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The blues is a music genre one associates with America's deep south, and in particular the African Americans who were so badly persecuted for so long there. The genre tends to be famous lyrically for the misery and tales of oppression related within, although of course it would be stereotypical to suggest all blues songs are miserable - many can be spiritual in their outlook and of course even 100 years ago sex featured.
The genre has of course evolved over the years - probably peaking in the 1960s as so many of the acts we now consider classic (or might that be dinosaurs?) rock cut their teeth in the UK performing blues songs.
The latest evolution of the genre, to my ears anyway, is Nell Bryden, a pretty American singer songwriter who I first heard on that vanguard of mainstream music, Radio 2. Intrigued by her voice, I picked up "What Does it Take?" to learn some more.
~~A Little About Nell~~
Nell Bryden was born in 1979, and was raised in New York City. She had a fairly bohemian upbringing in a Brooklyn loft - her mother is a singer and her father an artist. Music was an integral part of her childhood, and her original ambition was to be an opera singer, until she heard, she claims, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. She started learing piano at the age of 2 and cello at 9, and recorded the first version of this album in 2005 in New Orleans.
"From Midnight On" was released in 2006 to critical acclaim but not much in the way of sales. Bryden then had an incredibly lucky break, discovering in her father's attic a painting that had been gifted to her as a baby (as you do). It turned out the painting was a Milton Avery original and Bryden sold it at auction for just shy of £300,000 allowing her to extensively tour, including the UK and Ireland, and also to go back to the studio to record "What Does it Take?" with legendary US music producer David Kershenbaum. The album includes re-recorded versions of songs which featured on her first album as well as new songs.
~~What Does it Take?~~
Bryden's album is marketed as "blues" but having listened to this many times now, my abiding impression is "country with a jazz twist".
Bryden has a sweetly soulful voice, but paradoxically it isn't always a particularly emotional one. One cannot help but wonder if the years of technical training in music she had has made her technically gifted but slightly emotionally stunted.
The overall sound on "What Does it Take?" is fairly simple - the production is good because it does focus on Bryden's voice first and foremost, allowing it to shine throughout but it also allows the listener to appreciate some excellent musicianship on the instrumentation of the songs.
This instrumentation and arrangement has a nicely retro sound to it with the organ featuring prominently on several tracks for instance.
Bryden does convey emotion reasonably convincingly however, and on "Second Time Around" which is the strongest track on the album Bryden's voice is believable as she tells her former lover where to go. The song has a sound that harks back to the fifties with a great hand clap beat on the bridge and some exquisite piano playing keeping the pace up.
Similarly on "Tonight" she sounds genuine when she sings - possibly because there is a charming innocence about the song lyrics with Bryden looking forward to a night out by referencing curling her hair and being picked up at ten to arrive "fashionably late". The instrumentation on this is lovely too - copious use is made of the banjo and mandolin as well as a nicely sultry clarinet giving an overall ragtime sound.
"Late Night Call" gives Bryden the chance to come on to her lover with a song which uses the washboard and spoons and the banjo once again to give a lovely retro sound but this is a bit of fun rather than something soulful and serious. That's not to say there's nothing to like - the instrumentation on this is particularly good and Bryden is also vocally strong here.
When the tempo slows down this becomes a mixed bag. The soaring ballad "Not Like Loving You" works a treat with a fabulous organ playing behind the vocals and a small choir on backing vocals. Bryden's voice is good on this as she sings the chorus over a beautifully twanging pedal steel guitar. The bridge features a super horn section too giving this song probably the most "full" sound of all the songs on the album.
The rest of the ballads vary between interesting to a little bland. Many of them are great late night music, fading pleasantly into the background.
"Helen's Requiem" is pleasantly sung and has an almost ecclesiastical sound to it but the vocals sound detached. This sound continues on "Where the Pavement Ends" as Bryden tries to convey misery and is only partially effective - I did find some of it just a tad contrived for my tastes.
"Green Dress" has a lovely late night sound with the pedal steel guitar and banjo once again giving the song a wonderfully nostalgic sound as Bryden takes her time to sing over this nicely lazy arrangement.
When Bryden's voice soars it is powerful and she does have a nicely sweet tone to it too but much as I enjoy it I often feel that she works best singing songs which have more a folk or bluegrass sound to them rather than attempting to do the blues and emote when there's no real emotion or experience to draw on. Another problem is that while the songs are enjoyable to listen to, some of them are completely unmemorable, leaving me to wonder if Bryden needs to develop a little more as a songwriter.
The overall sound on this album is intriguingly interesting however - the instrumentation is particularly good - you have to hand it to Bryden and Kershenbaum - they have produced an album which features a Hammond organ, the washboard and spoons, banjo, mandolin, Wurlitzer and Farfisa organ amongst the more everyday instruments such as guitar, drums, piano and bass, giving the listener an aural smogsmabord.
This isn't the kind of music that is ever going to set the charts alight but it's enjoyable in its own way, despite the fact Bryden should really be marketing herself as more of a country-jazz singer - her voice is far more effective in that genre.
So in summary, Bryden sure can sing - but I'm not convinced she can sing the blues.
What Does It Take
Not Like Loving You
Where the Pavement Ends
Only Life I Know
Second Time Around
Meridian (I Love the Same)
Late Night Call
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 What Does It Take
2 Not Like Loving You
3 Where The Pavement Ends
4 Helen's Requiem
6 Only Life I Know
7 Second Time Around
8 Meridian (I Love The Same)
9 Green Dress
11 Late Night Call