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BILLY WALTON BAND Crank It Up! Mystic MYSCD208 (2012)

Billy Walton Band

'Crank It Up' is the Billy Walton band's third album and the most concise summation of their New Jersey, blue collar rock, blues, soul and r&b sound so far. And while hot-shot guitarist Billy Walton initially made his name as a gun for hire, playing with an array of top New Jersey and musically related names, he isn't quite the classic example of poacher turned gamekeeper as he appears to be.

There's still the little matter of his being a valued member of the hard working Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. But you suspect that as leader of his own road tested outfit who tour Europe twice a year, he's already done enough moonlighting to suggest his long term future lies with fronting his own band.

For those already familiar with Walton's fiery and spontaneous guitar playing, 'Crank It Up' represents a significant step up in terms of the polished songs. For while Billy does indeed crank things up, there's enough of a thoughtful, broad based approach and 10 consistently good tracks to confirm the substance of his developing song writing partnership with producer Randy Friel. 'Crank It Up' has more of a mature feel in which the most explosive solos, the timeless honking sax and booming choruses all find their place in an album that settles for the perfect equilibrium between the band's natural spark and the burgeoning radio friendly songs.

And right at the centre of this subtly conceived dynamic is that readily definable home town Jersey shore sound that glues together the stylistic diversity and only on occasions bubbles up to dominate song like the home town narrative of 'The Night the Deal Went Down'. Billy happily shares the exquisite call & response interplay with sax player Richie Taz over William Paris's judicious walking bass figure and builds it to a frenzied climax before the number surprisingly descends to a cool finish. The other Jersey influenced song is the Springsteen flavoured big pop chorus of 'Summertime Girl' which in times gone by might have provided sundry radio plays.

Other than the excellent playing and the strong material, 'Crank It Up impresses because of the subtle meeting of past and present in which traditional styles are stretched and remoulded. Fortified by some thoughtful sequencing the album takes us on a coherent rocking journey that opens with the slide led acoustic/electric down-home bluesy feel of 'Deal with the Devil', and then shifts radically via an urgent tempo change and staccato guitar and sax double lines into the title track stomp.

The band extend the uplifting feel with a recycled Keith Richard riff and honking sax parts on the powerhouse Lifeline', on which Billy's poignant lyrics match his thrilling guitar work; 'Everyday needs the same old story, living on this avenue of illusions, everybody want to pick their path for glory, well that ain't Jersey that's a state of confusion'.

The songs nicely percolate and build by degrees and sound unsurprisingly like a tour band at the top of their game. 'Til Tomorrow' is the kind of old time soul ballad much favoured by Billy and most obviously offers a link back to his early career 'Soul Song'. The subtly sculptured dynamics are well represented on the southern rock influenced 'Night Turns Blues' on which Billy explores the full range of his tone colours before double tracking his own stellar guitar parts, as the song moves towards a big finish bathed in sustained psychedelic squalls.

It's so good that it is tempting to immediately hit the repeat button and play it all over again, but there's plenty more to come including the stinging Albert Collins style, funky blues of 'One in a Million', the re-recording of the killer shuffle 'Hot Blues' and the concluding sax drenched rock & roll work out of 'Black Jack Dealer', on which bass player William Paris impresses with a belated tough vocal

Everything flows from beginning to end as part of a slightly understated production that is still bright enough to deliver the required sonic intensity to showcase what is essentially a kick ass rock & roll band. 'Crank It Up' is arguably the most polished rock & roll record of the year. Old time r&b in new clothing never sounded so good.


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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