ALBUM REVIEW: Motel Blue by The Steven Blane Band featuring Rachel Horter

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https://www.stevenblane.com

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.

 

VERDICT: 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: American Ghost Stories by The Bonazzoli Band

Ghost_Stories_Coverhttp://www.bonazzoli.com/

The Bonazzoli Band are centered around singer, guitarist and songwriter Matthew Bonazzoli who has been writing, recording and performing music for twenty five years. He started out in an alternative art rock band called Innocent Victim where he wrote songs with his brother Damian.

This led to another band called Gearhead who won numerous awards through their duration. In 2004, Matthew met pianist Patrick Thompson which led to The Bonazzoli Band, now a seven piece. They recorded their first album Quiet Little Towns after two years developing their sound and this second album American Ghost Stories was recorded and produced by Matthew himself.

Their music varies in style, encompassing rock, blues and country but the distinctive trademark of their sound is undoubtedly Matthew Bonazzoli’s remarkable voice. It is similar in tone to Roy Orbison and Nick Cave, with a touch of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He has a similarly large vocal range, capable of hitting some very high notes in full voice. This expressiveness helps give these fourteen tracks an emotional resonance throughout.

After a mood setting introduction track, opening song Road Have Mercy is an upbeat rocker that features a driving guitar riff and a haunting vocal melody. Bonazzoli’s vocal performance is excellent, switching from a low croon to rich high notes sung with vibrato. It also contains some blistering lead guitar work.

As the album title suggests, these songs tell a story and Double Cross is a haunting tale of a cheating lover who puts him in a dramatic situation: “Double talking, double crossing…with a gun pointed at me….”. This mid paced country track brings to mind Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.

Taking Chances is similarly paced but more traditional in subject matter, a romantic ballad that features his finest Orbison style croon, aided by some lovely backing harmonies. Black Cat is another song with some poetic, powerful lyrics: “One road led to ruin, and one road led to fame…don’t know what I’m doing, cos they both looked the same…”. The barrelhouse style piano gives it a vibe of a Western film, and the music is full of these cinematic touches.

Long Black Carriage is another ‘ghost story’ about a mysterious woman who drives a long black Cadillac: “If you see her on the road at night, you might not ever come back…”. The music is suitably eerie, with a descending high guitar line creating a mood, along with some sparse female backing vocals.

Concord Road is a lovely string-laden song in a lilting 6/8 time signature, and continues the Gothic vibe with lyrics about driving through graveyards and a powerfully melancholy chorus : “Is it raining where you are? Its raining down here….”. It’s a slow burning epic featuring a beautifully constructed solo.

If You Wait For Me and Can’t Let Go show more of his romantic side, the former featuring warm organ and more haunting strings. Can’t Let Go is a paean to the isolation you feel after the end of a relationship, and the heartfelt lyrics are touching.

Invicta is a guitar led instrumental and one of the more upbeat rock tracks on the album, also giving a chance for some musical expression. The descending guitar line is very effective, and the soloing is superb.

Best Of Intentions is an acoustic ballad which starts with a lovely picked guitar figure and it’s one of the more melancholy songs on the album: “The saddest truth becomes a very twisted tale and the best of intentions sometimes fail….”.

Front Porch paints a poignant picture of decline: “There’s an old dog chasing after fireflies but his legs ain’t what they used to be…and the paint is fading from the bannisters on that front porch that I will never see...”. The chorus seems to be about a family reunion because of a passing over: “We will all come together for that long last breath….we will all come together eventually…”. A touching country track with some lovely instrumental colouring from organ and what sounds like picked mandolin.

Union Station continues the mid paced country ballad style, this being one of the album’s epics at six minutes, with a Bruce Springsteen vibe: “Raise a glass and propose a toast to ghosts and memories of old times and pass it around…”. The album finishes with a beautiful instrumental called Do They Dream, composed of choral sounding synths. It’s a haunting piece of music and a nice way to close.

Overall, this is an album of high quality songwriting and musical performance that has been well recorded and produced. It maintains its theme throughout more or less and Bonnazoli has forged his own writing and singing style over the years. The lyrics are as strong as the music, which is not something you can often say. For those looking for exquisitely crafted torch songs full of romanticism and mystery, look no further.

 

Alex Faulkner

VERDICT: 8.7 out of 10