Album review: LAYLA ZOE – Nowhere Left To Go

Pete Feenstra chatted to Layla Zoe for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.  First broadcast Sunday 27 December 2020.

Layla Zoe - Nowhere Left To Go

Self Release [Release date 08.01.21]

Layla Zoe is back with ‘Nowhere Left To Go’, her 15th album in 15 years. And though the stats confirm a relentless output, her creative spark is a function of her willingness to explore a wide and varied subject matter, combined with the significant step towards artistic control through the crowdfunding of her albums.

Put simply, she’s worked hard on her vocals, song-writing and marketing strengths to build her award-winning career and release arguably her best album so far.

‘Nowhere Left To Go’ feels like it evokes a time and a place. There’s the extraneous COVID-19 environment of course and her fierce independence to explore music on her own terms, even if it’s tempered by her extra responsibilities as a producer to oversee the results of 7 different collaborations, all done remotely.

If that sounds like some sort of hotchpotch, the album certainly isn’t that, as the different writers lead her to new musical avenues and help bring out the best in her vocals, right down to the welcome use of harmonies and falsetto when the song demands it.

The core of the album is built on her choice of music to accompany a versatile vocal range. This allows her to bring real presence to bear on her lyrics and sympathetic arrangements.

Every element always supports the song and means the album flows eloquently, even if it does begin with the ‘back to front’ gospel opening of ‘Prayer’. This means she has to build up her musical journey from a point that in the hands of others might be used as an album resolution.

To these ears, Layla Zoe has always been a massive vocal presence since she relocated to Europe. Her tendency to hook up with several unreconstructed rock guitarists sometimes led her to over singing, in an effort to fill the space left in several booming arrangements.

This album is much better balanced because her musical collaborators are far more diverse. In Jackie Venson she has found a similar musical spirit and in Bob Fridzema a keyboard player with a melodic bent and a keen ear for subtle arrangements.

She consistently digs deep for lyrical depth, mixing personal moments with quasi-autobiographical songs and occasional social commentary. It all makes for a good mix of rock, blues, soul, gospel and ballads glued together by her own lyrical weight.

She opens with the gospel-tinged ‘Prayer’. Co-written with Jackie Venson it shows she’s looking for new ways to express herself.

The following riff-led title track stomp is about the recent Australian bush fires, but feels as if it carries a significant metaphorical message.

And if ‘Nowhere Left To Go’ doesn’t literally apply to Zoe, that is because this album is predicated on her relentless need to always look forward in search of artistic fulfilment.

It’s her readiness and ability to explore new and interesting ways to make an impact with her voice that defines this album.

The title track is also the lead single and as such makes the biggest crossover impact. She’s always been known as being a passionate performer and fiery singer often given to channelling her anger through her songs. This is still the case here, particularly on the spiky Guy Smeets co-penned ‘Little Boy’, on which she works hard to channel her emotive lyrics into his Jimmy Page style guitar lines.

Then there’s the Alastair Green co-write ‘Don’t Wanna Help Anyone’, which is effectively a counterweight to the reflective ‘Sometimes We Fight’.

The latter Fridzema organ-led ballad finds the perfect balance between her brusque Janis Joplin style husk, heartfelt lyrics and a sympathetic musical framework, while her own brief harp flurry evokes early Neil Young.

She reaches for self-affirmation as she attacks her vocal line with gusto on another Fridzema co-write called ‘Susan’. By contrast she shows real restraint and a definably emotional connection on both the falsetto driven ‘Might Need To Fly’ and the closing ‘Dear Mom’, which features autobiographical flashes, as part of an imagined narrative.

She’s joined on the waltz style track by co-writer and fellow Canadian roots artist, the mandolin playing Suzie Vinnick. James Stephens adds sonorous fiddle,while Layla subtly doubles her vocal input.

Both the spartan ‘Lies’ – a duet with stand up-bass player and co-writer Brandi Disterheft – and the hard rocking title track are the best examples of her social commentary songs. Her vocal phrasing perfectly matches the lyrical subject matter and are perfectly framed by a nuanced arrangement.

‘Nowhere Left To Go’ is an uncompromising statement by a fiercely independent artist full of integrity and spark. She may have an uneasy relationship with the current corporate digital download culture, but ironically its that friction that has pushed her own efforts to a higher level, if only to show that you can give your best without defined label expectations.

‘Nowhere Left To Go’ is a well-paced, coherent album from beginning to end. The self-proclaimed ‘Canadian darling of the blues’ rocks hard enough, but also makes a significant emotional impact with her lyrics.

She never strays too far away from her bluesy roots, but her music is shot through with enough passion, integrity and frisson to appeal to a potentially wider audience. Contemporary blues-rock is in safe hands. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 22 May.

Next session: Sunday 17 July.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 19 June 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT 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 21 June 2022.

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