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Katie Melua: Secret Symphony
True originality isn’t easy to come by in the music business these days. We’ve witnessed more than a fair share of artists drowning in a sea of likewise imitators. This makes us appreciate the odd exceptions who, year after year, manage to produce better music with each record that they release. Katie Melua’s new album Secret Symphony presents what any fan base would wish for in a new release; the familiar style they have come to love with a fresh twist.
Steady, relaxed vocals and soothing bluesy music are what shaped Melua’s previous albums, yet Secret Symphony introduces bolder elements that are foreign to her trademark style. The usual slow guitar and piano melodies have been infused with new sounds, while Melua has included covers that give insight into her own inspirations.
‘Moonshine’ lifts the record’s tempo with a finger-snapping melody and low pitched guitar base after ‘The Bit I Don’t Get’, whose clever rhymes and meaningful lyrics make it the best song on the album: “The bit that I don't get, it's how it changed so fast/How it changed from we will always be together, to it will never last”.
The only song written by Melua on her own, except for her two collaborations with established British producer Mike Batt, is ‘Forgetting All My Troubles’ whose positive tones stand out against the measured ambience of the album.
Though the album contains some covers, you hardly wince, as Melua more than makes them her own. The best of them is the cover of the 1923 song ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, a song covered by countless artists before. It adds a unique edge to the album, especially when listening closely to the cynical lyrics.
Like in previous album The House, Melua cements her position as the go-to artist when it comes to languid, romantic songs - a reputation that, over the years, has attracted as much scorn as it has attracted adoration. Overall, Secret Symphony marks a welcome return of the style that put Melua on the map. More than just regurgitating her old sound though, she has taken a leap into exploring and expanding it.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
The legendary Jimi Hendrix once listed Buddy Guy as a major influence, as did Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s not hard to see why; even at the ripe age of 77, this pioneer of Chicago Blues is able to release explosive album, Rhythm & Blues; a record that shot straight to number one on Billboard’s Blues Album Chart.
Outside of the fact that this is his 27th release, Buddy is ranked 30th in the Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists of All Time, has a song in their Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time, and a guitar in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’s an old hand, a professional, and it shows; with seemingly effortless ease, he’s rattled off 21 songs that range between uncompromising, rampaging rock and roll (as in ‘Best In Town’) to slow, smooth and screaming blues (check out ‘I Go By Feel’ or ‘Whisky Ghost’).
Despite his age, Buddy’s voice is just as strong and assertive as ever and indeed has gained a gritty, soulful quality that adds depth and a certain appeal to the album; as if to reaffirm his guitar credentials the album’s littered with solos that are by turns mournful or chaotic -wah-wah abounds throughout.
Although the album is dominated by Buddy, to think of it as a one-man show would be a mistake. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler makes a guest appearance on 'Evil Twin', and across the album you’ll hear Kid Rock, Keith Urban and Gary Clark Jr; in particular, ‘What You Gonna Do About Me’ featuring Beth Hart, shows how effectively Buddy can share a stage.
More than these guests, it’s the session musicians standing behind Buddy who give the album its tone of power, energy and confidence. The drummer asserts himself with wide, loud fills and rhythms that seem to say “I’m here, and this song is happening now - I hope you’ve braced yourself.” He’s also intuitively connected to Buddy, giving the guitarist’s solos a flavour and current that could not exist were he a lesser drummer.
The bassist exudes a quiet confidence that strengthens the foundations from which Buddy works; throughout most of the album you don’t realise he’s there until you listen, but once you do you can’t stop. Backup vocalists add depth and variety and his pianist/organist is astonishing. An excellent horns section adds that certain something that pushes this album over the top; talented and versatile, they add swagger to funk and soul to blues, and are the spice that makes this album gourmet.
27 albums in, it’s no surprise that Buddy is set in his ways; all his previous releases have been blues albums, and any in the future will also be blues albums. But within that framework, Buddy continues to deliver songs that are sometimes nostalgic, sometimes innovative. He seems to know when to stick to his guns and when to experiment, particularly with new guitar pedals, and has included an array of guests, both young and old, to create an excellent fusion of past and present.