Back in the year 2000, there was a little label out of Canada trying to make a name for itself - in the world of blues, no less. That label, founded by Fred Litwin, became NorthernBlues Records, and had an arsenal of weaponry with which to make a serious name for itself. People such as Piedmont-style senior artist Archie Edwards and singer Toni Lynn Washington have releases on the label, but the artist that put NorthernBlues on the blues map was the best blues artist of this generation, Otis Taylor. Taylor’s haunting, echo-y trance blues, sans drums, did both himself and his label a favor with the releases of White African in 2000, and Respect the Dead, which came out two years later. Taylor has since moved on (he’s found a home on Telarc), and the label has taken many steps backwards, trying to pin the “blues” tag on bands such as Glamour Puss and Taxi Chain (though I do like TC’s Smarten Up!, it’s certainly not blues).
In Taylor’s pocket at that time were his two band mates, bassist / producer Kenny Passarelli and guitarist Eddie Turner. Turner (and Passarelli) appeared on the two NorthernBlues releases, as well as Taylor’s first release for Telarc, Truth Is Not Fiction. (Taylor subsequently released the pair afterwards, playing all guitar parts himself and using his daughter Cassie on bass.) But during that time, Turner established himself as a presence; not necessarily on the albums, where his haunting guitar work was low in the mix, but in live performances, where he was allowed to cut loose and shine. In fact, many nights, he would be the band member most talked about by impressed audience members after the gig. His psychedelic solos, both quick and technically proficient, earned him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix. Following the path, it would be a natural for Turner to capitalize on his growing positive reputation, and that’s exactly what he did. He signed with NorthernBlues (like Taylor did), and used Passarelli as bassist and producer (like Taylor did). The result is Rise, a 12-song effort that shows off Turner’s jaw-dropping chops (in spots), but also runs amok in the cohesiveness department (if there was even an attempt to be cohesive in the first place).
Cutting to the chase, after listening to Rise, you’ll remember the guitar work easily enough—it’s fast and furious at times, laid-back and smoldering at others. But with few exceptions, you’ll forget the songs themselves—they’re just not memorable. Upon the very first listen, only three songs stood out: the title cut (which opens the disc), easily the best of Turner’s nine originals, one of the three instrumentals on the album, “It’s Me”, and a cover of Freddie King’s “Play It Cool”.
Of course, it was inevitable that Turner would do a cover of the icon he’s most notably compared to, and “The Wind Cries Mary” is a passable effort. Like Mr. Hendrix, the guitar work is haunting and spooky without being over the top. Unlike Mr. Hendrix, though, the vocals are straightforward. Hendrix accentuated the eerie elements in his voice, giving the song an ethereal feel, while Turner’s vocals leave the song sounding somewhat flat by comparison.
What it is is that Turner’s voice lacks power—it’s more of a soul-crooner styling than a blues styling. His talent is along the lines of Robert Cray, except Turner’s a better guitarist (and while we’re at it, how many memorable Robert Cray songs have there been since Strong Persuader?) A similar case in point regarding Turner is “Ask Myself Why”, a slow cooker which throws a strong guitar together with a soft vocal, though Turner tries hard to be hard. (And what’s with the drums being so high up in the mix? Very distracting piece of production, Mr. Passarelli.)
The rest of this album is all over the map. The other two instrumentals leave you wanting: “The River” doesn’t feature enough guitar tangents—rather, it’s a hodgepodge / mishmash of various instruments, while “Resurrection” is too short to bring home a point. The Johnny “Guitar” Watson cover, “Gangster of Love”, sounds like a soul karaoke attempt at Z.Z. Top’s “La Grange”. And so on…
This is a bit of a surprise, since your humble reviewer has seen what Eddie Turner can do with a guitar in a live setting, but except for a few moments here and there, that secret remains safe after listening to Rise. Seeing Eddie Turner on stage is a wonderful, rewarding experience. Listening to this disc, by comparison, is frustrating and disappointing. It garners a halfway rating simply because of whatever guitar is on the disc, and the knowledge that Turner can do so much more. Here’s hoping his sophomore effort goes down a grittier path than Rise.