UK Blues Artist of the Year, Elles Bailey, takes a soulful turn.
Release Date: 25th February 2022
Label: Independent Release
Formats: CD / Vinyl / Cassette / Digital
We last heard from Bristol-based singer, songwriter and bandleader Elles Bailey back in December 2020 when we waxed enthusiastically over her lockdown livestream CD, Ain’t Nothing But. Well, life has been anything but dull during the intervening fourteen months or so in Ellesland… First off, Elles became a mother for the first time, and secondly, she spent much of the period of her confinement ensconced in Devon’s Middle Farm Studios recording Shining in the Half Light, her third album of original material. And it’s a delight!
Elles, you may recall, was on something of a roll before COVID raised its ugly, round, spiky head. She’d been named Artist of the Year at the 2020 British Blues Awards and her 2019 album, Road I Call Home, won the Album of the Year Award at the same ceremony. And, if that wasn’t enough, her song, Little Piece Of Heaven, (a track from Road I Call Home) was named UK Song of the Year at the 2020 UK Americana Awards. It was all going sooo well…
And the good news is that, despite (or, just maybe, BECAUSE of) the COVID interruption, Elles has managed to maintain the momentum that she’d managed to acquire in those far-off pre-lockdown days. She once again carried off the Artist of the Year Award at the 2021 British Blues Awards and Ain’t Nothing But received a nomination for Album of the Year and, now, Shining in the Half Light just might be the album that pushes that impressive trajectory over into hyperdrive.
Perhaps best known as a blues-flavoured artist, Elles’s music does, in fact, embrace a range of genres. Of course, her blues roots are ever-present, but there’s always been healthy sprinklings of rock, soul and Americana to add spice to the brew and on Shining In The Half Light, that heady mixture is further enhanced with hefty servings of opulent gospel, courtesy of backing vocalists Jade Elliot and Andrusilla Mosley.
Shining In The Half Light is the first of Elles’s albums to be recorded entirely in the UK and producer Dan Weller has done a magnificent job in capturing the tight sound of the pared-back band selected to deliver the album’s ten songs. Faithful retainer, the awesome Joe Wilkins, is back, with his jaw-dropping guitar licks and he’s aided by Matthew Waer on bass, Johnny Henderson on keyboards and Matthew Jones on drums. Together, they make a wonderfully full, tight sound that provides the perfect counterpoint for Elles’s strong, tuneful, assertive and smokey voice.
And if that voice is the trademark that, perhaps more than anything else, continues to attract new listeners to the work of Elles Bailey, it’s worth sidetracking for a moment to ponder how it came about. As Elles recalls, the voice was actually the ‘silver lining’ of a potentially grave illness when, at just three years old, she contracted viral and bacterial pneumonia and had to breathe through a tube for 17 days. Elles takes up the story: “Only with the real heavy touring did I start to really understand that it’s such a big part of me. I know how fortunate I am that I walked away with a husky voice. And my life!”
The isolation of lockdown had a big influence on the songs that constitute Shining in the Half Light. As Elles explains: “This album has been about getting to know who I am without the show, the stage and the splendour. Unraveling the layers and being OK with them.” To come up with the material, Elles enlisted the services of an impressive roster of co-writers, including long-time partners in crime Ash Tucker and Will Edmunds, favourite guitarist Joe Wilkins, guitar maestro Martin Harley, Noah And The Whale bassist Matt Owens and writers Alex Maile, Tamara Stewart and Brett Boyett. And the range of contributing writers perhaps goes some way to explaining the sheer variety of what’s on offer on Shine in the Half Light.
Current single Cheats And Liars gets the show on the road and it’s a dramatic opener. The song is Elle’s “response to the people sitting quaintly in their ivory towers after showing a lack of regard for those working in the arts.” Elles, not normally a person prone to flinging accusations around, is quick to point out that: “Thirty-eight percent of musicians, including myself, didn’t get any kind of government funding, and some people have lost everything. It’s been so hard watching how arts has been undervalued at a time when that was what was bringing people together.” And that anger and frustration comes over loudly and clearly in Cheats And Liars, particularly in the “Turn, Turn, Turn / Burn, Burn, Burn” refrain of the song’s chorus, whilst a thunderous drumbeat and ominous, smouldering guitar add to drama.
Elles’s voice has frequently drawn comparisons with Janis Joplin, Maggie Bell and Kim Carnes, and it’s the Maggie Bell incarnation that comes to the fore in The Game, a sizzling, gritty rocker with a great guitar lick and a crisp, confident drumbeat, underpinned by some wonderful swirling organ and flavoured with the first taste of those gospel harmonies. The gospel harmonies continue into Stones, a slower, but no less forthright song in which Elles and Joe Wilkins seem to be urging each other on to ever greater heights of passion.
A deep, solid, resonant bassline provides the driving force for Colours Start to Run, a piece of gospel-tinged soul that could, quite conceivably, have come straight out of the Memphis home of Stax Records – and Joe’s guitar is, once again, superb. Things are softened up considerably for the soft, tender Different Kind Of Love, a song on which Elles demonstrates quite how melodic she can be, whilst the guitar, bass and drums cook slowly in the background.
The heat is turned up slightly for the soulful Who’s That, before we return to full-on rock with the churning, chugging Sunshine City, a song that Elles-watchers may have already picked up on via the 2021 eponymous EP release. The band are firing on all cylinders and Joe turns in an incredible slide guitar solo, whilst Elles delivers a vocal that manages to combine passion with admirable restraint.
The excellent Halfway House starts life as a contemplative acoustic song before transforming into what is perhaps the most vividly gospel number on the album, as organ, electric slide guitar and, once more, those terrific backing vocals move slowly into the spotlight. If Colours Start To Run gave us a hint of Stax soul, then the magnificent Riding Out The Storm goes the whole hog. With some wonderful organ fills and Joe’s Steve Cropper-like crisp, choppy guitar, the band come across like a transplanted version of The MGs. The whole thing is topped off by Elles’s vocal, for which she goes the whole Dusty. The backing vocals are, once again, divine, and I love the short, sneering, laugh that Elles manages just before the song goes into its coda.
This excellent album is brought to a close with the broody, dark title track. A spacy opening, ponderous bass, shimmering cymbals and moaning guitar set a scene that recalls the voodoo explorations of Dr. John’s Gris Gris as the song builds and builds to reach a breathtaking climax. Shining in the Half Light is, indeed, an excellent album, and Elles Bailey is a remarkable talent. Definitely one to watch!
Elles Bailey will be on the road promoting ShiningIn The Half Light during February and March, with several of the shows taking place in record stores up and down the country. Full details of the tour can be found here. If Elles is visiting YOUR town, I heartily recommend that you pop along.
Watch the Official Video to Cheats and Liars – the current single from the album – here: