Some people, with no effort, are preternaturally cool. Many bluesmen share this trait, making it unsurprising that it belongs to Ryan Perry. On the other hand, his voice is surprising. It has the unique quality of sounding young and old at the same time; whether he’s in his 20s or 40’s is difficult to ascertain from timbre alone. The writing also belies the age of the writer. High Risk, Low Reward is a mix of original blues, blues-rock twists and rave-ups, and thoughtful introspective musings. Carrying a musical pedigree honed over many years with a family band, Perry’s first foray into a solo career comes bearing high rewards, with the risks taken to achieve them baked into the soul and structure of the songs. There is nary a false note.
Perry’s guitar prowess, with all his varied and creative solos, both drive and adorn the songs, starting immediately with “Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone.” With an extended instrumental passage that spans the album’s opening minute, a relaxed rhythm carries the cleverly told blues tale about failed romance, set between guitar flourishes. “I know what I bring to the table, so I ain’t afraid to eat alone,” is a fresh blues turn of phrase that fits well with his uncanny ability to channel the blues tradition without sounding staid. Perry shares an even tighter and sharper “bluesism,” pining that he’s “homesick for that open road,” in the aptly titled “Homesick.” Besides the clever wordplay, the central riff and chunky chords that share duties in propelling the music forward exude a certain confidence. The song is coolly mellow, but kept interesting by striking backing vocals and the omnipresence of Perry’s guitar, which threatens to unexpectedly burst open at any time.
“A Heart I Didn’t Break” is one of the album’s best and highlights Perry’s ability to craft bridges and bridge-like sections that elevate songs above standard blues structures. On this tune, aside from being a great section in its own right, the bridge exits by leaving the song in a different place than where it started. The background singers are moved to the front of the mix and the deliberate, driving bass pulls the song through to the end, allowing Perry freedom to deliver a soulful, solo outro.
“Pride” and “Changing Blues” vary the offerings with a change of tempo and tone. Both feature inward-looking lyrics revealing a very different side of an artist who has the chops and attitude to casually fall into the braggadocio, bluesman caricature. That he doesn’t is yet another nod to his unusual maturity. Make sure to catch the brief quoting of “Pure Imagination” in the waning moments of “Pride.”
One of Perry’s archetypal sounds is that of the slow-burning, swampy groove found in both the title track, “High Risk, Low Reward,” and the album closer, “Hard Times.” With buzzy lead fills and a rhythm guitar overdriven to the point of constant crackling, he sings with a voice so filled with gravel that Howlin’ Wolf would be proud of these numbers, not to mention the cover of his own “Evil Is Going On.”
Underneath, behind and around these songs is the understated but indispensable work of rhythm tandem Roger Inniss (bass) and Lucy Piper (drums). High Risk, Low Reward contains several great aspects. One of them is the evident freedom that Perry has to pivot as he pleases, and another is the subtle coloration and rock-solid support of the rhythm section. This is a fun, imaginative blues album without qualification. Viewed as the solo debut that it is, the blending of the old and new, a palpable love of music, and top-tier talent make it that much more impressive. Another LP of this caliber and the hard times that Perry speaks of should soon become a distant memory.
The Review: 8.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– A Heart I Didn’t Break
– High Risk, Low Reward
– Hard Times
The Big Hit
– High Risk, Low Reward
Review by Willie Witten