Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Little Steven's 'Soulfire' - Album

I am not sure there is someone out there that exemplifies and has done more to forward to the Jersey Shore sound over the years than 'Little' Steven Van Zandt. He might not be a household name, but his songwriting and musicianship has been a big part of the popular rock/soul movement that emanated from the Jersey Shore and has become a world-wide movement over the years. As a musician, Van Zandt is best known as being a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen's famous E Street Band. His aggressive guitar playing and nasally backing vocals has always formed a large part of Springsteen's live sound, and he has also been featured heavily in the studio with Springsteen over the years so can be heard on many of his famous hits. While this gig more than pays the bills, it has never allowed him to flex him muscles as a songwriter. For a long time, Van Zandt never really had his own band and in fact wrote songs for other artists. Many of his compositions form the backbone of the catalogue of Jersey Shore legend Southside Johnny who, along with his backing band the Asbury Jukes, has helped to keep the horn-driven cross of rock and soul popular over the years. Van Zandt acted as the producer and main songwriter of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes for many years, and many of his songs have become popular through Southside Johnny's success. Over the years Van Zandt has worked and written with other artists, usually in a behind-the-scenes capacity, including Michael Monroe, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Meat Loaf. Despite mostly content to stay somewhat in the shadows, Van Zandt has also enjoyed a fairly successful solo career which he has dedicated time to on and off since the early 1980s. His debut solo album, 1982's Men Without Women, is real classic piece of the Jersey Shore sound and is an album that remains popular with connoisseurs of the genre. His following solos albums abandoned his signature style somewhat. 1984's Voice of America adopted a rawer garage rock sound, and 1987's Freedom - No Compromise experimented with some world music influences. A new solo album from Van Zandt was long-overdue, so fans of the Jersey Shore sound rejoiced last month when he released his latest solo offering Soulfire, his sixth studio album overall. While not strictly an album of all new material, Soulfire is a real celebration of Van Zandt's life and work, and of the Jersey Shore sound as a whole. Joining a handful of new songs and choice covers are new versions of some of his best known songs that he gave away. In finally recording and releasing his own versions of these famous songs, Van Zandt has reclaimed his own work and will probably alert people to his hidden genius that were previously unaware. It is ironic that more people now are probably familiar with Van Zandt for playing the calculating Mafioso Silvio Dante during the entire run of HBO's The Sopranos, as well as Frank 'The Fixer' Tagliano in his own TV creation Lilyhammer. Soulfire returns our attention to Van Zandt's music after his successful dalliances on the small screen, and does so with aplomb.

A jaunty guitar rhythm opens the album's title track, a song which Van Zandt wrote with the now-defunct Danish rock band The Breakers. Despite the spiky intro, the song is mostly a smooth affair with a gentle organ backing and a laid back drum beat, laid down here by Rich Mercurio. Van Zandt has never been the world's greatest singer, but his performance throughout this album is probably his best yet, and his natural warmth really helps the songs to life. A gospel-influenced chorus, complete with smokey female backing vocals, is the centrepiece of the song, and the crooning horn section that augments many parts of the piece really add colour. Many members past and present of the legendary Miami Horns have contributed to this album, and their presence really cements that Jersey Shore sound. I'm Coming Back, original recorded by Southside Johnny in 1991, is a bit more upbeat with an strident, anthemic chorus and an opening motif driven by pulsing keyboard horns. Twinkling piano lines are scattered throughout the song to great effect, but it is the chorus that really elevates the song to new heights with strong harmonies and a powerful melody that takes hold immediately. One of Van Zandt's typically schizophrenic guitar solos adds some real energy part-way through, before the chorus again takes hold. Blues is my Business is a cover, and the song was originally recorded by Etta James. Unsurprisingly given the song's title, this is a blues cut that really ticks all of those boxes. Van Zandt gets to show off his skills as a lead guitarist throughout, with many short solo sections and lead breaks to really sink his teeth into. The main bulk of the song is driven by a piano line, but the large horn section really adds to the song with plenty of punchy riffs. The highlight of the song for me is a lengthy organ solo from Andy Burton, who has toured with John Mayer and Ian Hunter among others, which is packed full of bluesy growl and attitude. The majority of the musicians on this album are relatively unknown names, who mostly undertake session work in the New York area, but they all turn in great shifts throughout and help to really bring these songs to life. I Saw the Light is a new song from Van Zandt for this album and opens with a three chord attack that really has shades of the music he plays day in day out with the E Street Band, and his nasally voice really helps in giving some bite to the song. The horns are easily the most dominant instrument here once the song really gets going, and their pulsing melodies really ooze out of the speakers. The rhythm section and some piano lines help out, but it is the horns that really take centre stage. Two songs from Southside Johnny's seminal 1977 album This Time it's for Real follow, with Some Things Just Don't Change up first. It is the first song on the album to take on more of a downbeat feel, with a slower piano melody and a mournful horn arrangement. There are shades of the great crooners of the 1930s and 1940s in the way Van Zandt sings this song and the overall arrangement of the piece which helps it to stand out. It takes a bluesy turn towards the end however, with a more prominent guitar line and prominent use of female backing vocals. Love on the Wrong Side of Town is next, and the song co-written by Springsteen is one of Southside Johnny's real classics. The slightly punky opening is great, with stabs of guitar and horns that really whip up a real energy, but the rest of the song is smoother with ringing guitar chords and a laid-back vocal performance. The chorus really soars however, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and plenty of organ to add a great 1970s classic rock backing. The effects-heavy guitar solo is also great, and adds another mood to a song that already contains many different vibes.

The City Weeps Tonight is another of the new songs recorded for this album, but it is a song that Van Zandt has been trying to finish for many years. The laid-back, almost lounge-like feel, adds a different feel to the album and shows that Van Zandt can really croon with the best of them when he feels like it. Strings are more the order of the day here than horns, and the subtle orchestral backing helps to bring out that dancehall feel the songs helps to conjure up. Down and Out in New York City, originally recorded by James Brown in the early 1970s, opens out with a strong percussive feel and a lengthy flute solo from Stan Harrison. Flute is not something usually associated with the Jersey Shore sound, and there are some parts of this lengthy intro that really have a strong Jethro Tull vibe (and this is not just because of the use of flute), but this is soon dispelled as soon as Van Zandt starts to sing over a bass-heavy rhythm with some great wah-heavy guitar from Marc Ribler (who also co-produced the album). The choruses are more typical of the Jersey Shore sound with strong horns and a impassioned vocal performance. Trombone and trumpet solos fill the latter part of the song with melodies and rhythms that make you realise how much of an influence this kind of music was on bands like Toto. Standing in the Line of Fire, a song which Van Zandt wrote with Gary U.S. Bonds for his 1984 album of the same name follows. This arrangement opens with a Spaghetti Western-inspired opening section with ringing bluesy guitar lines. The main song however is quite a laid-back feel that is built around strong piano chords and the odd burst of horns. I must say I feel this is one of the few songs on this album that never really gets going. I am not familiar with the original version, so it is hard to compare, but I feel this song lacks the energy of the rest of the album. There is a great trumpet solo however which really adds some class to the song towards the end. Saint Valentine's Day, which was written for a band called The Cocktail Slippers, puts the album back on track however with a more guitar-driven arrangement and a great vocal from Van Zandt. This is the first song from the album that I heard and it persuaded me to pre-order as it is packed full of the sort of things that has made Van Zandt so successful over the years. It also shows you how much influence he has had over the E Street Band's sound over the years, as this song could have fit on any of Springsteen's classic albums with a strong guitar-based rhythm and a an upbeat horn riff after the choruses that has a real triumphant feel. A raw guitar solo, filled with some slide, is the icing on the cake of what is a truly excellent song. I Don't Want to Go Home, from Southside Johnny's debut album, is apparently the first song Van Zandt ever wrote is does sound a little more rudimentary compared to many of the other songs here but is still packed full of heart. Big acoustic guitar chords and piano lines drive the song, along with a vocal that both shows Van Zandt's limitations as a singer but also shows that it is emotion that really counts rather than technical ability. The album's closing number, Ride the Night Away (which was written for Jimmy Barnes), is a real upbeat piece of rock that is a perfect album closer and also shows just how much the writing of Van Zandt and his peers has been on bands on Bon Jovi with a real 1980s arena rock-style chorus that shimmers with layers of keyboards and the real class of the ever-present horn section. It shows the more straight-ahead rock sound that Van Zandt also does well, and ends the album on a real high with plenty of memorable lines and moments. Overall, Soulfire is both a celebration of one of the underrated songwriters in rock history and an album that sees Van Zandt re-launch his solo career with a bang. With plenty of touring with his backing band the Disciples of Soul scheduled during the current Springsteen downtime, I am sure there are many out there that will finally learn of Van Zandt's genius.

The album was released on 19th May 2017 via Wicked Cool Recordings/Universal Music Enterprises. Below is his official sound clip for Saint Valentine's Day.

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