Album Review: Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Blues Album

As one of the most prolific artists in modern times, Joanne Shaw Taylor is back with her latest album, following on from 2019’s Restless Heart. Simply named, The Blues Album, it sees Taylor release her first covers album which as her seventh album feels overdue yet deft choice. Had she released this a decade ago, it would have been a welcome addition to her repertoire and added even more credibility to her then-burgeoning career.

But at this point, it becomes more of a passion project and paying reverence to the godfather of all subsequent guitar-based music genres. There may be some obvious artists tackled on this collection of covers and interpretations but that’s where it ends. Instead, Taylor has opted to delve deep into the nether regions of back catalogues and pull out oft-overlooked gems when going down the path of covers. Sure, there’s a handful which have still been covered to death but they’re still not the most obvious tracks and not many, if any, found on here could be classed as a standard.

There’s a lot of love given to the golden era you automatically think of but there’s nods given to slightly more modern artists. Taylor has brought her own spin to every song to the point you could pass this off as an original album to the uninitiated, adding her own passionate and soulful guitar work. Adding in her recognisable smoky and husky vocals, she hits it right down the middle of her range to pin everything together, walking that fine line of new and familiar.

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Indeed, with the addition of a number of instruments to this album to faithfully recreate many of these numbers, sonically, this is one of the biggest sounding albums Taylor has recorded. While this is very much her album, she’s more than happy to let the guitar take a backseat in favour of keys and saxophone to show there’s more than one instrument capable of portraying the blues. Similarly, it’s not completely full of slow, sludgy numbers and there’s a whole lot of funky, upbeat songs to sink your teeth into.

Golden-era Fleetwood Mac (ie with Peter Green) kicks the album off with a hell of momentum and the closest we get to an obvious number with “Stop Messin’ Around”. Heavy on keys and a funky piece of guitar work, it’s an early indicator we’re in for a good time. Meanwhile, “Keep On Lovin’ Me” takes us into jazzy territory whilst “Let Me Down Easy” and “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody” moves things into a sombre note and could have easily featured on Taylor’s last couple of albums. “Two Time My Lovin’” and “Three Time Loser” belie their hurt-ridden lyrics with fun, quirky, bouncy melodies and the former showing that there’s great blues numbers past the usual timeframe.

Elsewhere, we have “Don’t Go Away Mad” suitably in the mid-point of the album. Light and bouncy, there’s hints of country permeating the track with an incredibly strong start to the song to the point it makes me want to check out the original and more material from Little Village. However, it’s upended by the addition of Joe Bonamassa (also on production duties with Josh Smith). Providing a meticulous and soulless performance in both his vocals and guitar licks, it kills the momentum of the track but also highlights the night and day difference in Taylor and Bonamassa – blues is all about a feeling. It’s about more than just playing well – it’s about doing so with heart, soul and passion, none of which Bonamassa possesses. Skilled though he is, it’s no substitute. Taylor’s work shows that she does it because she has to, whilst Bonamassa does it because he wants to. It’s a feeling which can’t be manufactured and try as he might, Bonamassa simply doesn’t measure up and is effortlessly outshone by Taylor. Indeed, this could have been a much stronger track if Taylor vocally sparred with a more competent singer. Thankfully, the bad taste is washed out on follow-up track “Scraps Vignette”. The quick instrumental hums with subtle power, slowly and quietly flexing its muscles without needing vocals on top of it to make its point.

The album is loaded to the brim with passion and love in the guitar and is another effortless display of Taylor’s prowess and she shows for the umpteenth time how she understands the genre so intimately where so many others simply don’t. However, that feeling, that passion, that love is all killed by the heavy-handed production on the songs. It’s far too clean and clinical, landing into over-produced territory and strips the tracks of their heart (if you want to know how to produce a blues covers album, check out The Quireboys’ covers album). It holds this back from being one of the best albums of her career, and the blame is nowhere close to being in her court. While she plays with fervour and pours herself into each track, the stomach-turning pristine production is antithetical to blues and the soul which would be in them is lost. But it’s fair to say they’ll be regained in the live environment when there’s a chance to hear the numbers interspersed with originals.

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Despite Joanne Shaw Taylor sounding like she’s at the peak of her powers, The Blues Album, is one at odds with itself. You can hear some of her most soulful playing to date at she worships at the altar of blues and it’s matched in her vocals whilst surrounding herself with numerous proficient musicians. The deliberate choice not to attack the usual standards make this a far more interesting listen than if she just went for the songs we can rhyme off in our sleep. The overproduced nature of this album undermines those efforts to make a rather sanitised listen. But there’s a last laugh afforded to Ms Taylor – sonically, the tracks may lack what every blues number needs but no amount of over-production can remove it from the person themself.

Header image by Christie Goodwin

The Blues Album is released on 24th September

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