Gun’ could be Ten Years After as she pushes her voice to the limit. In sharp contrast the soulful blues of ‘Are You Still Alive Inside’ provides a restless foil, while the reggae styled book-end of ‘Little Sister’ provides a subtle musical and emotional void that only a passionate powerful vocalist like Layla Zoe can fill.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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