This is it. After 18 years of constant touring, the usual line-up casualties and a string of critically acclaimed albums, not to mention being championed by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, California’s the BellRays have finally produced the record they always threatened they would. A record that manages, extraordinarily so at times, to merge the band’s myriad influences and sounds—gut-bucket soul-strut, toxic garage rock with just a hint of ‘70s-punk abandon and slippery-smooth jazz stylings—on one cohesive disc of dynamite. It’s also their most commercial album to date, but don’t let that bother you because the result is Hard, Sweet and Sticky.
Previous outings established the Rays’ penchant—monetary restrictions notwithstanding—for capturing the essence of their energetic live performances, most signifcantly on the band’s cassette-only debut in 1993, In the Light of the Sun (reissued on CD in 2002 and with one of the songs dusted off here), a down-and-dirty slice of pure R&B liberally spiced with Memphis-style horns. A seismic shift in sound was heralded six years later on Let It Blast and its successor in 2001, Grand Fury, with their stomping punk ‘n’ soul ferocity. However, Hard, Sweet and Sticky is a first in that this time around the songs were worked out in North Hollywood’s Regime studio and not fine-tuned on stage beforehand.
With founding member Bob Vennum switching back to guitar after years of playing bass, new bassist Billy Mohler has also taken over the production helm and brought with him a fresh approach that sees a definite polish to the raw sound of the Rays. But even with this new buffed-up sheen, Mohler never trammels the verve with which the group flex their powerhouse muscle when and where they want to. And with resident wild cat and soul diva Lisa Kekaula singing smouldering lines like “If you’re man enough to ball, baby / I’ll make it worth your ride” from the raunchy rock ‘n’ soul number “Coming Down”, you just know this ain’t no place for the faint-hearted.
Nor is it a place for the recently heartbroken. With an emotional intensity and honesty equal to anything Gladys Knight or Bettye Lavette has laid down, Kekaula’s impassioned vocals plead on the country-soul opener “The Same Way” (a song which first appeared on the band’s Raw Collection back in 2003, as did the closing number, Detroit roadhouse rocker “Pinball City”) for her man to carry on loving her even though his heart is empty. She then goes on to face up to the fact that even love’s brightest flame can burn itself out on both the excellent soulful groove of “Footprints on Water”—a tune written by long-standing guitarist Tony Fate, who has recently left the band, and first released on 2002’s In the Light of the Sun—and the delicate funk of “Blue Against the Sky”, while her ethereal renderings on the mesmerizing “Wedding Bells” has Kekaula “Crying, in the distance / For my love to be” as a eerily plucked stand-up bass and shimmering drums provide sensual accompaniement.
Elsewhere, Kekaula and the band come back street-fighting fit. There’s a spirited nod to Keith Moon’s unrestrained, tumultous flourishes as drummer Craig Waters leads the charge on “That’s Not the Way It Should Be”, while a potent, fast, and furious funnel of fury blasts out as “Psychotic Hate Man” kicks in. This all makes for one slice of heartfelt maximum R&B you cannot afford to miss out on.
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// Notes from the Road
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