June 2, 2024

UK singer, songwriter and blues guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor is adept in so many areas, it’s a problem to know where her emphasis should be. She is an excellent guitarist to be sure, and her roots lie squarely in the blues. But her extraordinarily smoky, soulful voice and blonde good looks seem to call out for pop stardom. Recently she has been pursuing both directions at once – her passion for the blues rose to the top in 2019, when she released a set of blues covers named, simply, The Blues Album, under the mentorship of blues supremo Joe Bonamassa and his production partner Josh Smith. In June 2022, she released the live video Blues From The Heart – Live, and the electric blues rocker certainly seemed to be winning out. But then, her last studio album, Nobody’s Fool, released in October the same year, was almost exclusively pop and soul-based. Once again with the Bonamassa-Smith collective at the helm, there was still some blues content to be sure, but heavily submerged.

Photo by Stacie Huckeba

This year, she has consciously attempted to marry both disciplines with her new album Heavy Soul. It sits midway between blues rock and melodic pop, with most of the songs having been released as singles ahead of the album’s release. I certainly have no objection to albums that encompass multiple styles; in fact I think it often makes for a more enjoyable experience, especially if the artist in question masters the whole gamut, which JST surely does.

That being the case, it’s noteworthy that she chooses to open the set with a medium-powerful rocker, also released as the lead single. Sweet ‘Lil Lies, (grammar pedants, feel free to discuss the positioning of that apostrophe), is a minor key blues rocker in the Jeff Healey style, opening with a whistle-clear guitar riff.  The production is sweet and clear, with a nicely judged backing piano coming through periodically. The guitar solo after three minutes is soulful and tasteful, and the whole band builds really nicely to the final solo, then drops back slightly towards the conclusion. The decision to release this as the lead single is interesting, as it implies a determination for JST to present herself as a rock writer and performer before anything else.

This number is followed by an acoustic, open chord intro to a wistfully tuneful country pop-rocker, a cover of Joan Armatrading’s All The Way From America. I’m not really sure how this one found its way on to the album to be honest; it has little going for it except a catchy, sing-along repetitiveness, and I would suspect it was included for its chart potential, although it was released fairly well down the list as, I think, the fourth single.

Black Magic opens on a long, sustained slide chord, then drops into a restrained shuffle rhythm with fuzzy, grungy slide guitar punctuating the 12-bar format. Jimmy Wallace plays a great rock piano solo, and there are massed female backing vocals from Joe Bonamassa’s backing vocalists Jade MacRae and Dannielle DeAndrea.  Drowning In A Sea Of Love starts with judicious use of deep wah guitar, and could easily have been pulled from the Robin Trower songbook. In fact JST’s vocals on this number are phrased exactly like Trower’s late singer James Dewar, although she uses a clean, incisive, and very un-Trower-like guitar tone on the solo. A Good Goodbye follows next; a melodic pop number with a tuneful chord progression and guitar line, despite the morose subject matter of a broken relationship. This might well be the catchiest song on the album, although some other contenders push it close.

Photo by Stacie Huckeba

Only now do we come to the title song, Heavy Soul. It opens with a thudding kick drum and some saw-edged guitar sounds, then settles into a kind of staccato rhythm. The vocals are slightly restrained, but she lets rip in the guitar solo, which then drops to a kick drum and clapping rhythm with those scraping guitar tones again, before letting everything hang out in the outro.  The next song, Wild Love, is one of my favourites from the album, featuring a soulful, funky guitar riff over a rim-shot drum rhythm. It’s an up-tempo pop-rocker in a minor key, and features a tremendous guitar solo, then builds towards the tight ending. Te album’s second cover version follows, this time of Van Morrison’s 1987 single Someone Like You. It comes across as a 1960s-tinged slow pop ballad, JST’s laid-back guitar solo effectively showcasing her versatility. The final two songs are the last two single so far: Devil In Me, a rapid-fire charger, is the hardest-rocking song on the album by a mile, and is certainly an album highlight, whereas Change Of Heart is an unashamedly poppy number, with hand-claps again bolstering the chorus rhythm.

There’s no doubt that JST can handle all of these various colours and variations with aplomb, and her guitar playing is impeccable. As ever though, it is always used in the service of the song, and it’s her superb voice that really takes the accolades. This 45-minute set fulfils the stated brief admirably, forming a bridge between her bluesy basis and her pop-soul heart. Consciously or otherwise though, it seems to me to be the blues player that comes through strongest.

Heavy Soul by Joanne Shaw Taylor is released by Joe Bonamassa’s Journeyman Records on Friday 7 June 2024, and is available to order from   https://shop.joanneshawtaylor.com .