The Blog Is reviews Eliza Neals’ award-winning CD, ‘Messin’ With A Fool’
Messin’ With A Fool is Detroit music through and through, and Eliza Neals is a vocal powerhouse. The album is blues. It’s rock and more. It’s also a full spectrum of emotion with a decidedly modern, yet sparing production style driven by the ever present low volume percussive Telecaster sound of producer Martin “Tino” Gross. Tino has once again outdone himself on every track. What you get is a wildly successful collection of soulful songs that capture the essence of traditional and contemporary American music.
Terms like diva and chanteuse are often thrown around when her name comes up, but after a very close look at this album I cautiously think of her as the female Delbert McClinton, though such comparisons rarely do an artist in her league justice. Although this work is a thoroughly contemporary treatment of what is traditional, the subtext that unifies the material is blues and bluesy rock in the broad sense. Intertwined are elements of urban- and down-home soul, a trace of jazz, even traces of punk rock here and there, an occasional exuberant homage to the Rolling Stones in places, and even a flirtation with the “field holler” music that preceded the blues.
But wait, that’s not all. There is also New Orleans gris-gris, deconstructed Motown, mid-’60s rock ‘n’ roll (think Mitch Ryder), white Southern gospel, Holly Springs-style Mississippi hill country blues (think R. L. Burnside), one or two nods to modern dance music-style scratchy LP slips and slides, funky jazz, and playful absurdest avant gardeelements all designed to entertain. And there is the magic potion of Eliza Neals’ voice.
Good God, where to begin. “Can’t Stop” is the title track, so to speak, since the phrase “messin’ with a fool” actually takes place there. This is a Delbert McClinton-style song. It also contains swamp guitar licks with lead guitar pleasingly right on top of the vocals. It flows right into to the avant garde barn yard absurdity of “Pig.” Are all men pigs? I hope not, but what about the current discourse on the right? Oink, oink, dance music touches, too, the way Tino did R. L. Burnside’s very last record. Driving blues. Nice. That recording blended hip hop with hill country blues and it was ingenious. “Pig” is right out of the church, too, ironically enough. The song is good natured, but experienced, the persona Neals puts across throughout the entire album.
“I like pigs,” she declares at the start of the song. “I like me a cute old pig.” What’s not to like. They are the mainline smart critters of the bucolic landscape, the barnyard scene that is country blues. “I don’t care what you all says, I’m singing about a pig,” declares a voice at the start of the song, in spoken word fashion, that I think is most certainly Barrett Strong talking. He’s a famously affable critter, himself, a true Motown giant. I say he walks on water. “Barrett, do you like pigs?” she asks. This is funny stuff, “Pig.” It may be my favorite one.
But there are so many good ones. Take the Johnny Bee-authored song, “Rather Go To Jail,” that so supremely puts across his brilliant drum work formerly heard with Mitch Ryder back in the day, and now featured in both the Howling Diablos, fronted by Tino Gross, and the Rockets with Jim McCarty. This song starts off with a Latin rhythm and then breaks into a declarative horn, a trumpet. Wow. The horn punctuates throughout. And Eliza burns up the street. There’s a touch of gris-gris here, too, but not as much as track 4 and 5.
“ESP” will be a natural to vintage Dr. John fans the way the chorus starts out. “People, people,” they sing in several part dissonant harmony. It all takes you to a place you don’t know. Tino’s harp is a nice touch, too. The occasional modulation is also very nice. The mind transcendence thing has to have some voodoo to it, and some id. “It’s not about what’s real, it’s about the feel.” “In Charge” goes down the voodoo road even further. Holy gris-gris! Hot and cold running gris-gris. This is the anthem for an in-charge woman. “I’m in charge, I’m in charge,” repeat. Note the wha wha, too, this is a nice touch. And so is both is the overdubbing of Neals’ voice, and her percussive acoustic guitar.
That almost Stones feel is a Martin Gross hallmark. Consider Car Wash, for example. I want to do another review of that, a retrospective perhaps, with the last two Howling Diablos records combined in it. Are you listening Tino? Back to the review at hand. This is where “Shame” comes in. Detroit as rust belt is a constant here, with some of that Tino-style almost Rolling Stones thing anchoring it down. It’s kind of a Shame. “So I’m doin’ five years for robbing someone, ” Neals sings. “It’s kind of a shame, people got to do what they got to do.” You see the factory has closed down, it’s a Detroit thing. “He’s A Man’s Man” is great straight ahead rock. I like it. And there are songs “Misery” and “Love Hurts More,” too. So true.
“Rainin’ In Detroit” is a neo-Motown/blues song. Yes! But it also reminds me of that John Hiatt song that Buddy Guy recorded so well. The one about that big lake in New Orleans. It has lot’s of rain, too. Except this one is in Detroit City. “It’s rainin’ in my heart,” so it goes. Back to breakin’ a few rules. “Can’t Stop” is loaded with that Louisiana swamp content. Got to love it. “Every time I ask you a question all you do is put me down,” the singer laments. “I know when enough is enough.” Can’t get enough of that swamp, that progression. Crusin’ for a bruisin’. She goes though a lot. “Livin’ With Yo Mama” has that horn sound again. Bravo. I like the organ.
There’s a lot more here, but that’s all I have time for right now. What about “Money” and “Been a Long Time?” But who knows, after all, this is a blog. I might still get to it later on. All I can say is get your hands on the album. Twitter Eliza Neals @Eliza NealsRocks, call the executive producer, H. J Neals, at 646-522-0285, or visit The Detroit Diva on Facebook.
Naturally it’s an all-Detroit crew headed up by producer-collaborator Martin “Tino” Gross, who performs on guitar, and a mix of bass, some backup vocals and more on every track. As the producer, his masterful fingerprints are everywhere.
On piano are Leonard Moon and Jimmie Bones. Barrett Strong Jr. does some organ, Kenny Robinson is the trumpet man, and in addition to Tino, guitar parts are shared by Don Duprie and Mike Smith, as well as some acoustic guitar by lead vocalist Eliza Neals.
Backup vocals are provided by Barrett Strong Jr., Jimmie Bones, Carley Hartwell, Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and Gross. Bassists Mo Hollis and Don Duprie also contribute. It’s all about collaboration.
The team of producer Martin ‘Tino” Gross, and co-producers Barrett Strong Jr. and Eliza Neals have brought some really winning stuff to this fine indie CD. It is sparring, authentic and innovative with lots of cross-genre activity going on, but the entire package rocks on with the the blues tradition as a centerpiece. Gross is a much-in-demand producer and the front man for the Howling Diabos. Strong is a Motown legend. Neals is the diva. The CD was recorded at Martin “Tino” Gross’ recording crib, Funky D Studio, by Tino Gross, Detroit, Michigan, for E+ H Records, Detroit, Executive Producer, H. J. Neals, who can be reached at 646-522-0285.
The album cover photos and album design were conceived by HJN Consulting.com. The CD photo was taken by John Gnotek. It comes in a nice cardboard fold-over design with lot’s of valuable information, and with no jewel case to crack and break. There are also music videos of “Misery,” “Love Hurts More” and “Man’s Man” at Eliza Neals.com and posted on Youtube.com. Dig in, people, this is a good one.
1. “Misery” (D. Manchua) 2:47 seconds
2. “Man’s Man” (E. Neals / M. Gross) 3:07 seconds
3. “Shame” (M. Gross / D. Duprie) 3:19 seconds
4. “ESP” (E. Neals / M. Gross / B. Strong) 3:12 seconds
5. “In Charge” (E. Neals / M. Gross / B. Strong) 3:54 seconds
6. “Rather Go To Jail” (J. Badanjek) 4:03 seconds
7. “Rainin In Detroit” (M. Gross / E. Neals) 3:40 Seconds
8. “Livin’ With Yo Mama” (E. Neals / H. Neals) 2:28 seconds
9. “Been A Long Time” (M. Gross / E. Neals) 2:30 seconds
10. “Money” (B. Gordy / J. Branford) 3:08 seconds
11. “Can’t Stop” (E. Neals / M. Gross) 3:42 seconds
12. “PiG” (E. Neals / M. Gross) 2:33 seconds
13. “Love Hurts More” (E. Neals / M. Gross) 3:27 seconds
I first met Eliza Neals and co-producer Barrett Strong Jr. when they visited my radio show, City Arts & Sounds, in the late ’90s. Somehow I knew at the time that my acquaintance with them would prove fortuitous. It was 20 years after I first started doing radio (Art in Detroit, on WCAR-AM), and while I was a blues columnist at the Michigan Chronicleunder the late Sam Logan’s generous guidance, a blues writer at Big City Rhythm & Blues, and a Saturday night blues reporter for Dave Dixon (WXYT-AM). I renewed my friendship with Eliza Neals only last year at the most recent Detroit Music Awards. I was there with my cohorts from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Lawyer Show (WCXI-AM) at the invitation of entertainment lawyer Sheldon Kay.
It was great seeing her again. Next thing I knew she and Martin Gross were cooking up a new album, and she was kind enough to send me an advance copy of it to be reviewed. That’s when I decided to re-configure my just-started blog into an Arts & Entertainment Review, from what was an existentially absurdest running commentary, which was too obscure to really take hold outside of Paris. “If is, is, is not is not, isn’t?”
For that I am eternally grateful because I would not have made that format change without her kind presence. That is when I decided I would end a five year hiatus from music writing. It was time to come back from obscurity, myself, and this is my first in a series of CD reviews, and what I hope will become a burgeoning online Arts & Entertainment Review. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome at theblogis.wordpress.com. Artists that wish to submit their CDs for review can contact me at Facebook, or at 248-652-4759, and send their discs to me at The Blog Is, 911 Medford Court, Rochester Hills, Michigan 48307-3089, Attn. George Seedorff, Editor. Keep those cards and letters–and CDs–coming in, folks. And now I must return to the joyful grind of a one-man band.
–George Seedorff, Copright 2012