I’ve made this statement somewhere before but it won’t hurt to make it again here, so excuse the self plagiarism if you will. Some of us spend most, if not all, of our spare time searching out great music both old and new. Wading through old racks of vinyl at record fairs, listening to (mostly) unsolicited promotional discs and sitting in far flung pubs and clubs quite often being totally underwhelmed. Then every so often something sneaks up and finds us totally out of the blue and that makes it all worthwhile. The Cohen Brothers are a perfect example of that to me.
Sometime last year I commented on a blog lauding the talents of Jess Roden, who just happens to be one of the most under rated singers Britain has ever produced, but thats for another review. That blog put me in touch with a number of Roden fans one of which was Julian Crook keyboard player and vocalist with The Cohen Brothers who told me his band did a pretty decent version of the Roden track ‘Me and Crystal Eye’. An open invitation to see the band was issued but unfortunately our paths never crossed until finally I was able to make the official launch party for this, their second album “This Is Life”. So, grabbing a couple of traveling companions we took our life in our hands and trusted the British railway service to get us to the far flung depths of Herefordshire on a Sunday morning. Now I have to be honest here and say I wasn’t feeling on top form as I’d been on another adventure the night before and hadn’t got home until nearly five in the morning and if I hadn’t been rung up by one of those companions to check when we were meeting I’d probably have turned over and gone back to sleep. All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t because unbeknown to me I was in for one hell of a treat.
Inspired by the likes of Traffic, Blind Faith, Jess Roden, Santana, Little Feat and Jimi Hendrix to name but a few The Cohen Brothers play a totally unique blend of rock, blues, funk, jazz and soul. The combined talents of Julian Crook on keyboards and vocals, Sean Griffin on guitars and harmonica, Dave Smaylen on drums, Brian Richards on bass and Pete Cottom on electric percussion with the added bonus of special guest Abby Brant on vocals soon had the intimate surroundings of the sixteenth century inn The Prince of Wales in Ledbury totally rocking. It has been a long time since I’ve seen an entire audience completely enthralled by a band. To say the atmosphere was upbeat would be a gross understatement. So I knew they could play live but we all know transfering that feeling to tape is no certainty so what of the album.
“This Is Life” was recorded at Woodbine Street Studios in Leamington Spa under the guidance of producer John Rivers, bizarrely less than a dozen miles from my house, and features eight original compositions and two covers. Opening track ‘Ancient Stones’ has a great start with its swirling keyboard sound and some lovely guitar before the band kicks in and then Abby Brant’s timeless “whoah whoah” launches the song into full swing. The first thing that you notice is Crook’s similarity to Steve Winwood. Not surprising given that Winwood is one of his influences and they come from the same part of the country. Vocally, although Crook takes the lead, it is an understatement to refer to Brant as a backing vocalist. Her parts are integral to the success of the song. The way she repeats the lines in a ‘congregation to the preacher’ type echo give it an extra something it wouldn’t have if it was sung by Crook alone. The second thing that hits you is the infectious melody and tune. The bouncy keyboard sound is in the same vein as Zeppelin’s Trampled Underfoot and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, driving the song along with the help of the excellent rhythm section. Of course the other benefit of this is that it allows Griffin plenty of room to play some pretty mean guitar. He doesn’t miss the opportunity either with a great main solo which is surprisingly fast as well as a few understated ones here and there. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that had this track been recorded by Winwood or Clapton it would be a radio regular.
The title track is second up and although it takes a few more listens than the first track to get into it is well worth the effort. Far jazzier than the opener Crook has a great crooner inflection in his delivery here and at times veers into Burton Cummings or even Michael Buble territory vocally. The song has a far more polished American feel to it than the opener but also has a nice funky riff and Griffin throws in a classic jazz rock solo which the likes of Allan Holdsworth and co would happily put their name to.
‘Cool Wind’ is another funky jazz number, this time with a looser seventies type jam feel. Listen carefully and there is a hell of a lot going on in there under the great melody and vocal harmony of Crook and Brant. The instrumental part of the song is real jazz rock prog fusion. Again Griffin throws in some great solo work. One of the things I like about his approach is that he doesn’t seem to mind other things going on whilst he’s soloing. There is no prima donna guitar hero going on here despite the fact that he’s probably the best ‘undiscovered’ guitarist I’ve heard in a long time. The fact that Brant sings along with his final solo shows he is more about the song than individual glory.
The really funky and infectious ‘Memphis Without Elvis’ is up next and is surely one of the albums highlights. Lyrically it tells the tale of the unfounded rumour that Elvis impersonators were to be banned by his estate. Musically the clavinet sound brings back recent memories of the opening track with the way it bounces along. It is classic funk rock at its best and again Griffin delivers a great solo. This time though with more of a rock and blues feel. I defy anyone to hear this track and not be bobbing along to it like a nodding dog before the end.
The first of the two covers on the album is ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ originally recorded by Blind Faith. Unsurprisingly Crook’s Winwood influence is very much to the fore again here and vocally and arrangement wise it is pretty true to the original. Yet again Griffin’s guitar work is second to none and I’m including the original in that. The song has been part of their live set and a crowd favourite for some time and it is quite clear that they enjoy playing it. Crook’s laugh as the track ends says to me “I enjoyed that”. Covers so true to the original don’t always work for me but this is most definately an exception. To put it bluntly they totally nailed it and it is a great band performance.
The lengthy ‘Time and Time Again’ follows and whilst it may suffer from following such a great performance of a classic song it veers just a little too much into the Joyce Cooling world of smooth jazz for me in places. Abby Brant returns on the vocal harmony after missing out on the previous two tracks but although it is sung perfectly I just find it a little dreary and uninspiring vocally and melody wise. Musically though it is pretty intricate and played superbly. If you are a fan of intricate improvisational jazz rock you’ll love it.
The second cover is next up and is Robin Trower’s ‘Caledonia’. When it comes to covers they certainly don’t believe in giving guitarist Griffin an easy time. After out claptoning Clapton you might think he’d done enough but instead he gets thrown a Trower solo to emulate. But he quite simply does more than that. This song is all about the guitar and Griffin delivers a blistering solo that any of his guitar heroes, as well as at least half a dozen out and out world class rock guitarists I can think of, would gladly put their name to.
‘Barefoot’ doesn’t start off too promisingly with another smooth jazz intro but quickly turns into something far more palatable as the song progresses. As on the title track I can hear traces of Burton Cummings in the vocal from Crook and once again Brant’s vocal contributions are paramount to the success of the song. The laid back latin and almost calypso under current to the sound also lifts the song out of the ordinary. A nice jazz solo from Griffin does the track no harm either.
For me though the highlight of the album is the absolutely gorgeous ‘Do It Right’. Crook delivers his best vocal and actually sounds as though he is singing through a smile. The way his voice works in harmony with Brant’s is total perfection. The melody is sublime and the way the song slows temporarily at the midway point is pure compositional genius. The lyric is also worth noting for its quality, ‘sun beats down from a cobalt sky ninety seven three could never get me that high’ being a particularly pleasing couplet. I would guess this is in reference to a certain radio station but I could be wrong. Add to that a Beatlesque ‘na na na na na’ singalong section towards the end that leads into a great slide guitar solo Micky Moody would be proud of and a bit of funky blues harmonica to fade and you have got an absolute classic which is worth the price of admission alone.
‘Stars’ takes the mood down to the melancholy and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on has a real Eric Clapton feel about it to me, not necessarily just in guitar style but in arrangement and over all feel. Again the harmonising between Brant and Crook is perfect. Brant is not a full time member of the band but her contributions lift this album head and shoulders above the first one and I hope they manage to keep her on board for the third album.
The album ends with a bit of a puzzler. A second ‘slower version’ of the opening track ‘Ancient Stones’. Now I’m not normally a fan of this two versions of the same song on one album malarkey. Even Paul Rodgers the greatest rock singer the world has ever seen was questioned by yours truly for doing it on his Muddy Water Blues album … and I lived to tell the tale, but that as they say is another story. Initially I wasn’t too keen on the idea here either. Always smacks of indecision to me. One version has to be better so why put inferior material on your album. On the first dozen or so listens I felt the slow version was considerably inferior to the fast version. Then the extended intro, the extra little bits of guitar, the slower groove and the differences to Brant’s vocal started to leap out at me. Crook’s vocal is the most immediate difference apart from the pace as Steve Winwood has been replaced by a mixture of Elmer Gantry (see Why Did You Do It by Stretch) and the Wolfman (see Clap For The Wolfman by The Guess Who). After a few runs through it actually becomes a nice way to end the album. It is also a cunning piece of planning as after hearing it you want to hear the fast one again so end up playing the whole album again ! In my opinion though the fast version is still the better one and hopefully that will be the one they play live.
The Cohen Brothers are unlike any other band on the scene at the moment with their unique blend of styles and “This Is Life” is a superb album that I would recommend to anyone without hesitation. ‘Ancient Stones’, ‘Memphis Without Elvis’, ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ and the wonderfully delightful ‘Do It Right’ are the standout tracks for me but throughout the album the performance from all involved is of the highest quality. If you are a lover of quality music played by quality musicians track this album down and savour it. If you are a fan of live music and enjoy a feel good rocking night with a bunch of musicians who are playing with a smile on their faces and doing it because they love it then get out and catch a gig. Trust me whichever you do you won’t be disappointed. If I were you I’d do both. I’ll be the bloke in the silly shirt near the bar and I’ll see you there.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM June 2011