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J R Harbidge - 'First Ray Of Light' Album Review


1. Turn The Screw

2. A Side Of You That Cares

3. First Ray Of Light

4. When You Don't Love Your Man

5. Learn To Love The Rain

6. Older & Sober

7. Have Mercy

8. Something To Hide

9. I Won't Support Your Wars

10. I Know You Know I Know

Whilst 'First Ray Of Light' is James Harbidge’s debut solo album, he has been ever present in the Midlands music scene for the past two decades. As a teenager he played in Powderfinger (not to be confused with the Australian band of the same name) who featured on 1997’s Heart Of Darkness compilation of West Midlands bands. Since then he has been writing, playing live and producing. He is best known as a Rocker from the Black Country but this album slants more to Americana (With a small 'a'). He has said 'I would say, if you like Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams; The Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Jackson Browne and the Eagles, then you will like my music'. Having listened to the album, in the words of that great Rock outfit ABBA ' I Do, I Do, I Do'

The opener is also the first single released from the album, 'Turn The Screw'. The acoustic guitar and simple double beat, drum intro is crisp and has all the hallmarks of James' influences. The gritty vocal is reminiscent of Bob Dylan. This is a protest song against the establishment who wreak havoc on us normal folk. The simplicity of the song soon escalates with organ, mandolin and mouth organ. Like all good folk protest songs the simplicity is deceptive and the melody that takes you on the journey is multi-layered. 'A Side Of You That Cares’ is a beautiful song, and my favourite on the album by a mile, about seeing depression from the outside and trying to get through the barriers. The track has a real live jam feel about it, especially with the exquisite instrumental interlude with lap steel and piano. It seems to draw to a close In the middle 8 only to start up again. This is far from conventional, but really makes the song stand out. James' vocal is full of emotion, and is complimented by the backing vocals. The guitar outro is very effective. After the first two tracks, which deal with hard subjects the title track 'First Ray Of Light' seems to signal coming out of the gloom with positivity. It coveys a feeling of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but knowing you are still in the tunnel. The melody is catchy and the instrumentation is warm. The backwards guitar during the instrumental gives this track a Beatles feel. The acoustic guitar playing is excellent..

This positivity is short lived though as 'When You Don't Love Your Man' is another melancholy number, and the second single from the album. It starts with a bluesy guitar riff, Although on the face of it a simple song the breadth of instrumentation is impressive, With piano and organ, and a wide array of strings, Violin, Viola and the Cello which adds depth and richness, not to mention the electric guitar solo. The backing vocals again add contrast. This is a soulful and rather beguiling song. The Beatles vibe is back again on 'Learn To Love The Rain'. The vocals seem to have some slight echo. The Mellotron driving the melody gives it the Beatles feel. It is a pleasant surprise, and given the darkness of the subject matter, the Mellotron is strangely reassuring. There is a change in direction with 'Older & Sober' which is a jaunty unashamed Americana song. It is pretty funky, and that twang guitar gives it a retro feel. 'Have Mercy' is full on folk, with a guitar and mandolin intro. A gentle song, that builds in the chorus. The backing vocals are once again very good, giving harmony and depth.

We return to the Americana with another soulful number. 'Something To Hide'. The harmonies are sweet as is the guitar playing. The bass and percussion gently guide the tempo. 'I Won't Support Your Wars' is pretty self explanatory. It is a real pacifists rally call. Like the songs from the likes of Dylan, it starts with simply with vocal accompanied with an acoustic guitar. It gets a lot warmer when the Lap Steel and organ kick in, in the second verse. I am pleased that these were added, because initially I though that this was a pretty simplistic song, but the instrumentation picks it up. The album closes with 'I Know You Know I Know', which is a more electric and Rock orientated number. Is this a hint of what we might get in the follow up album? Only time will tell, but I wouldn't be complaining. The intro is delicious with the funky percussion and guitar riffs, but the Hammond organ is the real star. With funky hooks and a great sing a long chorus, this is a great way to end the album. Given the gloom previously it feels like to organ is the train hoot as we exit the tunnel into the bright light. There is a great guitar solo and the instrumentation is exquisite. That Hammond organ though, wow!

We are used to hearing Americana from the Big Country, but J R Harbidge serves up some from the Black Country and what a feast it is. The album has a lot of variation on it, and given the time it took James to get a debut album out, that is probably not surprising. What would be a surprise, is if the second album does not follow very quickly. 'First Ray Of Light' should put James firmly on the map and make people sit up and listen. They will probably have the odd foot tap as well.

First Ray Of Light is released on the Absolute Label on 5th October.

Review - Tony Creek

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