TWO months ahead of returning to Sheffield City Hall with his long-term musical cohorts, singer and songwriter John Reilly has tendered his new solo album.
Zebulon is an 11-strong collection from the Sheffield-based musician who called upon some respected names as co-writers, namely Jim Vallance, who has worked for Bryan Adams and Tina Turner, and Robbie Buchanan, who counts Diana Ross and Christina Aguilera on his CV.
With his long-term band, Boy On A Dolphin, having found support in Canada down the years, Zebulon’s early gestation came via time spent in Vancouver with the writers mentioned and in Toronto with pianist Lewis Nitikman. It was the latter songwriter, however, who relocated to Sheffield, regularly played alongside JR locally and ultimately co-wrote the album, out now on Art Music.
Central to a stylistically broad offering is a vocal and lyrical knack evolved over a lengthy journey that has included a solo support tour with Kinks legend Ray Davies, culminating in an Albert Hall slot, as well as many intimate gigs on the South Yorkshire live music circuit.
Reilly has a voice that sets the listener at ease and ties into a varied style, from the gentle imagery of opener Some Fall Too Hard to the brassy upbeat charge of previous single Building Avalon and the piano-led, rich Radio 2-friendly balladry of Not Alone, which aptly demonstrates Reilly’s appetite for a more personal lyrical stance.
“I believe in songs speaking to people individually,” he says. “I only write songs that can be stripped down to piano or guitar and vocal before thinking about production and instrumentation.”
Zebulon was further fleshed out, however, by members of Richard Hawley’s band, namely bassist Colin Elliot, guitarist Shez Sheridan and drummer Dean Beresford.
The result is an often fulsome sound. There’s a soulful spring in the step of Before You, a jarring cheesiness to the lyrics of Deep And Blue, and an acoustic bounce to the self deprecating Living With It which neatly proclaims “indecision is my tattoo”. The Break is epic by contrast and tattoos get another mention on This City, an ode to the pull of an urban (Sheffield?) lifestyle even if the “past is looking rosy/the future’s looking bleak”.
Tatula matches it for energy and observation but Tightrope closes the circle by supplying a grand piano and strings-lined finish.
All in all Reilly has tendered something with depth and diversity and plenty of personality, if lacking in invention. Lyrically he strays into cliched territory a few times, but he also spins some lines that are witty, sharp and endearing.
Zebulon does plenty to appeal to fans of his other bands, including Acoustic Angels, but also sustains his manifesto as a solo artist and moves on from the earlier endeavours of Tea Cozy Hat. It could be argued he has tried to cover too many bases at the risk of creating weak spots, but the album’s strengths will gloss over those flaws for the true fan.
Expect a solo tour next year. In the meantime, Boy On A Dolphin play City Hall on December 15.