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Soul Bender

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Album Review

Guitar based instrumental albums are an increasingly rare commodity. That may be due to popular tastes in an American Idol-saturated, slick vocal-focused society, but is more likely because few musicians can pull them off successfully. It takes a guitarist with taste, subtlety, and a complete command of his instrument, with songwriting skills to match, to even attempt what Matthew Stubbs has accomplished with his debut Vizztone solo project. Only 25 years old at the time of its recording, Stubbs has mastered the tricky art of writing instrumental songs — the album is comprised only of originals — and arranging them with the instincts of a veteran. Only two tracks break the four-minute mark and all feature the guitarist's taut, sharp solos in the context of tunes with hooks and riffs that are more than just frameworks for his fretwork. The New England-based player is accompanied by a stripped-down rhythm section and three horns led by journeyman tenor man Sax Gordon (who also writes the liner notes). Although Stubbs has played with soul-blues artists such as Janiva Magness, Charlie Musselwhite, and newcomer John Nemeth, this set of tunes incorporates surf, swamp, rock, jazz, garage, country, and Southern R&B strains, mixed together in an explosive combination that never gets stale or repetitious. Gordon rides shotgun on most of these selections, honking away with the abandon and gritty joy of the best instrumental rock of the '50s and '60s. A few ballads such as the lovely "Charlotte Ann" balance the midtempo rockers that dominate the proceedings. Unlike guitarists such as Ronnie Earl, whose instrumental work relies on intensity and extensive improvisation, Stubbs keeps the mood light, even frothy, on these tunes, all of which would sound great blasting out of a convertible's car radio with the top down on a brisk spring day. Stubbs is obviously the focus, but he never hogs the spotlight, preferring to let the melodies take center stage and incorporating his solos when appropriate. It's a completely successful, seldom retro updating of a style that has sadly seemed to be all but relinquished to the oldie bins. Soul Bender is a remarkably mature release and sets the stage for a promising career since Stubbs has youth, chops, and taste to spare.

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Soul Bender, Matthew Stubbs
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