“Life of Riley” is the debut album from the curiously monikered Mumbo-Jumbo, a three piece blues outfit based in the midlands of England. Although to describe them merely as a blues band is to do them considerable dis-service. There are elements of jazz, gospel, swing, rock and even a smattering of fifties sounding rock and roll on offer here. The album has a really good ‘old time’ feel to it with its great use of horns, piano and good harmonising in the vocal department. So if the mention of blues brings to mind downbeat melancholy and suffering then get all those ideas straight out of your head. This is probably the most upbeat album carrying the blues sticker that has wended its way to Leedham Towers in many a long year. Even the sadder songs leave a smile in the wake of the tears.
Mumbo-Jumbo consists of Abby Brant on vocals, piano and organ, Oliver Carpenter on vocals, horns and trumpet, and Chris Lomas on vocals, guitars and bass. All of whom are well known figures on the blues circuit and are well respected by fellow musicians and fans alike, such is their experience and talent. An impressive cast of guests fills out the sound as and when necessary; most notably Tony Bayliss who plays all the drums and percussion but is not credited as a full time member of the band.
“Life of Riley” kicks of with ‘The Rocket Song’, one of only two tracks on the album not penned by one of the band members but it certainly sets the scene perfectly for what is to follow. A great boogie woogie piano intro leads into a fun track which bounces along at a nifty pace. With its horns and ‘smiling’ vocal it would lift the lowest of spirits and dare I say is the sort of track that would have garnered many a radio play in times past. I defy anyone not to be smiling and tapping their foot by the time it is over. A great opener I should imagine it works well in a live setting too.
Second track ‘Party On’ has a much more straighforward blues feel to it with its standard riff but features a husky growling vocal and some good soloing which lifts it out of the ordinary without setting the world on fire.
‘I Hope The Blues Will Take Me Back’ on the other hand lifts the bar back to that of the opener with some nice harmony in the vocal and a shuffling drum beat behind some great guitar picking. A tasteful jazzy keyboard solo is the icing on the cake in what is another good fun upbeat track.
‘Ask Myself’ is the first track to feature an Abby Brant lead vocal and takes you straight into a smokey underground downtown jazz joint with its feel and mood. Penned by Brant it highlights her exceptional range and technique but also features a tremendous trumpet solo from Carpenter. The guitar in the middle of the song is vaguely reminiscent of Deep Purple’s ‘Wring That Neck’.
‘Coming Home’ is a great vehicle for the whole band and has some pleasurable gospel undertones, particularly in the closing part of the song. The voices of Brant and Carpenter work particularly well together and the addition of guest Beth Naylor on backing vocals gives it a real gospel feel. It is easy to picture a wooden church in the deep south with the congregation singing and swaying in harmony.
‘In My Defence’ on the other hand is pure twenties jazz/swing and conjures thoughts of Bertie Wooster and a roomful of hooray Henry’s and double barrelled debutantes. Brants vocal is delivered at a hundred miles an hour and how she manages to get the lyric out without mishap is more than impressive. Again the boogie woogie piano and trumpet are to the fore in a good fun song. The journey is not over yet though as suddenly things go all calypso for ‘Nice Work’ which is not unlike Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ melody wise ….. at least to these ears.
The strangely titled ’15/12/71′ starts with a mournful trumpet intro before Brant starts singing what is probably one of the best melodies on the album. I can think of many a mainstream female recording artist who would gladly include this on one of her albums and it is the closest to a straight up MOR pop song on the album.
‘You Mean Everything To Me’ sees Brant and Carpenter sharing the vocal again. This time with Carpenter more to the fore delivering his Elmer Gantry like husky growl whilst Brant sings along in his voiceprint to great effect. The mid paced shuffle of the backing drives the song along nicely and the organ is a classy touch.
The albums quirkiest track is undoubtedly ‘Bald Spot’. A song which to begin with sounds as though it is going to be nothing more than mildly comedic filler blossoms into a great bit of fifties swingtime jazz blues. The pictures in my mind are all fifties american black and white TV adverts with impossibly huge smiles packed full of whiter than teeth, wholesome looking women in full skirts and sleek looking men in high and wide trousers. The guitar solo is pure rock and roll and it ends up being a song that it is impossible not to enjoy. Even if like me you could be the character in the lyric !
‘You’re Gonna Regret It’ launches straight into the vocal and is another mid to fast paced track that is pleasant enough. It is the shortest track on the album and whilst it in no way detracts from the album it is one of the lesser tracks on offer here.
The only out and out cover on the album is ‘The Letter’ which most people will recognise as a Joe Cocker track although it was originally recorded by The Box Tops. This version is obviously closer to the Cocker version than the original given Carpenter’s husky vocal style which is not unlike that of Cocker on this particular track. The trumpet though gives it its own feel and the tasteful guitar solo midway is also particularly enjoyable as is the frenzied jam to fade.
The final track on the album ‘The Moment’ is probably the most downbeat track. It has a very melancholy and morose feel and Carpenter’s vocal is more than heartfelt. It provides a nice classy ending to a fine debut album.
In conclusion then Mumbo-Jumbo are obviously three very talented musicians and composers and in “Life of Riley” they have put together a mighty fine debut album which will bear repeated listenings, and I would suggest will probably get better with those listenings. It is certainly a feel good album and leaves a smile much more than a frown. But maybe that is not surprising given the talent and experience of its creators. Whether it should be pigeon holed as a blues album is for personal opinion. For me this is far more than just another blues album and I would easily recommend it to lovers of jazz, swing and music of a bygone age. There really is something for everyone on here ….. and I am not talking mumbo jumbo ….. for a change.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM February 2012