There is so much music being released in these days of digital downloads and self-released recordings that it is easy to dismiss things along the way, simply because they may be a little outside one’s usual comfort zone or else just fail to draw you in. That is where the old concept of nice physical packaging comes in, because while this album screamed ‘Seasick Steve knock-off’ at me in many ways, there was something about the peacefully pastoral cover image on the – physical – CD that made something in me think ‘hmm, I might just take a listen to this…’. In that regard, therefore, a little thought for the oft-ignored tactile appeal of a release, and an eye-catching presentation, did its job. Sometimes, however wrong it may be, we very much do judge a book by its cover – to do so is human nature and nowhere is that more true than in the music industry. Well, that and actual books, obviously. What of the record, though? Was I right to pause and flip it into the player?
Well, for one thing, the ‘Suitcase Sam – Seasick Steve’ thing is certainly a red herring. Unlike the rather tired novelty of the ‘pre-packaged hobo’ which many accuse Seasick of being, Suitcase is not a ‘homeless’ bluesman with a battered acoustic guitar and a world-weary grin – the angle here is very much what is termed as ‘Americana’, and performed with a full band in a pleasingly professional way. Blues makes an appearance, of course, but it jostles for elbow room with country, folk, jazz and a little bit of downhome rock rhythm. The first touchstone which becomes apparent is that of The Band – anyone enjoying their first two albums Music For Big Pink and the self-titled follow up will find a lot of pleasing reference points here. The lovely organ sound of Brent Randall (who pops up in all sorts of musical genres and incarnations) brings The Band’s Garth Hudson to mind so much that it is simply a joy to listen to. Elsewhere you will find nods to early-’70s Dylan, Leon Redbone, some Neil Young, Workingman’s Dead-era Grateful Dead and maybe a little bit of Leon Russell along the way as well. It’s that sort of mix, and planned perfectly to put a smile on your face.
There are issues to these ears, however, and chief among these is that of the vocal mannerisms that Sam elects to use. He clearly has an excellent voice from a technical point of view, but does have a tendency to adopt a sort of strangled yodelling hiccup on quite a bit of the material which occasionally makes some of the intriguingly homespun lyrical tales somewhat muffled, occasionally sounding as if he has a mouth full of golf balls. I found myself distracted by this at times, and wanting to be able to hear the songs delivered a little more clearly. I know that every singer must have an identity to stand out from the crowd, of course, but going back to The Band as an example again, the clear diction on similar-sounding tracks such as Up On Cripple Creek or Just Another Whistle Stop is a key factor in their joyous appeal.
That isn’t to say that the above makes this a poor album – indeed, far from it, as the likes of Friday Afternoon, Frankie And Me and the delightful The Grand Trunk Pacific Coast Railroad are splendidly crafted and infectious songs which show a real songwriting talent. I’d just like him to trust the quality of his voice a little more as opposed to hiding it behind the vocal equivalent of an effects-laden guitar. Because he has the talent to do it, of that I am certain. This is certainly niche music, especially in the UK, but it’s a big and loyal enough niche to make Suitcase Sam a queue of people ready to help him carry his bags.