As you can see above, the new CD by Layla Zoe has a stunning cover (shot by Jacques Clérin). Having heard whats on the two silver discs inside, I can safely say that the contents are equally stunning. If there’s any justice, then ‘Gemini’ (released on October 5), should put Layla up there with the very best Blues/Rock vocalists of this, or any other Age, for that matter. Gemini, the sign of the twins, is fittingly a double pack. One disc acoustic, and one very much electric (we’re into Led Zeppelin territory here at times). Whilst it is very much Layla’s album, Bonn guitarist Jan Laacks shines too on here, and this disc was also produced right here in Bonn.
The first words about this extraordinary disc should come from Layla herself, written when the project first began. “I started writing for this album with my guitarist Jan Laacks (who is also a Gemini!) in 2017, and together we wrote over 30 songs together. We have chosen our favourite 20 tracks for this very special project which features tones of blues, rock, and folk to showcase the genres I love so deeply and to demonstrate the power and fragility of my voice”.
‘Gemini’ is, says Layla, an album she had already discussed with a previous label. For whatever reason, the time wasn’t right then. Now it very definitely is. There’s a huge, cathartic anger in much of the disc. As if a load, a weight, is being lifted from Layla’s shoulders. This isn’t a disc to play with the children in earshot. There’s some pretty strong language on here at times that reaches it’s peak on the opening electric tracks ‘Weakness’ and ‘Dark World’. But let’s not jump too far ahead. We would miss some of the best music that Layla Zoe has ever laid on disc if we did.
Opener on the acoustic disc, which is labelled ‘FRAGILITY’, is ‘She didn’t believe” and fittingly it sets the scene for much of whats to come. A confrontation with her own spirit. “I need protection in this fight against myself”. sings Canada’s firegirl. A beautiful song to start the collection. Jan Laacks is my favourite guitarist these days. He doesn’t play over the music or under it – he plays with it. Never too much or too little. That knack he has of finding just the right level of backing starts right here on track one – and stays throughout the collection.
‘I’ll be Reborn Blues’ sees redemption, a saviour, come in the form of ‘My Old Man’ who teaches her how to be a stronger woman. Before the Men out there puff out their shoulders and feel good about their manhood, I should warn, you are going to get shot to pieces on later tracks – so enjoy the moment here! Jan has put on his Robert Johnson shoes for this one, so just sit back and enjoy Blues fans. Moving on from Robert Johnson as musical inspiration, ‘Turn this into Gold’ is a slow-walking Blues in the style of John Lee Hooker, with cracking slow-talking vocals from Layla “I’ll take these bad vibes you’re throwing at me – and turn them into gold” she sings – and isn’t that the truth. Taking a bad experience and turning it into something of benefit. It makes me think of my first meeting with Layla when something bad had happened. She was angry and wanted to turn the anger around by singing it out of her system. The songs on ‘Gemini’ are not just based on experiences, they are very much Layla’s own collected experiences – which makes them so very compelling!
‘The Deeper They Bury Me’ deals with the true story of Hermann Wallace, one of the ‘Angola Three’. A man who spent some 41 years, mainly in a solitary confinement cell, despite a lack of real evidence against him. Finally, in 2013, Amnesty International appeals led to his release. It was short lived as he died just three days later. Wallace recalled that he spent 23 hours a day in a cell that he could move from front to back in with just four steps. His celebration of freedom was brief. The Blues truly don’t get any deeper blue.
‘Mumbai’ is hypnotic with Layla’s voice more delicate than it’s ever sounded before. One to close your eyes to, Lay back, and dream – of Mumbai. ‘The Good Life’ has a JL Hooker tone about it. Musically slow Blues, vocals that soar and swoop. I love too the understated accompaniment from Jan Laacks on steel guitar. Next track, ‘I Can’t Imagine My Life Without You’ is a bit of a conundrum for me… There is some fine folk guitar picking by Jan Laacks here, but a light laptop steel sound in the back that pushes into Country territory. Not quite Folk enough to be one or Country enough to be another – and the lyrics “I can’t imagine my life, without you. I’d like to live in a cabin built for two”… just don’t seem to carry the weight that the rest of the (both) discs do. Not, as you’ve guessed, my favourite track here.
Thank goodness we’re back to some solid Blues for ‘Freedom Flowers’ and proof of how good Layla’s writing has become: “Looking for some water, to help my little seedlings grow” might just have sneaked past the BBC censors many years ago – or maybe it really is just an innocent song about finding seeds in the garden? Don’t spend too much time thinking about that one though or you will miss my favourite on the first disc: ‘Let Go’ is the best thing Layla Zoe has done to date. One of those songs that sound so simple and so perfect. A plaintive piano melody on repeat – simply beautiful. You almost don’t want to be distracted by a vocal. But Layla’s vocal is as perfect as the melody. Why doesn’t she use a piano backing more often? I thought ‘The Lily’ was as beautiful as it gets – I was wrong. This song is spellbinding. ‘Rainbow, Pacmen and Unicorns’ is good too – and has me wanting to ask how she got the three together in her mind for a title? Must have been one hell of a party. The song’s key is a tricky one, that Layla manages to stay on course in throughout.
Is that really the end? I would happily have two discs like that one. The end of ‘FRAGILITY’ isn’t just the end of disc one though, this set isn’t in two parts and called ‘Gemini’ for nothing as we are about to find out. Goodbye Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. Say hello to Robert Plant and David Coverdale. Things are about to ROCK!
‘COURAGE’ is Layla’s, shall we say, ‘other side’. Judging by track one it’s a side you don’t want to mess with. The Led Zepp riffing that kicks things off leaves no doubt this won’t be filled with Pacmen and Unicorns. Where side one was sung from the heart, side two is sung at times from the gall-bladder, you know, that place where bile is stored – and released. In the case of ‘Weakness’, it’s aimed squarely at men. Users and abusers. They can’t help it she sneers. Like her Momma said: “Men can’t help it Honey – they’re just weak!”. Even with the rock backing, Layla’s vocal drowns it all out emphatically. Powerful stuff indeed. I was glad to get out of that one alive, but ‘Darkness’ was waiting for me as next track up, and I’m starting to feel like I should, as a man, apologize. For being, well, a man. The language on the last two tracks certainly would stop Layla getting BBC airplay back in the day. Can you say ‘c**ks***er’ on the radio today? The language on ‘Ghost Train’ is safer. The song has a heavy beat and a heavy message not to get obsessed with your own ambition and lose sight of everyone and everything around you.
The track ‘Gemini’ itself sees Layla duetting with herself to good effect. There are, as pointed out, two ‘I’s’ in Gemini. and both of them are featured here so to speak. Funky but fun. ‘Roses and Lavender’ is a break from the intensity of disc two thus far and could also have been a track on disc one. It finds Jan Laacks picking notes perfectly even as Layla plucks the words just as perfectly from her heart. ‘White Dog’ is hard ‘n’ funky and we’re back on a mean and moody rock track that has excellent drum work from Dirk Sengotta, and Jan getting to let it blow on lead guitar at last. Is this about someone in particular? Tell me please Layla – I won’t let on…
‘Automatic Gun’ is Whitesnake territory again, but I’m not complaining. “We are the weak, we are the prey” She sure doesn’t sound like either here. Hard ‘n’ Heavy. If you’ve survived the Hard hitting rock up to here you get a prize in the Rock Ballad ‘Are you still alive inside’. Even better, you also get ‘Little Sister’ which is an irresistible mix of John Mayer and Bob Marley.
I’ve taken it out of its order on this disc, but ‘Bitch with the head of red’ encapsulates disc two. Now, who could that be? It’s all about ‘The darkness in a woman’s soul’ with a riff out of the Whitesnake ‘Lovehunter’ days mixed with a pissed off Tina Turner vocal. You are unlikely to hear this on your friendly radio station. There are no punches pulled on this second disc. I can see now why Layla says she couldn’t get this concept out with her earlier labels. Disc one? Okay, fine, but a little too ‘authentic Blues’ to ‘cross over’. Disc two? I can’t imagine Henrik Freischlader or Thomas Ruf letting most of these songs see the light of day without prudent lyrical censorship. Would she have benefited from having someone ‘reign her in’ like that? When I recommend that you buy ‘Gemini’ I do so with a warning. Do so only if you want to hear music that comes from the deepest part of a human soul. If you just want a cleverly written lyric and a nifty pop riff, check out people like that Sheeran guy. Layla’s musical world is both picture book beautiful and horror story ugly. It’s deep heat relaxing and deep cut wounding. It’s everything you would expect from a Gemini Firegirl.
Breath deep before pressing that ‘play’ button.