Rob Lutes,
Ride the Shadows
(Zeb, 2006)

Ride the Shadows is the third album released by Montreal-based bluesman Rob Lutes. Built on a foundation of acoustic lead and rhythm guitars laid over solid but subdued bass and drums, Lutes' songs are always delivered with an attention to vocal clarity and emotional resonance. Lutes has a low, gravelly, Joe Cocker-ish voice ideally suited to the quieter moments in his songs, but he knows how to push into his upper register with power and control. He also recognizes that, unlike Cocker, he's best served by keeping that power on a short leash.

The opening track on Ride the Shadows, "Throw Me from This Train," blends blues and folk elements to create a gentle, thoughtful mood that will have listeners wanting to pay close attention to the lyric. "Throw me from this train / When my body's all used up / Don't you mend me like a broken cup / You got to throw me from the train." Unfortunately, at slightly under three minutes in duration, "Throw Me from This Train" feels fragmentary. Just as it begins to crescendo the song ends, leaving a feeling of incompleteness.

Luckily the following song, "Cold Canadian Road" doesn't suffer from the same shortcoming. This story of a winter journey -- a trip to memory lane as well as along a cold stretch of pavement -- never delivers the listener to the driver's ultimate destination, instead allowing the narrator's trepidation to define the song's landscape. The addition of a quiet accordion accompaniment in the bridge adds a subtle, plaintive, melancholy air to the song.

The mood turns more upbeat with the catchy, finger-picked title track, and for the rest of the album the lyrics oscillate between declarations of love's enduring, though bittersweet, strengths ("I Still Love You," "I Will Stand By You") and darker themes. Lutes' refers to the song "Keep a Man Down" as "probably the angriest song I've ever written." Yet its jaunty arrangement makes it a very pleasant listen. Meanwhile the line "every wave rolls in to break your heart / You were a consummate misery from the start" gives the track "House of Dreams" an edginess befitting a relationship built on, "a deep fault line."

Perhaps my favorite track on Ride the Shadows is "Staten Island Ferry," a song inspired, in part, by the death of actor/writer Spalding Gray, who is thought to have jumped from the ferry to his death in the frigid New York waters in January 2004. The beautifully poetic lyric is delivered with a sense of inevitability that calls to mind a cold, overcast, hopeless night. "If he knew that heaven could hear his voice / When he cried in the wounded night / He could hold all those thoughts in line / But if he believed it's never as bad as it seems / What's he doing on the Staten Island Ferry / Staring into the deep."

If there's a significant weakness to Ride the Shadows, it's that there isn't enough variation in mood and texture among the album's dozen songs. The angry, hurtin' lyrics are married to rather upbeat melodies while the more joyful lyrics are given slightly mournful musical treatments. Individually these ironic combinations work quite well. But over the course of the album they tend to cancel one another out, leaving an impression of weakened emotional punch.

Closing out Ride the Shadows is a terrific cover of the Roosevelt Jamison-penned Otis Redding hit "That's How Strong My Love Is." The song has been recorded by Bryan Ferry and the Rolling Stones, but Lutes holds his own with this latest rendition. In fact, ending the album with such a powerful song is an excellent choice. It showcases the passion Lutes can bring to a vocal while also pointing up the emotional complexity of Lutes' original lyrics. The song's energetic, electric guitar-driven arrangement is the one component of the track that seems to be in too short supply elsewhere on the disc.

All told, Ride the Shadows is an enjoyable album, though its mostly understated approach to the blues is unlikely to take the music industry by storm.

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review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

14 July 2007

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