LEE SMALL – Jamaica Inn

Lee Small is a British vocalist who has been slowly putting together an impressive CV since the 1990s, including performances with UK rock bands Native Soul and Pride.  With the latter, Small was given the opportunity to tour with melodic rock heavyweights Winger and British favourites Thunder.  For lots of people, however, he will be best known as being Tony Mills’s replacement with UK rockers Shy, whose 2011 self-titled disc was one of the year’s melodic/classic rock highlights.

Celebrating the styles of his biggest influences, ‘Jamaica Inn’ is Lee Small’s second solo album, following 2008’s ‘Through The Eyes of Robert Lees’.  Inspired by the famous Cornish inn, many of the songs have a nautical theme, something strongly reinforced by the packaging.  In this sense, it could loosely be seen as a concept album of sorts, but each of the songs stand alone very well.  Looking beyond the smuggling and piracy, simply put, what we have here is a fine release, capturing a gifted vocalist in great form.  What’s most obvious here – from about halfway through first listen – is that Small’s range is greater than his rather big performances on that aforementioned Shy release would ever suggest.  Yes, he can still do big and powerful, but it’s the more subtle elements within his performances here which really lend the album that extra something.

The title cuts kicks things off in classic fashion with a slab of 70s inspired hard rock. Behind the drumkit, Salute drummer Imre Daun packs a hefty rhythm, presumably in an attempt to echo drum parts of Zeppelin’s past, while the main riff swaggers with a touch of reverb, not unlike the best moments of Black Country Communion. The influence from Glenn Hughes, particularly, is one which is unavoidable in Small’s performance.   And what a great performance it is, with Small chopping in the big wails of his previous work with Shy, and instead channelling the best parts of Hughes and Paul Rodgers, often in a manner which never feels overdone.  ‘Captain’s Quarters’ brings more subtlety, as the musical edges are somewhat softened.  Coloured by some old fashioned organ (courtesy of Saracen’s Paul Bradder) and bluesy guitar runs, the tune is well-structured, as once again, Small adopts a tone not unlike classic Glenn Hughes.  In all, a superb track which doesn’t ever labour the point even though it’s stretched out over six minutes.  In fact, the soft bluesy guitar moments could possibly have been extended – such is the professional nature of Small’s hired hands on this particular number.

Showcasing a still softer mood, ‘I Am The Sea’ is a thoughtful piece bringing acoustic guitar work, gentle percussion and strong harmony vocals against sounds of the sea.  With a sleepy delivery, its lulling nature can be seen as mimicking the tide rolling back and forth.  Just as you think it’s building to something, it’s gone.  ‘Smuggler’s Blues’ begins with a similarly gentle air, but once it warms up, the listener gets treated to another great slice of bluesy hard rock.  Again, there’s more than a hint of Deep Purple Mark III and Glenn Hughes at play (okay, comparisons are somewhat unavoidable), but it’s a style which will be welcomed by a great many fans of classic rock, especially when Small sounds so natural filling such a role.  Like the title cut, Daun’s drums have a dominant part to play, but the guitar riffs come hard enough throughout to be an equal match for them.  It’s also great to hear Small exploring the bass a little more, laying down a few very busy parts on occasion.  Very enjoyable, indeed.

‘Walk The Plank’ brings something a little more throwaway, as the band move from blues based material to something more akin to boogie-rock.  As expected, Small takes the change in pace in his stride, while the rest of the band also performs well.  The guitars have a crisp tone while the drum lines are busy and slightly playful.  It could be said that the sense of fun here – and its overtly pirate-based nature – makes this track one of the less essential cuts, but the guitar playing and drumming help lend some weight throughout.  It’s certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination.  Returning to a more serious mood, ‘Shine a Light’ doesn’t offer anything greatly different to much of the best material showcased throughout ‘Jamaica Inn’, but still manages to be a highlight thanks to a great chorus and some lovely lead guitar work (both electric and acoustic).  Those with decent speakers may enjoy the sense of warmth Small’s bass work brings to the number, occasionally breaking from rhythm work into more complex styles.

Aside from the material penned especially for this release, the disc is padded out with a couple of well-chosen cover tunes.  A faithful cover of Gamma’s 1980 track ‘Voyager’ allows Small to stretch his curly voice over a bluesy rock riff.  Musically, it may seem fairly standard fare for these particular musicians, but the combination of another truly effortless vocal and atmospheric guitar work makes Small and Carl Anthony Wright a winning team.  It’s a great track from the outset, but becomes a cut above once Wright gets to cut loose on a smart solo.  It’s wonderful to see Gamma getting some attention, instead of Ronnie Montrose’s much lauded eponymous band!  Boyz II Men’s worldwide smash ‘End of the Road’ may seem like a left-field choice, but with the soulful elements pushed farther toward a bluesy direction, like ‘Voyager’, it proves to be a great vehicle for both Small and Wright. Both musicians sound perfectly natural on their take of the well known track.

Given Lee Small’s past work, ‘Jamaica Inn’ always had the potential to be a good record, but it has surpassed expectations.  In short, as an album which features plenty of well-crafted tunes, for many classic rock fans, it should be one on the “must buy” list.

January 2012