Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Vail Johnson - A Groovy Flow

Album Review
Vail Johnson - Flow
Genre - Funk

Vail Johnson’s latest album, simply entitled “Flow”, lives up to that very image: a smooth movement from one place to another. Flow is a ten-track experience that is edgy, without falling off the cliff of over-production or over-performance. Vail plays three different types of basses on the album: a 4-string P-Bass, 5-string P, and a Kubicki X-Factor, as seen on the cover. Johnson also plays drums, and some keyboards, too. Joining him on guitar is Chris Nix, and providing extra keyboards (including some extremely delicious Rhodes piano) are Hans Z and Michael B. Hicks.

In a word, this album is groovy. That’s the key to this entire collection. Real groovy, man. At its core is an real Funk vibe, but I hear other things in there as well; Soul, and maybe even a hint of Reggae in places.

Let’s take a look at the tuneage on the album.

“Southern Spring”, the opener, slides in with an opening bass lick, and then spreads out wide into a melodic ear-catcher. It’s laid back, with some nice keyboard touches. Lots of intricate bass fingering; real staccato thumps you can feel in your bass-lovin’ heart! It’s a good opening song - not too revealing, but very tasty.

The second tune - appropriately titled - is “Funk Hard”. It's an intense little smoker that manages to retain a certain civility, so you don’t have to get up and sweat it out on the dance floor if you'd rather just kick back and relax. The keyboards come in with tasty little blats that always do Funk a lot of justice. There are also some great effects and shots in the middle.

Next up is “Cerulean”. One of the things I love about instrumental albums (and I’m sure I've said this before) is the freedom to let the listener go where he or she wants. Personal experiences are always a part of music, but it really shines through on songs without lyrics. Lyrics tell you a story, and you feel that story based on your own life. Instrumentals are a background on canvas, and you’re free to paint yourself into the picture, even if you have no experience. “Cerulean” is such a canvas. It’s a shade of blue. Knowing that, when I prepped up to start the song, I decided I was going to experience “blue-ness”. Oceans, skies, moods... no technology, cell phones, computers, social media. Just me and my blue. I think I was even laying in a hammock for this one - in my mind of course; it’s nasty and wintery outside! It was like a bath in blue. Thanks for this one, Vail. I really enjoyed it.

Next is “Midnight” and once again, I think of how the title will stream me into the meaning. If “Cerulean” is all about the feeling of blue, “Midnight” is all about the unknown of darkness. It’s a more dangerous kind of Funk. It features a very chugging-along kind of bass that lures you out of your comfort zone, but with a seductive come hither you can’t resist. You know you’re going inside. Lots of ethereal Rhodes passages, the perfect accent for this one. If this song had lyrics, they’d have to be sung by - oh, let’s see - someone like Robbie Robertson.

“Once and for All” is a bass lover’s dream, with slaps, harmonies, rolling thunder, and amazing finger-work. All instruments play well together. No heroics, every sound driving for the same prize. This one didn't draw out any particular “mental images” - it’s just a beastly good bass tune.

The title track is up next. A moody, gentle thing, just flowing where it flows. No demands. No expectations. “Flow” has an almost Latin Feel to it. It’s like a moment you take for yourself; just look up, close your eyes, let the sun warm you, and go with the flow.
Okay! Break’s over! The next song - seventh on the album - is “Mechanic”. Impressive bass, rolling rhythms, and that “groovy” feel of the Rhodes. There’s a part in the middle of this one that reminded me of Bill Withers’ Use Me. Just a passing hint, but it caused my ear to prick up. I smiled.

“One Man in Paris” starts out with a bassline that moves continuously through the entire song. It gives it a real international feel. Parts of the middle of the tune really brought up a kind of Doors vibe - that layered rhythm that drives the tune. Imagine Riders On The Storm, but in Paris instead of the deserts of California.

The ninth number is called “New Kind of Blue”. It’s slower, more soulful, with some tasty bass work. Nice guitar, too. Not Cerulean - this one is more in the mood of being in a dimly lit club, where everybody listens to the band. Too good to talk over.

Finally, the album ends with something to shake up the entire mood. It’s a funked up version of “Amazing Grace”. I love it when different bands do this one up in different ways. You get to hear what it means to them. How does Vail Johnson want us to share in his trip as he speaks to God? He seems to be saying, “I pray with a tappin’ foot and a big ol’ bass guitar. Sometimes I boom, sometimes I shake, and sometimes I just roll along.

There’s a lot of emotion on this album. It opens doors, leads you along passages of bass seduction, and never tells you what you’ll find when you look inside.

When I listen to an album with the intention of reviewing it, I first have to find whether the tunes move me as MUSIC or STORIES. Is it about the deep-in-my-soul need for heart pumping rhythms and beats, or is it something that’s all about telling me a story?

Vail Johnson just did both. He got my heart a'thumpin' with some serious bass work, and he also told me a story. The story was all about how music moves HIS soul. And the answer is: it flows.

© 2014 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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