Steven Blane is a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele) hailing from New York City, as well as being a Universalist Rabbi and Cantor. His music can be essentially described as Americana, with shades of other genres such as folk, rock and blues thrown into the musical meld. Having already released several albums, he has accumulated a sizeable fanbase and critical acclaim along the way.
This album, Motel Blue, is his fifth, following on from 2016’s I Confess and The Shed Sessions. It was written and produced by Blane in the legendary country mecca of Nashville with his band of highly accomplished musicians; Frankie “Sticks” Levatino on drums, Kevin Hailey on bass and the formidable Ross Holmes on fiddle. Steven is accompanied on vocal duties throughout the album by Rachel Horter, a successful singer/songwriter in her own right.
The opening song Old Heart, Young dreams is the perfect introduction to the album, showcasing Blane’s rich Roy Orbison-esque voice, counterpointed beautifully by Rachel Horter’s angelic and authentically country tones (she is based in Nashville). It starts with a brisk 2/4 beat and a short burst of fiddle, Steven and Rachel taking turns delivering verses, before entwining effectively on the hook. It’s an apposite theme about a man and a woman of differing ages chasing their musical dreams. A great piece of country rock.
Next comes the title track of the album, performed solely by Rachel Horter. It’s a much slower and more bluesy country song about a place where those who’ve been unlucky in love stay to recuperate from their heartbreak. Rachel delivers a hauntingly lovelorn performance that Patsy Cline would have been proud of. One subtle aspect of Blane’s nuanced songwriting is that he takes traditional country forms and sets them to knowingly modern lyrics which stop it being mere pastiche: “There’s a TV and WiFi too, all that I need at Motel Blue….”. Ross Holmes contributes a wonderfully structured fiddle solo which musically enriches the song, as he does throughout the album.
Third song Curb Your Dog is a return to the upbeat country rock style, in 2/4 time. This one has a highly relevant theme of the importance of exercising a degree of self-control in the midst of hectic modern life, whilst acknowledging the difficulty of so many rules and regulations: “You’ve got to do what I say, day and night, right way…you’ve got to know what I mean and everything in between”. A fun, catchy song with great interplay between Blane and Horter.
Lover’s Lane is a nice change of pace; a smoky, sultry song with a lead vocal performed by Blane, aided by some 50’s-style “bop-shoo-bop” backing vocals from Horter. If features some nice lead guitar licks throughout, culminating in a short but sweet solo. The middle eight is strong, Horter’s voice blending with Blane’s in gorgeous harmony.
Preacher To The Prisoner is again a contrast, this song showing the influence of Steven’s faith. It’s a light hearted yet profound piece of songwriting, which, as the title implies, is about a preacher encouraging a prisoner to repent and find redemption. Musically, it shows Blane’s more jazzy side, set to a slinky, swinging rhythm with some nice brush work from Frankie Levatino and aided by rolling double bass from Kevin Hailey.
The next track Saved could be mistaken at first to be another faith-themed song, but is in fact about wanting to be saved by love rather than it being painful, restrictive and limiting. It is another fine example of how Blane and Horter bounce off each other, taking a verse on their own before combining for an instantly memorable chorus. In fact, it is so quickly recognizable that this would make an excellent choice for a single.
While Steven Blane has no problem writing the uptempo toe-tappers, for me, it is the slower material where he really shows his strength and craftsmanship as a songwriter. This is very evident on the poignant As Far As I’m Concerned, a song about trying to find the cause as to why a relationship is failing, captured in the excellent chorus: “Well, its the jetlag baby, or a head cold maybe, or the dollars always needing to be earned, it’s the season turning, it’s the spirit yearning, it’s the bridge that’s burning as far as I’m concerned…”. Another potential single.
Anytime is another wonderful slow song, this one in 3/4 waltz time and performed once more solely by Rachel Horter. It’s a touching country ballad sung in a gentle croon, and displays a tender side to Blane’s songwriting. The poignancy comes from the story told in the lyrics, about a woman showing her partner devotion and unconditional love after his infidelity.
The fine run of ballads continues with Dance With The One Who Brung Ya, this one another duet, the theme being about appreciating what you have and the person you’re with. This one is notable for the emotional expressiveness and Orbiton-esque intensity that Blane channels towards the end of the track.
Tiny Little Moment is a nice contrast and adds a little light relief amongst the more emotional songs, a two minute gem with a busy bassline and a catchy vocal melody. This one has a real 50’s feel to it and would go down a storm at a barndance. Ross Holmes delivers another phenomenal fiddle solo, as well as driving the music along throughout with his infectious sawing.
The closing song, Moth To A Flame, is a haunting Leonard Cohen/Paul Simon type ballad that again showcases his gift for this kind of style. With the sparse backing of a plucked ukelele and subtle strings, including a movingly melancholy fiddle passage, Blane and Horter give a spine tingling vocal performance as they depict two people irresistibly drawn to each other. A perfect finale.
Overall, this is a superb collection of well written and exquisitely produced Americana songs, performed with consummate skill and style by both Blane and Horter, who make a great vocal combination. Fans of country, folk, blues and the lighter end of rock will find plenty to enjoy here. The consistently high quality of the album will most likely mean the music of Steven Blane reaches a much bigger audience and deservedly so.