Calling their 12h album Blues is a definite and deliberate statement for Alabama 3. The blues is one of many styles that they’ve experimented with over their history, and they have melded it to their own preferred shape. It’s also the genre that’s most central to their presentation. Alabama 3 are not from Alabama – they’re of course from Brixton – and there are more than three of them, but there’s a cod-Deep South vibe to their music even when they are playing acid house. The fact that the two lead vocalists style themselves Larry Love and The Very Reverend Dr D Wayne Love is a factor in that, but so is the fact that they’ve never been afraid to drop a harmonica solo over a techno beat.
An album called Blues by a band called Alabama 3 suggests something more archetypally southern, however, and it’s true that the record is less eclectic than their most recent releases. For 2011’s Shoplifting 4 Jesus they opened themselves up to electro-pop and hip-hop influences, while 2013’s The Men From W.O.M.B.L.E. and its sister album The Wimmin From W.O.M.B.L.E. leaned heavily towards rave rather than to hoedown. So this solidly blues-rock album is a clear repositioning.
Opening track (I’ll Never Be) Satisfied finds Alabama 3 displaying more than a streak of black humour. ‘Everybody knows I killed Brian Jones,’ the song begins, and it then becomes a catalogue of famous rock ‘n’ roll deaths for which the narrator claims responsibility. It somehow feels reasonable to evoke the likes of Hank Williams and Billie Holiday in this context, but references to the more recent deaths of David Bowie and Lemmy make the song feel truly morbid – no bad thing, but there may well be listeners who feel it’s still too soon.
That dark feel returns in Vigilante Man, which begins with chiming guitar and tolling bells, while D. Wayne Love sings in his most Johnny Cash-like tone of how the vigilante man is coming after you. The vibe initially recalls Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, but the song quickly mutates into a slightly awkward shuffle that detracts from its gloom. Elsewhere there are slower, more mournful efforts, but they are less memorable than the album’s moments of swagger.
Nothing To Lose But Your Chains is an odd moment, in which Rob Spragg seems to drop his Larry Love alter ego for a moment to start the song with a spoken word piece about how “I grew up in the shadow of the Aberfan disaster”. His natural Welsh accent comes through, but it’s still tempered slightly by the put-on drawl of Larry Love, as if that’s something he can’t quite shake off. There is more spoken word interlude in Jonestown Blues – a soul-inflected highlight – but that’s high camp, with D Wayne Love in full southern preacher mode as he makes a quasi-religious proclamation. He’s similarly televangelical in the equally excellent Lost And Found.
At times Blues sounds rather like a band trying to find their way back to the blues genre after an exploratory hiatus, and perhaps that’s what it is. Alabama 3’s recent ravey albums might not have been to the taste of all longstanding fans, but Blues probably will be. Nevertheless, there are a couple of tracks here that sound a bit middle of the road. Whether they are channelling country and western or acid house, Alabama 3 are at their best when they let go, embrace the fact that they’ve successfully sustained their eclectic sound and bizarre personas for over 20 years, and lose themselves to their own warped version of the blues.