Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Layla Zoe - Sleep Little Girl - Five Big Stars

I spent a few minutes trying to give this piece a clever title. I kicked around Whole Lotta Layla, then I considered The Autobiography of a Blues Singer, but then I decided to get the hell out of the way, and let the record speak for itself.

Sleep Little Girl is a firestorm of a record - the sixth solo release by the self-titled firegirl, and one that will greatly increase the Canadian singer's already international fanbase. Zoe is joined by German blues guitarist Henrik Freischlader, who not only composed all the music, but also played almost all of the instruments, save for the song Let's Get Crazy, which has bass and organ supplied by Moritz Fuhrhop.

I'd been listening to this record almost constantly for two days, and being very impressed by the cohesion of the band, the first question I asked Layla was who was in the band. I about fell out of my seat when she told me that Freischlader has played them all himself. The man is amazing - from the slinky groove of Give It To Me, to the high octane Zep-a-like stomper Rock and Roll Guitar Man, Henrik is world class on every instrument, and you would never know it was a one man show were you not told.

It is to Layla Zoe's everlasting credit that Henrik's performance is not the album's strongest point, for as brilliant as the one man band may be, it's clearly the sultry songstress's album. Everything I've ever read about her included the inevitable comparisons to Janis Joplin, and while that's rather obvious, she is a serious student of music of all types, and her stylings far surpass any sense of mere imitation. I asked about influences, and as I had imagined, she gave me a very impressive list.

"I'm really a guitar girl!" she laughed, "I listen mostly to artists like Roy Buchanan, Frank Zappa, and Peter Green, but I'm quite sure that Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Susan Tedeschi, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Eva Cassidy, and Joni Mitchell all had an influence on my vocal stylings."

Sleep Little Girl is full of autobiographical musings. Zoe wears her heart firmly on her sleeve, and you can tell by listening that she doesn't have to look far for inspiration. She reaches deep, and tells deep truths. She doesn't spare herself, or her audience - this is the blues, and this is how they were meant to be sung.

Layla said, "Pretty much all of this album comes from personal experiences - my observations on current and past experiences. Sleep Little Girl is a lullaby to myself, as I suffer from mild to extreme insomnia on the road sometimes. Singing My Blues - a true belief that I will be sing the blues until the day i die. Black Oil is about my true belief that the world was coming to an end during the news coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Rock and Roll Guitar Man, well, that's about a guitar player I fell in love with, and so on and so forth..."

Zoe may be the consummate blues singer, but there's a huge dose of rock and roll strewn across this platter, and her melodic abilities and expressive phrasing imply that there was a healthy dose of Robert Plant next to her turntable somewhere down the road. Freischlader's tunes are seldom twelve bar basics - he's a sophisticated composer who covers an amazing amount of stylistic territory, yet manages to keep it between the ditches, and the album never sounds anything but cohesive.

Zoe described the process of their collaboration as such: "I had written many lyrics and poems, as I write often. Henrik gave me demos of a bunch of music he had written. I took the songs I liked from the demos, added melodies with my voice, and out of my words to the songs I thought best suited the lyrics. It was a very organic thing - it was not thought out. It just happened that these were my favorite pieces of music he had written, and my words seemed to fit perfectly! We both had a part in the sound and the feel of the record. Working with him was so natural, it really felt as if it were meant to be."

That it does, indeed. In fact, so much so that her saying that this collaboration was meant to be almost seems an understatement. The music is married to the words in a way you seldom see, as if the moods of the melodies somehow existed only to serve these songs. It sounds like a band that has been working together for years, not like a paste up Pro Tools job. Made with love by a couple of pros at the tops of their games.

I've Been Down is a thick slice of proto-metallic/blues the likes of which Beck and Page were producing in the late 60s. As muscular as Freischlader's backing track is, it's Zoe who nails you up against the wall with a wail that harkens the very gods of blues rock. An auspicious beginning, which primes the pump and revs up the record. For a fellow known primarily as a lava hot guitarist, Henrik Freischlader's bass playing is as good as anyone you'd care to hear.

Straight away from the heavy rock onslaught of the opener, Give It To Me brings a fancy, funky strut that features fatback drums, skronky wah'd guitars, and a rubber band bass line that makes dancing an impossibility. This is as sexy as a song can get - Layla Zoe makes no bones about the mission she's on - she's not begging for it, she's demanding it. And most likely getting it. Her vocal power will knock you out of your seat.

Shimmering tremolo guitars against a very loose, open rhythm track makes Singing My Blues sound like it was constructed for a David Lynch soundtrack - very atmospheric and heady. Zoe's phrasing is sophisticated as the track, and when she goes for the low notes, you will swoon right along with her. Freischlader's guitar solo is a textural playground that suggests there's little in the lexicon that he's not absorbed. A primer for any want to be soul singing sister, this is a proud proclamation of Layla Zoe's mission statement.

Let's Get Crazy is the closest the record comes to the heart of the blues, as Henrik is joined by Moritz Fuhrhop, who plays some soulful Hammond organ and some nice walking bass. Zoe's vocal acrobatics save this one from being a bit predictable, and she delivers a sizzling performance.

I'm guessing that if you stripped Layla Zoe's incredible vocals off of these tunes, you'd still have a helluva record, and you may even get the gist of the titles without the words. Black Oil is another cinematic trip down soundtrack lane, as the chanteuse solemnly sings her hymn of pain, and black rain that is sure to follow the tragedy of the BP oil spill. This song speaks to one specific situation, but also covers the ground of a multitude of sins perpetrated against Mother Earth by ruthless profiteers. Henrik Freischlader milks this tune for every drop of emotion he can muster - it lasts over nine minutes, and you're still sorry to hear it end. If this song had come out in 1971 instead of 2011, the Layla Zoe would be the name of a jet airliner.

Another Bonham-esque piece of drumming rings in Pull Yourself Together, and yet as big and blustery as the arrangement is, it's still Zoe who commands the ship from the bridge. As a guitarist, the German six stringer is incendiary - pulling every bend, slur, and run he has in his vocabulary out on this one. His solo is a blinder, and it's very clear that Layla gave him full reign to ride - I hear a lot of blues band leaders keeping their sidemen on leashes, and it's a thrill to hear when someone is given license to strut his stuff.

I Hope She Loves You Like I Do would have been a huge soul single in the late 60s, and while it offers no surprises, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and the performances keep it from bogging down in familiarity. My least favorite song on the album, but it's still damned good. 

A modulating bass line and some shimmering, chorused guitars gently introduce Hippy Chick, and Zoe is at her autobiographical best as she lays out her mantras of freedom. The blues always wears a little psychedelia well, and this waves its freak flag high, and proud. This makes me miss Free, back when Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser were still seeing eye to eye, and Rodgers was not yet seeking bad company. Feisty redhead? Yeah, Zoe describes herself better than we ever could - she knows herself and has no shyness, hesitation, or compunction about spelling it out. 

Rock and Roll Guitar Man delivers the big rock in spades, as super saturated pentatonic guitar licks, a loping bass line, laid back beat, and a singer barely tethered to this planet take this one to the time of Led Zeppelin's first tours of America. Zoe and Freischlader joust from beginning to end, as each seems able to take it as high as it needs to go. This one will have audiences going wild this month as the pair cross Germany on their Fall tour. This is great rock and roll, and boy do we need it. 

After the extreme onslaught of Rock and Roll Guitar Man, it's time to relax and ride this record off to the stables, and Zoe does it with a proper lullaby. The album's title song is a gentle good night - Layla can purr as well as she can roar, and accompanied by only an Appalachian acoustic guitar track, she brings us down gently, and bids us good night.

Sleep Little Girl is one of the finest rock and roll records I've heard all year - it's also one of the finest blues records I've heard this year. No matter how you slice it, it is the best record Layla Zoe has yet delivered, and if it doesn't make her a big star, well then, there's little right in the world. I asked her how she felt about the record, and her plans for 2012.

She said, "I plan to keep gigging, and promoting the heck out of Sleep Little Girl, as I personally feel it is the best thing I've ever done. I'm very excited to share it with as many music lovers as possible. I hope to get over to America at some point, and I believe I will. The US is hard to cross into for musicians, with the border and the small money to be made in clubs if you're name is unknown. I'm just waiting for the right time and opportunity. Until then, I'm mostly focused on Canada, and parts of Europe. Someone contacted me online for a German gig in 2009. I have been there ever since - they have a great blues scene, and they really appreciate what I am doing. I met Henrik at that first gig in 2009, he was hired to be my back up band. The rest is history.

"I was struggling so much to survive when I was sixteen years old. I don't think I would have believed then that I would be here now. I would not have believed it"

I'd like to thank Layla for answering my questions before heading out for a month long tour of Germany - she is a trooper.

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