Despite his relatively young years, Si Cranstoun positions himself squarely in the vintage and retro part of the market. Of course, vintage and retro does not define a genre or ideal in itself, more of a historic location. For Si, vintage and retro are the soul and blues sounds of icons Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Big Joe Turner and the music of the 40's, 50's and 60's.
Blessed with a striking voice that sits somewhere between Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole, Si has been plying his trade for many years. Initially solo, and then with his Brother as a duo 'The Dualers', I remember Si as a regular busking in Canterbury high street some ten to fifteen years ago. If my memory serves me correctly, he accompanied himself on guitar to backing tracks, used one of those big old 50's microphones and belted out startling versions of old classics like 'Stand By Me' and 'Dock Of The Bay'.
At the time, it seemed inevitable that he would be successful, and although it would be unfair to say he has been unsuccessful, the big break through does seem to have eluded him.
The London born son of a Ska promoter, Si's earlier sound with the Dualers was inevitably Ska and Reggae influenced but over recent times performing solo with a big live band heralded a musical shift to his love of rhythm and blues.
'Old School' is a real statement of intent from both Si and his new label, Ruf Records. Featuring sixteen songs, many of which are already live favourites, he tells us 'I felt it was time to rip it up, have some all out retro fun and inject a high-octane dose of energy for the vintage dance floors', whilst producing a mix and sound 'that turns back the clock'. As mission statements go, that's up there with the best!
On the album, Si sings lead vocals and adds guitar, bass and keys. His big band consists of Mez Clough, drums, Stewart Panaman, bass, Dan Faulkner & Drew Davies, Saxophone, Jon Radford, Trumpet, Patrick Hayes, Trombone, Neil Casey & Paddy Milner, piano and Simon Picton & Jay Gibson, guitar.
Fourteen of the sixteen songs are Si originals with Billy Swan's 'Lover Please' and Big Bess' by Theodore McRae and Audrick Gladstone completing the track listing.
The majority of the album was recorded and mixed at the War Bunker in Surrey and mastered at Master & Servant in Hamburg. Lastly, Si himself produced the album.
I think the biggest compliment I can pay this record is to say it sounds and feels completely authentic. Recording music that is anything but contemporary can be fraught with difficulties, not least that of sounding copyist or insincere. Here, the overriding sense is one of music made out of genuine love and respect, not a commercial means to an end.
Perhaps the second biggest compliment is that of acknowledging the absolute quality of the recording, arrangements, playing and production. In fact, it is so good, it could almost be a lost recording cleaned up and re-mastered rather than something created in 2016.
The opening and title track 'Old School' sets the scene superbly, boasting a great vocal from Si pushed along by some marvellous piano, clattering drums and bumping bass before the song gets embroidered with some wonderful horn and instrumental stabs and perfect harmonies in the chorus. Factor in a great hook and this song is completely infectious.
This quality is maintained over all sixteen tracks, but each listener will find their own favourites and in keeping with the older tradition of shorter songs, nothing outstays its welcome. There are joyous rockers, slow ballads, soul shuffles and even a Christmas song that bizarrely works in September!
It would be impossible for the songs not to hint at past glories from Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Bill Haley, Otis Reading to name but a few, although this adds to the appeal rather than feeling derivative in any way. Si is also an interesting song writer and whilst some numbers tackle fairly traditional R 'n' B themes, others such as 'Thames River Song' and 'Commoner To King' feel far more personal and current.
My favourites at the time of writing this review, which I imagine will be subject to change, were the jumping 'Old School', the slower 'Nighttime' with its shades of Sam Cooke's 'Bring it on Home to Me', 'Elise The Brazilian' that could be an outtake from an Elvis Presley movie, the understated vocal and marvellously tight rhythm section bump of 'Count On Me' and Si's pleading voice on Billy Swan's 'Lover Please'.
'Old School' is clearly a labour of love for Si, deserving of an audience far beyond the possible confines of the vintage and retro market and a number of these songs are made for mainstream radio. Everything about this album is infused with love and respect, from the sweet rasp of Si's vocals, the stunningly sympathetic playing by all involved to the crystal clear recording and production values.
I find it hard to imagine that anyone who engages with this album would not immediately want to witness these songs played live in all their vintage glory and that is perhaps the best compliment of all.
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