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Elles Bailey Elles Bailey
Album: Wildfire
Label: Outlaw
Tracks: 12

'Wildfire' is the debut album from Bristol based singer-songwriter Elles Bailey. The accompanying press release tells us she weaves 'rootsy blues, country and soulful rock with a contemporary edge', which is all delivered with her trademark 'smoky vocal' style. Apparently, this husky, lived-in voice was the result of viral and bacterial pneumonia Elles contracted when she was just 3 years old. She recovered intact thankfully, but a year later after treatment her voice had changed, no damage at all, but the change was permanent!

Fast forward a few years and Elles has made something of a name for herself as a live performer and put out a couple of well-received EP's, which sets the scene perfectly for this release.

However, something of a story also accompanies the recording of 'Wildfire'. We are told a planned family road trip across the Southern States of the USA was to include a quick stop off in Nashville to record a demo, but somehow the recording of this one song expanded into laying down the core tracks for the whole album. I'm sure in reality there was a lot more planning and a little less good fortune, but none the less it's a great story!

Produced by Brad Nowell, the album boasts a whole host of stellar Nashville musicians of the finest pedigree, unfortunately too numerous to mention individually here. The tracks were then bought back to the UK, blended and mixed further with additions from musicians of equal calibre, most notably Jonny Henderson on Hammond organ and Joe Wilkins, guitar, to create a 'unique trans-Atlantic coming together of styles'.

Of the 12 songs here, 3 are Elles Bailey originals, 8 are co writes with various others and 1 cover, the Taylor Swift number 'Shake It Off'.

Opening and title track 'Wildfire' roars in on an archetypal, distorted, overdriven slide guitar riff before the bump of the bass heralds the arrival of Ellis's voice. And what a voice it is, a marvellous mix of rasp and honey, one minute silky smooth and the next, all gravel and menace. Equally apparent within the first 60 seconds of this album is the sheer quality of everything. The playing, the arrangements, recording and production are very impressive indeed, no sign of 'first album' nerves or uncertainty here!

Second song 'Same Flame' enters again on a great riff, but this time more straightforwardly country-rock than blues and in feel put me in mind of John Hiatt, which is a very good thing in my book.

'What If I' is a piano led ballad, that builds, pushes and pulls beautifully whilst 'Barrel Of Your Gun' is all spacey, Chris Isaak type guitar, shuffling bass and drums with a suitably laconic vocal from Elle's which could have this song sitting comfortably on the sound track of Twin Peaks.

Track 5 'Perfect Storm' is cleverly understated musically with Elle's voice perched right on top of the mix. There is an almost gospel type vibe as it builds and very much put me in mind of Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me'.

'Let Me Hear You Scream' is back to the slide guitar intro, firstly what sounds like an old 1930's recorded resonator, before the electric comes in to double the riff. Despite this, the song pushes through like a funky rock number, in and out in a rapid three and a half minutes and then its on to a slowed down, sleazy version of Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' that at times could have morphed into the lovely Trip Hop grooves of Morcheeba.

'Shackles Of Love' brings us back to contemporary country, bar room rock with its infectious hook and chorus whilst 'Believed In You' is a guitar led, mid tempo number, again pushed through beautifully by the band.

'Howlin' Wolf' is musically and vocally engaging, but lyrically feels a little too self-consciously reverential and forced to be entirely convincing in its own right and to me is the only track that doesn't quite 'sit'.

To finish up, 'Girl Who Owned The Blues' is another soulful, reflective ballad that despite the title doesn't carry the 'Blues' on its sleeve and the albums closer 'Time's A Healer' is a gentle acoustic song with some lovely resonator fills and is perhaps the sparsest song musically on the record, but none the less powerful for that.

This is a very assured debut indeed, which somewhat belies the press release that would have us believe it was more down to some serendipitous meeting of musical minds! Clearly, Elles Bailey has been working at her craft for some time now and one of the many pleasures found here is how her sound ranges over blues, country, soul and rock in a completely integrated way. This is in the same way that Joe Bonamassa is so much more than the blues, as are Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, in the same way Chris Stapleton is so much more than country and Bonnie Raitt is so much more than a slide guitarist, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. The reference point, be it blues, country, rock or whatever, is just that, a reference point that leads to somewhere much more fulfilling.

Another joy on the album is the universally outstanding playing throughout, which both propels and dresses each of the songs here. I particularly liked the ever present rhythm section of Wes Little on drums and Mike Brignardello on bass who are just the engine room at the heart of things, the lovely Hammond organ swells and fills of Jonny Henderson and the many epic solos from the guitar of Joe Wilkins.

Lastly, a voice as strong and distinctive as that possessed by Elles Bailey could easily be used to overkill, but never once is this the case and her vocal is always in service of the song, which in turn lends its own quiet dignity and power.

So, to sum up, not just a very impressive debut album from Elles Bailey, a very impressive album full stop.

Paul Jackson