May 27, 2022

Thunder [is] perhaps the pick of the album for me. It traverses different moods, alternating laid-back calm with dramatic, sweeping majesty in a beautiful study in contrasting emotional heft. It hits the spot and then some.

This is an interesting one and no mistake. Another of those ‘who is this, I wonder?’ releases which land on my desk, and often I don’t care to investigate further. This, however, is an exception from that, as Midlands-based Ceri Justice is rather an impressive talent, both as singer and songwriter. This is, in fact, her second album – her first, Justified, was hamstrung like many others by being released just as Covid lockdown killed any chance of promoting it by way of live shows. Undaunted, she wrote the material for this album during that pandemic downtime, and the result is a nicely varied album with some really excellent material along the way. From the cover photo of Ceri looking quite sultry in black leather jacket and jeans, the temptation is to assume this is going to be a sort of blues-rock record, but while there is plenty of rock edge to be found here, Ceri Justice is far from your standard ‘rock chick’. On the contrary, there are folk and country influences writ large throughout this record, with even a little bit of Celtic influence to highlight her own Irish roots.

The opening track, Wanted, is one of those which wants to rock, and it does so in a fine way to get the album off to a high-energy start and get the listener in the mood. However, if you were now expecting more of the same throughout, you would be thrown for a loop immediately by the second track, the dark, brooding The Creek, which shows a compositional and performing maturity which thoroughly belies the fact that this is only her sophomore album. There are highlights sprinkled throughout: You Did What You Did is another thumping rocker, as is the slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘bad-grrrl’ wordplay of Mess You Up – one of the tracks which is shot through with a perfect undercurrent of knowing good humour and punctures the serious nature of some of the songs just nicely. Of those ‘heavier’ songs (not in the sense of power chords and heavy drums, but in the sense of atmospheric density) is Thunder, perhaps the pick of the album for me. It traverses different moods, alternating laid-back calm with dramatic, sweeping majesty in a beautiful study in contrasting emotional heft. It hits the spot and then some.

The title track, at eight minutes, is the longest on the album, and also the longest she has so far recorded. Looking at her Irish roots with an eye on history and family tradition, it begins as a relatively simple Celtic lament which is nicely delivered, before it stretches out to greater instrumental intensity and freedom to breathe over its second half. It’s a fine way to close the album ‘proper’ – though there is a bonus track of sorts, in the shape of JCC Remix, which is – unsurprisingly – a remix; in this case of the song JCC which appeared on the first album. An ode to the unexpected but undeniably talented ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke, it now features samples of his own distinctive voice and is an infectiously rollicking way to finish.

Along the way, we get two cover songs, and they could hardly be more different, illustrating perfectly the disparate influences at play here. First up, Jolene is a take on the Dolly Parton standard which takes the already iconic song and gives it a thorough textural reboot. As great as the original recording by Parton is, it could be said to be slightly one-dimensional. That could never be an accusation laid at Ceri’s interpretation, which moves from gentle, wistful sadness to big, defiant exhortation as the love rival Jolene is implored to leave her man alone, in a way which the original never explored to the same extent. It could easily be argued to be an improvement, which is no scant praise. The other cover present is about as far from Dolly’s country twang as you could want to be, as Ceri tackles the Eddie And The Hot Rods classic Do Anything You Wanna Do. It’s another fine attempt at a song which is as iconic in its own way as Parton’s, and though it may not quite hit the same breathless exuberance of the Hot Rods original (no-one ever has), one senses that that was never really the intention, as this is just a little more considered in its arrangement.

Ceri Justice is without doubt a considerable talent. To be fair the album has a couple of slightly weaker cuts on it (Now I See and Got This Feeling aren’t quite as memorable as others here), but there’s nothing which is out and out filler. She possesses a voice which can tackle any of the varied genres here and sound comfortable in them all, which is a rare quality to have. Praise must also go to co-writer and producer Paul Johnston, who plays almost all of the instruments here apart from the violin and cello supplied by string arranger Marion Fleetwood, because this is clearly a talented creative team. If Ceri Justice can produce a third album which continues to explore the ambition and scope evident in the title track here, and contains material throughout which is as strong as most of that on show here, she could have a real winner on her hands. And that would be, to use the obvious reference, true Justice.