John & the Sisters,
John & the Sisters
(NorthernBlues, 2004)

Kevin Breit's talents are too diverse and too prolific to contain in a single package. So you'll find this guitarist's chops and compositions cropping up on a slew of recent releases, including the latest Norah Jones album Feels Like Home, the Breit/Harry Manx collaboration Jubilee and this latest, self-titled excursion, John & the Sisters.

John, by the way, is vocalist John Dickie. He and Breit head up a tight, bluesy combo whose ability to record live-off-the-floor results from having played together for more than 350 gigs over the past seven years. Only a truly symbiotic group of musicians can record this way and deliver the goods with the sort of relaxed, raw energy heard on the album's best tracks.

Dickie's screams, wails and other vocal gymnastics on "Too Damn Big" combine with Breit's fuzzed-out guitar to launch John & the Sisters on a rocket-like trajectory before the second track, "Only One," reels things in a bit. The delicious contrast between Dickie's growl and guest vocalist Suzie Vinnick's silky smooth delivery could have been used more frequently, both within "Only One" and on the rest of the album. Vinnick shows up on three tracks in total, and they're among the album's best moments. "L.A.," her second song, finds her doubling Dickie's vocal track while Breit applies the wa-wa pedal, and drummer Gary Taylor and bassist Ian Desouza lay down a groove that recalls War's "Cisco Kid." The combination is dynamite.

Breit also earned a producer's credit for the album, but once the tape started rolling, he focused on his fretwork on the studio floor. He shines particularly brightly on the quirky, stuttering "Penguin Walk" and on "Treat Her Right," a brief, jazzy instrumental. At least equal acclaim for the crisp quality of the recording must go to David Travers-Smith, the man behind the mixing board. Particularly impressive is the diversity of percussion elements (a shovel on "L.A.") and keyboard sounds (toy piano on "Good Day") employed in this recording. The occasional horns are also a tasty inclusion. And the subtlety of these sounds, often heard well back in the mix, gives John & the Sisters a layered texture that keeps the songs sounding fresh on repeated listens.

The biggest weaknesses of this disc are its length and the inclusion of a number of very short spoken-word/experimental pieces that primarily serve to disrupt the flow of the album. Of these, only "And We Touched" worked for me.

A little ruthless editorial instinct would have benefited John & the Sisters greatly. ("Big Bomb" at seven-and-a-half minutes ought to have been blown off.) Cutting 20 minutes from the album's nearly 70-minute running time would have made for a killer disc. As it stands, this is a dynamic but somewhat flabby recording. If the entire package was as fit and trim as Breit's guitar riffs and Dickie's emotion-packed vocals, then John & the Sisters would pack quite a punch. There's musical muscle here, but on this debut disc, it's not quite in peak condition.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 13 November 2004

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