Sound — 8
'The Blues', in it's various guises, has been in steady decline since the untimely death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the summer of 1990. It's been waiting in the wings, lying dormant in need of someone to come along and breathe new life into the genre. In the 20th century we had innovators such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin (and of course the Brothers Vaughan) keeping the the roots alive whilst adding their own unique contributions. The short period between the 1950s and 1980s changed the face of music forever. Fast forward to the modern music scene, amd we've seen a generation of great new artists take blues music in fresh directions, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks, BBM, Albert Cummings, The Black Keys, John Mayer, Robben Ford and many more of note, but nothing so far has captured the public's imagination the way those early landmark musicians did. 'Sloe Gin', his sixth studio album, has the potential to become a future classic. Like the infamous 'Beano' album, or the technical wizardry of Texas Flood, it attempts more than to merely emulate the efforts of his peers. Instead he seems to have carved a whole new space for himself in the face of music. And rightly so? Of all the world's axe-slingers there are few more worthy of picking up where Stevie left off than 30-year old Joe Bonamassa. Born on May 8th, 1977, also the birthday of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, he picked up the guitar at the tender age of four. By the time he turned fourteen he'd toured with BB King, George Thorogood, Buddy Guy, Gregg Allman and Foreigner. After a decade or so of touring and honing his chops, Bonamassa released his debut LP, 'A New Day Yesterday'. Several albums and awards later came 'You And Me', a tour-de-force of lightspeed guitar and epic blues riffery. Following the success of 'You And Me', the decision was made to create an acoustic album as it's successor. But once the band began jamming in the studio, the music took turns in a more electric direction.
Lyrics — 7
Of Sloe Gin's 11 tracks there are five originals, backed up by a typically diverse selction of cover songs. The first of these is the Chris Whitley-penned 'Ball Peen Hammer', and itself contains some of the album's most memorable moments. The album begins with a lone acoustic guitar/vocal but rapidly develops into an powerful chorus with pounding, when-the-levee-breaks-esque drums and subtle orchestration. In fact, this track along with much of the LP has an unmistakeable 'Led Zeppelin III' air about it, especially obvious in the recorded acoustic tones and overall mastering. This is followed by a fine rendition of Ten Years After's 'One Of These Days', a veritable slide-fest which makes full use of Bonamassa's gritty voice and features the first major guitar solo of the album. Next comes a change of pace with 'Seagull' by Bad Company, which is by nature a cheesy song though this is to some extent rectified by excellent production. It's still a good summery number, though also the song most likely to cause a divide in opinion.
'Dirt In My Pocket' is the first of Bonamassa's own songs to appear on Sloe Gin, and is a very gritty blues-rock track which blends acoustic and electric guitars with simple drumming to create a very dry, powerful feel. It showcases his voice well and has quite an old-fashioned lyrical approach which works well in this instance. The 'A side' of Sloe Gin concludes with the song of the same name. An obscure track taken from Tim Curry's 1978 LP Read My Lips, 'Sloe Gin' is a melancholy exploration of loneliness and is, in a word, simply stunning. Hopelessly sad, yet somehow inspiring, expect this to be hailed as a classic track in about twenty years' time. Every aspect of the production is flawless, from the pulsating Hammond organ and tactful string arrangements to the uplifting guitar tone, and it seems that each time you listen to it you discover something new. It's worth the price of the album for this one song alone. The second half of the album kicks off with the upbeat and catchy 'Another Kind Of Love', a classic John Mayall tune with a guitar riff that'll be reverberating around your head for weeks afterwards! It's an excellent rendition, but much less complex than the rest of the album - almost a nod back to Bonamassa's earlier records like Blues Deluxe and New Day Yesterday.
'Around The Bend' made it's recorded debut on 2004's Had To Cry Today, but Joe hated how it had turned out and decided to have another go in the format it was originally intended: purely acoustic without anything to detract from the lyrics. The result is a very sweet and mellow tune on which Bonamassa's voice takes center stage. The lyrics are simple and wistful, reaching a gentle climax with an urgent-sounding bridge section followed by a crisp slide solo. The result is arguably one of his best original songs so far: a marked contrast to the original full band 2004 version, certainly. 'Black Night' is the only song on this album which carries even a faint trace of guitar-related self-indulgence. It's actually a cover of Charles Brown's 1951 hit (no relation to the Deep Purple song of the same name! ) and opens with a great display of fretboard pyrotechnics, faintly reminiscent of Eric Johnson. At first it has the vibe of an instrumental, but suddenly the mood changes and it recognisably becomes a downbeat blues song. It's a lightweight vocal performance but creates a good bluesy vibe before launching into an extended solo which neatly blends traditional and modern styles. During the course of the song the urgency really seems to build up, although a gentle drawn-out ending diffuses this nicely. The final three tracks of Sloe Gin are all acoustic-based and draw the album to a relaxed and mellow conclusion. There's a great resonator version of 'Jelly Roll' which, ignoring the modern recording quality, sounds not unlike the early recordings of the delta-bluesmen in the 1930s. This is followed by 'Richmond', a Bonamassa-penned track based on the time he spent in Washington DC (artistic licence saw the name changed to 'Richmond'). It's quite a melodic bit of acoustic arrangement and provides further proof of his shift of emphasis from guitar playing to songwriting and lyrical content. it's gentle pace makes it ideal for summer listening. The final track, 'India', is an instrumental piece which mixes Joe's blues and rock influences with Indian melodies and percussion. It's a bizarre way to end an album, but is somehow quite fitting at the same time; proving that there's always new directions with which to explore and expand old music.
Overall Impression — 9
So, is Sloe Gin set to become a future classic? It's certainly got many of the qualities of a benchmark record, a great deal of different styles and influences are explored and this certainly doesn't deserve to be labelled as 'another blues album'. There's far more depth and feeling behind this than the masses of SRV clones which people seem to associate with modern blues music. There's also plenty here for rock and acoustic fans to enjoy. However Bonamassa is barely aged 30 now, and things can only improve further over the next few years. I guess in many ways the timing and composition of this album reminds me of 'Led Zeppelin III'. After two successful albums, Zep fans were crying out for more massive riffs, and more epic solos. Instead, what they got was a mixture of the old and new, with massive heavy riffs (The Immigrant Song, Out On The Tiles) side-by-side with soft and introspective folk ballads (That's The Way, Tangerine). And that's what Joe Bonamassa has managed to achieve, a complete marriage of old and new styles to create something totally fresh, yet still pleasingly familiar. Usually I relish finding fault with absolutely anything, but Sloe Gin really has me stumped. There's so much in here that simply anyone could enjoy it. And unlike many modern guitarists' work it isn't aimed squarely at musicians - all things considered, it's simply an album of great songs, slickly produced and passionately performed. Highly, highly recommended.