Given Nelson King’s usual rate of output, I was thinking of sending out a search party, having not had anything by him land in the in-box for quite a while, but thankfully Life Ain’t No Movie Show turned up as if to assure me that he is still very much in the game. Though its all relative I guess as even with this recent breathing space he would still finish in medal position compared with today’s average artist.
Nelson King continues to maintain his rather impressive recorded work rate, something in keeping with the bands from days gone by rather than the rather tardy recording schedule of most modern bands, and Shine is the latest collection of songs to see the light of day. Shine On gave us a taste of things to come in the form of a simple performance video and in many ways it was the perfect analogy for the album and indeed the man’s approach in general. No frills! And I mean that in the nicest sense, for whilst many bands polish up, over produce, over load and generally fill their music with tricks and gimmickry, Nelson King is a firm believer in the fundamentals. Get the song writing sorted from the start and the tunes will sell themselves. It’s what he has always done and it is what he does this time out too.
As Shine On hinted at, the album sees him in fairly retrained mood, we know he can rock out with the best of them but he also knows that he doesn’t always have to and by and large this latest collection takes a mellower tack. We Will Overcome has a buskers heart, simple lines and a poignant message and Shinning Hearts seems built from sounds, sentiments and sonic gems picked up at the end of Newport Folk Festival and moulded into a chilled and minimalist acoustic ballad.
Even when things are cranked up a bit it is done so in a deft way with This Song plugging in the electric but pushing the shimmering picked riffs to the back of the song driving rather on some wonderful string sweeps and emotive vocals and Another Day rocks out with some understated country grooves. The Brightest Light That Shines is a fascinating song, blending hazy psyched rock with martial beats and anthemic deliveries. That’s the perfect song to end a festival, and I can just imagine him rallying the crowd one last time as the sun sets behind the stage and the audience raises its collective voice and hands in a show of solidarity before drifting off smiling into the night.
Nelson King has really cornered the bluesy, acoustic rock and roll market by tipping his hat to some 70’s Stones grooves, late 80’s London sleaze scene moves and timeless folk rock blends, but as always his music is more than the sum of its parts. What is most impressive is that starting out from such a familiar and much visited place he still finds new corners to explore, new boundaries to push, new ways of mixing the sonic ingredients. There may be nothing new under the sun musically but that isn’t to say that there aren’t new ways of deconstructing the familiar and building it back up into something new and fresh. There’s a real art to that, one that Nelson King is the master of.
You can say what you like about Mr King but you can’t deny that he has a pretty solid work rate. It seems that barely a season goes by without at least one album popping into the review pile. Whilst many of his albums have seen him head into that battered and brusied electric rock ’n’ roll territory that he seems to effortlessly ooze, this album returns him to the acoustic playground that he explored so wonderfully on The Collection. Acoustic does just what it says on the tin, for the most part, one voice, a couple of layered acoustic guitars, minimal beats and the odd foray into a slightly embellished sound.
But if that sounds a tad underwhelming or that you have heard enough of such deliveries to last a life time, you haven’t factored in the sheer ragged glory of Nelson King’s songs. This is no fey, gap-year, indie-folk singer in wide brimmed hat aiming for the artistry of Simon and Garfunkel and only reaching the gimmickry of Bon Ivor, this is a man who has paid his rock and roll dues so many times over, read, absorbed and even added a few footnotes to the rule book, that he doesn’t even have to plug in to make rootsy rock and roll statements, statements which feel like long lost classics from a golden age. This is rock and roll in the raw, stripped to its very soul, often vulnerable, always emotive.
If songs like You Blow Me Away and House on Fire are concessions to a fuller band sound, both of which could have easily graced a Stones set any time from the early seventies onwards, it is the lilting country-folk vibes of I’ll Fall For You and Face The Sun which are more representative of the overall feel of the album, the later in particular feeling like Keef and Ronnie jamming out in the dressing room in a cloud of nicotine and whiskey vapour.
It is always easy to see where Nelson King comes from, imagine a blusier Johnny Thunders growing up in England and learning to play by listening to Dylan and Neil Young, Creedence and The Band, but they are references worn openly and honestly and of course with music this fundamentally pure, unpretentious and invigorating what would be the point of trying to re-invent it. Better to just add more timeless gems to the canon and that is exactly what Nelson King has done here.
A preview from the next album Shine
There is one thing you can say about Nelson King, he’s no slouch when it comes to musical output. It seems that no sooner have the last notes of his trademark scuzzed-up and sleazy garage blues faded on the wind than a new collection arrives demanding attention. And just when I think that I have got the man’s style pinned down, a sort of white-boy R&B reminiscent of the late sixties Stones, he throws us a curve ball. Well, a few really.
But I shouldn’t be surprised because where there is blues, soul isn’t far behind and Fly (With Me) is our hero doing to that genre what he has already done to blues and rock ‘n’ roll, kicking it around the yard, then beating the dents out and wiping it over with an oily rag. And Fly (With Me) is brilliant because of such treatment and comes at you like the sound of Detroit Soul meeting the West London blues explosion for some naughtiness in a back alley.
See, a curve ball. And then he just keeps lobbing them. Hey Babe is a skittering slice of wasted psychedelia, Word To The Wise is a sumptuous and textured ballad in the style of our lord Nikki Sudden and We Will Overcome is as louche and purposefully lazy as it gets.
Ironically it is the album’s lead single, Last Man Standing, which takes the easiest route. Captivating dynamics are built from the simple yet effective jump from gentle guitar picking to hitting the big chorus chords. Not only the sort of song he does so well, he does it much better than most.
The charm of Larger Than Life and indeed Nelson King’s music in general is that whilst his songs are based around a fairly straightforward if slightly battered bluesy rock sound, the sort of sonic vehicle that people have been driving around the downtown streets since the 60’s it is what he bolts on to it that counts. Emotive soul, singer-songwriter balladry, pop infectiousness, rock edge, wasted elegance, raw emotion and more beside. It is that combination of familiarity and exploration that keeps him one step ahead of the pack.
There was a point a few songs in to The Collection, possibly somewhere around Always You that I recognised the same battered style and ragged glory of one of my favourite musical cult heroes, Nikki Sudden. In my book, it doesn’t get better than that. The same loose and slightly louche approach, the same street gutter observations, the backstreet mythologies being woven, the broken guitar-slinging poet. And that is the thing I am finding that I love about Nelson King’s music, each song reminds me of fallen musical heroes or underrated and under the radar torch bearers. The key word here is remind, not replicate.
Yes, there is a lot in his sound which you can trace back to classic sounds of previous eras but those sounds are called classic for a reason and after all they do say that familiarity breeds content…or at least they should. But as I have pointed out before, it isn’t enough to unpick your favourite threads from the existing weave of musical history, it is all about the design you fashion them into next. The Collection seems to lean more into an acoustic driven place, electric guitars do little more than embellish the existing motifs or add interesting detail and the bass is happy to wander a root note route through the background. But as always the combination of old blues emotions, dark sleazy grooves, understated rock dynamics and country rock licks works to perfection but the new trick being pulled out of the bag here is space. Space that allows atmosphere to linger between the notes, anticipation to hang between the words.
It is this sort of rock music which is timeless, fashions come and go but this flavour of British heartland, small venue, underground, in the know rock seems ever present. It links the old folk heroes to the stolen blues scene of the 60’s to the sleazy and emotive outpourings of the likes of Messrs. Sudden and Kusworth. All of those have known that it isn’t about what you steal; it is what you then do with those references. Some miss the point, some wish to merely emulate, Nelson King uses it to write his own footnote in the underground musical history books.
It is possible that Nelson King subscribes less to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy and more to a “if it ain’t broke it’s still okay to beat the crap out of it and sculpt battered and interesting new shapes.” Maybe. What I’m trying to say in my unnecessarily verbose sort of way is that Is There Something is actually the best of both worlds, familiar enough to be immediately engaging yet original enough to bring something new to the table.
At the albums core is a bluesy, boogie, rhythm and booze sort of vibe, good time drinking den music, a rootsy, rock ‘n’ roll bar band sound and whilst it is easy to see where the man is coming from, make some educated guesses about his record collection and swap anecdotes about meeting Ten Years After, its where he takes things from there that makes things interesting.
Let me draw a line connecting the points on that journey, a line connecting West London underground r’n’b venues of the 60’s with smoky, back street Chicago blues clubs of an earlier era, another from New York’s proto-punk scene of the 70’s to the open highways of the west, the soundtrack to a road trip travelling foot on the floor, top down, beer in hand. Another joining rock with roots, the profound with the profane, the familiar with the exploratory. Stare at the pattern of the lines for a long time, and then shut your eyes. The stars dancing behind your eyelids is the music of this outstanding musician.
The great advantage of knowing your musical history, of course, is that you have plenty of material to reference, be inspired by, to fill in the gaps between, cross pollinate and generally explore. In the same way that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, there is a reason why some sounds and styles continue to exist, evolve and advance and others become musical cul-du-sacs. Nelson King clearly knows his musical history. And because of this he is able to take familiar threads and weave whole new designs with them, ones that are both fresh yet familiar.
Throughout its 9 tracks Lo-Fi meanders through the underbelly of rock and roll, borrowing a Stones lick here, referencing the Thunders swagger there and often revelling in a sneering punk (Lower East Side division) approach that seemingly reveres the genre and tries to obliterate it at the same time. Its garage rock feel reminds us of what’s really important – attitude rather than intricacies, groove rather than grandiose statements. And if in the wrong hands such a blending of blues, r&b and rock might result in a pastiche of what has gone before, Nelson King knows just which dark and sleazy elements to use to create his wrong side of the tracks music, how to infuse it with an illicit danger and the feeling that you could do with a shower after listening to the album.
The songs groove and grind, run around four to the floor rock outs yet are also capable of tender tunefulness and reflective moments. Straight down the line rock and roll has survived this long because it delivers the goods in an accessible and unfussy fashion, has edge and paints wonderful pictures for the listener. Nelson King is very aware of this and because of it Lo-Fi ticks all the required boxes….and a few more I hadn’t even thought of.