While little-known on this side of the Atlantic, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been making waves for over twenty years now in the American blues scene. Held up by many as the saviour of the genre, Shepherd’s virtuoso yet soulful guitar playing, coupled with an eagerness to adopt elements of other musical styles, has informed a string of albums which both celebrate the history of the blues and point towards its possible future. Lay It On Down is, in Shepherd’s words, his most song-focused album yet, and features collaborations with the cream of Nashville’s songwriting elite. The record as a whole accordingly sees Shepherd and his band move further away from their blues roots than ever before…with very mixed results.
A desire to evolve one’s sound is natural for an accomplished musician, but Lay It On Down doesn’t move Shepherd’s music forward so much as backward and to the side. While his pilgrimage to Nashville has resulted in some lush vocal harmonies on tracks like Baby Got Gone and Louisiana Rain, these songs also betray the worst aspects of the country and western ‘production line’ mentality, with predictable song structures, cringe-inducing lyrics and overly glossy production techniques. These problems recur throughout Lay It On Down, most notably in the mediocre AOR rock of Nothing but the Night and the boyband-esque brassy pop of Diamonds & Gold, the overall character of the album having a sickly commercial sheen.
It’s not all bad, though. While Shepherd has drastically curtailed his guitar soloing for this album it’s still thrilling to hear him let rip occasionally, and on tracks like She’s $$$ and Down for Love he remains more inventive and passionate in his playing than any other blues guitarist of his generation. What’s more, singer Noah Hunt’s gravelly tones are a joy to hear again, and his ever-powerful voice carries tracks like Hard Lession Learned and How Low Can You Go, while also somehow managing to sell their uninspired lyrics to us. Sadly, Hunt is sidelined for much of the album, with Shepherd taking lead vocal duties on nearly half the tracks despite his merely adequate singing voice.
Perhaps Kenny Wayne Shepherd needed to make Lay It On Down, if only to get it out of his system. But if he truly wants to keep writing songs like these he’d be better off giving them to other artists to perform, because although it’s laudable for him to push his musical boundaries, even the best parts of this album feel largely forgettable. He’s capable of much better, and it sounds like this stylistic well has already run dry.
Lay It On Down is out on July 21st via Provogue/Mascot Label Group.