NINE BELOW ZERO It's Never Too Late! Zed ZCD1009 (2009)
How the world has grown up. It's three decades since Stan's Blues Band became Nine Below Zero and repositioned British R&B at the heart of the Mod movement.
Three decades on and one split and reformation later, the band long ago settled on the classic line-up of founder member Dennis Greaves on guitar and former Rory Gallagher personnel of Gerry McAvoy, bass Brendan O'Neill on drums and Mark Feltham on harp. And while Greaves remains the familiar face and provides much of the writing, it's a band effort as befits a road tested bunch of veterans with a fine song writing sensibility.
On the opening Greaves/Feltham penned 'Mechanic Man', there's a hint of a country on a road song on which Dennis makes his guitar sound like Gram Parsons alongside some beautiful harp from Mark Feltham. It's a classic opener that admirably sets the standard for the other ten tracks.
The following 'Breaking Down' reverts to the band's old blueprint of short, sharp, shock filled R&B, full of mighty riffs, jerky rhythms and a drum tight rhythm section. It's the sort of song that will sit effortlessly in the band's enduing live repertoire.
Dennis 'Hit The Spot' continues his fascination with Keith Richard's riffs while Brendan emulates Charlie Watts' powerful but unfussy beat.
And aligned with some Stonesy sounding bv's it's another tough rocker and crowd pleaser of the highest order. Gerry McAvoy meanwhile nuances the McCartney bass line from 'She's A Woman' on the lyrically astute 'You're the Man' on which Dennis manages to rhyme Stephen Hawken with 'talkin' and 'pyjamas' with bananas' on killer track.
The altogether more MOR 'Little By Little' has some 60's sounding harmony singing while Mark weaves his spell over Brendan loud kettle drum. And as if to confirm that the band is not resting on its laurels they continue to push the stylistic envelope on the rootsy 'The Story of Nathan John'. Opening with a Glenn Tillbrook banjo line, Nine Below explore some country tinged harmonies on a catchy sing-along hook. Mark Feltham's sonorous harp acts as the perfect foil on another excellent track.
The liner notes suggest the band have approached the album conceptually as they divide the running order into side one and two, with side two featuring more of Dennis songwriting skills.
The up tempo, riff driven 'I'm So Alone' features a double tracked guitar line and could easily have come from either an early Dr. Feelgood album and is a distant cousin of the bands own early career.
But Dennis can never be pigeonholed and he works up a smoking lilting groove on 'It's Never Too Late'. In many respects this is the closest Dennis will ever get to a rapped out narrative. It's a surprisingly cool effort that is full of a big back beat and starling harp swoops, before Mark responds to Dennis's invocation; 'why dont'cha blow your face out man? Mark duly obliges with another great solo, before a perfunctory ending.
'Hit the Ground Running' features guest guitarist Ian Cummins and has a hook that a lot of FM rock bands would kill for. It's another fine Greaves penned effort - all clever word plays, crunching riffs, chiming guitars and dynamic harp.
The following 'A Man Out of You' sounds almost like a coda of 'Hit the Ground' with its insistent vocal line and another sing-along hook. Glenn Tilbrook adds an eastern inference on sitar while Greaves Jnr. adds bv's.
There's a full complement of family friends on 'Fairweather Friends' which employs a New Orleans shuffle beat and gospel style outro.
The band nicely round things off with 'You' another Greaves/Feltham penned rocker. It's a big sounding arrangement from the Springsteen School of exclamatory choruses and a booming hook. Only a sudden ending robs us of what could have been a worthy climactic finish to the band's best effort since 'Ice Station Zebra'.
Review by Pete Feenstra
Get Ready to ROCK! Radio Features Editor Pete Feenstra talks to Dennis
(13:38) Real Audio required