Sean is a Canadian, blues singer-songwriter who had been kicking around and paying his dues for some years before gaining recognition with his 2013 album 'Rustbucket'. This release certainly raised his profile, garnering positive reviews and feedback leading to a nomination for New Artist Of The Year at the 2014 Maple Blues Awards.
Sean clearly has a healthy work ethic and the promotional material that accompanied this album tells us has done upwards of one hundred and eighty shows a year, for the past eight years. Accordingly, these songs were recorded very quickly with most base tracks being live guitar & vocal takes to keep a fresh, immediate feel.
Across the eight songs on 'Monkey Brain' Sean is backed up by Mark McIntyre on bass, Adam Warner drums & percussion, Rob Szabo supplying Rhodes and backing vocals and Emma Lee adding backing vocals on one track.
As well as playing, Rob Szabo, renowned Canadian musician, songwriter and producer, also co wrote most of the songs with Sean and produced the album.
The opening track 'Monkey Brain' swaggers in with a great riff riding over the drums before the first line "I asked a Doctor, what's come over me" sets the tone. Sean has a solid, earthy voice and the vocal had that slightly distorted, heavily reverbed effect which suits this song well. My first musical associations to this opener were The Black Keys and White Stripes, the sort of bands where the sound is quite minimalist and raw, but never empty.
'Can't Stand It' also comes in all guitar riff and drums with echoes of early Marc Bolan and T. Rex, which is no bad thing in my book. Lovely, tight rhythm section throughout as well, all brilliantly recorded.
The third song 'Charity Case' is a bit more obviously blues based, chugging along on one of those archetypal Muddy Waters or Son House type riffs and all round it sounds a little more rootsy than rocky. By now, it is also apparent that Sean has a bit of a 'riff gift' as every song reveals yet another fine example of his craft.
'Hard Luck' brings us back to more obvious electric rock & blues with a bit of the 'Eye Of The Tiger' vibe going on, again not a bad thing in my book! I like this track a lot, a great guitar solo in the middle with a lovely, multi-tracked chorus that does not take the obvious route and is all the more effective for that.
Track five 'Living In The Past' comes in on Sean's spacey, falsetto vocal in gentle fashion before the band enter in full riff mode. Another stand out track with more sterling playing, plus sweet backing and harmony vocals.
'Goin' Hobo', great title, is another more acoustic, rootsy sounding song and features some really inventive 'junk-yard' percussion whilst Sean bemoans modern life and vows give it all up and go 'off grid'. At about two minutes in things do go 'off grid' a little as Sean stops the song and launches into a gloriously bonkers 'chicken pickin' solo before reining himself back in to end the song in more gentle fashion!
'Monsters' is another fine guitar track, a beautiful mix of almost Scotty Moore tight picking all topped off with some lovely slide. The rhythm track is also very effective again, lovely mix of foot stomps and percussion. The vocal phrasing and intonation here reminds me very much of the late Chris Whitley, which yet again is no bad thing in my book.
The album closes on 'Get Burned' which fittingly fires off on yet another great riff, this time back into more overdriven Black Keys territory, but also lovely echoes of England's rock duo 'Royal Blood' which, for the final time of saying in this review, is definitely no bad thing in my book! There is also a very inventive arrangement and production on this track and it's a real stand out to finish on.
I have a couple of minor reservations but, as always, these are probably more personal preferences than justifiable criticisms. Firstly, this is a beautifully recorded and produced album and although it works on some tracks, I am not a fan generally of that distorted almost 'megaphone' type effect on the vocals. I know it is a very current sound but I think music like this shines with a lovely warm take sitting on top of the mix, particularly when solo acoustic tracks reveal Sean has a sweet, Kelly Joe Phelps rasp to his voice! Secondly, the themes tackled here are not those ubiquitous old 'woke up this morning' stories that can sometimes give blues a bad press, but nevertheless I think some of the lyrics could have been a little sharper and deeper to do justice to the personal subject matter expressed in these songs.
As a newcomer to Sean's music, prior to listening to this album I checked out the You Tube videos on his website. Nearly all of these are covers of either blues standards like Robert Johnson's 'C'mon In My Kitchen' or songs by more contemporary artists, such as the previously mentioned Chris Whitley. These are purely acoustic and without exception brilliant, particularly highlighting his sweet slide playing and all serve to show another side of his musical personality, which I would encourage everyone to check out.
I liked this album a lot. Good, solid songs beautifully recorded, a contemporary take on the blues, brilliant playing by all involved with every track boasting a Sean Pinchin riff to die for!
I hope he has the chance to showcase these songs live with his studio band, I think it would be a gig to remember.
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