Heart on Fire
Welshman Christopher Rees has run the gamut of Americana styles on previous albums, perhaps most notably with the murder ballads of Devil’s Bridge. Heart on Fire sees an additional shift in emphasis, this time to a horn-driven, Stax- style, countryish soul workout replete with the backing of Texas’ finest, the South Austin Horns. The album is well-played and well-recorded and explores the “…simmering soul…” element of Rees’ writing that has formerly won plaudits.
The genesis of this record was a chance rendezvous at SXSW between Rees and Mark Wilson, the leader of the South Austin Horns. The result of that meeting is this: 11 soul songs with a bit of 1950s country twang shoehorned in now and again for good measure.
The pleasant title track opener sets the tone for much of what follows; the sonic quality somewhat outstrips the actual substance of the material. Numbers range from the souped-up Fats Domino stylings of “In the Middle of the Night” to the dark-end-of-the-street-esque “Morning Light” and then on via the vaguely incongruous rockabilly outing, “Warm By My Fire.” It’s all easy on the ear, but falls a good yard short of being incendiary.
Things pick up on the wonderfully produced “Unstoppable” and on the standout track, “Raise the Battle Cry” – a more restrained affair that foregrounds some of the subtleties of the vocal. “You Know” is pleasing too, an arpeggio-driven number with an excellent synthesis of instruments.
Unsurprisingly though, Heart on Fire falls victim to several generic pitfalls. The USA union Rees has attempted is pretty courageous and when it works it works really well. However, the problem with aping Stax is that it’s all too easy to sound instantly familiar. The general populus is well aware of the sublime material written by the likes of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and most of the time such emulation winds up as pale imitation. Rees’ clean, pure voice lacks the emotional depth to fully exploit this style of material; choruses would benefit, at times, from fewer horns and more harmonies, and verses would be augmented by diminishing the lyrical over- reliance on idiomatic phrases.
Heart on Fire is upbeat and energetic. It’s played with real zest and the horns sparkle throughout. While this is a very listenable record, ultimately it’s just not as good as the excellent records from yesteryear that inspired it.
Release date: May 9