Way back in 2013, friends were telling me to keep an eye on an up-and-coming blues artist that they caught in Memphis. Selwyn Birchwood was his name and he was a wizard on guitar and lap steel guitar. We sampled some of his work on an earlier release Don’t Call No Ambulance, and thought that the early predictions of his abilities were dead on.
Birchwood has had a quick rise in the blues world. Just out of high school he was playing and traveling with Sonny Rhodes, and he continued to play while going through college, eventually receiving an MBA. He put together his own band and competed at one International Blues Challenge, then won the next year (as well as best guitarist) and released his first Alligator release in 2014 and now his second, Pick Your Poison.
Writing all of the songs on this album, Birchwood’s band consists of him on vocals as well as guitar and lap steel; Regi Oliver on baritone, tenor, and alto sax, flutes, and backing vocals; Huff Wright on bass guitar and backing vocals; and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums, percussion, and backing vocals.
The first song on the album, Trial By Fire, starts off with some jazzy flute before giving way to some heavier guitar and drums. It’s got a solid groove happening and it’s the kind of song that will catch your attention quickly and hold on to it. I like the imagery in the lyrics, it’s got a nice dark undertone. It’s an auspicious beginning.
The next song, Even The Saved Need Saving, has been getting quite a bit of air play lately, and with its very cool gospel shuffle, it’s easy to understand why. This is the kind of song with a great hook that gets into your brain and you just can’t help loving it. Even the sinners will want to get saved after this one plays…
Things slow down for Guilty Pleasures. The opening is very good and gives some extra attention to the drums before things get swampy. Birchwood’s vocals are very good and his use of the lap steel guitar is strong. While I’ve enjoyed Birchwood’s lyrics in the past, this song’s words really resonated with me. I like the song very much.
He follows up with the title track, Pick Your Poison. Oliver’s sax work gives the band a bigger feeling and the song takes on a slightly avant-garde turn. The darkness of the song puts it firmly in the territory of the blues, but the music is not the traditional style. Birchwood is stretching out his territory, not alienating his fans, but staking out his place in the world. His guitar lead is pretty amazing.
Heavy Heart follows with some heavy guitar and percussion opening the song. It’s a slow blues song that makes a good follow up to the previous song. The tone is similar but the music is more traditional making for a smooth segue. Birchwood’s vocals remain strong even with the more powerful music backing him.
For the next song, Haunted, the music is executed at a frenetic pace. The imagery is very cool and it’s one of my favorite on the album. We’re all haunted by demons – they differ from person to person, but they’re always with us. Sometimes, the best way to exorcise them is to trot them out into the light and take a good long look at them. Birchwood does just that on this number.
There’s some rock/funk on Are Ya Ready?. Birchwood’s guitar is solid as is the percussion section. There are some blues purists who won’t gravitate to the number, but a man’s got to push those boundaries, and I bet it’s a killer when done live.
Reaping Time starts off swampy and low, a real change of pace from the last couple of songs. His lap steel guitar makes a mournful sound and you can hear the pain dripping off of every word. I love this song, it’s one of his best to date.
With a title like R We Crazy¿, I hope you weren’t expecting a throwback Delta tune. It’s got some cool funk on top of the blues and it’s a great late night song. I like it a lot and the song reminds me of some of my favorite soul blues songs from the ‘70’s. That inverted question mark is going to drive a lot of bloggers crazy.
The next song, Police State, takes on the social injustice that America is facing right now. We all know that one or two bad officers can destroy the reputation of entire departments and can ignite society like a stray spark ignites a powder keg. In this song, Birchwood does not place the blame on any one person or group – he just wants to shine a light and start a dialogue so the land of the free can remain free.
We’ve already played My Whiskey Loves My Ex on Time For The Blues. It’s a fine funky number that has a strong blues backbeat. I’m sure we’re not going to be the only ones playing this number, along with several others off the album.
The very lush Lost In You starts out like a 1940’s style big band song where you want to hold your partner closer on the dance floor. It’s a luxurious song and absolutely gorgeous thanks to Birchwood’s vocals and Oliver’s sax. If you are a fan of good vocals and that era’s band feeling, you will fall in love with this song, and maybe whomever you are listening to it with…
Birchwood and company have a good time on the last song on the album, Corporate Drone. It’s the story of so many of us who spent years in the corporate world being just another person in a cube farm being taken for granted. It’s not easy to break out of that corporate prison, and this is the story of one person’s escape. It’s a cool song and one I think I’m going to recommend to some of my friends who are still in the life.
Pick Your Poison continues the promise that his first album made. There’s not a weak song in any of the thirteen that grace the album. He continues to mature as a songwriter and his vocals and playing just keep getting stronger.
Birchwood is one of the fastest rising blues stars around and he’s been out on the road pushing his brand as hard as he can. If you haven’t checked out his first label album (he released two self-produced discs prior to signing with Alligator), be sure to check him out. His website can be found at https://www.selwynbirchwood.com/ and you can catch up on all things Alligator at http://www.alligator.com/.