Three albums into a solo recording career Sam Lewis has released a stripped down, lay it all bare fourth called ‘Solo’. The new release is a presentation of songs from his first three well-received albums, plus a small handful of new material. The album’s simple title emphasises that this is a man alone – just him with microphone, acoustic guitar and studio audience. Lewis comes with a reputation as a soulful singer and story-teller. Having once been dubbed “a modern Townes Van Zandt” by Nashville heavyweight Chris Stapleton he has left himself no place to hide.
And the good news is that no secluded cranny is needed, Lewis possesses a memorable voice and coupled with solid song writing which simultaneously entertains and thought provokes, he can claim his place in the spotlight with no disquietude. So has he pulled it off and delivered a compelling one man offering? Well, in truth, not quite. Across many, actually most, criteria this is an album well worth carving out time to get to know. But there are just a couple of things that could have been thought through which could have lifted this release from very good to really super.
First, let’s dwell a little on Sam’s performances here. He really has a lovely voice that invites approval; what is not to like in a smooth soulful delivery? Combined with his song writing, the record never ceases to be individual, but at the same time nestles the listener next to some comfortingly familiar landmarks. So the album opener, and new song, ‘What Does it Mean’ is immediately reminiscent of Nathaniel Rateliff. At other times he is more Southside Johnny with, as the latter might say, “Vintage sounding contemporary soul”. And that is not bad for just one man and his guitar! At other times, the sparseness of the format, and the content of the song, is more Springsteen Nebraska. Amazingly ‘I’m a River’ conjures Van Morrison, while, I kid you not, ‘Southern Greek Tragedy’ could have come straight off ‘Blood on the Tracks’. If all this seems like trial by comparison that is not the intention; it is to show the strength, breadth and versatility of someone who is their own man writing strong material. And, if you are finding someone for the first time, you want to get a feel for where they are coming from right? So far so good.
So what are those niggles? There are just a couple but it is a pity they were not higher on the agenda for the meeting that sprung this album idea. First, the album is 19 songs long. Sure it is great value for money, but one man and his guitar do have some limitations (despite the note earlier about breadth). Less feel the width and more punch would be the order here. Second, this album was recorded at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville in front of a live audience. You get a sense of the chemistry, but that sense is diminished by the audience presence being restricted to a smattering of applause at the end of each song. There is precious little interaction, so what we have falls between the stools of a ‘live’ recorded take and an actual live record where the audience is part of the feel of the performance.
Lewis has a reputation as a story teller and we get, at the beginning of the song ‘Neighbors’ a peal of laughter when Lewis delivers the first line. Clearly they were reacting to whatever was said before, but we have no idea. I want to know that story. Drop a song to fit a little more talk in seems appropriate; sure, not a whole lot but at 19 songs making a couple of minutes available to introduce material would make this album feel more inclusive. Without it, this feels like the musical guest at the end of a Sunday political show or arts programme where the feedback is limited to studio crew applause as the titles scroll. The one bit of talking we get is when Lewis tells us he wrote the next song in the UK before going into ‘Things Will Never Be the Same’. Now there is a chance to connect with your listeners!
In sum – great tunes, playing and singing, but just off target with the format which is a shame.