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OLI BROWN Heads I Win Tails You Lose RUF1160 (2010)

Oli Brown

Oli Brown is in a unique position. Still a teen and with a couple of years as a pro under his belt, he's not about to become trapped by any genre or label, let alone sink under any burden of expectation. As Oli himself states on a Mike Vernon co-write, 'I'm Keeping My Options Open'.

And on the evidence of this album he's made a wise decision as there's enough stylistic diversity, different mood changes and markedly different guitar tones to suggest a young man still flexible and spontaneous enough to bend with the grooves.

And grooves are what Oli deals in. Having worked up some funky credentials on his debut album, the new and appropriately titled 'Heads I Win, Tails You Lose' finds him with the winning partnership of famed producer Mike Vernon and a band comprising top session players.

Oli opens with a gospel like vitality on 'Evil Soul' and slips right to the heart of a cutting edge shuffle on 'Makes Me Wonder' exploring a cool dynamic round a couple of verses before slipping into a full toned solo as messieurs Rackham and Little provide a tough counterpoint.

Its back to his trademark funk on the aforementioned 'Keeping My Options Open' and the stop-time, low down dirty groove and soulful chorus of 'Real Good Time'

'Heads I Win, Tails You Lose' benefits from a typically strong Vernon rhythm track with Jamie Little's big drum sound giving Oli all the space he needs to break out. But it's not until the soulful 'Speechless' that he really finds his feet on a very catchy hook. Unlike a couple of other songs here 'Speechless' is well suited to his range and almost as if in the mood he covers 'Fever' with a noticeably thinner tone to his solo.

Oli's core strength is his ability to emote through his singing. He does this on the slow blues meets white boy soul of 'I Can Make Your Day'. Mike Vernon's production comes into its own with its subtle pacing of the song and an unspoken dynamic that captures the feel of the piece before Oli brings a brief but masterful solo to the boil. The staccato drum track works particularly well as the song hangs on Oli's every word, before his ringing notes take over. This is the kind of song that after a hatful of live dates will surely become a standard bearer.

At times as on 'Take A Look Back' it takes a particularly muscular guitar run to bring a little bit of spark to a track that only just finds its suitable resolution via the chorus. But just as you think you have his measure Oli ups the ante with clever reading of Blackstreet's 'No Diggity', on which the vocals are superbly arranged and Dave Lennox's keyboards underpin the groove. Oli's phrasing is as intuitive as his timing is excellent and he leans into his solo with plenty to spare, the mark of a player beyond his years.

And almost as an afterthought he throws in a slow blues 'Love's Gone Cold' on which he once again gets right inside the lyrics. Let's face it you either feel the blues or you don't and Oli's got 'em! The closing exuberant chant of (I Feel) 'On Top of the World', finds Oli bringing his unique rapping style to fore before the chorus takes the song home. A great end to an interesting album.

Oli Brown stands alone in the new generation of blues players simply because he uses blues as a base metal rather than considering it as the whole recipe. His music is always outward looking in its search for something more diverse and interesting and this album is a major step along the way.


Review by Pete Feenstra


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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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