10 songs – 48 minutes
The waves being made by Florida-based guitarist Randy Stephens have been growing over the past few years. His 2011 instrumental blues-rock album, American Guitar, garnered some glowing reviews. No Strings Attached, which he started to write and record in 2012, is his impressive follow-up.
As you might expect from an award-winning guitarist, the blues-rock songs on No Strings Attached highlight Stephens’ dexterous virtuosity on a variety of planks. Happily, however, unlike many guitar-slingers, he does not sacrifice the song simply to show off his six-string skills. The well-constructed songs on this album cover a wide range of styles, all based in the blues, but with a liberal dose of rock as well. There are also hints of funk in “Read ‘Em & Weep”, gospel in “I’m Doing Fine”, and jazz-funk in “Summer Rain”.
Stephens has a neat line in lyrics, for example on “Bad Economy”, the first song on the album, where he sings over a funky blues backing: “I called my woman, I said ‘babe, there’s something on my mind. I’ve been meaning to tell you, baby, for the longest time. I’m going to quit you; I’ve got to set you free. I’ve run the numbers and you’re bad, too bad, for my economy.’”
He wrote seven of the songs himself; the three covers being Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, Harvey Watkins Jr’s “I’m Doing Fine” and the Brook Benton and Dinah Washington’s classic “Rocking Good Way” (Lauren Mitchell provides the female vocals on Stephens’ interpretation). He also produced the album, sings and plays all the guitars and bass on three songs. The drum stool is occupied by Carl Grieco and Jessie Stephens (Randy’s child), David C Johnson and Randy McCormick share the remaining bass duties.
Stephens’ playing thoughout is exemplary. He coaxes a vast array of tones from his Stratocaster and Telecaster, particularly on the “Ambient Love”, which recalls both Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck at times. And the controlled fury of his playing on the “The Fool” perfectly matches the anger in the lyrics.
One of the highlights of the album is the gospel-tinged “I’m Doing Fine”, which was originally recorded by the Canton Spirituals. Stephens gives the song a hefty rock edge, whilst retaining the original gospel melody and the result is a gem of a ballad, which could easily have graced one of Eric Clapton’s mid-80s albums. Stephens plays with a slightly fatter tone on this track, but also uses the Clapton trick of holding off from immediately applying vibrato to a bent note. Johnson, whose day job is as a member of theAaron Neville quartet, provides subtle organ backing.
As you might expect from a man who plays in a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute band, there is a lot of guitar on this album. But if you like the guitar-led blues-rock of SRV, Johnny Winter or Jeff Beck, you’ll love No Strings Attached.