“The freak-out fuzzed guitar solo is stunning!" “The sound is classic, but never the same for two numbers in a row. It’s a really cool album and I love it.” Graeme Stroud, Velvet Thunder
There is a flourishing underground scene right now, of musical acts – soloists, duos, trios and full bands – who take their cues from the sixties and seventies, insist on using vintage gear and techniques, and present themselves in retro fashion, but with original material and a modern take on the world. The scene has always been there, but it now surfaces much more often, as the genre gains in popularity. The music invariably comes across as a mixture of blues, classic rock, folk and punk, but basically everything gets thrown into the mix from creamy ballads to hard rock. Starlite Campbell Band is such a combo, built around a husband and wife duo whose first album together, Blueberry Pie, was released in 2016 and drew a ton of great reviews and a nomination for Best Album at the European Blues Awards.
Their second full-length offering, The Language Of Curiosity, is set for release in November 2021; they write, record, engineer and produce all their own work, releasing on their own independent label, Supertone Records. The instrumentation is extraordinarily varied – the enigmatically-named Suzy Starlite plays bass, piano and some vintage keyboards; Simon Campbell plays all the guitars, some Moog and even a theremin, and they both sing and play percussion. In addition, the band features a drummer and two keyboard players, and a huge amount of obsessive experimentation goes into finding exactly the right sound for each number. I didn’t get to hear the debut, which is my loss I think, as this new set is great. Simon Campbell takes the lead vocal on the majority of the tracks, with a tonal quality reminiscent of Elvis Costello, but with soft-edged shushed sibilants that put me in mind of Jeff Healey. The contrast with Suzy’s sweet, melodic voice is part of the charm of this set.
Suzy Starlite and Simon Campbell (photo by Sandra Ventura)
The 46-minute album kicks off with the minor key Distant Land, with its hard and grungy, in-your-face guitar tone, but the second number, Gaslight – which is the album’s current single – is a more upbeat and poppy affair, southern boogie almost, with a lyric that takes a dim view of all the fake news we are fed with by politics and the media. The title track is more commercial still, but with the guitar on a deep tremolo setting, adding to the retro feel. Bad Sign is more of a pop-rocker and presents a much more varied texture, with picked acoustic guitar and some decent piano work – Simon takes the lead vocal until the two-minute mark, when Suzy takes over, before Simon’s unexpectedly Spanish-style acoustic guitar solo.
Take Time To Grow Old is more of a downbeat ballad, this time with a theatre organ trilling away in the background and some nice, layered na-na-na background vocals from Suzy . Simon selects a cleaner tone for the jazzy intro to the solo, which is followed by a harder, major-key solo using exactly the same sound as Tony Peluso used on The Carpenters’ Goodbye To Love. Then we have a highlight of the set; Said So is something of a hard-rocking, epic, You Really Got Me kind of pub blues, which drifts off into a big psychedelic jam that brings to mind The Byrds’ Eight Miles High.
It Ain’t Right is another protest song, this time against a twisted judicial system that penalises the vulnerable, particularly women; Suzy plays acoustic bass and takes the lead vocal and the harmonies in a deliberately soft, sultry style with plenty of tropical percussion thrown in – picked acoustic guitar sits behind another punky, fuzzy guitar and tremeloed electric piano. Stone Cold Crazy – not the Queen song of the same name – is back to the southern rock with a straight, four-to-the-floor drumbeat. The chordage and the phrasing of the solo are straight from the Free songbook, particularly I’ll Be Creeping or Woman, while Lay It Out On Me is a traditional, minor-key, slow blues.
The album ends on another highlight; Ride On Cowboy starts with a single female vocal line over a bare kick drum, with occasional stabs of guitar and some organ chords. The vocal is heavily effected, with a panned phase or chorus or some such thing, and when the Latin rhythm kicks in, there is a whiff of Santana, with a keyboard vibe nicked straight from Joni Mitchell’s version of Woodstock. There is plenty of subtle instrumentation in this one, with some tambourine sections and a guitar sound that harks back even more to early Santana, particularly the Abraxas era. Those are the kind of touches that create a wave of nostalgia, even though the numbers are all new. The sound is classic, but never the same for two numbers in a row. It’s a really cool album and I love it.
Graeme Stroud, Velvet Thunder