Out now, 8/10
I’ll be honest, like many Paul Weller fans, I’ve known who original Jam guitarist Steve Brookes is for some time but have never quite got round to seeking out his solo work. All that changed with the release at the start of the month of his fourth album Hoodoo Zoo, recorded at Weller’s Black Barn studios, featuring the Modfather on two tracks, plus Ben Gordelier who plays percussion on most and Black Barn resident producer Charles Rees behind the desk.
The largely acoustic album contains some brilliant metaphors and vocals which fill the space left by some striking acoustic guitar and sparing percussion.
Of the songs Weller has contributed to, the best is the quirky, sprightly Looking at the Monkeys. Returning the favour of Brookes, who has made a handful of guest appearances on Weller’s albums in recent years and played alongside his old bandmate at charity gigs, Looking at the Monkeys is a cheeky account of a trip to the (hoodoo) zoo with some excellent guitar from Brookes and a blues harp cameo later on from Weller. Amala is a catchy, almost haunting shuffle on which the pair combine on guitar with some sublime soloing, behind an ambiguous, thought-provoking lyric and some imaginative Gordelier percussion.
But, in fact, it’s some of the songs featuring just Brookes and Gordelier which provide Hoodoo Zoo’s highlights.
Bluesy opener No Show sets the tone for the raw album bristling with tales and observations. An extraordinarily catchy acoustic guitar riff backs this early highlight as Brookes proclaims, perhaps with a wry smile and just the tiniest hint of Empty Ring, “there’s no show, if no-one’s watching you”.
The album carries on in a similar vein, with some superb guitar lines and crystal clear vocals which allows Brookes the opportunity to express himself eruditely and expansively through his words without the obfuscation of a multi-layered melange to distract the listener and detract from his messages.
Admittedly, a couple of the sparser tracks seem a little samey after a while, like the simple, less than memorable A Final Farewell which wants to be on a Disney soundtrack but just isn’t quite jaunty enough. Slow blues tune Every Moth Will Find Its Flame, while not a pleasure to listen to as a finished tune with some pretty dull guitar, nonetheless features some of Brookes’ most expansive vocals, almost late Johnny Cash-esque, in keeping with the legends of the genre (they need to be on this!) and considered lyrics (“willow creaks before it cracks”).
But there are more than enough triumphs to carry the couple of less outstanding numbers. Small Man in Big Shoes is driven by the same superb Brookes-trademark slide guitar used to great effect to embellish In the Car on Weller’s 2015 album Saturns Pattern. Some top metaphors and growling vocals complete the package. Fish Back Sky would be the best choice for a single, with dipping and soaring vocals and music including double-tracked guitars, the most upbeat song on the album.
Gordelier adds some intricate percussion to rangy, sparse instrumental En Afrique. The mournful No Road Home once again employs animal metaphors in front of some haunting guitar and rustic percussion. Closer Need to Know is a slow-burning, tender ballad harking back to some of the best bluesmen of years ago.
Perhaps the best song on the album is the measured Little Things, complete with more slide guitar. Brookes lists the ‘little things’ that make him happy nowadays, ranging from his children to “a pound found under my driver’s seat”. You imagine he must now be referring to the new design and not the defunct old one but nonetheless, the sheer variety of references can’t fail to raise a smile coupled with the expressive guitar/percussion backing while remaining a source of inner contemplation for Brookes and his listeners. Also listen out for perhaps the coolest, most nonchalant “1,2,3,4” in the history of recorded music.
The star names featured on Hoodoo Zoo could well be the tonic Steve Brookes needs to deservedly get his rootsy solo material to a far bigger audience. “I’m a man, not a child now. I’ve no time for childish things,” sings Brookes on Need to Know. Quite. A grown-up album for grown-up listeners with grown-up influences. But Brookes gets the balance between keeping the blues tradition and original lyrics, vocals and even the odd dash of humour spot on most of the time.
The melodic, soulful Hoodoo Zoo is a superb introduction to Brookes and has piqued my interest to dig out some of his earlier recordings.
Job done, Mr Brookes.
Top Tracks: No Show, Little Things, Small Man in Big Shoes, Looking at the Monkeys.
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