After ten studio albums, two live and one DVD release, you would think that such an accomplished and gifted singer would be more widely recognised. So, if you haven’t come across Layla Zoe before, then her latest release Gemini is a perfect place to start…because, it is quite brilliant, she has taken the quieter side to her emotive vocals and recorded one group of acoustic and/or semi-acoustic songs and then a group of harder, electric numbers to illustrate why her nickname of “Firegirl” is so suitable. One word of warning: this could cost you, as you will want to buy her back catalogue too, assuming it isn’t already in your possession.
Canadian born and influenced by her father’s love of blues she started singing at an early age and joined her father’s band on stage at fourteen. Thus began a career that would take in most of North America and Europe. It was during her time in Europe that Layla met and worked with noted guitarist Henrik Freischlader and the famed Thomas Ruf. She also met Jan Laacks and together they have established a strong writing and performing relationship that has produced this two-disk opus. So, be prepared for an emotional roller coaster ride as we embark on a journey through Layla’s passions, pains and memories taking in new blues, old blues, folk, and hold on tight as she and Jan lead us through twenty songs of yes, fragility and courage. I will only be selecting my personal favourites from this extensive work, but the ones I do not comment on are still very, very good.
The Fragility section opens with She Didn’t Believe and isn’t pure acoustic but behind a vocal of such depth and superb phrasing, Jan uses a semi-acoustic to set up a pattern of delicate picking and strumming that sound like a restrained Hendrix or Trower. Let me now be controversial (again!)…many commentators have compared Layla to Janis Joplin: I think that JJ would have struggled to match the soul-searching and soul-baring layered into this simply beautiful song. I’ll Be Reborn starts with delicious slide and sets the neck hairs twitching, even if the song is so reminiscent of Rollin’ and Tumblin’. The vocal is great and the slide sublime. The Deeper They Bury Me is dedicated to Herman Wallace (one of the Angola Three prisoners who were released after 41 years only to die a matter of days later). The backing is a clever and complex piece of acoustic blues, which to me, sounds as if Robert Johnson had access to a modern recording studio. Layla uses her lyrics to deliver the sad, sad story in the way the blues of the 20s and 30s used to do, but with her trademark crystal-clear diction that lets you hear and enjoy every line….and with lyrics like “the deeper they bury me, the louder my voice becomes” they are worth paying attention to. The Good Life is a classic blues structure with guitar and voice in perfect sync but with a modern edge. I Can’t Imagine My Life Without You is a folk blues of quality. Let Go is a bit different as we get a piano-led piece which starts and ends like that but with a light orchestral section that makes it very different from the rest…still good though. How can I not mention the delightfully titled Rainbow Pacmen and Unicorns? Showing a stroke of genius, Jan uses only a ukulele as the sole accompaniment to Layla’s superb vocal reflecting the innocence of the lyrics.
The Courage section opens with Weakness and a heavy riff and a raw edge to the vocal befitting the blues-rock master class that this is…and, as a man, I will forgive her the line “Men can’t help it honey, they’re just weak” and just relish the almost Sabbath-does-the blues backing. To prove she’s not afraid of addressing some of the world’s distressing problems, Layla takes on the subject of child sex slavery on Dark World. The dark lyrics are wrapped in a great blues-rock riff and, even the uncompromising words (and swear words too), cannot detract from the solid full-band performance and a solo of such invention and skill. Ghost Train evokes Hendrix (Cross-town Traffic) and also slides away into funky guitar and spoken (NOT rapped) lyrics. Bitch With The Red Head is not just a great song title, it is another blues riff that makes me think this is what Free being covered by Priest would sound like (a little like their brilliant cover of Diamond and Rust in feel)…I love it. The title track, Gemini, is funky blues of the kind that Stevie Salas is so good at and the funky lyrics (“I know what the ‘i’ stands for in Gemini and honey it ain’t you”), are backed by slapping bass and great guitar interjections and solos.
The opening riff on Automatic Gun could be Alvin Lee and the vocal is as electric as the guitar. Are You Still Alive Inside is a Peter Green like soulful blues played a slow pace but with such feeling from the whole band and the multi-tracked vocals putting a sumptuous edge to it. This extensive release (all 1 hour 34 minutes of it) is wrapped up by a move to the reggae style of Little Sister that is an upbeat note on which to finish and has a really clever guitar solo in keeping with the style but Jan still soaks it in the blues.
In summary then, here are twenty tracks of a uniform high quality. Sure you get a couple of ‘f’ words and even a reference to the sucking of a male hen (!) but they are all used for emphasis and not just shock value. The acoustic songs are not for just easing back to…there is too much to hear in the playing and the words that you have to actively listen and be rewarded accordingly. The rock section is sheer genius with the blend of styles and superb playing and singing. It works really well as two distinct ‘Fragility’ and ‘Courage’ sections, but is also a treat if you use the shuffle setting and enjoy the range and power across them both. Quite simply there is no downside to this double album, just pure unadulterated enjoyment with a fabulous vocal performance and plenty for the guitar geek in me to relish too…because Jan is a revelation on these two works: be it the deep blues of acoustic slide or the Hendrix nods on the electric, the man is outstanding.
TENdoodle paws out of TEN …
CD One: Acoustic (Fragility)
- She Didn’t Believe
- I’ll Be Reborn Blues
- Turn This Into gold
- The Deeper They Bury Me
- The Good Life
- I Can’t Imagine My Life Without You
- Freedom Flowers
- Let Go
- Rainbow Pacmen and Unicorns
CD Two – Electric (Courage)
- Dark World
- Ghost Train
- Bitch With The Head of Red
- Roses and Lavender
- White Dog
- Automatic Gun
- Are You Still Alive Inside?
- Little Sister
All songs: music by Jan Laacks; lyrics by Layla Zoe
Layla Zoe: vocals
Jan Laacks: guitars, backing vocals, harmonica
No information on the exceedingly good bass, drums and keys players was available – apologies to them.
Recorded in Bonn and produced by Jan Laacks