Steamchicken – Look Both Ways
Chicken Records – 2017
Look Both Ways is a bright and breezy offering from long-standing band Steamchicken. I’d seen their name on lineups around my Warwickshire hometown, but hadn’t listened to their work before – it turns out I’ve been missing a real treat. With ‘Look Both Ways’, Steamchicken prove their knowledge of both folk and jazz, polishing traditional gems into sparkling arrangements, and adding successful original compositions to create an eminently hummable album.
A catchy brass hook and a lively drumbeat open the album on Jericho which complements the rich, strong vocals from singer Amy Kakoura. Her diction is excellent, and you can hear every word, even over the high-powered instrumentation. As an upbeat version of the classic spiritual, it’s a sunny, jazzy hit which heightens expectations for the album.
Brigg Fair provides a change in pace, moving into smoother jazz territory with some interesting opening chords from the horns before the vocals begin. Amy’s sultry tone works well with the traditional subject matter of a lover’s promise (‘For the green leaves they will wither, the roots they shall decay/Before that I prove false to her, the lass that loves me well’). The saxophone gets a moment to shine, taking advantage of the clever instrumentation along with Andrew Sharpe on keys and Joe Crum on drums. There’s a keen musical ear behind Steamchicken as evidenced throughout on the arrangement of tracks which are interesting without feeling busy.
When I Get Low I Get High is a 1930s track that is perhaps best known from a recording by a young Ella Fitzgerald. Here it’s given an update that verges on electro-swing, backed by bouncing piano, lavish use of brass, and some highly effective touches from the harmonica player Ted Crum. Once again, Amy’s vocal talents are in full evidence, and the instrumentalists also show their skills in a fun and skilled bridge section, which brings in Becky Eden-Green on clarinet for a nod to klezmer style. It’s a guaranteed earworm of a track, and the unwary listener will be humming it for days.
Steamchicken demonstrate their talent for storytelling on Western Approaches, an original composition that opens to waves and creaking timbers. I expected a quiet change of pace from previous tracks, but it’s not long before the rhythm section arrives to give this tale of a storm-tossed vessel some added drive. For the first couple of verses, the instrumentation largely contents itself with creating a sound picture to complement the expressive lyrics. However, the tempo shifts upwards unexpectedly for the second chorus, moving from a waltz rhythm to incorporate big-band style stabs from the horn section- a brave yet stylistic move that works well.
Gypsy marks a return to the smooth-jazz territory and is a fantastic and imaginative re-telling of ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ from the point of view of the runaway lady. Sultry and dark, it has an interesting texture, and synth, trumpet and drums do a stellar job of adding to the atmosphere provided by the wonderfully chilling lyrics (‘bare are my feet now, cold on the window ledge/freedom is coming, one step beyond the edge’). Amy’s soaring high notes are particularly impressive, which complement her alto richness of tone and expressive torch ballad style.
Oh Mary is the second spiritual standard on the album and has previously been recorded by a range of artists including Pete Seeger, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. Here it’s lifted with a hit of reggae rhythm which is even more electrifying served after ‘Gypsy’. Guaranteed to make an audience move, it dials up the feel-good factor in four minutes of horn-infused style.
Big Tin Horn seems to be another original, a nod to electro-swing with a 1930s feel. Whilst lacking the lustre of previous tracks, there is some clever interweaving of a folk tune from the harmonica and sax. It’s chirpy, but it doesn’t reach the standard of what else is on offer.
Crisp horns and harmonica begin Foot Falling, a tale of a rebel goddess with attitude. The lyrics are clever (“Atalanta smoked a pack of Marlborough’s and downed a double gin/she was a high-born princess, but she knew she didn’t fit in”). While subversion of a traditional tale is not uncommon, it takes some bravery to look to Greek mythology for inspiration. Steamchicken carry it off in style, particularly on the humorous nod to the demands of Atalanta’s mother for a son-in-law. It transpires that the virgin huntress Atalanta agrees to marry anyone who can keep up with her in a race, and the track hooks and rushes you along at a pace in the jazzy and entertaining style that Steamchicken do so well.
Mary and the Soldier marks the album finale and there’s no deviation from their already proven successful formula. Using a traditional lyric, it adds layers of brass and piano to great melodic effect. There’s even a melodeon interlude from Matt Crum between verses as a nod to the folk tradition. The rhythm is carried off with Steamchicken’s characteristic panache, and the whole thing is so infectious that it demands a second play immediately.
Steamchicken are a band with attitude, and ‘Look Both Ways’ is a great example of their energy and style. Several of the tracks made their way onto my personal playlist before they had even finished, and the whole album positively fizzes with technical ability and joy. It’s the perfect thing to listen for a sunny afternoon, and I’m only sorry I hadn’t given them the time they deserved previously. I’m now looking forward to finding a live gig near me for what’s sure to be a great party!
Look Both Ways is Out Now