There was a time when reviewers were far less favourable towards Joanne Shaw Taylor’s singing than her guitar playing. Of the latter, most agreed she had style and flair, and was forging well ahead in an ever-busy blues rock milieu. Maybe it was that she possessed a husky voice rather than the stereotypical higher girly-one, either way it seemed a little biased since vocals too often tend to be a secondary commodity playing blues guitar.
In recent years, however, I have noticed a marked improvement in the quality and expressiveness Taylor imbues her songs vocally, live especially. It’s maybe just that she’s putting more time in, maybe had professional coaching in that area; it’s also likely that she’s been looking and listening beyond the blues rock remit, delving into soul, rhythm ‘n’ blues (old and new) and beyond where vocals are a dominant form borne of the gospel scene and music takes an up arranged placement around it. Regardless, with Nobody’s Fool she’s undoubtedly going that extra mile; it begins with the songs themselves and then her applying the right kind of vocal nuances to portray the stories they’re telling. It’s the same deep throated tones coming out, but they’re saying something more than just their literal projection of poetic sentences.
Last year’s The Blues Album may have been a No. 1 album on that genre’s charts, and she may have kept the same producers in Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, but now with hindsight and her latest release it looks like that she was, while not closing the door on the large body of work she had amassed in the blues scene she was putting a pin in it. Here, we find she has moved on, if only sideways to see where it leads, and if only for a vacation.
We need to remember that all those 60’s whiteboys who started off doing covers of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ didn’t stay there. Not Eric Clapton and certainly not Van Morrison. Touring the States, they were not only impacted by wider cultural experiences and their related musical side-pockets but suddenly got access to better recording facilities and no doubt found employing session guys to take up auxiliary roles as horn sections was a cheap dream come true. But that was a long time ago. The last 15 years or so we’ve seen a batch of earnest pretty-boy blues guitarists, who pulled in a female crowd, and more recently the rightful ascendance of some talent female exponents of the bluesified six-string. But, as in times gone by, there’s often a yearning to grow musically, and we have the beginnings of that with Nobody’s Fool.
Save for a cover of The Eurythmics ‘Missionary Man’, Taylor’s penned these numbers herself. Nothing especially unusual there, and many are the familiar affairs of the heart type numbers, others cut deeper, reflecting she may be at a stage of her life where she’s looking around and totting up all those she’s achieved on life’s journey, deeper still ‘Fade Away’ reflects on her own mother’s passing. Lyrically, there’s a strong crafting of words, more importantly she sings them with true soul – we’re talking Aretha, Dusty, Nina and others of that ilk; ladies whose forenames should say it all. We’re talking Stax and Muscle Shoals, with some brass and backing vocalists in tow, but lovers of guitar shredding should not worry, there’s enough of that too, with solos that tend to ignite from the emotional context of the songs. However, it’s not all blistering lead work, there are a fair few numbers where acoustic guitars come to the fore, and something that tends to get overlooked in Taylor’s playing, an often creative of rhythm guitar offsetting too obvious tempos.
Title track ‘Nobody’s Fool’ proves quite laid back, an infrequent cheeky slide motif, some background piano and a travelogue relating lessons learnt, with some credible classic pop hooks. It’s a scene setter for the rest of the album, it’s also the kind of tune you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear see hovering about in the early 70’s English singles’ charts before glam rock held sway. ‘Bad Blood’ follows with a tempered sense of 50’s rumble and menace again, swinging along in the chorus with added female backing vocals and again the kind of track that once upon a time a producer might’ve cut the guitar solo out of for the edited single version.
More joyful musically, and timeless in its quality is ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again’. It might initially bear the same kind of attitude towards affairs of the heart as the opening number, but it’s more about being cautious, after too many knockdowns. It’s got a bouncing rhythm that has this writer rocking from side to side as he types, a playful chorus that I’ll be singing along to by the end of the day and assorted sweet guitar solos courtesy of Taylor and Bonamassa – who’s doing what and when doesn’t really matter, in all cases they flow out from the song, as they should, charmingly so.
‘Just No Getting Over You (Dream Cruise)’ follows naturally, harder on the guitar, burly brass punctuating then riding out a melody, female backing adding weight in the chorus. If her near namesake, Mick Taylor, had returned and plugged in during The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls album, you might’ve got something a little like this.
Having got really got warmed up with those last two tracks, be prepared to get knocked sideways with ‘Fade Away’. Largely piano and her voice, with gentle interweaving of melancholic cello from list Tina Guo. What makes this song succeed beyond the obvious personal recollections concerning her mother, is that sung by another, this could easily become an overwrought melodrama, and it’s not; it’s tempered, reflective, making it just that little more poignant. Lest we forget the lady’s bread and butter audience, ‘Then There’s You’ is a 12-bar blues shuffle, that should Tina Turner return to the record industry she might like to consider covering.
Trumping ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again’ as my favourite track on this album is ‘Runaway’. Musically, it’s even more playful, like some late 80s Snuffy Walden hit TV soundtrack given a makeover with added lyrics for a major Hollywood rom-com where they expect a high return. She sings beautifully; guitars, piano and a short bass solo all adding to a finally crafted tune that moves through a gentle clutch of tempo changes.
The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart helped launch Joanne Shaw Taylor’s professional career, and here he guests on (his own co-write with Annie Lennox) ‘Missionary Man’. Broadly a blues rocking rendition with added 80s keyboards tweaks, I’d put this and ‘Then There’s You’ among the album’s more obvious tracks. More appealing personally, is ‘Figure It Out’, that takes Chris Spedding’s ‘Motorbikin’’ grafts it to Tony Basil’s ‘Mickey’, throws in a little power pop, and a guest appearance by guitarist Carmen Vandenburg and somehow works.
‘The Leaving Kind’ is a breathy Southern Gothic ghostly acoustic picked ballad, relating the inevitability of a love gone wrong, exploding in a brief rage of fretboard fury to remind her fans what they often came this way for near its end. Then, finally, ‘New Love’ takes over the other side of the street with a swinging and swaggering R & B beat, saxophone blowing proud, with the first lady of Soul looking down from on high, a smile on her face as Taylor sings of that eternal hope that beats in our hearts when one door closes and we’re waiting for another to open – Her guitar arcs brightly over a catchy number with whooping back vocals, and a box ticked that declares this album a success.
This is an album in the old school tradition. A departure in many respects, but happily so I would say. Some might find comparisons with the work Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt, it’s certainly more worldly, using a broader song structure template, with a strong sound throughout, and at least two standout numbers, neither much like the material she’s performed before. Whether she’ll stay in this musical ballpark come the future is likely to depend on what her fanbase demands but I hope she’ll at least return to play in it once and a while. This one pretty much gets both thumbs up.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Nobody’s Foot is released via KTBA Records and is available now from here.
- Official Website
- Nobody’s Fool
- Bad Blood
- Won’t Be Fooled Again
- Just No Getting Over You (Dream Cruise)
- Fade Away
- Then There’s You
- Figure It Out
- The Leaving Kind
- New Love