Ruf Records RUF 1228
11 songs – 70 minutes
From the opening strains of the psychedelic rocker that opens this album to the tender blues ballad that brings it to a close, singer/songwriter Layla Zoe delivers what her fans have come to love: An original voice who’s unafraid to tackle difficult themes in song.
A powerful alto whose 2013 release, The Lily, was listed among Downbeat magazine’s blues albums of the year and a lady who’s an accomplished lyricist and always places highly in songwriting competitions around the globe, Zoe fronted her own band in the Canadian west at age 14. This is the tenth release since her 2005 debut in a career that’s included collaborations with guitar greats Sonny Landreth and the late Jeff Healey.
Landreth makes a guest appearance on this one, which includes ten new tunes and an interesting Rolling Stones cover. She penned the words to all of the originals here, aided by multi-instrumentalist Jan Laacks, who plays lead and rhythm guitars, organ, lap steel and percussion in addition to producing and composing all of the charts.
The tunes touch on everything from the death of a close friend to both sides of romance and murder as Zoe attempts to put listeners back in touch with their emotions. “I rip people’s hearts out, then put them back in,” she says.
Recorded at Megaphon Tonstudios in Arnsberg, Germany, the album features powerful, full arrangements that touch on several genres, but a minimal lineup of musicians. The only folks adding to the mix are Gregor Sonnenberg on bass, organ and keys and Hardy Fischotter on drums and percussion.
A trippy guitar line initiates the opener, “Backstage Queen,” a no-holds-barred, six-minute acid trip that describes a young groupie with a “five-star body.” She’s moving fast, but has no idea where she’s going. “Why Do We Hurt The Ones We Love” begins as a ballad, but picks up speed as it progresses as it relates the concerns of a woman who wonders what she’s done wrong and why the man she loves – and has probably lost – doesn’t call.
Slide master Landreth features prominently on “Wild One,” a blues with melodic guitar lines, as Layla describes a lady who says words that “no girl ever speaks” and who will “touch you in places you can’t find on a globe.” She’s “not a vegan, she likes your kind of meat.” Next up, Laacks’ solid, somber riffs on six-string highlight “Highway Of Tears,” a potent statement about nameless women who’ve been slain and buried deep in the Canadian Rockies never to be found.
A staccato rhythm pattern introduces the title tune, “Breaking Free,” a blues-rocker in which the singer has decided to separate from her man after repeatedly trying to prove herself to him without success. “Work Horse” is up next. It uses equine imagery as it condemns music industry executives who cheat them out of their cash while working them to death. “Sweet Angel” carries the horse theme forward in the opening line of an image-filled ballad that deals with the loss of Zoe’s best friend, Marsha. Since she’s gone, Layla sings, any time she wants to talk with her all she has to do is pray.
The opening bars of the rocker “Run Away” change the mood instantaneously as it depicts a man who’s struggling and yearning to break free, played off against a woman with similar desires who’s both wild and unchained. “Wild Horses,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richard and the only cover in the set, is delivered as an acoustic ballad before two upbeat songs about romance — “A Good Man” and “He Loves Me” – bring the disc to a close.
Layla Zoe’s a strong singer with original ideas that deserve to be heard. Available through most major retailers, Breaking Free is worth a listen, especially if your tastes run to the more modern, rock side of blues.