Alabama 3 – Cold War Classics, Volume 2: Album Review

“Come and get yourself in the party mood before the bomb goes off.” Their words and I can’t better them.

Release Date: 3rd November 2023

Label: Submarine Cat Records

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

If anyone wondered quite how this band might cope with, and correlate, the death of erstwhile co-front man, Jake Black, aka the Very Reverend D. Wayne Love, here is further proof, after 2021’s Step 13, that it is, broadly, business as usual. In truth, it tended more to be in the live shows where Black was mostly in his element, albums arguably more the domain of Rob Spragg, aka Larry Love, and the musical axis of the band. It’s true, there are occasions here where the listener can imagine quite where Black might have delivered his wry and rambling spoken segments, but these are actually few. If Step 13 was his memorial, this is the next step, the brand living on, and, yes, even developing.

Developing? Well, yes, there was always a lot more to Alabama 3 than the cartoon country-techno outcast image, even if that remains their byline. There has always been a deeply melodic backbone running through their Hank Williams on ket/Muddy Waters on meth agit-pop-punk-country-dance-blues, they just didn’t necessarily want to admit it, at least out loud. Such scruples gradually shed over the years, this is perhaps their most tuneful recording thus far, less reliant on mashing up contrasting genres and clever wordplay, although there is still plenty of that and the lyrics remain very clever; acute and acerbic observations on the ways and wiles of the wider world. It also does no harm that, with years of honing their chops, they are now astightasthis musically, the ensemble excellence honed by near-permanent roadplay.

Goodbye Glasnost is a minute and a half of scrambled airwaves capture, to get you into the required mood of disquietude, which acts then as a contrasting amuse-bouche for the ultra smooth opener proper, replete with lush steel, grandiose piano, strings and whistling (whistling!). Before The Ship Came In is possibly the most sumptuous the band has sounded, with Spragg crooning at his rumbliest best. A beauty of a construct, of course the lyrics are far from reassuring and, as the beats kick in, along with the female bvs, immediately the listener is switched on and alert. It really is that good. I just wanted to play it time and time again. Get On This One follows with a chanted mantra, very reminiscent of a more darkened back alley Stereo MCs, ahead of breaking into a very John Kongos-esque vocal sprechgesang, with swirling organ and backbeats. Pure catnip, as Nick Reynolds (Harpo Strangelove) and his unmistakable harmonica howls in, ushering in also a full brass section. Loving it!

Itchy scratchy guitar introduces California Stoned, which again evokes the Kongos sound that A3 has mined so well from day one, if helped through the filter given to the He’s Gonna Step On You Again hitmaker by the Happy Mondays. The full brass section gives a fullness not ever quite so evident before, begging the question whether we can expect this in the live shows. It is also a signpost back to the band’s last but one album, 2016’s Blues, IMHO always unfairly underlooked. The bouche then needs more amusing, before the dystopian 60s pop of The Influencer Blues: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich on horse tranquillisers. (Forgive all these pharma references, suggesting absolutely no familiarity, no, not a bit, of the band therewith.) It works, with subtle and unexpected finesse.

(I Can’t) Keep Calm And Carry On (and, praise be, it is about time someone said that), might be where Black would have found his centrepiece, a blurred daymare of echoes and disembodied speech, before it turns into really quite a knowing diatribe that dissects, amongst other things, the music/drug co-dependency and the decay of society. Far from a skip track, it is compelling; try headphones for greater clarity of the lyrical thrust. If I’d Never Seen The Sunshine you may have already heard, it being the single that gained no small publicity, not least down to the presence of Dominic Chianese, aka Uncle Junior from The Sopranos, on additional vocals, bringing the tale of the A3 journey full circle. Another lavish orchestration, with electric piano and strummed acoustics, an ode to forsaking tequila, and sticking to red wine. After the first verse, it gets more choppy and prone to electrical disturbances. A steel guitar solo gives some added class.

I’m guessing it is a lifted speech from one of the North Korean Kim’s that beckons in North Korea, the first track to suggest a reliance on past glories, an unnecessary throwback that will, nevertheless, play a blinder in the live setting. Good brass again, mind, full-on Stax parping. However, having had that experience, it highlights the the melodic backbone of The Girl With Lampedusa In Her Eyes, another of the new way with tunes the band are playing with. starting with some lifted speech, it is Roxy Music that are summonsed here, the piano and the guitar smacking of the mid 70’s, Stranded, say, or Country Life, there even being fragments of Ferry in Spragg’s delivery. I don’t think I have mentioned much the calibre of the backing vocals, which is remiss, “Sisters” Sheena (Ross) and Ese (Ekorodudu) wonderfully upfront and in your face. I am uncertain if it is the latter who provides the guitar or whether that is Steve Finnerty, aka LOVEPIPE, but it sounds is a perfect time capsule for the ambience offered for this memorably, and cleverly, entitled song.

I am thinking/guessing it may be (the Reverend) Be Atwell who handles the vocals for Thank You, a jerky A3 by numbers shuffle, brass and clavinet giving a slight change of surround, one of a funkier choogle than usual. It isn’t clear to whom the thanks are directed to, but it isn’t difficult to guess: “that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into“. I’d have left the album at that, to be fair, even with the remaining track, a cover of Robert Earl Keen’s The Road Goes On Forever. Much as it is great to hear the song, a favourite in the original iteration, here it sounds too obvious, much, if I am honest, as does their celebrated version of Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness, which, for me, hits a similar faux note. But, there it is, so, in the spirit of saying something nice, the bass of Mark Sams (Rock Freebase) is terrific and gives the song purpose otherwise absent. Plus, I guess, as a mantra, there couldn’t really be a better one, to act as a MO for the band.

Despite my personal gripe about that last track, this is still peak Alabama product, and one that bears frequent return and repeat listens. The overall sound seems altogether more cohesively arranged, this, no doubt, down to the ongoing musical direction of Orlando Harrison, aka The Spirit, whose keyboards hold together the disparate pieces, as does the relentless rhythm and clatter of drummer, Johnny Delafonse/LB Dope. I hope this gives them and gets them a lift out of what may be some over-reliance on their seemingly faithful legion of followers, and renews their aquaintance with those who have maybe consigned them to the pile of ‘are they still going?’ They are. Very much so.

No surprise, they are on tour, any time now:

09 Nov 23 – Northampton Roadmender
10 Nov 23 – Newcastle University
11 Nov 23 – Liverpool O2 Academy
16 Nov 23 – Holmfirth The Picturedome
17 Nov 23 – Glasgow SWG3
18 Nov 23 – Edinburgh La Belle Angel
19 Nov 23 – Leeds Brudenell Social Club
23 Nov 23 – Cambridge Junction
24 Nov 23 – Birmingham O2 Academy 2
25 Nov 23 – Manchester O2 Ritz
30 Nov 23 – Southampton The 1865
01 Dec 23 – Exeter The Phoenix
02 Dec 23 – Cardiff Tramshed
06 Dec 23 – Bournemouth O2 Academy
07 Dec 23 – Brighton Concorde 2
08 Dec 23 – Bristol O2 Academy
09 Dec 23 – London O2 Kentish Town Forum

Catch some advance tasting notes. (Possibly of tequila?)

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