Monday, September 16, 2013

Jonny Lang - Fight For My Soul - The State of Soul Music 2013

There's little better than to be greeted on a Monday morning by a record that completely overturns the coffee cart, and kicks you square in the tail.

Fight For My Soul by Jonny Lang is one of those records - don't make the mistake of thinking that Lang is just another wannabe blues rocker, no, he's long since moved on to serious and sophisticated rocking soul that evokes the best of Marvin Gaye, Prince, and yes, even the pop wizardry of Michael Jackson. Not just a record, this is an achievement.

Did I just write that? Yeah, I did, and I'll build my case, but let me start with his singing - every song here is drenched with Lang's excellent sense of soul, melody, and passion. There's no walking through the tunes, he's putting his soul on the line with every cut, and making the mark and often greatly transcending it. Then there's also tons of great guitar work, and a production that harkens back to the days of big budgets and dreams. This record is one expansive son of a gun - it covers a lot of ground, but Lang always sounds like Lang, he's definitely found his voice.

This is Lang's first studio outing in seven years, and it sounds like he spent the whole time working on his songwriting, singing, and record making chops - fighting for his soul? It sounds like the war is being waged and won. His singing on the title track covers a lot of ground, from a whisper to very healthy belting, and back. This picks up where R&B got lost in the late '80s, when skills gave way to drum machines and infantile loops. I also like that albums are getting back to reasonable lengths - 11 songs are a manageable dose.

Calling Jonny Lang a bluesman is now the way of rapscallions who put pen to paper without first listening - he's graduated to that lofty altitude in which he can be called an artist. The bluesy riff that kicks things off on Blew Up is about the bluesiest thing on the record, and less than a minute later we're into a melodic mashup of big pop and rock that is fantastically catchy - if this was 1985, they would have spent a cool million on the video. He blows up the house, burns it down, and walks away smiling. The bridge goes to Minneapolis via London, sounding like Prince joining Foreigner (when they had it). A fiery guitar solo reminds us that he's a six-string strangler, and then it's back into the chorus for a sizzling end. The drums, bass, and Dwan Hill's keys are on fire, as well. It sounds like everybody played like their lives depended on this one.

Breaking In is modern soul done right, with marching drums, slick strings that give way to a thumping and swaggering stomp. The songcraft is killer - sections come and go with a cohesion that suggests lots of time spent thinking about outmoded things like arrangements, and production. The keyboards are layered on very heavily, and they're wonderful - whether it's some tinkling piano, or string and synth washes, they are spot on.

Some skronky wah guitar announces We Are The Same, and we're in the territory of '70s soul, circa Curtis Mayfield and his classic, urban tales. Sophistication is on tap in spades here, as big cascades of female vocals take over, only to be taken over by big Philly sounding strings and electric pianos that are perfect cushions for Lang as he applies his husky baritone to the tale. James Anton's rumbling bassline drives the chorus as things get bigger and bigger - it's great to hear such expert use of dynamics and drama. Another very cool bridge pushes us into a furious guitar solo that gets pushed too and fro by a slamming bass and drums interlude - Barry Alexander's drum playing is a marvel across the whole of the record. Hit after hit, kids....

One of the great things about this record in the fact that for all its intensity, it still manages to breathe. What You're Looking For combines solid soul songwriting with some modern production touches as Lang's vocals dance around the band and some fabulous background vocals that are placed strategically through the mix - when the chorus gets there, the whole thing is as wide and beautiful as the Grand Canyon. Lang never gets into the trap of cliched guitar parts - his parts are always right for the song, and there's no lingering blues rock boredom to be found.

Not Right walks in on a pad of acoustic guitar, but soon gives way to another slab of soul - this is deep in the tradition of social analysis via rhythm and rock. Lang's vocals are all over the place as he dips in and out of husky voicings and flutier falsettos. This takes the direction that I always hoped guys like Prince and Terence Trent D'arby would take - the soul is served properly, but the rock is heavier and more present.

The Truth is a builder - it comes in with pinched single string guitar notes and a bed of piano as Lang unfolds his tale of dependence in love. By the second verse, the drums are a heavy presence, as Lang does great work combining his vocal with some very tasty guitar work - Very pop. very much in the vein of the love ballad hits of Cheap Trick. That may sound almost blasphemous, but get over it - Rick Neilsen and Robin Zander owned that stuff, and it is tremendous ear candy. Lang has written a great song, sings like a man possessed, and plays great guitar - nothing to it, right?

Jonny Lang is following his muse - it's easy to hear as he goes from song to song here, and River is another cornucopia of styles that meld together like the best french recipe - you see an ingredient go by and you smile in acknowledgment, and it's off to the next. His solo fairly bounces off the wall, as he kicks the level of his vocal up a notch, or two, before settling into a ride out that is rich in female backgrounds, guitar squalls, and a drum track that is marvelously relentless.

The title track, Fight For My Soul, is a vocal tour de force. Sounding appropriately vulnerable, Lang lets the song unfold at a slow, easy pace that gently builds with some nice unison guitar bends, and a pulsing bass and drum routine that speaks volumes about the respective players taste and skills. Things get louder when a spiky organ joins the mix, the bass swoops and dips, and our young hero jousts with voice and guitar. He's fighting for his soul, but in such a classy fashion that we're never anything but sure that he's not going to win, he's won.

All Of A Sudden is straight early seventies balladeer, and he gets it perfect. Another huge vocal victory - is anyone singing like this on a regular basis in 2013 - maybe only my pal, Glenn Hughes, and maybe Richie Kotzen are singing quite this spectacularly. Layers upon layers of voices, melodic synth that reminds me of the days when Stevie Wonder had his hands on his Arp and Moog synths - yeah, it's that good. Maybe the vocal performance of the year.

I love big and great production - I enjoy hearing musicians stretching and testing their skills - Lang and co-producer Tommy Sims obviously spent a huge amount of time painting this masterpiece. Seasons is a perfect example - epically drawn out, it goes many places you don't expect in its cinematic journey. The strings literally take on various personas - the last album I heard that had great strings was Sonny Landreth's Elemental Journey last year, and I understand that it's a grand adventure to commit to the cost of strings, let alone to taking the time and diligence to make them adventurous, and well thought out. Much of the sonic play at work here suggests European psychedelic music of the early seventies, and movie soundtracks. And, on top of it, Lang has written another great song in which to immerse in the ocean of aural glory.

Jonny Lang obviously took his time and has reached deep into his psyche to construct this album - I'll Always Be is a slow drifter of a tune that gently carries the album out to sea, and we see that one time prodigy has matured into the complete package. When he takes his final solo of the record, his guitar is joyfully joined by his voice, and he really could not have gotten it any better than he does.

Fighting For My Soul is a great record. Jonny Lang - I hope he gets the listeners he deserves with this album. I will say that I never expected to hear something like this - this pops right into that rarified atmosphere I consider to be artistic greatness. A huge accomplishment.

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