Cast Iron Recordings – CIRCD 025
12 songs – 56 minutes
Stone Cold Sober is John Cee Stannard & Blue Horizon’s third release, following The Doob Doo Album (positively reviewed in the 15 January 2014 Blues Blast issue) and Bus Depot Blues (also well received by Blues Blast in the 21 December 2014 issue). The new album however is perhaps the most impressive of the lot.
Recorded at Whitehouse Studios in Berkshire, England, Stone Cold Sober mines musical and lyrical seams similar to those visited previously by Stannard. So expect well-written songs heavily influenced by pre-war acoustic uptown blues, expertly played and sung, with a wide range of guest musicians to add spice to the basic gumbo laid down by Stannard’s resonator guitars and banjo, Mike Baker’s acoustic and electric guitars and Howard Birchmore’s harmonica. Guest musicians include Andy Crowdy on double bass, Julian Brown on drums, Simon Mayor on violin and mandolin, Matt Empson on piano, Roger Cotton on Hammond organ and Nicole Johnson on backing vocals. Mayor’s violin in particular adds delightful textures to three tracks: “This Rag Of Mine”, “So Long” and “The Story”.
Stannard wrote 11 of the tracks on the album, with the sole cover being a reworking of Blind Blake’s “Lead Hearted Blues”. Each song tells a specific story with Stannard assuming a variety of narrative personae to great effect. Displaying a particularly British sense of humor, Stannard’s lyrics often subtly subvert the expected lyrical tradition, for example on hilariously driven title track: “I’m stone cold sober when I get to my job. I’m stone cold sober when I get up. But on my home, I’ll have a bottle or two. I’d rather be out of my mind, than stone cold sober with you. You’re one in a million. You’re one of a kind. But you’re driving me out of my mind. And the way that you treat me, what else can I do? I’d rather be drunk as a skunk, than stone cold sober with you.” In every song he sings, however, Stannard retains sufficient emotional vulnerability to create an undercurrent of pain even when his narrator appears to be confident and in control.
He is not afraid to address current sociopolitical issues such as on the bleak, powerful strut of “Poverty Blues”, which was inspired by a BBC documentary about Americans who had lost their jobs and houses in the recession and found themselves living in tent cities in places like Detroit. Johnson’s superb backing vocals are a highlight here.
The vast majority of the songs however are upbeat and joyful, from “Rum Ol’ Do” – sounding like something Blind Blake might record if he were around today (and nodding warmly towards Blake’s great “Doo Wah Diddy” as Stannard sings “It was late at night, the lights were low. Another man’s wife? How was I to know?”) to the arm-around-the-shoulder of “Worse Off Than You” with its wise advice that “If you get started, you’d better not stop. It’s a long back from the bottom to the top. Exactly where you are depends upon your point of view, cos there’s always someone worse off than you.”
Stone Cold Sober is a great release. There is a sense that the musicians really enjoyed themselves in the studio and that feeling of joy translates to the album itself. Wonderful stuff.