ALBUM (TRACK BY TRACK): Seasick Steve ‘Sonic Soul Surfer’


A simple and effective album if you like your blues white rather than black, and with an unexpected emotional depth:

Roy’s Gang: Served with sidewinder distortion and reverb, this opener is a straight-ahead six-minute 12-bar slide blues work out, the voice masked like a badly tuned radio, the scene set. It’s Americana, the kind of sound that accompanies a cold mug of beer while you stand at the bar in south Houston and watch the good ole boys play shuffle board in their faded denim. This is good, solid back room music and you can smell the spilled bourbon and tobacco from a mile away.

Bring It On: A drum roll announces a stuttering melody, the guitar squawking like a hen whose emerging eggs have proved too large for comfort. Steve, with fewer teeth this time round, babbles over a band playing while severely intoxicated, so it seems. And this, curiously, is why the song works.

Dog Gonna Play: Kicking from the start like Chuck Berry after a heavy night and with tinges of early Chess blues from the likes of Little Milton, a spiritual vein runs through it. The song has a churchefied confessional ring and you half expect Tom Jones to chime in at some point which, thankfully, he doesn’t. The no-nonsense production lays Seasick’s voice down without adornment.

In Peaceful Dreams: The tasteful pairing of a banjo and fiddle evoke an early morning river mist. This is where it gets folky and into the roots of country. It’s a meditative and fibrous hook into Steve’s sour mash heart of Celtic darkness.

Summertime Boy: The Jew’s harp is twanged for all its worth on this track while our (allegedly) inebriated landlubber vocalist crawls out into the sunlight to play the guitars with pennies instead of nylon picks. This is blues as rough as a bench dweller’s chin.

Swamp Dog: With a dog now mentioned twice as we hit the sixth track, you start to wonder if any cats will get a look in. “We’ll go hunting tonight,” sings Steve, his voice coated with chicken grease. One can only assume he has some guns in his pick-up. The distorted guitar solo is a pleasure, the percussion coming through the speakers like the tramp of a hundred boots across an empty stage.

Sonic Soul Boogie: Tamped plucking of dirty strings begins the tune, the lyric of no consequence, the musicians needing to rouse themselves from a cultural stupor. This is music arrived at in the moment. It’s music to brawl to.

Right On Time: A subtle country acoustic work out. Light fingered, lips brushing the microphone, it’s a song of unrequited love to a woman he may have known. Suffused with yearning, it’s the happiest track on the album and all the more welcome for it being the innocent expression of an old Californian man who’s still young at heart.

Barracuda ’68: Muscle music drenched in depleted testosterone, the vocal overtone comes to your ears as gospel, cured by camp fire smoke and Jim Beam. The drummer gets syncopated and delicate with his sticks, the blues detonating as per usual. SS is doing the Kings Of Leon thing but with richer idiosyncrasy and personality.

We Be Moving: It seems his voice actually improves as the album progresses. Here Seasick delivers a lament over the spareness of a lone guitar and bass, a bass which pulses through and around SS’s John Lee Hooker-style voice. He sings of his itinerant West Coast existence, of a “cold, cold ground”, mortality no doubt uppermost in his mind.

Your Name: “These police bulls surely gonna know your name,” comes the lyric, and you immediately think of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s chain gang music and speaks of the social rot that lingers beneath the surface gleam of modern day America. Steve knows whereof he speaks. The tambourine rattles in the hand of a saddened man, the tempo rising with his anger.

Heart Full Of Scars: A tenderly picked steel-string guitar comes as a sentimental salve from an old American who sounds like he knows the end is nigh; but not for him, but rather the end of an America that, despite the yoke it once made its working men carry, was somehow once a much safer place for drifters like him. This track rounds off an album that delivers because of the lack of expectation. The West Coast wail is genuine, if not all-encompassing in its scope.

Sonic Soul Surfer is released on 23rd March via Caroline International Ltd.

Jason Holmes