Saturday 22 January 2022

Lee Aaron - Radio On! (2021)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Jul 2021
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Here's an album I was looking forward to last year but lost track of due to events and so never got around to. I remember Lee Aaron from the early to mid eighties when she fronted a heavy metal band and then later in that decade when she went smoother hard rock. I know that she's kept on shifting gears throughout her career, moving into straight pop music, blues and especially jazz, a genre she found particular success in. I missed her return to rock music in 2016, which was Fire and Gasoline, but I didn't want to miss this one and I'm glad I didn't because it's a lot of fun.

Vampin' is a great opener because it's patient but engaging, hard but soft, rockin' but funky. It's a lot of different things all at once and it isn't just Lee Aaron's voice that shines. Sean Kelly turns in a sleazy rock riff to introduce the song and then finds a funky one to give it life. The shift is kind of like Mötley Crüe to Extreme and, later it goes to the blues bar, but Aaron herself finds a vocal line that works across the board. She's on top form here, sultry but powerful and she dominates, especially during the second half, which is a showcase for her. It's good when she isn't singing and there's some strong guitarwork from Sean Kelly, but it comes alive when she's back at the mike.

I call out the opener because it's a hard rock song on a melodic rock album. From here, things tend to soften up to the radio friendly melodic rock vibe that Aaron is going for here, everything vocals first and foremost and guitar the only other instrument getting a spotlight, Kelly delivering quite a few notable solos, my favourite perhaps being on Soul Breaker. Occasionally, a song might heavy up a little, like Mama Don't Remember and Soho Crawl, both of which remind of Heart, as indeed does Soul Breaker. Occasionally, one might soften up even more and turn into a ballad, as Wasted and Twenty One do almost at the end of the album.

What's interesting to me is that Aaron plays even more with vocal textures on the ballads, turning up the rasp. She's been singing for a long time now, in a recording career that reaches forty years in 2022, but I've never heard her explore so many textures on one album. So much of this features pristine intonation, but she rock 'n' rolls up whenever she wants to and every single nuance is very deliberate. I was prepared for any song to be paused so a YouTube vocal coach reactor could point out what she's doing in any particular moment.

Another thing I noticed is that some of these songs, especially the title track, feel like they're the creation of a blues singer who's recording a rock album rather than a rock singer returning to her roots. I wonder what genre she feels most comfortable in. Certainly my favourite songs here are a mix of genres, that sassy rocker, Vampin'; a melodic rock gem called Cmon; and a slow burner that kicks off the second side, by the name of Devil's Gold. This one's not really a ballad, even though it has to be slower than either of the real ballads here, and it has a western flavour. It sounds great on a first listen but it really gets under the skin and calls at us to return after the album is done.

This isn't one of those legendary comeback albums that rejuvenate careers, but it's enjoyable on a first time through and there are enough highlights to prompt us to play the whole thing again. I think it's a grower, but maybe a little front heavy, with most of the best songs in the first half and the ballads almost relegated to the end. It also benefits from the wild musical journey that Aaron has taken herself on over the past four decades, because, even from the outset, it's clearly never just another melodic rock album. Even when it's exploring ground that we know well, it's different because of what she brings to it. A belated welcome back to rock music, Lee!

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