The Stone HouseWell, this is certainly very different from most of the albums I’ve reviewed recently, apart from the Tess of the Circle album, “Thorns”.  Kinver are Ian Parker (guitars and vocals), Beth Porter (cello and backing vocals), Alex Thomas (drums and percussion), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Morg Morgan (piano and Hammond) and they play the gentle, melodic and sometimes haunting songs of Ian Parker.  If you’re after banging rhythms and loads of digital effects, then you’re in the wrong place; the arrangements of the songs on their debut, “The Stone House” are tasteful and subtle, demonstrating great technique without any hint of overplaying.

The songs are introspective, confessional  folk/rock of the type that was incredibly popular in the early 70s.  The opening track,” The Lights” sets the tone for the album with a cello riff (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use) played over some clipped guitar chords as an intro before the song unfolds into a story of loss and redemption, common themes throughout the album.  The gentle “The Will to Dance” leads into what is musically the bounciest track on the album, the almost-jaunty “From the Start”.  “Ten Thousand” is a twenty-first century protest song wrapped up in a very gentle, laid-back style while “Silent Void” has a folky start and is probably the most confessional song on the album, but more about that later.  “Turning to Light” starts with a military drum pattern, but soon drops into the familiar low-tempo band groove while “Waste in Chains” features a nice finger-picked guitar accompanied by cello, before dropping into a country-feel middle section, then back to guitar and cello.  The gloomy “Lonelier Souls” acts as a contrast with the uptempo and lyrically upbeat “Basket” and with “Halfway Home”, the album closes as it opened with guitar, cello and viola.

Musically the album is pretty easy on the ear; the performances are very good throughout and the band move through a variety of styles with ease and Ian Parker has a very good voice, reminiscent at times of another West Midlander, Stephen Duffy.  Lyrically, it isn’t such an easy listen.  Ian Parker, as a lyricist, pulls out some interesting metaphors including this in “From the Start”: ‘It occurred to me you see that I’d never really be quite round enough for many of life’s holes’, but it’s the content overall that I’m less sure about.

I’m quite partial to a bit of melancholy, even misery, in my music but on “The Stone House” it’s almost inescapable.  There’s an air of fragility which runs through each track on the album, in the music as well as the lyrics and a sense of alienation in the lyric above, but also in several references to misfits and addiction.  The songs could have been sequenced to create a narrative of redemption (or the opposite) but we’re left guessing how the story actually ends.  It’s difficult to tell if a song is confessional and based on biographical events, or a complete work of fiction but if “The Stone House” is based on reality, then I really hope that making the album has helped Ian Parker through a difficult time.  If it’s a creation and not a confession, then it’s a very convincing portrait of a desperately difficult existence.

CD release Monday October 21

HomeWhen I’m reviewing music I always focus primarily on the quality of the vocal, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics.  With blues albums I expect the playing to be good and if you get a great vocal performance as well, that’s a bonus.  Lyrically, it’s easy to fall into old blues clichés and I guess it’s understandable in a musical form that places such an emphasis on performance and improvisation.  On this album, Aynsley Lister nails the playing, the vocals and the lyrical themes; that’s why “Home” (his tenth album) is a great modern blues album.  I mean where else are you going to hear a song inspired by “Life on Mars”?  And I mean Gene Hunt, not David Bowie.

Aynsley has responded to the implosion of the music business (referenced in the album’s second song “Broke”) in the same way as many other performers; he decided to bypass it completely and record and release material on his own label (Straight Talkin’ Records).  He’s an accomplished songwriter and a inspired lyricist, tackling some of the standard rock themes on “Home” and “Insatiable” with a creative, poetic twist and moving into less conventional subjects with “Broke”, “Hyde 2612” (the Gene Hunt song) and “Free”, the very moving tribute to his friend Rod Thomson.  He covers a wide range of blues styles, but the lyrical themes on “Home” are pushing at the boundaries of the blues/rock genre and that has to be a good thing if the genre aims to survive the music industry meltdown.

The album features a couple of covers, placed together in the running order.  The first, the James Morrison song “You Make it Real”, shows that Aynsley isn’t afraid to put his own stamp on a contemporary song while the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley standard “Feeling Good” is pitched somewhere between the Nina Simone and Muse versions with robust guitar work and a powerful vocal.

And that brings me quite neatly to Aynsley Lister’s vocals.  His reputation is built around his playing (which is faultless), but he has a fabulous voice which isn’t always in the characteristic blues style.  His vocal style is very radio-friendly with a hint of plaintive melancholy which nudges into the territory of Rob Thomas (former Matchbox Twenty frontman) at times and maybe (for those of you with very long memories) he has a hint of Iain Matthews.

So we’ve got some sensitive and quite radio-friendly songs but if you’re into the heads-down, no nonsense mindless boogie there’s a bit of that as well with the barrel-house boogie-woogie of “Sugar” and the album closes with the jazzy “Straight Talkin’ Woman”  where eight bars of stuttering, staccato guitar develops into a powerful flowing solo.

The band is superb throughout.  Andre Bassing (keyboards), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Wayne Proctor (drums) are perfectly at ease with the album’s varying musical styles and provide a rock solid foundation for Aynsley’s guitar and vocals.  I’ve reviewed a few good new British blues/rock albums over the last few months, but “Home” stands above the rest because of its variety, songwriting quality and willingness to move the blues forward in the twenty-first century.  This is classy, blues writing, playing and singing of the highest order.

Out now on Straight Talkin’ Records (STR 2612).