Startlingly confident country soul from the Welsh singer.
Andrew Mueller 2011-04-28
Rees splits the billing on this, his fifth album, with the South Austin Horns, a Texan brass section. The Welsh singer certainly gets his money’s worth from his new collaborators: every track on Heart on Fire is soused liberally in horns, souping up Rees’ gentle songwriterly sensibility into startlingly confident country soul.
Rees’ principal inspiration is obvious enough – the output of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which during the 1960s and 1970s issued a stream of astonishing records melding the white and black musical traditions of the American south with zero ideological fuss and incalculable consequences. While even its creator would surely hesitate to stack up Heart on Fire alongside the best work of The Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart and Percy Sledge, it is a homage as affecting as it is affectionate.
Rees displays an impressive command of the complete lexicon of southern soul, almost comparable with the reach of such American contemporaries as Chris Mills (whose 2005 album, The Wall to Wall Sessions, had a similar framework) and former Drive-By Trucker (and Muscle Shoals native) Jason Isbell. Rees is a fine balladeer (Unstoppable, If Not for You), his essentially sweet voice wracked at the edges in a manner suggestive of Teddy Thompson. He’s also adroit in the higher gears, bringing the requisite swagger to the Creedence-like boogie of Warm by My Fire and the Hammond-drenched torch blues of In the Middle of the Night. He peaks with Raise the Battle Cry, a colossal barstool lament pitched somewhere between determination and delusion.
Heart on Fire is – perhaps inevitably – hobbled slightly by Rees’ studious reluctance to step outside the tracks laid down by his influences. But if he can find a way to bring home some of what he picked up in Texas, greatness is by no means beyond him.