Layla Zoe certainly didn’t make it easy for herself. 2018’s superb double-disc ‘Gemini’ seemed to say everything that could be said and in the best way possible. It was electric, it was Blues, Funk, Gospel and Rock. It was the sum of all the releases before it. The subsequent ‘Retrospective Tour’ and disc suggested a watershed moment had been reached. Did it also leave the self-proclaimed firegirl literally with ‘Nowhere Left To Go’? – is this perhaps the aptest album title ever penned? Well, no, as it thankfully turns out. Whilst NLTG doesn’t re-invent the wheel as far as Layla’s music is concerned it is, thanks to plenty of new faces behind the songs, still a fresh as well as a strong statement from the heart. It also still showcases the lady’s amazing voice with that trademark emotional intensity that is the secret of Layla Zoe’s success.
Originally Layla’s current band for the last tour were pencilled in to record this new release. The best-laid plans of mice and men though met Corona, and studio recording with them got dropped.
Guy Smeets made it to the album, Paul Jobson though was tied up with other projects and still setting up a home studio so he couldn’t make it, whilst drummer Arie Verhaar was busy with teaching online in Rotterdam. As a result, Guy Smeets got general rhythm and lead guitar duties, bassist Gregor Sonnenberg returned to Layla’s studio band by virtue of having a home studio set up, and Dirk Sengotta, who played on ‘Gemini’ and also has a home studio got the drum-stool. Clearly, the most important accessory for a musician in 2020 is a recording facility in the house.
The new disc was recorded in Bremen, and Layla also produces it, which further increases her personal involvement in every aspect of the music production line, although she does have Nils Volcker on hand to record, mix and master. Most noticeable is the complete absence of Jan Laacks. That said though, aside from the forementioned dependable back-line of musicians, Layla has found some exceptional additional guest musicians to pool their talents. Each contributor brings his or her own distinctive sound to the tracks they worked on and their importance to the final product is clearly appreciated by Layla since each title features Layla plus a further musician in the song credits.
One name that leapt out at me was Bob Fridzema. Bob is very possibly the best Blues-Rock Hammond player out there, and King King are not quite King King anymore since he left them (even though replacement Jonny Dyke is as good a replacement as one could get). Fridzema though really is a bit special and he really does let his hair down on this disc. He’s loving every minute of his playing time and it shows. From the opening Gospel piano on ‘Pray’, through his soft-rolling Wurlitzer intro to ‘Sometimes We Fight’, or his beautifully phrased piano/Hammond work on the evocative ‘Susan’.
Alastair Greene gets the guitar chores on ‘Don’t Wanna Help Anyone’ and gives it a Hendrix feel, Guy Smeets rocks out on ‘Little Boy’ but shows a lighter touch on ‘Might Need To Fly’. Dimitri LeBel’s funky touch pushes ‘This Love Will Last‘ along pleasantly too, but I’m hoping that when Layla finally gets to tour this one she will have Jackie Venson at her side onstage. Venson’s’s star is definitely on the rise right now, she recently appeared on ‘Austin City Limits’ which is the US television equivalent of Europe’s ‘Rockpalast’, and judging by her playing on ‘Nowhere Left To Go’ her rise is well deserved.
I’m maybe giving the impression here that this is a guitar album. That’s far from the truth. It’s clear throughout that the licks serve the songs, and the songs are powered by the vocals. It’s perhaps a pity though that there are no lengthy guitar solos on offer given the quality of the contributors. I would love for Jackie Venson to have let rip for longer in particular.
So where do I start when describing one of the best voices in contemporary Rock music, as well as one of the best voices when it comes to belting out some Gospel? Not so long ago Layla’s Facebook friends were treated every Sunday to an acapella video and Opener ‘Pray’ could easily be such a track – just a soulful voice and nothing else needed. But then we would miss out on that equally soulful Fridzema piano magic. If I close my eyes I can see Bob and Layla in a down south church laying down this groove to an entranced congregation. A powerful opener for sure and it’s such a typical Layla Gospel style number that I was surprised to hear later it started out from a rough demo featuring Jackie Venson on piano.
The title track ‘Nowhere Left To Go’ is Layla’s observation on the wildfires in Australia based on a music demo from Venson. It’s a tough subject and gets some tough guitar riffing from Jackie with some equally tough vocals from Layla. ‘Sometimes We Fight’ similarly matches the vocals to the main instrument – this time a smooth soft rolling Wurlitzer sound from Fridzema and a similarly soothing vocal from Zoe who even puts in some nice harmonica work.
The Gemini in Layla will out, and it certainly does on ‘Don’t Wanna Help Anyone’. One of those no-holds-barred rockers that Layla chews up and spits out to great effect. Is that Hendrix on guitar? I’m not familiar with Alastair Greene as a guitarist, but clearly, from his playing on this track, he’s a fan of Jimi. We’re almost halfway through the disc already, and it’s clear, despite the fresh impetus of so many new contributors that the directness and intensity of Layla’s vocal performance on the previous studio release ‘Gemini‘ continues as if the recordings were made simultaneously.
Yes, that is a dog bark to introduce track five, so don’t go looking out the window for a runaway pooch. ‘This love will last’ is actually about a romance of a different kind – human to pet (and vice versa of course!) The puppy in question’s name is Leo, and Layla wrote the song for him. It makes me wonder how many other songs we assume to have been about inter-person relationships actually aren’t. But what the heck, a good love song is a good love song, and this is a good love song.
‘Susan’ is a fictional character but that doesn’t stop Bob Fridzema introducing her stylishly with a Hammond swirl and anyway, Layla makes us believe in this insecure girl struggling to find her feet in the male-dominated music world. “Susan – it’s time to shine. Go out and show them, what’s yours is mine”. “There’s only one way to be, to live this dream”. Well maybe there was a Susan once, and just maybe her name was actually Layla…
If Layla was indeed once Susan she is certainly not that insecure newbie anymore as ‘Little Boy’ proves. Suffice to say it’s another of those growling rockers that Layla loves to attack – and it’s good to hear that Guy Smeets is as explosive on guitar as the Canadian Lady is on vocals.
‘Might Need To Fly’ is the stand-out track on this disc to my ears. There is so much emotion in the vocals and so much detail in the lyrics that I actually worried that this tale of a woman remembering the good things in life as she sees herself losing a battle against chronic illness was maybe Layla being just a little too autobiographical. I was very much relieved when Layla revealed that the lady with the dog and the red car of the song isn’t actually her (that dog bark from Leo on track 5 started all this in my mind of course). So no, thankfully it’s not about Layla, but sadly it is a true story. I’ll let Layla herself take up the story:
“Might need to fly is written for my friend Janet who the album is dedicated to, and who was diagnosed with a rare form of MS…She was a very close friend of mine. She died while I was on tour in the Czech Republic in 2018. I was very lucky to have visited with her on a layover in Toronto on my way from BC to Europe, so I could spend a night talking with her, and I knew when I left it would be the last time I would see her. She started out as a fan but became a true friend who I will never forget. She taught me about strength and courage and independence on so many levels I had not known before. She will be truly missed by many. I am so grateful I could write this song to commemorate her”.
The track is up there with Zoe classics like ‘The Lily’ and ‘Father’ for pure emotion, and the moment when Layla sings for a short time Acapella is THE moment on what is for me THE track of the disc.
The theme of the following track ‘Lies’ is also rather a dark one. “Have you lost your souls, while tuned in to media lies?” she asks in a track dealing with lost children and sexual abuse being swept under the carpets of the rich. It’s not the first time Layla has addressed this issue, but this time it has a new and refreshing musical spin thanks to the lone accompaniment of Brandi Disterheft on stand-up bass. A perfect instrument to keep things simple and centred on the lyrics. Strong stuff indeed – but Layla Zoe has never shied away from putting her heart on her sleeve and she is unlikely to do so on discs where she pulls all the business strings. No fears of upsetting the management – she IS the management thankfully.
After all that heavy subject matter it’s a relief to get back to a simple love song – and this time of a human to human nature. What indeed could be more human than a daughter/mother love? I’m sure that many a daughter and mother can relate to lines in ‘Dear Mom’ like “We’re just so damn alike, that’s why we fight sometimes”. I’m reminded of a line from the ‘Gemini’ track ‘Weakness’ that exclaims “I forgive you, because of my Momma’s speak – she said ‘Men can’t help it honey. They’re just weak'”. A girl’s Mother is very probably her best teacher – whether she appreciates it or not. This folk song, pushed along effortlessly by Suzie Vinnick’s mandolin and embellished by James Stephens’ fiddle, treads that line of parental friction perfectly. “I promise to be there like you were there for me” sings Layla. Her mother is, I am pleased to say, alive and well – and will I am sure appreciate this ‘letter’ from her daughter.
The rest of us will also appreciate the messages from Layla Zoe on this, her 15th release. It’s a long time since Layla first walked into my musical life when I met her at an Ana Popovic show in Koblenz. She had a reputation even then for being a force of musical nature with a powerful voice to match a powerful vision. Nothing I’ve heard since then has changed that impression. I must admit that I was more than a little surprised, and disappointed too, that the terrific partnership she had developed with Jan Laacks had ended. Layla’s new disc though shows the old adage to be true – When one adventure ends, another begins. Consider ‘Gemini’ to be a stop-over on Layla’s musical journey rather than a terminus. ‘Nowhere Left to Go‘ suggests that the real musical journey for Layla Zoe is just beginning. This is music not just for the ears, but for the soul too.
Official Release Date: Jan 8, 2021 See LAYLA’S WEBSITE for further details.