These are bountiful times when it comes to young rock bands with commanding frontwomen. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard might be the most pertinent example, but it’s an expanding crop that includes The Duke Spirit’s Liela Moss, The Bellrays’ Lisa Kekaula, Purson’s Rosalie Cunningham and Jasmyn Burke of Toronto newbies Weaves, to name but a few. High on the list is the striking Elin Larsson, the twentysomething leader of Blues Pills, the quartet drawn from Sweden, France and the US.
2014’s self-titled debut plunged deep into late-60s/early-70s blues rock for inspiration, its blowsy psychedelia underlined by some lysergic sleeve art (courtesy of the legendary Marijke Koger-Dunham) and the band’s fondness for braided hippie attire. They looked, in fact, like the kind of group who might be happier in another age, maybe sharing a bill at the Fillmore with Johnny Winter or Big Brother And The Holding Company. Factor in Larsson’s powerhouse voice and forceful stage presence and the inevitable comparisons with Janis Joplin soon followed.
The Joplin connection, as with most lazy parallels, is some way off the mark. Sticking with the same era, for now at least, there are keener echoes of, say, Maggie Bell in Larsson’s bluesy timbre. Her rockier moments, meanwhile, are perhaps more reminiscent of the late Mariska Veres, who once brought a buzzing stridency to Dutch underground types Shocking Blue.
But what tended to be ignored in the appraisals of Blues Pills’ first album was a propensity for soul. It’s a feature that’s more prominent on follow-up Lady In Gold, the band broadening their palette into a richer variety of southern idioms. A prime illustration of this is I Felt A Change, a Muscle Shoals-like ballad driven by organ, with Larsson’s torchy lyric nursing a flame for a lost lover. Gone So Long is a smouldering companion piece that arrives directly in its wake, a Dusty In Memphis heartbreaker full of sorrow and regret.
Not that Blues Pills have forsaken the heavier stuff. The charging piano of the title track sets into motion a psych-blues bruiser about a harbinger of death, a female shape-shifter whose kiss acts as the final release from the mortal realm. ‘Her wings are coloured black/There’s no turning back,’ intones Larsson in reassuringly bluff tones, as the band gather steam behind her. Little Boy Preacher continues the supernatural theme but switches the sexes, its protagonist a charismatic sorcerer come to wreak terrible havoc. Guitarist Dorian Sorriaux lays out windmilling power chords at sharp intervals as bassist Zack Anderson and new arrival André Kvarnström (replacing original drummer Cory Berry) construct a gently cantering rhythm. When the whole ensemble eventually dial up the volume, it sounds like a stampede.
Taken at face value, Little Boy Preacher is a fantastical tale ripped from folklore, yet it also offers a wider subtext for the album in its reference to a vast global malaise, an ill wind blowing through a civilisation wrought by death and divisiveness. ‘Nations running wild/Damnation coming down,’ sings Larsson, her voice burning with indignation. You Gotta Try dishes out a similar form of admonishment, chiding corporate seekers of power with the lines: ‘There’s no honour in the things we do/For that dollar, that dollar or two.’ Hardly a new sentiment, maybe, but the song is an utterly persuasive flash of voodoo blues with an urgent backing choir, distorted guitars and a rasping finale that feels like vintage Grace Slick howling into the sky.
Blues Pills aren’t averse to the odd curveball: their debut included a cover of Chubby Checker’s Gypsy, albeit revamped the Blues Pills way. Here they give Tony Joe White’s Elements And Things a good going over, replacing the swamp-funk of his 1969 original with the bullish roar of a classic Stooges groove. And there’s a neat allusion to Neil Young’s Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) on the mighty Burned Out, in which Larsson pleads to be released from a relationship that has long turned to rust.
All things considered, Lady In Gold is a more satisfying listen than its predecessor, with a host of truly great moments. The past couple of years, in which Blues Pills have done an inordinate amount of road work, have made them a sharper and more assured proposition, but it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here. It may sound picky, but they still tend to sound like the product of people with impeccable record collections, so there remains a sense that they’ve yet to find their definitive voice. Until they do, this’ll do quite nicely.
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