Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers are Usual Suspects

This is a new band for me although how they got past my radar I do not know as this latest release from Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers is, I think, their seventh. They have been touring and recording since 1996 and have established quite a reputation in their hometown of New York. They formed after an impromptu jam session in a local club in Brooklyn and although the personnel have changed around her, Lex remains the driving force and, for this latest release, The Usual Suspects, she has assembled a formidable team of musicians to weave a tapestry of blues, soul, rock, country and a bit of zydeco around her distinctive voice. I use the word advisedly because although comparisons are inevitable (Ma Rainey springs to my mind) she has an identity of her own and the intonation and interpretation changes to suit the mood of the song. She demonstrates this across nine tracks of original material written or co-written by Lex.
First and the title track, Usual Suspects, has steady rim snare and subtle guitar before a restrained Lex joins in. The song then takes a great turn with a heavy riff before cooling again into the opening phrasing; a sax appears and punctuates occasionally. The whole song illustrates what clarity in production is all about. It is a slightly surprising mix of styles and approach, but it works well. Chow Down starts all Quo in its rock come blues riff; nice piano supports the excellent bass line and the band keep the surprises coming when a burst of accordion flavours the song with blues-rock-zydeco…who’d have thunk! Lex sings great and gives examples of more food than you’d think possible ever, never mind in one song. Dirty Secret opens with single chord strumming and Lex pours a soulful vocal over the simplistic and effective backing. A B3 warms the tune and then a restrained guitar solo after which Lex if you have to have comparisons, does a Joplin to great effect. SRV is next and, guess what? We get blues-rock in the great man’s style. It is a tasteful and well-executed tribute to SRV and his music. The sax puts a Pioneers stamp on it but it doesn’t detract as the guitar is suitably to the foremost of the time. Warrior Squaw changes direction dramatically with flute and an effects-laden guitar giving this a loose Native American feel but with a solid blues base. Lex uses her full range to weave the story around a complex backing. A strangely enthralling song and the guitar soloing is spot on. Sunshine And Blue brings a jazz influence into play and the trumpet interplay, whilst not my favourite instrument, is suited perfectly to the ethos of the track, although it does jar a bit with the rest of the album. Cheap Thrills will immediately get you in a Travolta or Newton-John (dependent upon chosen gender) state of mind at the start of this one, although it quickly takes us into a rockabilly, countrified feel with the violin and lap steel. You cannot help but get carried along with this as it flows along brilliantly, although I wouldn’t recommend trying some of the tongue twister lyrics in public. My Jelly Roll hits the blues again with a great guitar riff and then a harp cuts in with an edge and Lex is a female BB on the first verse before she hits a higher register. This is simply a quality slice of blues that could have been written in the 40s but updated in an intelligent way, especially with the harp and slide guitar. The album closes with a classical sounding guitar intro (partly because it sounds like nylon strings) before the verse heralds a ballad of many colours; we get the soulful, almost Bond film styled, lyrical vocals with a great lines like “The sky outside looks like your eyes, Except the parts the clouds disguise, That’s the reason for my lies.” Plus we get a sax and guitar solo (too short) to make it even more atmospheric.
This all comes together as an extremely enjoyable album of blues biased music with sufficient variation to keep you interested. OK, for me Sunshine… doesn’t fit with the rest but if you like the jazzier side of the blues, there is no doubting its quality. There are a couple of tracks I keep returning to that show the talented Lex and her band at their blues best…give SRV, Cheap Thrills and My Jelly Roll a listen and you will be hooked too.

EIGHTpawprint half inchdoodle paws out of TEN …

Tracklisting:

  1. Usual Suspects
  2. Chow Down
  3. Dirty Secret
  4. SRV
  5. Warrior Squaw
  6. Sunshine And Blue
  7. Cheap Thrills
  8. My Jellyroll
  9. Renegade Heart

Musicians:
Lex Gray: vocals, acoustic guitar
Vic Mix: guitars
John Holland: drums 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9
Kaia Updike: bass 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 piano 3 flute, keyboard bass 5, violin 7
Brian Dewan: organ 2, 3, 4, 5 piano 2, 7 accordion 2
Tim Farrell: bass 4, 5
Matt Messenger: drums on 7
Walter Tates Jr.: saxophone1, 4, 9
Per Bergquist: bass 2, 7
Ed Was: upright bass 6
Mike Ragiani: drums 6
Chris Pasin: trumpet 6
Kenny Siegal: lap steel 7
Rick Surrano Sr .: harmonica 8
Foggu Otis: ukulele 9

Lex Grey and The Urban Pioneers are Usual Suspects

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.