'Roaming Soul' is the latest studio record from Dublin based pianist, singer-songwriter Michael Maclennan. Michael relocated to Ireland soon after releasing his first album 'Wolves' in 2012 and has since become a much in demand musician performing with the likes of Paul Brady, Declan O'Rourke, Gavin James, Lisa Hannigan and Gavin Glass amongst many others. 'Roaming Soul' was produced by the aforementioned Gavin Glass and the sound is described as that of 'Showcasing a love of Americana, soul music and classic song writing from the seventies era'.
All ten tracks here are Michael Maclennan originals recorded in Ireland with the exception of the last track, 'Old River', recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. More of that track later.
Michael sings and plays piano, Rhodes and Hammond whilst numerous other musicians add guitars, bass, double bass, pedal steel, drums, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, violin, cello and backing vocals across the tracks. There are too many to name individually in this review, but their contribution cannot be understated and without exception, the playing is richly creative.
'On The Right Side Now' is a perfect opening track to introduce Michaels sound to the listener. The few bars of solo piano are deep and resonant and although it may be an obvious and lazy comparison, very much put me in mind of Elton Johns archetypal playing on his superb 2010 album 'The Union' with Leon Russell, full of mythological American old west imagery. The rest of the track does not disappoint, Michael has a fine, flexible voice, sometimes husky, sometimes sweet and sometimes in ballad mode, but always in service of the song. The band builds in a cleverly understated way, subtle bass, sharp, percussive drums, lovely supporting keyboard drones and pedal steel licks pushing the song along beautifully.
A possible complication of such an outstanding first song is of course keeping the rest of the album up to this standard!
Michael cleverly avoids this in part by varying the lead instrumentation throughout, so although the piano and keyboards of course feature heavily, they do not necessarily dominate or lead in each track. This also serves to widen the sound from that of a pianist with a backing band, to that of a complete, tight, cohesive band unit in itself.
Second track 'Roaming Soul' enters on a pushy, slightly distorted riff followed by a resonant bass line and crisp drums before Michaels vocal comes in at around 30 seconds. He is deeper in the mix this time and his voice has a real 'pleading' sense to it as befits the song subject matter and at times put me in mind of David Gray in his best gravelly mode.
'Once I Was' is all atmospheric drones and bassy, almost timpani type drumming that builds a lazy groove to which deep, piano chords of the type Rick Rubin decorated Johnny Cash's seminal 'American Recording' series with, add to the sense of impending doom. Another perfectly recorded vocal and this time it is almost flying above the track delivering an evocative opening couplet 'Once I was a sailor, living on the sea, was nothing but the water, to ever bother me'. It sounds almost trite starkly set on paper, but in the context of the song, it is compelling.
The rest of the album is as good as these opening tracks, following many musical twists and turns, stylistic nods and references but always maintaining a singular focus and purpose. The accompanying promotional material cites a quote from best selling Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre which sums things up perfectly I think, 'as timeless as they are heartfelt, an old school piano fighter who allies true craft to infectious passion in his music'.
The last two tracks on the album end the proceedings powerfully. 'Foolish' starts as a solo piano and voice piece and at the risk of overusing the Elton John references, it has the feel of a stark, slightly discordant 'Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word' type piece. But it goes somewhere completely different half way through when Michael almost chants the repeated refrain 'Oh lord, look what you've gone and done' as the band builds in orchestral fashion to something of an epic climax. However, it cuts off criminally to my mind at just over four minutes when it could have been milked for a good while longer without losing any impact!
'Old River' is the last and best track on an album of great songs. Although this was the only piece recorded at the Sun Studio in Memphis, I cannot hear any great differences in the recording and production values although the structure, playing and subject matter does lend itself to something of an American vision. In general, songs about rivers tend to be rambling, rites of passage, archetypal or metaphorical tales. Think of Bruce Springsteen's 'The River', Rhiannon Giddens New Basement Tapes version of the Bob Dylan lyric 'Lost On The River', Jimmy Cliff's 'Many Rivers To Cross' and John Hiatts 'The River Knows Your Name' amongst many, many others. Michael's contribution to the 'river' cannon starts again in solo voice and piano mode until the band kicks in at around thirty five seconds with a delightfully burbling bass line, tight drums and lovely, muted guitar stabs that feel very much a nod to the Memphis horn sound. This all pushes through to the glorious chorus where the song really opens up and the river becomes personal 'Old river take me down stream, start me over and wash me clean, sometimes everything ain't what it seems, but this old river is real to me'. The song continues to roll along in stately fashion, full of little musical touches, subtle phrasing and after a sweet bridge the band drops out before crashing back in for the climax. This really is a fitting end to a memorable album.
This CD is a little gem, full of charm, inventiveness and fine songs all beautifully played, recorded and produced. Do not make the mistake of being misled by the 'Michael Maclennan pianist, singer-songwriter' tag. Nothing wrong with that as a starting point, but he delivers so much more here and it really is genre straddling music at its finest. For anyone still undecided, head over to his website, click on the 'Old River' video recorded live at the Sun Studios Memphis for a listen, and then buy the album.
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