If a guitarist has a signature edition instrument, then the company involved rates the player. So, when I read that Texan guitarist Emily Wolfe had an Epiphone signature (based on the delectable Gibson ES-355) I had to check both her and the guitar out.
Emily caused a stir with her self titled debut in 2019 with its guitar-centric rocky base that seemed to evolve from her love of 70s rock and was quite a revelation. She has changed tack a little bit on her recent release. Outlier is, according to the PR, a marriage of her rock roots with grunge and modern pop elements…a bit of a worry for someone like me as I started turning into my Dad quite a few years ago where ‘modern’ music is concerned and (apart from inheriting his total lack of hair) kept hearing his voice when he used to hear my Purple, Heep, Nazareth records pounding through the ceiling…”I don’t know how you can listen to that rubbish!” The saving grace however is that Emily has approached it with the “goal is to create well-crafted rock songs with polished pop production, but stay true to myself as a lover of guitar solos.”
The guitar is of equal interest: called the Epiphone Sheraton Stealth it looks quite different from the ES-355 as the diamond-shaped holes in the body leap out…f-holes were named for their shape. In saying that, the sound it produces doesn’t suffer as the humbuckers give it a meaty bluesy sound although, having listened to the album a number of times, it sounds like Emily also employs more pedals than Halford bike department…but (pun intended) to good effect. The mother-of-pearl inlays (with lightning in a contrasting inlay) and the ‘tree of life’ inlay on the headstock make it a very good looking guitar. The promotional photos of Emily and guitar show her wearing a British Steel, Judas Priest t-shirt so we can rest assured that rock still flows through those nimble guitarist fingers.
Anyway, to the music and opening track, No Man…as in “Don’t need no man to tell me how to work my machine”. This is a blues-based song, as evidenced by the vocal/drum intro that develops via some synth that jars at first but, with Emily’s arresting and expressive vocals, it soon fades into the background and then the riff kicks in and lifts it into a blues-rock song that stands up very well….I was hoping for a guitar solo to show off fully that signature guitar but it didn’t materialise.
Cover of Virtue is a mix of pop and more synth (although I am beginning to realise that those pedals are making the guitar sound that way) and some neat chord work that makes it pop in a respectable way and it has a riff and an attitude underlying it, that gives it a listenability to us self-respecting rock and blues fans…if you give it a chance and can accept the QOTSA influence that is inevitable as Michael Shuman is producer and co-writer. LA/NY is even poppier but still has an edge to the instrumentation and her exceptional vocal pull it back from that brink. The phased guitar solo (at last!) also makes it, unlike the pop it otherwise might have evoked.
Something Better also achieves that seemingly impossible blending of synth/guitar pop with very good guitar phrasing to make it a song that will stay with you and it also delivers a clever, some sort of pedal-driven solo, that could be a synth but isn’t…I think. Never Gonna Learn sounds like umpteen synth groups from the 80s…at first. Emily’s voice is such quality that it is immediate and the whole thing is so catchy that you find yourself actively trying to dismiss it as too poppy… and failing miserably!
Damage Control (confusingly listed as Vermillion Park and carrying on into Damage Control on my copy) starts out all Chicory Tip but, again, the voice draws you in..lovely harmonies and a solid rock middle section with more pedal phased guitar. Vermillion Park is Pat Benetar fronting Human League but somehow, dammit, it works. My Lungs Give Out has an intriguing, approaching reggae via pop stopping at rock and blues base that is complex and it’s beautifully sung and played.
Death Row Kiss follows the pattern but adds fascinating lyrics to the rock/electronic mix and a proper, brilliant guitar solo that isn’t processed until the end…lovely. The final track, Heavenly Hell, has a beautifully picked intro and builds a clever romantic paradox with exquisite vocal performance.
How the hell to sum this up?…it is easy to dismiss on first listening as pop, but it is so much more and it is sophisticated with intelligence and skill that (to me) pop generally does not. Perhaps Emily chose the title just for me as Oxford Dictionaries define outlier as “a younger rock formation isolated among older rocks.”
My only real regret is that there’s no longed for scorching guitar solos that I know Emily is more than capable of, but every track has a charm and an attraction that defies easy description by an ageing, blues-loving rocker… Let’s just say it works.
Bluesdoodles rating: 3 Doodle Paws – a great listen that will surprise and delight after appreciating the layers and intelligence that fills every track.
Cover of Virtue
Never Gonna Learn
My Lungs Give Out
Death Row Kiss
Emily Wolfe: guitar, vocals
Evan Nicholson: bass
Clellan Hyatt: drums
Produced and co-written by Michael Shuman.
(iTunes moved me on to some 2003 vintage heavy rock courtesy of Empire and the lead off track One In A Million from their Trading Souls album.)