Album review draft

Nell Bryden

There is something utterly compelling about Nell Bryden: her voice; her style; her versatility and her looks. Along with Bec Wood (nee Newman) from The Hot Puppies, she is one of only a select few whose music and image succeeds in transcending the boundaries of predetermined personal musical bias.

The seamless fusion of Rock ’n’ Roll, Country, Blues, Bluegrass and Jazz results in an eclectic, individual and classy sound that would be equally suited to a backwater radio station in America’s Mid-West as it would be on day-time radio in the UK.

Imagine the Blues Brothers having a cute kid sister who as well as ‘Singing The Blues’ enjoys travelling down those dusty ‘Country Roads.’

What makes this eleven-track gem of an album extra special is the means by which present-day songs (all written I believe, by Nell herself) have the smoggy atmosphere of a smoke-filled Fifties bars about them, whilst losing none of their contemporary feel. Not only that, but through her delivery, Nell transports the listener back to those ‘Fifties bars and each one is different – a jazz cafe type; a straw bale-lined Country & Western bar; a sophisticated piano bar and even a Deep South Gospel bar. (OK – maybe the last was a Church Hall rather than a ‘bar,’ but you get the idea?!)

The production on several tracks also helps with the mental imagery. Opening song, ‘Tonight’ is a case in point. The banjo and clarinet combine smoothly in a chirpy little Dixie-jazz number that is enhanced by Nell’s vocals being given a slightly fuzzy echo, the result being a little like an old 78rpm record on a wind-up gramophone.

Title track ‘Second Time Around’ was released as a single towards the end of 2008 and gained substantial airplay across National Radio in both UK and US. A little more quick of pace than the rest of the album, it does however showcase – within its brief two minutes and fifteen seconds! – many of the qualities that make Nell such a prodigious talent.

In addition to blues, country and bluegrass, there’s a Fifties boogie attitude floating around here. There’s honky-tonk piano, fiddle, pedal steel guitar, a prominent bass line and vocals that remind me of Christina Aguilera singing ‘The Candyman.’ The shuffling drums and tambourine give this track the sound of an old steam train chuffing its way across the American plains, while the piano and backing line has a distinct similarity to the Rory Gallagher track, ‘Race The Breeze,’ from his ‘Blueprint’ album. Surely a coincidence, but a wonderful one!
(The video to this track follows the text.)

‘Late Night Call’ maintains the tempo with a piano led, foot tapping, head nodding, sing-a-long that has a definite ragtime feel about it. Then, at marginally over five minutes in length, ‘From Midnight On’ is the longest track on the album. It’s ostensibly a slow, Blues number but incorporates Country harmonies in addition to utilising a touch of ‘reverb,’ to highlight the guitar and drums at certain points and create a spectacularly atmospheric song.

‘Why Can’t That Be Me’ sounds like it was recorded in a ‘foosty’ wooden floored bar with an old, battered honky-tonk piano being played in the corner, some distance away from the mic., while a pedal steel guitar plays unobtrusively in the background. Bound together with a ‘clip clop hoof beat’ (not a technical description!) the impression created is of a mild burlesque act performing to a saloon bar full of cowboys in a grainy black and white Western movie. (I wonder if anyone else can detect the faint echo of Rod Stewart’s ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous’ in the final two lines of the chorus? – OK, so that’s just me, then…!?)

‘Only Life I Know’ is the first out and out, straight up Country song on the album. As is the way with many of these songs it is a bit of a conundrum – a bit self-contradictory. By that I mean it’s a fairly jaunty little tune with bouncy melodies and hooks aplenty. The tempo is enhanced by the smooth sound of the fiddle, and yet Nell’s voice reflects an entirely apposite sentiment. Through her vocals, the listener just knows she wears a mournful expression as she sings this song.

‘Green Dress’ takes the mood down a level. This is a sad-sounding song of separation in the ‘traditional,’ sense of Country music. The lyrics are ever so poignant and Nell succeeds in loading her vocals with an air of resignation as well as heartfelt emotion. (I don’t normally ‘do’ slow songs myself, but this one is so expressive that it sounds as if it were written through the pain of personal experience.)

Nell however does not dwell on the more mournful sounds and the following song ‘Where The Pavement Ends’ picks up on the tempo. Again there appear to be so many influences integrated into this track. Think of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ going head to head in a sound-clash with ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’, while the Charlie Daniels Band play ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ in the background. Scoop the resultant mash-up into the musical equivalent of a cocktail shaker, add a touch of Romany / gypsy influence and pour!

‘Goodbye’ is a softly sung song in which Nell’s vocal range is highlighted as it dances lightly over the top of a smooth, understated backing. At points there is a vocal similarity to (I think!) the Nigerian born jazz /soul singer Sade, who had several big hits in the Eighties.
(The video to this track follows the text.)

‘If I Forget’ has a bluesy feel to it, but also features early Sixties styled female backing vocals and a similarly themed guitar breakdown, whilst Nell’s voice is given a slightly echoed edge.

The album concludes with ‘Helen’s Requiem’ which at the time of writing this piece (early January 2009) is very topical in its sound with various covers of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ making such an impression across the musical globe.

Throughout the album’s forty minute duration, the strength and depth of Nell’s vocals is absolutely obvious. But what strikes even more is her relaxed style. She seems capable of expressing and conveying a whole range of emotions without ever having to ‘push’ her voice. And unlike many Country / Blues artists, her work does not come across as either morose or maudlin and mawkish.

Overall this is a very positive and uplifting album. To pigeon hole it as a ‘country’ or ‘blues’ album may be a disservice as it could marginalize potential markets / listeners. So how should it be classed?

Yeah – that’s it! ‘Class.’

Pure and simple……. class!