Cera Impala – Wildest Dreams: Album Review

Attractive acoustic smoke’n’honey bluesy hues; a bluesy ragtime wallow from the Forth delta.

Release date: 18th November 2022

Label: self-released (via website)

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Cera who? Fifth record? Sometimes a press release can leave the feeling of being so far out the loop as to give in altogether, but, then again, never is it too late to add a new talent to the table, is it? And this woman can safely be considered talent, even without the support of celebrated friends like Karine Polwart and James McIntosh, the fine percussionist on many a Scots recording. Sure, their credentials help, and when McIntosh says “The wide prairies of Edinburgh never sounded so good,” you sort of sit up and notice.

As you may surmise, Impala is not a local lassie, hailing originally from Arizona. Now, transplanted here, by way of any number of interim stopovers, she brings a bright bold blast of midwest moods to bear, with her voice a husky hand me down, via soulful blues divas and jazzy songstrels, with enough country-folk timbres to shiver the marrow. She can sing. And she plays a mean banjo as accompaniment, not as a florid bluegrass sprint, more a languid and graceful textural colouring. She is joined here by Ben Seal, who also produces, on percussion and keys, not bad going for someone whose last mention here was as Eliza Carthy’s bassist! (Dr) Dirk Ronneburg supplies fiddle and ‘Jello’ Sanderson, together known as the New Prohibition, her band, provides the big strings: cello, double bass and a hybrid of the two he built himself. As you do.

Gypsy Babe opens the album both intriguingly and enticingly. A hickory smoked vocal floats over a slow finger-picked banjo, with handclap percussion, the build as the other musician come in quite masterfully. Gypsy babes may be a bit of a male fantasy, but, I have to admit, she nails it. Feather Boa then steps back into a sepia photogravure, yet with moodily prescient vocals, with shimmers of synth and, then, layered treated piano. The mood is pure steampunk, and foreboding. Winning Ticket is the closest to conventional contemporary stylings, echoes of Neil Young/Love Is A Rose bubbling through. “I’ve got the moon in my pocket” is a great image and one I can identify with.

Soil And Spade sticks to a similar territory, a yearning call to the land. I am suddenly minded who her voice recalls, a slightly less abrasive Cerys Matthews. This is a lovely song, sung well. Mighty Infinite adds a touch of ragtime blues to her idiom, a delicate sway perfusing the lyric, which, when the rhythm section dawdle in with a N’Awlins feel, it is another highlight, the barroom piano a joy. I’ll swear I can hear some boozy brass, but it may all be string driven. Plus, if you weren’t already bowled over, the piano part is by her son, Harlen, then aged but 12.. Slippery Slope follows in a similar vein, a wee hours musing on life and getting older, and if Norah Jones is now being invoked, well, that’s no bad thing, if a little frayed about the edges. An image that endures.

Molly’s Theme, an instrumental interlude, breaks that mood, a piano-led ragtime march, reeking of mint juleps and deep south paddle steamers. (Or maybe, given her current home, the PS Waverley?) When the singing again starts, it is for Sweet Sue, a stark song about suicide, if clothed in a deceptively faux-jaunty style, rendering the lyric that much darker. The song is itself a reprise, having first appeared on her 2011 album, Higher Place, proving always a live favourite. Ronneburg plays an exhilarating fiddle on both versions, this one just tipping the balance as the better. Just. Catfish Friend is where Sanderson gets to showcase his homemade hybrid, the contrast between Impala’s late night croon and the lugubrious bowing especially effective, a foil to the bittersweetness of mood.

The penultimate track of this feelgood wallow of a disc is called Nothing, and draws you right in, claptrap percussion over a gentle melody, the lyrics, I think, a warning about the demon drink. Having started to tap your toes and nod your head, that realisation hits and suddenly it isn’t all so jolly after all. Closer, Imagination plays further with that thought, and is a wistful near lullaby, addressed to someone larger than life. The instrumentation leaves a sense of solemnity, which, on further soaks, fits into this happy/sad celebration/lament of a record. Which is quite an accomplishment.

I see from her website that she performs near weekly, Fridays, at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar, as the host of the Half Moon Medicine Showcase. It reads as quite a night, and can vary somewhat from week to week, depending on the mood and who’s who of who can be present.

Finally, here’s a song, the earlier version of Sweet Sue. And remember, as she herself says: “The banjo is the Swiss army knife of the dark side…….”

Cera Impala online: website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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