Selwyn Birchwood: Living in a Burning House Review

Singer/guitarist Selwyn Birchwood has an old-fashioned, raspy blues voice. One that makes him sound like he might be in his late 70s, existing on a diet of cigarettes, bourbon, and disappointment. He’s actually much younger and healthier-looking (at 6’3″, he resembles a college point guard), but on Living in a Burning House, he uses the sheer bluesiness of his voice to craft songs that may wander from the genre, but always return to the blues.

One of the fun things about the album is the push and pull into and out of the blues. On the one hand, you have Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and also his guitar and lap steel playing, which veer from the traditional to Jimi Hendrix, always tethered to a blues rock sound. But then you have his band, which features saxophone courtesy of Regi Oliver. The versatile Oliver delivers different sax styles, providing sonic depth, giving tunes an uptown blues feel, and even laying down some leads, sometimes like Junior Walker, and sometimes with a poppier and/or jazzier flavor. Birchwood and his band have a lot going on, but every track is thoughtfully constructed.

“Through a Microphone” epitomizes the album’s vibe. Oliver’s horns make him sound like the entire B.B. King orchestra. Birchwood’s vocal grit makes you wonder if this is a concert recording from the 60s, decades before he was born. But the guitar is wild, with a Hendrix-like liquidity, where it feels like the guitar is melting into the track, quenching its own thirst. There are quite a few production and songwriting choices that could have made this track sound either modern or old, but instead Birchwood and the band refuse to choose, and select both time periods.

“Freaks Come Out at Night” has Birchwood playing lap steel over a relentless groove that’s like a train bearing down on the listener. Slowed down, it would be a country blues, but with its brisk tempo, augmented by occasional drum bursts, it has a punk energy. The energy comes without punk’s anger, though; think the North Mississippi Allstars after too much coffee.

“One More Time,” is a straight-up 50s’ soul ballad, complete with a lovely saxophone solo. “I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned” is harder to categorize, with funk drums, Birchwood’s wild lap steel, and Mardis Gras saxophone. There’s call-and-response, and the song components each sound familiar alone, but together, like nothing you’ve heard before. Living in a Burning House is all about surprises, within songs and between them.

The pre-pandemic argument for buffets was that they offer something for everyone. Of course, variety came at a cost of quality. Birchwood has not only created a high-quality buffet, he’s somehow allowed all of the food to mix together, making something even more delicious than the individual dishes. It’s the type of album where you’ll decide to focus on one aspect on each listen, just to appreciate the range of flavors he’s assembled.

The Review: 9/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– Freaks Come Out at Night
– I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned
– One More Time
– Through a Microphone

The Big Hit

– Through a Microphone

Buy the album: Amazon | Amazon UK

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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