Signs & Wonders is the follow-up album to 2020’s Delta Tales on PeacockSunrise Records, by pianist/vocalist John Blangero, styling himself as Sun King Rising for these releases. The music is described as “The rebirth of Southern Rock and Soul” which is a pretty bold statement. Will it “Take You to the River and Wash You Down? “ That may be a Tallahatchie Bridge too far, but there is plenty of Southern Gothic grits and gravy here, never fear. Several of the songs evoke the flavor of music produced by Leon Russell with the Shelter People and Mad Dogs and Englishmen; driving piano, horn sections, and soulful backup singers, with John’s vocals having some touches of that nasal quirkiness while maintaining his own sound. The opening track “Bitter Waters Sweetened” is one of the better examples of that groove.
Thematically, the album has narratives replete with southern noir, sought redemption or the lack thereof, told from different points of view. The musicians here are excellent as well as the production, and the songs are pretty consistent throughout. My one critique is that when a piano is recorded much as if it was a solo piece, the left hand dominates the low end with fills and runs and can really make it difficult for the bass to do what it should be doing, laying down the bottom and owning the groove. That said, several songs stand out due to really fine work by some of the session musicians. A song by producer Ace Acker, “Buried In The Blues Again” captures a live performance in the studio, with an absolute stellar sax turn and tone by Kenny Blake. Several other songs feature some tasteful slide guitar fills by Steve Schuffert. The closest thing to a two-guitar interplay is the slide and wah-wah guitars on “Low Wine and Cruel Ruin.” The album begins to wind down a bit with“Anchorless”, with a clear early Elton John influence at play. (Elton has written he considered giving up piano when he first heard Leon Russell play, by the way!) The album then comes to a close with “Alabama Nocturne”, quiet and reflective, a spare arrangement that features John’s fine piano and vocal. In a music world where the concept of a “Side One” and “Side Two” is a vanishing art form, it’s a nice touch to find that present here. Some of us still understand the Tao of listening to an entire album as the artist sequenced it.
**** Don Mularz – Dark Horse Flyer