Back in the 1980s, Neil Young’s label sued him for making albums “unrepresentative” and “[un]characteristic of Neil Young.” Essentially, Young was sued for not sounding like himself. Which seems impossible, but also somehow makes sense. There are expectations for how an artist should sound. Some degree of change is acceptable. But beyond a certain point, an artist can change too much. Which makes singer/guitarist J.P. Soars’ Let Go of the Reins all the more impressive. He changes things up while still sounding like himself.
Where Soars’ 2018 album, Southbound I-95, had interesting jazz touches, Let Go of the Reins hits some solid country rock notes. But Soars remains true to his sound, beginning with his vocals, which are amazingly gritty. While no one will ever be able to perfectly reproduce Howlin’ Wolf’s legendary rasp, which could sand the edges off of a steel door, Soars definitely manages to achieve some Tom Waits-level vocal gruff.
Soars’ blues rock songs are solid. He has a tight guitar tone and a very 1970s blues rock style. I appreciate its throwback nature. It’s not an assault of notes, but rather a lot of speed, melody, and intensity. Everything you need to know about Soars’ style is contained in the track “Freddie King Thing,” which despite its name, is also a generous thank you nod to Stevie Ray Vaughan and his instrumental, “Scuttle Buttin’.” Soars is obviously a devoted King disciple, but he also lets in other artists.
Where things get interesting, though, is when Soars gets into other genres. “Let It Ride” is a jolly, upbeat country song. Vocally, Soars smooths out his voice just a bit, since it’s like trying to tame a giant cowlick with a tiny comb. But the attempt reads as sweet. It also gives Soars the chance to let loose with some charming country-influenced guitar work. And it’s pure country. You almost feel like you’re at a fair someplace.
“Old Silver Bridge” also has a different energy. It’s acoustic, featuring some beautiful dobro. The quieter arrangement puts more of a spotlight on a lovely Soars vocal performance, although his just-as-lovely guitar work gives the singing a run for its money. Soars goes full Waits on “Have Mercy on My Soul,” a desperate performance that makes you legitimately worry about Soars’ spiritual well-being.
We’re all creatures of habit. We tend to do things the same way and to privilege familiarity. Soars understands that but also pushes back against it, creating an album that has familiar elements but also explores slightly different directions. Part of that might be due to producer Tab Benoit, a talented guitarist who is apparently versatile, too, as he handles the album’s drumming. Or perhaps Soars just has an innate sense of how and when to change. And maybe Young should grab Soars’ phone number. Just in case.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Let It Ride
– Freddie King Thing
– Old Silver Bridge
– Lonely Fire
– Have Mercy On My Soul
The Big Hit
– Have Mercy On My Soul
Review by Steven Ovadia