Alias Smith & Jones – Hit & Run
Self-Release – 2020
10 tracks; 42:40
Duets make for complicated musical relationships, because it pits the natural, human tendency of wanting to show off against the gentler impulse to support a colleague—even at one’s own expense. Alias Smith & Jones successfully navigate this challenge on Hit & Run, an album of comfortably familiar blues that keeps soulful harmonica and powerful vocals in harmony, allowing everyone to sparkle.
The aforementioned harmonica comes from Sal Carolei, who’s played with everyone from Eliza Neals to The Travis Miller Band. His harp work is distinctive, but also capable of bending to the will of the song, which means some performances feature a punk rock intensity, while others glide like Carolei’s learned how to transcribe the flow of a river. The vocals belong to Reneé Flemings, whose voice is bluesy but also powerful. If the archetypal blues voice is strong-yet-worn, Flemings voice sounds like it hits the gym every day.
Carolei and Flemings are backed by The Button Men, a rotating cast of bassists, drummers, and guitarists, who also share some of the spotlight, mostly via stellar guitar work. Together, it makes for a fun album with lots of charming details. For instance, on the title track, an original, the band locks into a heavy blues groove, Flemings using her lower register and Carolei playing against the beat, like a surfer paddling into an upcoming wave. Suddenly, a wild slide line comes in to take a solo. But listening closely, you realize the bluesy guitar is actually violin, courtesy of Alexander Sovronsky. It’s a cool surprise, but the song works because of the notes and emotion, and not because of unexpected instrumentation twist.
“Bad, Bad Whiskey,” an Amos Wilburn song, is one of Flemings’ best vocal performances on the album. She dramatically provides the vocal, flirting with a Broadway musical delivery, but never crossing the line. It’s because her voice has an emotional depth that keeps the song tethered to a sadness. “Gone” skips along, more rock than blues, except for Carolei’s harmonica, which meditatively rolls through the album, sounding completely natural, like he’s singing through his instrument. “Going Down the the River,” a Mississippi Fred McDowell track is the Alias Smith & Jones version of a country blues, with a hypnotic acoustic guitar riff anchoring a swirl of harp and guitar, Flemings digging deep for a vocal that’s desperate, but also sturdy, telling the listener nothing will disrupt the integrity of her singing.
The songs and performances are excellent. There’s plenty of ear candy for blues fans. In fact, if there’s one issue with the album, it’s the length. While it’s 10 tracks, there are two versions of “Long Time Child,” an extended one and an edit, meaning you’re really getting nine songs. With a band this tight, you want as much music as possible.