March Album of the Month
Imagine Joe Cocker, Dire Straits, Van Morrison, Toto and Chris Rea all having an impromptu late-night jam – the result might sound a bit like the new studio album from Ellis Mano Band – out on 24th February.
Recorded over two distinctly different sessions in Croatia (2020) and Switzerland (2022) at various stages during and after Covid restrictions, the music captures greater darkness and light that the previous album – yet, despite these points of polarity, it also feels like a more cohesive album. ‘Ambedo’ was critically well-received across Europe and – whilst Ellis Mano Band now clock up a brace of consecutive Albums of the Month with us – for me ‘Luck of The Draw’ is a step up in terms of breadth of mood, arrangement and those fine little touches that can separate good albums from the great ones.
In only reviewing one album a month, the difficulty for me always comes in choosing just one to write about. There is always a temptation in the guitar music scene to gravitate towards the loudest albums, the bangers that are easy on the ear, or the songs that hang on technically gifted virtuoso playing. This month – as with our call on JD Simo’s fine new album in January – I’m standing back from the temptation to gravitate towards the loud, the known or the familiar. With Ellis Mano Band we have a collection of songs that are quietly assured rather that screaming for attention. Dig a little deeper and this album presents the essence of a sophisticated band; intelligent in arrangement, rich in mood that paints pictures – and delivery with an accomplished sense of control. The music can rage but, conversely, there are places of supreme nakedness and minimalism were less is so much more. New ‘banging’ album releases come and go – a week of acclaim after which the CDs and vinyls get filed away in the music collection. This Ellis Mano Band album is a quieter affair but it feels like one of those albums with that quiet power to endure: One of those vinyls that will stay out by the record player for a long time and be one of those natural go-to’s for a late-night play after a long day – rain or shine, good day or bad. Music with legacy.
I spoke with Edis and Chris the other week and we talked at length about turtles – as you do with people from Switzerland. Contrary to my line of questioning, the opening track ‘Turtle’ is not an ode to sea-life (or hairy Alpine people as we discussed previously) but, rather, it explores relationships and the way people shouldn’t change to become what others want them to be – in the same way you can’t teach a turtle how to fly (not that I know of anyway).
As the album opener, ‘Turtle’ works well. It sets out a broad palette of colours and, with that, there is a sense of uplifting fanfare or overture that is more common with the way classical works open. In the opening minutes, the music grabs your attention and gives you a lift. This is followed mid-section by an interesting percussive interlude with bass and guitar that, for me, carried more than a hint of a Toto jam. In contrast to the rock albums that open with thumping drum beats or screaming guitars, this album opener is all about the quality of good arrangement. There’s room for both in the world but, from track one, it’s clear this is going to be a smart album musically.
We then go into ‘Blue Paranoia.’ Opening with a mood that made me think of ‘I Put A Spell On You,’ the song literally moves and grows. From sultry jazz blues, restless angst creeps in, which then becomes brusque rage, framed by macabre, looming menace from the rhythm section. From jazz house to dark gothic in five minutes, this song’s transition into madness and desperation marks it out as an interesting and original piece, a song that refuses to go in a straight line.
Following the gentle and atmospheric ‘Only With You’ the organ ushers in another change of mood with ‘Get Out’ – the Hammond and classic guitar riffs making this a rock n roll lovechild of the late 70s. The contrast between the opening four tracks of the album underlines the wide range of textures and genre influences on this album – yet all the songs operate within a clear Ellis Mano character and signature. Classy.
Track five, ‘Good To Go’ is one to go straight onto the airwaves – by a mile the obvious and standout song for radio. ‘Good To Go’ is one of those instant head-turners that will just work on radio, pull in the requests and have a run. Where radio playlists are still driven by listener reaction, this is one of those songs that stands tall on its own two feet and will appeal to fans of different genres. Here, the inspiring mood of the verses sees the song grow into a rousing sing-along anthem at the end. The “Na-Na-Na-Na” finale at the end of the song is perfect for festival sing-alongs and, for many, this fine song will become a real ear worm. It is perhaps the standout radio song we have been waiting for from the band.
‘Good To Go’ stands as another example of a song that isn’t showing off – it’s just cleverly and seamlessly put together. It’s as good as any sing-along drive-time rocker you’ll hear on the radio this year.
Up next, title track ‘Luck Of The Draw’ is equally as impressive but in a very different way. A complete contrast to the anthem of ‘Good To Go,’ here we have a stripped-back, soulful beauty, one to enjoy with a nice drink at the end of the day with the lights turned low. Naked and vulnerable – and nested on good storytelling – here the vocal as an instrument really shines. The Hammond makes the song almost spiritual. Sometimes less can be so much more. A good song, but the control of the execution – and the sense of control in holding the mood – is what makes it special.
‘Forsaken’ has become the band’s show-opener and conjures up another dark cauldron of intense rock-blues. Words reference the darkness of violence that have returned to Europe – “forsaken on the welcome sign” – as the band captures in music the challenge of darkness against the cherished values of hope and love – the values that should make the world go round until, that is, we take them for granted.
‘One For All’ follows ‘Forsaken’ – another angry, dark slice of musical agitation.
‘Healing Light’ blends melancholic blues-soul verses with a sense of assured inspiration, hope and love in the choruses – “you build me right back up every time” – as metaphors to the sky continue the themes of darkness to light. This is a song that wouldn’t be out of place on ‘The Commitments’ movie. Also of note, the guitar solo is beautiful here. along with bass and drums there’s no over-playing, nothing attention-seeking. There are not too many notes or too many instruments competing – the expression and the understanding between the musicians is what shines. A classy six-and-a-half-minute musical journey.
With ‘Never Gone,’ the music warms you like the returning of the sun from behind the clouds on a summer’s day. Bass and drums are more prominent here; they are like a heartbeat, as the essence of this song is about the all-encompassing mood and rhythms. A song about enduring love – “true love never ends” – this is a simple song done well. It’s fun (nothing wrong with that) and it gives the final run of the album a sunny lift.
‘Without A Warning’ closes the album – a jazzy love song for the morning breeze of a beach in summer. The music once again paints pictures – in your mind, you can see the sun reflecting off the shimmers on the sea and the long summer shadows. For me, track 10 – ‘Never Gone’ – felt like the natural album closer, but I’m sure some will find warmth and charm from track 11.
So there we have it: Not the album I half-expected to be writing about for March – but arriving unannounced and without any marketing hype, it grabbed be out-the-blue on first listen. Since then, I’ve been playing it a few times every day. As I mentioned earlier in this review, it’s not the loudest new release album for the month ahead, not the most marketed and, for many in the UK, from a band many haven’t seen live yet. But, believe me, sometimes it’s about the quieter new release albums – the ones that could easily pass by that you don’t want to miss. With ‘Luck Of The Draw,’ Ellis Mano Band has delivered their benchmark career album to date, and the band humbly brings a level of quality, assuredness and intelligence to their song-writing that both elevates and diversifies the rock blues scene at large.
This is an album that underscores a simple truth in music -namely that quality will always out-live fashion. With this in mind, picking Ellis Mano Band as March Album of the Month had nothing to do with the luck of the draw.
Luck of the Draw is released on 24th February
Pre-order details and social media links at:
A new interview hour special with Ellis Mano Band will air on album launch day, 6pm Friday 24 February on the Friday rockshow.