Monday, 25 September 2017

Leon Russell - On a Distant Shore, album review

Yes - but - No

I’m not a Leon Russell aficionado, but I like his work and I do like this posthumous album, that distinctive growling vocal as powerful as ever, recorded a few months before his death at the age of 74. Anyone who could write and perform as he did A Song for You always was and is a musical great.

This album does continue a familiar long trajectory from that 1971 classic. But not being that knowing with his albums across this time, especially of late, I do not know how common massive orchestrations were. On On a Distant Shore they do, surely, overpower the whole. It is at times a seemingly add-on over-production, and I have no idea if this is the case for songs perhaps not quite finished before he passed?

The musical dichotomy is perfectly illustrated by two juxtaposed tracks on the album: fifth Black and Blue is a fine blues simply performed with tight band and a great guitar lick to enhance; sixth Just Leaves and Grass is as a composition and in Russell’s singing a highly charged, emotive song – he seems in performance emotively wrought – but the orchestration is lavishly naff to these ears – symphony-esque horn bursts and sweeping strings as well as a ridiculous echoing vocal chorus that mono-stabs Yes, then later Go. This does detract hugely from an otherwise potent love song. Check out the orchestration on the wonderful honky tonk of Love This Way which is large but playfully so, right down to the actual howling wind on the lyrical howling wind line, a vocal chorus of oh yeah with sass rather than silliness.

The album closes on A Song For You, here the orchestration slightly more in sympathy with the song’s apt meaningfulness as an ending, the pedal-steel in there fighting with those strings.

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