By Chris Small
I’ve been aware of Highway 491 for some time now. The Glasgow-based group have evolved over the past five years from playing weekly jam sessions to becoming a powerful trio and have played shows all over the country. They excel at keeping things simple and tight – two things I think blues/rock should be.
But can you go even simpler? Yes you can, by unplugging the guitars and throwing away half the drum kit. Which is exactly what Highway 491 have done. Not only that, but they’ve ditched the conventional studio and chosen instead to record at ‘Rock & Roll Traffic HQ’, or in other words, singer/guitarist Cameron Arndt’s flat in Glasgow. A man of many talents, he’s also recorded, produced and mixed the entire record. Oh and he did the artwork too. Busy boy.
The album has been recorded over 3 different sessions and, unconventionally, with different musicians on each session. Whilst I was worried this would make the album feel disjointed, I’m please to say it has quite the opposite effect. It stops the album from becoming stale or repetitive. As with every other aspect of this record, it is Arndt’s songwriting and performance that keep things on track. So let’s dive in and see what ‘In The Loop: Acoustic Sessions’ has to offer…
The record opens with the titular track, In The Loop. The song is a good blueprint for the rest of the album. It also introduces the use of dual vocals between main singer, Arndt, and bassist, Gary Murrie. This gets used to great effect throughout the album with Arndt’s rougher, heavier vocal complimenting Murries’s Bowie-esq warble. A nice injection of electric guitar compliments rather than overpowers the track. Fool and This Is Not The End both have very catchy rhythms and vocals. I’m getting a real ‘Clash’ feel from them. Fool uses dynamics really well despite the only instruments being an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar and a drum kit.
We take our first dip in tempo of the record when we reach track four, Surrounded. All the musicians are now locked-in with each other – something that has been slightly lacking up to this point in places. Arndt delivers another great, authentic performance and his electric guitar playing again perfectly compliments the acoustic feel of the track. Moving through the latter half of the album, Stuck In The Game continues the killer dual vocal attack with another great hook towards the end of the track (catch riffs and hooks are becoming Arndt’s forte).
A Lie Agreed Upon is a welcome departure from the rest of the record so far and again could easily be on a ‘Clash’ record with it’s steady feel and rhythm. This is the first time I feel the vocals should be primarily Arndt’s, with the second vocal being used for backing harmonies only. This is purely an opinion, however. Arndt’s vocals are so good, I feel they deserve their time in the spotlight alone. He does get to show off a little more electric guitar playing with a great solo that waves its way over the top of some lovely chord progressions.
Crime and Punishment hits you hard. The stabbing guitar chords and harmonica blasts echo the 70’s and the anti-establishment movement and attitude. Again, Arndt seems to be channeling his inner-Joe Strummer (except you can understand what he’s saying). The dual vocals are used effectively here. Whilst at first I felt the harmonica solo could have had more finesse, upon listening to the track a few more times, it really does fit perfectly with the overall feel of the track. It’s not supposed to be perfect or controlled. It should be ballsy and reckless!
The final track, ‘On the Road’ rises and falls with a great feel and the stomps and claps work very well. It’s interesting to note that this is the first and only time that stomps and claps have been used. It works perfectly in my opinion and could have been problematic had they tried to use this technique throughout the album. Stomps and claps can quickly become clichéd so using them sparingly like the band have done gives the album a great resolution. The song and album ends with a record hiss, the switching off of equipment and the closing of a door. This perfectly ties in with the live nature of the album and its recording.
While it’s apparent that the album was recorded in three separate session with different musicians, Arndt’s style of playing, writing and vocal delivery help give the record a linear voice. For me, the only let down is the percussion, which at times could have been a bit tighter. The looseness does lend itself to some of the tracks however. The obvious stand out is Arndt’s vocal performance. As I mentioned previously, there’s moments where I could swear I’m listening to a young Joe Strummer. The authentic nature of his delivery really drives home the blues/rock feel the band is going for.
One thing I was worried about happening with this record was that the band may fall into the awful trap of sticking to 12 bar-blues progressions. This fortunately never happens. The writing is interesting and the chord sequences refreshing and imaginative. The same goes for the riffs and dynamics throughout all the tracks. For being recorded live in a flat and produced by Arndt himself, ‘In The Loop – The Acoustic Sessions’ is a very impressive record with catchy riffs, great attitude and songs that will leave you humming them all day long.
Highway 491 play Glasgow King Tuts on September 2nd. Buy tickets here.