(Cherry Red Records)
Who would have thought that Jack Bruce would do his best work at the age of 70? It's a familiar tack with me, but think about what you would have wanted Jack to sound like in 2014 - he's singing better than ever, he's playing great bass and piano, and he's writing brilliantly. Could you have hoped for more than that?
'Silver Rails' may be his best solo record ever, its certainly the best record he's made in a great many years, and it should end up on a lot of lists for the best albums of 2014.
He's assisted by the likes of Robin Trower, Phil Manzanera, Uli Jon Roth, Cindy Blackmon Santana, John Medeski, Bernie Marsden, his son Malcolm Bruce, he has great co-writers in Peter Brown, Kip Hanrahan, and Margrit Seyffer, and the production by Rob Cass at Abbey Road Studios is near perfect. They all do great work, but there's only one true star of this record and it is Jack Bruce.
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As a caveat, allow me to add that if you're looking for a new Cream album, there are some fantastic moments that recall the original power trio, but this isn't it - what it is, is a grand album by a great composer, singer, and player, using some of the very best players on the planet to get across a set of tunes that very in style and mood, but still remains a cohesive statement. Yes, the album is not dead - here's a great one for all the naysayers.
Jack Bruce seems to be defying conventional wisdom, and is getting better in his golden years. Often has been the time in which I loved some tracks, and got lost by others on his solo outings, but this song-set grabbed me and didn't let go. I'm reminded of early period Bowie, where there were albums on which it seemed he couldn't write a less than great tune. This is one of those records, and maybe the best part of the whole thing, even better than the great song craft and sublime playing is the sound of Jack's voice. It's lush, nuanced, and golden - the vibrato as strong as you'll find, incredible pitch, and his phrasing is always perfect for the line and the song.
Candlelight has a warm, calypso sway with sumptuous horns, tasty Hammond organ, percolating bass line, and a great vocal - this is a perfect opener, because it has so many Bruce hallmarks, but it doesn't seek to relive anything from the past, it's just a great tune. Bruce is in fabulous voice, and he twists the melody subtly throughout as he playfully pushes and pulls his phrasing around the beat. There's always a bit of sixties psychedelia in anything Bruce does, and it's no different here. Maybe it's just that his level of musical cool transcends genre and time.
A nice descending piano line introduces Reach For The Night, and it's joined by a bass line that is straight out of a jazzed up detective novel as Jack lays down his Raymond Chandler flavored autobiographical tome on growing older. You can hear his fingers plucking the notes of his bass - more aggressively at times, softer at others, and it's all in reaction to what his voice is singing. Medeski's brilliant organ solo (truly a masterpiece of its own) is followed by a nicely slurred sax solo that drips emotion across the track - the arrangements on this album are the things of which greatness is made.
Fields Of Forever sounds like a lost nugget from 1969 - it's a very Townshend-esque melody that drives this rocker. The most guitar driven tune yet, I'm guessing it's Bernie Marsden, but I could be wrong. And really, that's one of the coolest things about the album - while there are some incredible guitarists abound, they all play for the tailor, so to speak, and nobody elects to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
The big rock continues with Jack utilizing the acrobatic skills of Cindy Blackmon Santana and Uli Jon Roth to great effect on Hidden Cities. Blackmon Santana might have the most distinctive snare sound this side of Simon Phillips, and Uli shows great restraint, but his liquid bends and muscular single string work are still quite apparent. Melody is the word of the moment, and Bruce chases his own voice with his bass lines, and he's joined by some wonderful female harmonies. I'd love to see this lineup do some shows, that's for sure. This is as close as the album gets to the proto-metal side of Cream, and I say that with the best of intentions. Not the bluesier side, but the band that pulled off White Room.
Bruce shines brightly on Don't Look Now, as he pulls out all the stops by going into his lower range to great effect, while still twisting falsetto climbs around his taut bass lines. Medeski continues to be the disc's most valuable player, as his organ gets dished out in perfect measure - thrilling, but always in service of the song. I love the way this record sounds - it's not a patch work ProTools outing, that is for sure. The sounds are superb, the arrangements well thought out, and the mix is just right.
The Jack Bruce blues rears its head on Rusty Lady, and here, Cream fans will find much to love. I'm guessing it's Trower supplying the guitar on this one, though I could be wronging some other player - it's a part of music writing 2014 that you rarely see complete liner notes, damnit. At least it sure sounds like Robin's tone on his latest, the brilliant Roots and Branches. Yeah, if we could have known this is what Jack would sound like in 2014, we'd have been very pleased.
Industrial Child is definitely the most beautiful song on Silver Rails. Gorgeous piano, and Jack singing in a manner that should be the envy of any singer at any age. His vibrato is haunting as it takes notes up and seems to rise above the tune. Worth the price of the record, right here.
I'm not quite sure what to make of Drone, it's the one time the album makes me unsure - it's built around a massively distorted bass track with Jack speak/singing lyrics that sound like they wouldn't be out of place on a John Entwistle solo album. Again, I'm guessing that this is a Peter Brown lyric.
Keep It Down is the closest Jack gets to Clapton territory - this sounds like a distant cousin to Badge mixed with a bit of late seventies/early eighties soul stew. A cooking bass line keeps things cooking, and the stinging Strat fills are fun.
Big rock finishes the record with power chords and big beat drums on No Surrender, and suddenly I realize that Jack near completely avoided arena rock in the '80s. The guitar solo is straight off a Bad Company album, not that that's a bad thing, in fact, it's a great tone.
In summation, this is the most fully realized album of Bruce's career, at least to my ears. There are eight songs of utter brilliance, and when was the last time that happened? This is maybe the best solo album Jack Bruce has yet completed, and who could have hoped that in 2014? Rock Ain't Near Dead....