It has been quite a ride for guitarist Selwyn Birchwood. After winning the 2013 International Blues Challenge in the band category, he was signed by Alligator Records and quickly released Don’t Call No Ambulance, which garnered two Blues Blast Award nominations and received a Blues Music Award in the Best New Artist Debut category. For the last three years, Birchwood has been touring steadily throughout the world, building on his success.
His new release makes it clear that while blues is his musical bedrock, the guitarist has a wider vision that can’t be ignored. The opener, “Trial By Fire,” starts off some light notes from a flute played by horn-man Regi Oliver over a rolling drum beat from Courtney “Big Love” Girlie. Then Birchwood hits you with swirling slide guitar riffs straight from the Mississippi hill country, mixed with Huff Wright’s thick bass line. From there, Birchwood breaks out his lap steel guitar to take listeners to church on “Even The Saved Need Saving,” urging people to show some love instead of pointing fingers.
On “Guilty Pleasures,” the singer’s gritty voice runs down a series of personal vices over some taut, slashing slide guitar. Oliver plays several saxophones on “Heavy Heart,” building a horn section behind Birchwood’s slow, somber description of good love gone bad. The title track depicts a man battling with himself to hold the demons at bay over a reggae-tinged rhythm, finally finding release in a blazing six-string interlude. “Reaping Time” opens with an acoustic guitar and slide backing Birchwood’s moody tale about a disconsolate soul about to exact vengeance for the wrongdoing he has suffered. Oliver’s baritone sax underscores the depth of the turmoil.
To his credit, Birchwood doesn’t shy away from tackling real-world issues. “Police State” is a righteous lament about losing focus on the difference between right and wrong, an issue that goes beyond black or white, left or right. “R We Krazy?” mixes a bit of funk and jazz on a self-examination that finds the singer “…talking to myselves, They’re the only ones that know the shape I’m in.” He celebrates his escape from the modern work environment on “Corporate Drone,” feeling fortunate to escape cuts to pay, hours, and the threat of having to cut his huge Afro.
Other songs indicate that Birchwood hasn’t been real lucky in love. “Lost In You” is a dreamy, lush ballad about trying to regain emotional equilibrium after a break-up. The singer delivers a more forceful declaration on “My Whiskey Loves My Ex,” unable to break through the pattern of alcohol-stoked, late night text messages. The situation is more dire on “Haunted,” as a sleep-deprived Birchwood just can’t move beyond the empty bed, try as he might to release the tensions through his guitar. “Are You Ready” is strong musically but the lyrical themes of breaking the chains and turning the page are handled more effectively in other songs.
His first Alligator release left no doubt that Birchwood is a skillful, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. On his latest, he gives listeners a deeper look at Birchwood, the man – repeatedly sharing his innermost thoughts, fears, and emotions. The expert backing of his skilled band gives him the confidence to expand his version of the blues beyond the usual staid progressions. Complete with arresting arrangements and thought-provoking lyrics, this one needs to be heard by anyone remotely interested in blues for the modern age.