There’s a telling moment about a minute and a half into “Drown You Out,” the second track on Reeves Gabrels new album, Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends (Reeves Gabrels Music). At the 1:31 mark, the music comes to a stop for a beat and you can hear Gabrels laugh before launching into a blistering solo featuring — as he calls it — the “deep, iron cello” guitar sound preferred by many of his early influences. He laughs because it is a moment of miscommunication with his bandmates that he joyously embraces, one of several “happy accidents” that can be heard on his brilliant new record.
On this his fifth solo release, the longtime Bowie collaborator and current member of The Cure reminds us that he is much more than an all-world guitarist — he’s an accomplished producer, songwriter and arranger, as well. He is also a more-than-able vocalist, with a quirky, yet effective style. But make no mistake: this record is a showcase for Gabrels’ guitar artistry. The liner notes credit him with “guitars, things that sound like guitars, and some things that don’t,” and the record is full of sonic elements that the artist personally enjoys: deep, iron-cello guitar, whammy bar effects, wah-wah, backwards guitar, and weird and funny sounds.
Backed by His Imaginary Friends (bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer Jeff Brown), Gabrels has called this album his “power trio statement,” and quite a statement it is. There is no question the record is informed by the psychedelic blues rock and hard rock repertoires of legendary power trios from the late ’60s; bands that influenced him, such as Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Mountain. But this is no retro album; it’s sophisticated, virtuosic, modern rock & roll.
Of the 11 pieces included, nine of them feature Hornback and Brown, and their contributions to the record are considerable. The trio honed the arrangements on those nine songs over several years during live performances at their unofficial headquarters, The Family Wash in East Nashville. The material was recorded at coproducer Rob Stennett's Nashville studio between 2009 and 2011. Because of his work with The Cure, Gabrels didn’t have a chance to finish the mixes and master the album until last August.
A pair of ambient pieces bookend the numbers featuring the band. The album opens with “13 Steps,” 48 seconds of ethereal guitar ear candy by Gabrels reminiscent of the songs of humpback whales, and closes with “An Inconvenient Man,” an avant-garde journey into deep space featuring Gabrels on guitar and Roger Alan Nichols on piano. The guitar parts for the finale were recorded at Stennett’s place, and the piano was tracked last summer at Nichols’ studio, where the album’s mixes were completed.
After the short opener, the band serves up two radio-friendly numbers: the aforementioned “Drown You Out,” followed by “Wish You Were Her.” “Drown You Out” is a slightly twisted love song that originated with Hornback and was cowritten by the trio. Just before the three-minute mark, the song transitions from a bouncy power pop groove to a long, heavy outro on which the guitarist progresses from a series of wrenchingly soulful sustained notes to a wah-drenched avalanche at the track’s end.
“Wish You Were Her,” which was written by T Bone Burnett and Bono, is one of four covers included, and on it, Gabrels demonstrates his talent for interpreting material written by other songwriters. He had the song in mind since it was first released on Burnett’s 1984 EP, Behind the Trap Door. Originally titled “Having a Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her,” Burnett’s recording was just acoustic guitar and vocal, but Gabrels heard it with a big rock sound, as presented here, replete with melodic power chords, backwards guitar parts and some inspired use of the whammy bar.
Two of the originals — “Zero Effect” and “House of Usher” — were first conceived a decade ago when Gabrels was living in Los Angeles, and were cowritten with four guys he was working with at the time: Paul Ill, Bert Thomas, Jim Henderson and Gary Taylor. Both tracks lean to the heavy side and feature some adventurous guitar work over sonorous grooves, as well as guest harmony vocals by James Haggerty and Marc Pisapia.
There are two other hard-hitting original compositions on the album: “Fledermaus,” an ironic song about a bat which Gabrels cowrote with Stennett, and “Won’t Fall In,” which he cowrote with former Modern Farmer bandmates David Hull and Jamie Rubin, who adds backing vocals to the track. Stennett brought the idea for “Fledermaus” and the main guitar riff to Gabrels who uses it as a launching pad for some otherworldly riffage.
The three remaining tracks are all covers of classic blues numbers — Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With The Kid,” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” The trio claim all three as their own, with Gabrels demonstrating his advanced fluency in the lexicon of blues guitar.
With help from guest organist Tyson Rogers, drummer Jeff Brown and bassist Kevin Hornback lay down a heavy, swaggering rhythm on “Bright Lights, Big City,” as Gabrels takes the listener from Texas to Electric Ladyland, paying homage along the way to a pair of his influences, Albert King and Hendrix.
Wells’ original version of “Messin’ With The Kid” had a funky, medium-tempo arrangement that owed a lot to New Orleans R&B. Gabrels treats the song as a breakneck blues rocker on which he flashes his speed chops over a driving rhythm.
Rogers also sits in on “Who Do You Love,” a song that has been famously covered by George Thorogood, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Ronnie Hawkins. Diddley’s original recording of the song featured a shuffle beat, as did the aforementioned covers, but Gabrels opts for a slower, funky groove punctuated by his wah rhythm and some exquisite soloing.
This album is nothing less than a tour de force. It shows Gabrels to be the rare celebrated sideman who can not only adeptly complement another artist, but who can also step into the spotlight in his own right and pull it off.
Reeves Gabrels and His Imaginary Friends will be headlining the Reverend Guitars NAMM Jam, Part 1 on Thursday, July 9 (6 - 9 p.m.) at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, 220 Printers Alley, Nashville, Tenn. 615-242-5837. The show is free and open to the public.