It’s the old “hair of the dog” thing. According to folklore, the best cure for a hangover is to have some of the offending liquor (by itself or in a concoction usually involving a lot of salt) the day after. To give the lore a musical spin, many – including myself – believe that the best cure when you’ve got the blues is to listen to the Blues. And just to extrapolate a bit, to me it follows that the best food for your soul is a little Soul music. And if you have the appetite for it, Jon Epworth’s “Soul Mange” serves up a meal that will stick to your ribs. I can guarantee you will not go hungry.
Epworth’s seven track album, while not really breaking any new ground, takes you on a well-worn path through the dark woods. The album is Blues infused, and is at times comforting and at other times harrowing. But it will speak to your inner pain as only a fellow victim can. Among the first things to impress me on “Soul Mange” are Jon Epworth’s vocals and how the instrumentation lays a firm foundation for them without getting in the way or competing for the spotlight. This is a rock solid album and one of the most satisfying musical experiences I have had in quite some time.
The album begins with “Don’t Hold Water,” which operates in a grey area between Train and The Black Crowes, although definitely on the darker side of that spectrum. Epworth showcases his impressive vocal range, and the tune benefits from solid drumming, tasty bass and spot-on piano. I’m also wowed by the background vocals. Lyrically, the song operates both as cautionary tale and vow of support. The lines “I used to think I was the man ‘cuz I stood so tall/But the taller that I got now made me more afraid of the fall/And if I didn’t look around then I might pass over you/And you might need someone to help you get through” give you an indication that the author is sharing both your journey and your pain. And that, in and of itself, brings comfort.
The next track, “Come Alive” has an ambient, experimental sounding opening, and may make you wonder if you’ve accidently put on a record from the late sixties or early seventies by mistake. It’s a tantalizing tune with some wonderful guitar work, although the bass and drumming really help float this boat. Once again, the background vocals really add to the mix to support a lead vocal that evolves into a near howl reminiscent of Deep Purple’s “Child in Time.” There are elements of both voodoo and the spirituality of nature in this song, giving off a delicious semi-hypnotic vibe. This is one of the most powerful tracks on a decidedly strong album.
“No shit” is a hard driving tune that builds on a funky bass line enhanced with crisp drumming. The song could be the bastard child of the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and the Humble Pie version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” Here’s a song that I could listen to for a lot longer than the scant three minute run time. While the title may suggest a sarcastic retort, the lyrics speak more to a “we’re all in this together” sentiment. The vocals are strong and well delivered. The only flaw, in my opinion – and it isn’t a fatal one – is that the song is too short. Those who agree with me may find themselves quoting the song’s title.
If you need a little light to go along with your darkness, the next tune, “Happening” will abide. It starts out with an uplifting guitar riff and background vocals to set the scene for Jon Epworth’s sharp vocals. Style-wise, in this particular song Epworth can be accused of cutting Sam Roberts’ grass to some extent; although a good argument can be made that, really, there is nothing new under the sun. The musicianship is powerful, masterfully solid, and drives this tune like a rumbling freight train. I can imagine it going over very well played live.
The album’s title track, “Soul Mange,” benefits from its sparse delivery. It operates as a cry from a world-weary, oppressed soul. Epworth’s pained vocals fit the song to a tee. The lyrics speak of the brutality of life and a litany of crimes committed against humanity. The singer seems at least on the surface to give up. However, all is not lost. And although the lyrics do not necessarily betray it, you still feel that at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box remains hope, the one commodity mankind cannot live without. And that is the true beauty of this song.
“Triggers” is a more radio-friendly number, and almost seems out of place in the context of this album. It veers more towards the Funk side of the ledger. The things that work in the rest of the album work here in spades. The musicianship is once again tight and the vocals beyond reproach. Lyrically, it’s a song of emotional (and perhaps mental) imbalance, albeit delivered in an almost pop coating. It is a likeable, hook-ridden track that could have been stretched out a bit without taking away its impact.
The final song on the album is “Afraid.” It’s a guitar driven track for the most part, although the bass and drumming certainly complement it. The underlying theme seems to be existentialism more so than fear, although there is a sense of dread prevalent through the track. It’s one of the heavier songs on the album and reminds me of earlier Black Sabbath or the grittier elements of Led Zeppelin. Thankfully, Jon Epworth once again takes his vocals soaring to round out this tune.
Soul Mange is a great effort, and I am glad I had a chance to experience what Jon Epworth has to offer. I am impressed with the delivery and give all those involved full marks both for musicianship and vocal abilities. I would recommend this album to anyone who has an ear for the Blues and a hunger for something both powerful and soulful. Far from being mangy, this puppy – um, album – is well groomed and parasite free. And may just be the hair of the dog that you need to cure your personal blues.
The album is available via Bandcamp.
Top Tracks: “Come Alive;” “Soul Mange;” “Afraid”
Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*