By: Will Pinfold
Christopher Bell | website | facebook | bandcamp |
Released on September 8, 2015 via Silent Home Records
The cello may not be an obvious instrument with which to cover the dirty blues of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’, but then Christopher Bell’s cello, distorted and dirty-sounding itself; surrounded by a clamour of percussion and harmonica, isn’t the smooth, melancholy sound usually associated with the instrument. Actually, the fact that Bell is a cellist is almost beside the point; although he is an unorthodox player by classical standards, Rust is an album of relatively conventional – if inventive – songs rather than of genre-defying sound experiments.
‘Smokestack Lightning’ isn’t the strongest track to open with (the music is enjoyably coarse-textured, but Bell’s light, likeable voice falls significantly short of the elemental power of Howlin’ Wolf’s original) but it does establish a tone and range of sounds which define the album as a whole. It’s a very post-Swordfishtrombones melange of ramshackle woozy ballads, bluesy waltzes and weary shuffles, where the cello is joined by clunky percussion, upright bass, strings, accordions and a whole panoply of Tom Wairtsian rattling, plinking and twanging.
As a collection of songs, the problem (not that it is a problem exactly) with Rust is that very pervasive Tom Waits influence; as ‘Smokestack Lightning’ establishes, Bell, while a very able singer, has an essentially light-toned voice that, for all its expressive qualities, is a very different beast from the grizzled roar of Waits or Wolf and which sits less easily amidst its quirky surroundings. For that reason, the most Waits-like songs tend to be the least convincing; in its sound, feel (oddly clunky blues/roots-meets-Morricone) and instrumentation ‘Sea of Women’ feels like a Rain Dogs outtake, but the very different character Bell brings to the song with his vocal undermines the archaic feel where Tom Waits’ melodramatic tone enhances it. That said, it’s a heady, rich sound and the very fact that his voice isn’t a throat-ripping bellow will make it accessible in ways that Waits, despite all his acclaim, is not.
Still, although the New Orleans funeral march-meets-‘Rain Dogs’ swagger of ‘Darlin’ I Am Fine’ is irresistible, it’s songs like the lovely waltz-time ballad ‘Path Back Home’, which has a folksy feel that is more I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning than it is Frank’s Wild Years, that impress the most. Similarly, the stoic, non-melodramatic shuffle of ‘Weather The Storm’ and the closing ‘I Can’t Hear’ with its eastern, Carnatic-influenced drone reveal a character that is every bit as distinctive as the more derivative material and all the more likeable for being less familiar.
Taken as a whole and stripped of comparisons, Rust is a definitely a strong album; although pretty varied (there’s even a bit of angular funk in ‘Lost in the Rush’) it is united by the rich, almost tangible texture that’s somehow encapsulated in its title. It says much for Bell’s skill and vision as a musician and songwriter that Rust is not used as a showcase for his virtuosity as a cellist, despite the fact that the cello – dirty, clean, bluesy, guitar-like, melismatic – is an integral and extraordinary part of the album’s vibrant organic feel. It’s a shame to point out that his vocals – hardly a weak point, especially in the best songs – should detract a little from the power of the album, but it’s fair to say that when the promotional materials say ‘recommended if you like Tom Waits’ they aren’t really doing Bell any favours.