The second album from popular UK band, Jess & the Bandits sees them expanding their sound and intentions as lead singer, Jess Clemmons, explores her inner gospel infused Adele side.
When Jess and the Bandits released their acclaimed debut album, ‘Here We Go Again’ back in 2015 the UK was ripe for such a strong, positive, Country rock look at life through the eyes of a good ‘ol girl from Houston, Texas. Intrigued by the novelty of an American singer backed by a band of British guys and supportive of Jess’ outlook on life and her work with clothing brand, Evans, the UK public soon took the band to its collective hearts, as did organisations like Radio 2, most notably the much-missed Terry Wogan, after he fell in love with their cover of Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’. The musical landscape, however, in 2017, only two short years later, is different for the band as they return with the follow up, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. This autumn sees the UK awash in Country gigs and shows from not only the burgeoning number of homegrown acts but American ones too as they begin to realise there is a real and fertile market on this side of the Atlantic for all things Americana. The marketplace is packed with releases , making it a much harder place to operate in and as the UK crowd, now over the novelty of seeing and buying Country music here, becomes more selective, any new albums are facing much tougher competition than they were 2,3,4 years ago. The big question for me is how would the band react to this change? To no longer being a big fish in a small pond? Well, the answer is now plainly obvious because it will only take you one listen to ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ to understand that they’ve only gone and built a bloody bigger pond!!
Yep, you read that right. With ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, Ms Clemmons and the boys have decided that rather than settle on their laurels and comeback with ‘Here We Go Again’ part 2 they’ve evolved and expanded their horizons beyond Country rock, pushing the capabilities of both Jess’ voice and the musical boundaries of what genre they are working in to create something bigger, bolder and wider than just Country music. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is simply not just a Country music album, in fact, if I’m being honest you could argue that it isn’t really a Country album at all. Yes, there are structures and lyrical conventions that make it appealing to Country music fans and there are guitar riffs and flourishes that obey the laws of the genre but this is an album that could appeal to a broader range of fans, anything from Bon Jovi to Adele with a healthy dose of Faith Hill along the way.
‘Smoke and Mirrors’ opens with ‘I’m Not Going Home’, a full frontal concert opener if ever I’ve heard one. BIG, BIG, BIG sound and a huge chorus abound on a track that quite literally takes your breath away. The first clues to the band’s evolution can be found in the backing vocals here – the Bandits backing vocals removed in favour of an all-female gospel choir which not only enlarges the sound but also expands the bands horizons somewhat too.
There are a number of ballsy rockers on the album. ‘Start a War’ is a Bon Jovi tinged anthem with another huge chorus and big female backing vocals. Rock guitars and big statements about strength leave this one as an obvious follow up to ‘My Name is Trouble’ but when you play them side by side you can see the clear progression the band have made. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but the band will win more new fans than they lose old ones. Similarly, ‘Line of Fire’, penultimate song on the album, is a rockier number than what long term fans may be used to as a woman scorned sings about revenge backed by explosive guitars and huge vocals.
Fans of Jess’ tender side, however, have no need to fear – there are still lots of more restrained, vulnerable moments on ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. The title track itself is a clever song about how we all have a game face. “Flash ’em all a smile and give them all your best,” Jess sings in a clever song that sees evidence of a growth in storytelling across the band’s music too. The story being told in the first two verses is interconnected, despite being seemingly separate to begin with and more female gospel backing vocals provide a huge chorus again. ‘White Lies’ is another clever song. The authenticity and vulnerability in Jess’ voice make you really believe you are sitting in her kitchen across from her tear stained face with an early morning coffee as she tells you about the man who has let her down again. But this is no pity song, similar to many of the songs on ‘Here We Go Again’, this is an empowerment song, this is about finding the strength to carry on in the most adverse of situations, something Jess writes about very well.
‘Gone Girl’ follows on that theme and could almost been seen as the sequel to ‘White Lies’. This time, the narrator has changed and has been taken out for a drink by a friend who encourages her to move on, drink some wine and ‘get gone girl’. Jess has a knack for coming across like an older wiser friend or a big sister, always ready to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on and it is with that in mind that we must talk about the standout track on the album, the song that could explode this band nationwide with a bit of luck and a prevailing wind. Sitting at track 8 on an album full of quality is ‘Sister’. A huge, huge song that really provides the band with an opportunity to push beyond the boundaries of Country music. It simply must be a single, must be sent to Radio 2. Jess channels all of her inner Adele on this one. The song begins with a piano and a handclap beat, eerily similar to the start of many Adele songs. More massive female gospel backing on a call and response chorus alongside Jess’ unrestrained, spectacular vocals really gives you all the feels on a track that could be simply about Jess giving advice to her sibling or it could be as huge as a rallying call to women everywhere, such is the clever, ambiguous nature of the lyrics. This song is a show stopper, quite simply outstanding, cinematic in its scope and easily the best song the band have ever recorded.
But then we must talk about album closer, ‘Fault Lines’. Just when you think the band have peaked they sucker punch you with a closing song almost as brave and as genre breaking as ‘Sister’. Another piano and percussion opening, this time echoing Amy Winehouse, sees Jess slipping into Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ – infact, as an homage she actually uses the words, ‘sky falls’ in the opening segment of the song. Moody guitars and more huge vocals sees this track too, as an obvious candidate for a radio and a single release. I can see the band on Jools Holland playing a 1-2 combo of ‘Sister’ and ‘Fault Lines’, wowing the nation and gaining a wider fan base beyond cowboy boot wearing, C2C concert goers, which is clearly who most of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ is aimed at as the band move away from checked shirts into a bigger, wider crowd.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still Country elements to ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. There is a definite Carrie Underwood vibe going on on tracks like ‘Kiss Me Quiet’ and ‘Game Changer’, the latter, particularly, could have been lifted straight from Carrie’s ‘Storyteller’ album as Jess sings about the danger of love and the excitement of a new relationship. ‘Already Written’, another ‘Cinderella style’, new relationship song, sees Jess singing to her perfect love, who she has yet to find in this song. “Do you like old movies?” She asks. “When ladies were ladies and men were not afraid of showing a little romance.” Whilst ‘The Bullet’ continues that theme of opening yourself up to new love and relationships. Jess’ vocals on this track are outstanding, vulnerable yet belying an underlying strength and fortitude, similar to much of what she writes about. ‘World Still Round’, a cover version of the awesome song from Logan Brill, sees the band smoothing out and polishing off some of the original’s sharper edges. A brave move considering the original song’s popularity amongst the more hardcore Country crowd in the UK. I saw Logan Brill sing this song at C2C this year and it was one of my favourite moments of the weekend. The band do a good job but amongst such a strong set of songs on ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ it doesn’t stand out as much as it does when Logan Brill sings it. Another Country tinged song is lead single, “Kings of Summer’, a nostalgic song that evokes the Spielberg-esque feelings of films like ‘The Goonies’ and ‘ET’ as the band revert back to their child selves and reminisce about all the things they enjoyed doing in their teenage years, taking us all back with them to that time when we were all ‘fearless pirates of the night’.
So, there is enough Country on ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ to please anyone who bought ‘Here We Go Again’ but there has been a definite widening of the band’s horizons as they look back to Jess’ gospel upbringing and forward to a future outside of the narrow confines of the genre. This is a simply stunning album, huge in all senses of the word. Big storytelling, big vocals and big vision. Yes, the bandits element of the band seems to have been a little sidelined as this feels very much like Jess’ album but I’m sure they will have a chance to impose themselves in the live setting and let their characters shine through. The progression is clear to see, Jess has upped her songwriting skills, widened her vision for what the band can do and produced a simply fabulous set of songs about love, betrayal, empowerment and redemption that will thrill existing fans of the band and yet give them every opportunity to look beyond the Country genre for new fans as the band continue to grow and evolve, as surely every band should. Welcome to the future, Jess and the Bandits, it looks remarkably bright!