Thursday 28th April: It sounds like the sort of 5-point plan that a lot of bands/artists will have:
- Play gigs in pubs to get noticed by the public. Maybe try to get a few support slots.
- Get on stage with one or two of my heroes, widen the fanbase.
- Move on to headline slots at ticketed venues.
- Break into mainland Europe and get some radio airplay.
- Write and release a superb debut album that deserves the sort of wider recognition that more established bands get.
(I know, I’ve merged a couple of steps together to bring it down to five, but it’s my review…)
I doubt, however, that many have completed the plan in what seems as little time as Chantel McGregor, whose album Like No Other, was released just a couple of weeks ago. It’s actually three years since I first saw Chantel live (and was blown away by what turned out to be the soundcheck), but it seems a lot less and it I’ve been eagerly awaiting the album since it was first mentioned, with the feeling that it would have the potential to be my favourite album of whatever year it was actually released in. So, does it live up to my expectations?
Opening with a sort of heavy riff, Fabulous soon defies expectation by adding electronic effects and bursting into life as a Pop-rock song about living for the weekend that wouldn’t feel out of place on a release by the likes of Cheryl Cole. As somebody who has touted Chantel as a Blues/Rock artiste to people who are “serious” music fans, I can’t help but think it’s not the track to open the album with, if only because I don’t think some of those people would be put off by it. Personally, I’ve grown to like it more and more. It’s catchy, the electronics aren’t too intrusive and Chantel’s guitar work is always going to raise it above the level of any average pop song.
I’m No Good For You also opens with a riff, this time a Delta blues one that starts off sounding as though it’s been lifted directly from vinyl before emerging as a much cleaner sound. This is more like what I was expecting. Livingstone Brown’s bass is stunning, Chantel’s different guitar lines are brilliantly overlayed on top of each other and her voice is pure emotion.
Like No Other shows another of Chantel’s influences. After a slow, beautifully sung beginning, it blossoms into something very like Fleetwood Mac. You can almost hear Stevie Nicks singing the lyrics. It’s a very laid-back song with a brilliant instrumental middle-section.
Freefalling is one of only two of the original songs on the album that I had heard before. It has been tweaked a bit since the version I remember hearing live and takes the album back into slightly heavier, rockier territory. As far as I can tell, there’s no tweaking on the vocals, showing that Chantel can sing with power when required and it’s perhaps this track that shows Chris Taggart’s drums at their best. It’s a great song live, retains its power in the recorded version and, once again, has a superb instrumental section mixing screaming guitar with a very nice riff.
Rhiannon is the first of three covers on the album. It’s a dreamy, stripped-down version of the Fleetwood Mac original, using acoustic guitar and cello as a perfect backdrop to Chantel’s lovely vocals to produce a version which I’m beginning to think is better than the original. I really hope we get to hear this version live some day.
Chantel’s album blog mentioned sitars and it’s Caught Out that opens with their sound (albeit electronically reproduced, I think, as their is no credit for them on the album), giving the song a hint of Eastern mysticism, merged with traditional rock. Once again, the guitar work is superb, although that should go without saying, and there is a nice change of pace towards the end of the song.
Robin Trower’s Daydream is a favourite of mine from Chantel’s live set. I don’t know the original at all (and really must seek it out one day) but her version has captivated me from the first time I heard it, so it is a welcome addition to the album. Clocking in at over thirteen minutes, of which much more than half is instrumental, it showcases just how exceptional a guitar-player Chantel is. Listening to it, you can visualise her fingers flying along the frets as the playing flits between intricacy and simplicity, laid-back and full on. Parts of it could lull you to sleep while other parts practically vibrate the speakers out of their housings. A beautiful song, played and sung beautifully.
Cat Song, on the other hand just doesn’t do it for me. Wholly instrumental (with added electronic effects), just over two minutes long and, I believe, inspired by Chantel’s own cat, it just feels out of place to me. It’s clever but, personally, I don’t think it’s right for the album.
It’s back to the acoustic guitar for Screams Everlasting, another lovely song which, for me, contains the best lyrics on the album. I don’t know whether to credit Chantel or co-writer Chris Bucknall with them but they are sung with so much feeling that it’s hard not to be moved by them. Switching to electric guitar for a powerful second half elevates the song beyond the traditional ballad.
Happy Song reminds me so much of something else, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. I love the vocals which, for the first time on the album, almost seem to overpower the music. There’s a folkiness to it which means that, again, it’s not what I expected from the album but I can’t help but like it. It’s difficult to describe but something about it says that if there’s ever a video made to accompany the song, it will include bits where the camera spirals around Chantel as she plays guitar in a meadow. That’s the sort of image it evokes for me.
Not Here With Me is the second original song that I have heard before. Again, it has been tweaked for the album, with some nice backing vocals and the reappearance of Jocasta Whippy’s cello. Beautiful in its simplicity, it’s more superb writing from the McGregor/Bucknall team.
The album ends with a third cover. This time it’s Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Help Me, another song I recognise from the live performances and a return to the blues that I was expecting more of. As well as more genuinely brilliant guitar playing, Chantel’s voice is at it’s very best here, effortlessly switching between oozing syrup and raw power.
If you haven’t already gathered, the album as a whole isn’t exactly what I was expecting. It’s more laid back, less heavy and less bluesy than suggested by the songs covered in the live performances. It’s still excellent, though. The whole thing has a very clean sound with Chantel’s vocals being particularly impressive all the way through. Even though a number of influences are present in the writing (and in the chosen covers) they all seem to work to complement each other. I love the way that the songs have been placed to come at you in waves, building in power before easing away again and, notwithstanding the placing of Fabulous at the beginning and the inclusion of Cat Song, it’s the first album I can remember listening to where the placing of the songs seems to matter. There’s a long way to go in 2011, but I can definitely see this being one of my favourites of the year, if not my overall favourite. Chantel can be justifiably proud of what is a stunning debut album
…and might I suggest that the above plan might just have two more steps. You never know, they might happen sooner than you think:
- Get picked up by a major label
- Headline stadium gigs.