He wants to be make music that makes you want to dance. Jonny B very good!
‘Broken Bones’ is available via http://jonnythefirth.bandcamp.com/
There is not much pure ‘fun’ to be had amongst current music…
and yet Jonny the Firth, is- in his own words- a ‘one man punk blues band’, from Yorkshire. He has a wide aggregation of representation amongst the Internet, and has been creating his unique blend of punk blues for quite a few years now. He stands out amongst the rank-and-file, as is quite atypical a musician. Not what you’d expect from a Yorkshire man: no whippet or cup of tea in hand. He has the flat cap, and he has the accent, amiable demeanour and Northern wit. That is where the, somewhat cliched stereotype ends. He has much more Memphis and Nashville about him. Jonny explained that the band name was a whim he happened upon; an accident, which stuck and has been with him ever since. Investigating the man behind the moniker, his day to life may be considered more sedentary and arable than you’d expect from a punk blues superstar. He is as distinguished and unique as you can find from a Northern musician, yet at his core still revels in the bucolic splendours of Wakefield. Why this style of music, you may ask? Jonny explained that that was the music he grew up listening to, and the music that resonated with him most fervently. It would be semantic null to say that ‘you write what you know’. It is often stifling and sanitising if you ration and limit yourself as songwriter. You need to be inspired by your influences, but not wear that repatriation on your sleeve. Similarly, one needs to make their personality and message unique, but not too diverse or impenetrable. Johnnythefirth show acute understanding of the blues spirit of the southern states of America, yet hone and fuse it together with the punk edict of the ’70s. There are mining community and real life blues scenarios in Yorkshire. There is hardship, camaraderie, communality and a resolute bonhomie; which one can draw parallels with the Deep South and the songs that would be sung by the slaves whilst they worked. It is by linking the two disparate landscapes in a fraternal handshake that the man and his band succeed. Sprinkling a top the mix with a raw but sweet flavour of punk and blues rock, means that what is to be found amidst ‘Broken Bones’, is at once familiar and abound with tradition; yet fresh and daring, ready to mingle and fight with the best of modern music.
Amongst the somnambulism of the quicksand of modern music, nary but a few acts show attrition by creating sparks and electricity within their sound. Queens of the Stone Age have a June release afoot; there’s a couple of post-pubescent indie outfits and lonesome troubadours who, combined, have the ability to set fire to the beige miasma. Released back in May of last year, ‘Broken Bones’ is johnnythefirth’s statement of intent, and one that needs to be heard through a wider audience; as it is as fresh now as is was then, and was, when made by the blues and punk pioneers. It is another act from the ever-expanding and always-impressive Cuckoo Records stall, are producing the new generation of diverse, innovative and mega talented guard. Another day, another Cuckoo sensation…
With a jubilant and energetic piano roll, reminiscent of Rachmaninoff, via Muse’s ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’, ‘Just the Way I’m Feeling’ is as fun and upbeat a start to any album ever. It’s percussion is studded and stamping; it is a drum dance of fun and flits and jumps with gay abandon. After 13 seconds, the pub doors have been locked, disregard has infested the patrons, and a smoke and beer filled aura possesses the night. There is a bit of ‘Oliver’s Army’ a little ‘Boomtown Rats’; a smidge of Elvis Presley, and a butt-load of fun and festivity. The voice that steps up to rationalise proceedings is blues-infused and warm. It is authentic and authoritative but unlike any voice you’ve probably heard. Having an especially keen ear for voices I can usually detect the genealogy of an artist’s voice, but with jonnythefirth I was stumped. There’s a little bit of Rob Harvey during the chorus but that’s it. It has a pleasing individuality and freshness to it. Brass trumpets with Saturnalian wonder, creating an aural Prozac. As an expected juxtaposition to the music, the lyrics have a traditional blues frown to them. There is self doubt: “I don’t like myself”, but one suspects that the tristesse laid forth has an ironic and knowing wink. There is so much rambunctious revolt that one suspects that the memorable, repeated chorus of “Just the way I’m feeling, baby” portrays a man with a smile, rather than tears in his heart. Whether there is a darker, deeper maudlin beneath the bluster, is unsure; but to keen ears and open hearts, the track is spectacular, delighted and a wonderful opening salvo from an incredible talented songwriter and musician. 9.7
At just a few seconds shy of 2 minutes, ‘William’, is no pithy bon mot, or passing whimsy. It is a homunculus of intrigue and closet secrets. It’s beginning is more controlled and serious than its predecessor, yet seems more bloodthirsty. Its fists have had the beer stained washed off, and are showing claws. It jitters, punches and rumbles like an avalanche. Through the employment of scratchy and meaty guitars, it creates quite an awesome and alpha male atmosphere that one can link to the last of the Detroit blues sensations, The White Stripes. It is a problem lovechild of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Era Vulgaris’-era Queens of the Stone Age. The ensuing vocal is sterner and harder than in ‘Just the Way I’m Feeling’ and has a modicum of early career Jack White, as jonnythefirth recall a tale of faulted love: “You were 26/I was 25”, that lead to his beau wearing his shoes, wearing down his body, and wearing him down “in the pouring rain”. It staggers, jumps and ratchets bullets of intent and blues via Virginia, through Michigan, across the waves and into your brain. With 30 seconds to go, the riotous recollection of events past becomes more contemplative. There is an Alex Turner edge to the vocal tones with fewer than 30 seconds to go, before the atmosphere picks back up and as soon as things have started with a bang, they end with one. Who the William refers to- maybe a childhood friend, an associate, leaves questions unanswered. Perhaps it is a childhood parable after all. The thing about great blues is a simple and effective story told, is not definitively unambiguous. It makes you mind wander and imagine, and wonder what the song refers to. Psychoanalysis aside it is a thumping and salacious slab of Detroit blues rock, and keeps the momentum hard and fast. 9.8
From the album’s shortest track, comes the runner up. With a Hendrix/Slash wailing monolith of an opening lick, there is a tangible relevance and appropriateness to ‘Fly Away’s title. It stomps at first, like a gin bar army, balkanised against a effete stampede of Belibers and One Direction fan-girls. It summons Norse, rouses Poseidon and marches on. Mercifully the dream follows a nightmare, and with a lyrical tenderness: “I don’t want to see you fly away”, and a restrained but firestorm swell of a rhythm, it is a hypnotic and captivating number. When the guitar slows and calms, one can hear influences of blues masters Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The lyrics convey a similar tradition and haunted longing: “The Devil wants me/When I’m alone” and implores for romantic salvation. It is another tight and razor-sharp number, but calmer and more akin to the standard ’30s and ’40s blues greats. It calms the mood and lets us know there is soul beneath the tough exterior. 9.5
Imagine Matt Bellamy, at the summation of his creative prowess with Muse (‘Black Holes and Revelations’), having a stab at blues and punk, and you’d be halfway to imagining ‘Wolf Boy Cry’. It gallops intergalactic, pirouettes in stasis, before winking and returning to land. There is a little hint of Arctic Monkeys to the verses. You can detect shades of Turner’s Northern drawl and spit. Similarly there is a familiar lyrical wit and keen observation: “You take the car out/I’ll take the limousine”. The track sways from unhinged theremin-style guitars, to regimented, rhythmic balance. Towards the chorus, there’s yet another unexpected diversion, as the mood becomes more akin to ’70s rock/glam , with an atmospheric vocal backing. Jonnythefirth shows yet more colours in his musical rainbow, displaying keen wit and an admirable mix of restraint and free-spirited ideal. It is perhaps more accessible to those uninitiated to the magic of the blues, but pleasing and memorable to those of us who know who B.B. King is. 9.5
‘Another Number Another Name’s opening acoustic strum hides a secret pain. When our hero steps to the mic to let us know what is on his mind. There is a mixture of vividness: “Breaking glass/On this nowhere train”, and undulated sadness: “Bringing me dead flowers/In the rain”. It has the spirit of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ Bob Dylan– confessional, open and in need of a hug. The vocals and raw and aching, and convey a simple and effective weight to them. The sound is a lot more bare than previous tracks, and it is the man and his acoustic guitar. Here the words and made for talking, and the track is all the more striking and impressive because of it. If there has been too much clutter or sound, the message and directness would have been buried, but due to the sparsity of the music, and the passion in the vocals, the overall effect is brilliant. It is one of the strongest tracks, and shows that johnnythefirth can move in mysterious and multi-directional ways. 9.6.
With a slight arpeggio and a gentle lilt, ‘War Song’, may seem like an ironic misnomer. It has a romantic and soothing sigh to its sound, and there is an edge of folk and Irish music as well to the intro. The ‘war’ is less literal, and more personal. It is a war of poses, and less War of the Roses. The song postulates and professes; it philosophises and ruminates. It has a steam-infused propulsion to it, but is less hard-edged and violent; it is tender and musical. It is the sort of song that Mumford and Sons would record if they had the talent; or the sort Dry The River would sing if they were in a good mood. It has an effectively easy. Again there is a heartbroken diary entry in the year of blues punk. Our protagonist cannot shake off the blues, and whoever hurt him has left a fairly deep wound. Instead of being tormented and wallowing in despair, the music is conscientious and caring. The lyrics are not prone to cliche; instead there are collages of pain and anger: ‘Little white lies/Killed your mind” and Northern soul and romanticism: “Hold me dear/Don’t let go”. It is a prescient blend that tugs at the heartstrings as well as making it ache at the same time. Just as the song reaches its peak of intensity and is rousing and filled with atmosphere, it stops briefly. When it comes back up the gentle strum of the intro returns, and the song ends. It is an inventive and unexpected twist. The war is over and unsure which side has suffered the most causalities. The theme is age-old but the sentiment is not sheer rhetoric; it is a genuine fable of spiritual depanzement, and emotional atomisation. 9.3.
Perhaps with a more fitting name this time around, ‘Dirty Jokes’, arrives with sly grin and perfunctory resolve. The last 2 to 3 songs have been a bit of an emotional response to the pounding hangover of the opening. Now, rested and relaxed and with a lot off of his chest, jonnythefirth is back to his swaggering stride. The intro, again, is jubilant and ready to go, and not hamstrung by formality. It whoops and choruses its intention with a chugging steam train of blues and rock. At its heart is a slingshot paramour: the gravitational pull of the vocal (which has sparks of Mr. White, once more), and the percussion and guitar, which fire furiously forth, creating a building momentum. The words have a repeated mantra: “Dirty jokes/plastic boats/Yes I’m leaving/Leaving you all behind!”. It is the composition as a whole that is most impressive of all. There is a raw and bare-boned feel to the music, which is one of the most authentic slices of blues on the album. The guitars swell and throb; stabs and retreat. The drums clatter and canter furiously, pushing and driving the intensity. It is a real thrill ride, and puts you in mind of driving down a highway, wind in your hair. It is the kind of song that you would crank up to 10, and damned be anyone who tries to stop you. When the guitar scuffs, there is a sage drop of glam rock; whilst within the ice cold fists of steel there is a distinct sound of punk. It is 161 seconds of U-turns, mind bends and mood switches and leaves you, in a sense, nonplussed. Your soul and brain have been given so much information and emotional fervency that it wears you down with a big smile on your face 9.6
With a nimble guitar opening, ‘Reality Bites’ morphs into a Rolling Stones jam, all angular, dissonant, sexual and thrusting. It has a punk mise en scene, albeit one with a post-modern twist. Our frontman’s vocals are again impassioned and primal. The music is a mixture of parping brass and grumbling guitars, and, the abiding message is that you have to face reality, “before it bites ya”. The song itself bites, and has a real sound of The Kinks at its heart, and an overall ’60s rock-meets-punk-cum-Northern soul vibe. Although not one of the strongest of the track, it is a worthy and strong counter narrative to the more sedate and emotional songs, and is short and sweet, never wasting a word or outstaying its welcome. It embeds its message in your brain efficiently, and goes on its way. 8.7
Ramping the tension and elevating the mood, comes a Dylan-influenced intro. It has a great ‘Highway 61 Revisted’ ‘60s electric blues rhythm and gets off to the races. The vocals; a wee bit Turner, a shade Dylan, are confident and sardonic, yet manage to uplift as well. The lyrical snatches: “I wear my grandad’s shoes” and “Don’t be a hero John/sit back down/Before they break your teeth” displays a typical Yorkshire wit and evocative charm. It has a very chant-able feel to most of the song, and could easily be a song you would bellow, whilst negotiating the dangers of the highway, having spent a memorable evening down the local pub. It ends all too quickly, being quick the tease! Although it is another track, like ‘William’ that is memorable and catchy, without having to spread itself out and filling gaps. It is sharp, yet has a loose charm to it and will put a smile on your face, as it is fun and up for a laugh, and implores you to sing along. 9.0.
Being the only song of the 13 on the album to top the 5 minute mark, ‘Damages’ , sets out its stall as a potential vote winner, and pivotal centrepiece to persuade any hearts and minds not completely in love with johnnythefirth, to do so bloody sharpish. With a tender vocal and a sense of universality to the compositional integrity to the song, this is the outfit’s argumentum ad populum. The poetry of the track is pure and undistilled. There is a real urgency to the words: “I’m so young/Why do I feel so old?”, are inflected with a lyrical falsetto, complete with elongation, to add extra emphasis. The chorus is more rousing, employing as it does a crew of backing vocal to help the sentiments resonate. Detached as it is from the mantel of ‘traditional blues and punk’ it is an aching and sensitive child. It has elements of Jeff Buckley and Matt Corby, and there is a great vocal range on display here. Like those worldly fellows, Jonny has an addling, spine curved earnestness to his message: “You are my saviour/My ever-lasting rose”. It has gospel tinges when you hear the backing vocals. It gives those same kind of chills. The track is rousing and epically sweeping in places, acting as an emotional and spiritual pre-pro-peptide, and another notch in the belt of our Yorkshire lad. 9.2
With its wall of feedback and metallic chug, bringing to mind a 50ft robot stalking London, rendering landmark upon landmark to rubble, ‘Pitbull Blues’ tells you all you need to know. It has snarl and teeth, and fetid breathe; our afflicted hero protesting: “Bit by/Bit by a woman/Bit by a pitbull”. The track has a lot in common with the blues legends, mentioned previously. Whilst those men would talking about throwing bricks at their women, and swearing bloody revenge upon their sweethearts, the mood here less misogynistic and more biting in its wit and tongue-in-cheek humour. That tsunami of a swollen riff in the background is lord of the manor, and stands at the gates of hell, chainsaw in hand, daring you to step forward. Our poor protagonist is low on funds and luck but, low and behold, his lady arrives, swings for the fences and wants nothing but his cash. As Jonny attests, in a triple, double negative: “I haven’t got none”. It is another short track that I could well have liked to hear on a release like White Blood Cells or The Von Bondies or Hives. It has a raw and razor wire vocal bark, and a Juggernaut of a backing. 9.6
With perhaps a nod of self-referential onomatopoeia, ‘Boom Bang’ explodes and cracks, beginning as it does with a fuzzy and dizzy guitar riff. Undertones of The White Stripes’ ‘Rag and Bone’ linger within the beast as well, as ‘White Album’-era Beatles. Just as you are slipping into the music, an ear-shattering scream bellows forth. The lyrics are awash with wit and bile, as Jonny recalls spending time: “in the shittest town on Earth”. There is self-assessment, reflective pronouns, and speculative intrigue and wild imagery (“She goes bang/And I go boom”) amidst a rousing cacophony of blues noise and intent. It is another example of jonnythefirth’s ability to produce fresh sounding blues, alive with tension and excitement, yet retain and pervade elements of classic and modern classic blues rock artists, who have a keen eye for a harder punk edge. 9.2
Ending with a more gentle affair, we end our trans-continental blues punk odyssey with ‘Sing for the Miners’. The final track has a gentle folk charm to it, that has some similarities with Crowded House, at their most contemplative and analytical. The chorus ends with: ‘Sing for the miners/They’ll never come back’, and has an inevitable emotion to it that does not surrender easily. It is perhaps a very English or very Yorkshire song, in the sense that a lot of the economy, up until recently, was centered around mining. Now that the sector is all but extinct, it seems like a tale of a sadly bygone age and landscape. There are vivid lyrical snippets: ‘Blood on the grass’, nestling alongside intangible and intriguing phrases: ‘Drinking Earl Grey/Whilst you’re on the moon’. The track is one of the more accomplished and noteworthy ‘slower’ tracks on the album and is a fine way to bring the collection to an end. 8.8
If you have not heard of jonnythefirth, then you really need to. I am a big fan of blues and punk, as well as modern oral historians of the genres, such as The White Stripes. There are a lot of similarities to be heard within ‘Broken Bones’. The guitars are diverse and intriguing. At their most primal and urgent, they are electrifying and awe-inspiring; whilst when toned down they are equally impressive, yet enunciate a more sincere and sensitive side to proceedings. I was impressed from start to finish, and was impressed by the lyrical depth and wit, and were never heavy-handed or immature. There is a real heart and bite to the range of topics and sentiments illustrated. The vocals were constantly intriguing, imbued with an authentic blues timbre throughout, swaying between pugnacious roustabout and tender-hearted Romeo. It is the overall concoction of all these ingredients that makes the album such compelling listening. There are few blues punk bands, no least based in the U.K. at the moment. Amongst the swarm of pop, soul, and 3rd rate rock, it is refreshing and inspiring to hear such a confident and diverse artist who at once can make music sound so fresh, and at the same time so familiar, never succumbing to predictability or pastiche.
I can point at few lows. The songs are predominately tight and focused, and the track order is salient and well structured. I would say there is a minor decrease in quality around the 2/3 mark; where the mood slows, some of the momentum is lost. The songs are great, but perhaps a track such as ‘William’ sandwiched between them, would create an intrigue contradiction, thus creating exhilaration and unpredictability. It is admirable that there are slower, more artful and tender moments to be found amongst the blues Armageddon. ‘Reality Bites’ is a nice little number, but maybe the weakest song, and could have fared a tad better towards the top third of the album. There is a slight front loaded feel as well. Two of the best four tracks of the lot occur within the first stage of the album, and sets an incredible benchmark. The track order is impressive, but perhaps shifting one of the livelier numbers towards the 2/3 mark or as a final track, would have created a pleasing circularity, and ended things on an audible and exciting high. They are minor quibbles and I can find little else to disagree with.
There are a lot of great artists emerging from the stalls of Cuckoo Records, and another gem has been uncovered. Jonnythefirth has been around for a while, and has built up a loyal fan base. I feel that his music should receive a wider-reaching focus and adoration as he has a mix of sheer talent and daring cavalier spirit to his musicianship and diversity. Check out the album, and hear a genrere of music that is much unappreciated in the U.K. and a lot of Europe. I have the feeling, if another album like ‘Broken Bones’ can be unearthed, or if Jonny keeps ploughing on fervently, then…
… the spirit of blues punk will not be confined to the U.S. for too long.
Key tracks: ‘Just the Way I’m Feeling’ ‘William’, ‘Another Number Another Name’ and ‘Pitbull Blues’.