Album Review: Greek Street Friday

Get Ready To Rock

Pete Feenstra, 30th August 2023


With previous album titles such as In A New York Minute, Soho Stories, A Ghost In Every Bar and the new Greek Street Friday it's tempting to regard vocalist Ian Shaw's oeuvre as akin to dipping into a hip, late night jazz vibe or simply celebrating the noirish feel of London.

In fact, Greek Street Friday is a more lyrically ambitious, rigorously structured singer songwriter album than that.

It comprises 9 co-writes with producer Jamie Safir (who also provides an additional song) and a Rickie Lee Jones cover.

A combination of Shaw's versatile phrasing, effortless range and deft arrangements make this the perfect showcase for an underrated singer, sometimes in danger of being lost in the backwaters of jazz.

He's never been reticent when it comes to pushing his improvisational skills - which his musical hero Mark Murphy called: "the litmus test for serious jazz singers" - sometimes at the cost of genuine feel.

Happily this album is glued together by the emotions of an observational story teller, who is unafraid to occasionally reveal autobiographical snapshots. And he does so with a filmic suite of songs which organically flesh out the Soho related album title.

Producer Jamie Safir also doubles on piano, while presiding over a musical diary that positively encourages Shaw play to his strengths.

On the eclectic wonder of Jackie's Blues for example, he slips from husk to falsetto in the middle of a phrase, and helps transform the song as he takes on the role of vocal rhythmic accompanist, offset by eerie and climactic choral BVs.

In sharp contrast, he asks a lot of himself with a sandpaper falsetto on Ricky Lee Jones's Blinded By The Hunt, but neatly counterweights the tension with Iain Ballamy's rich horn tone.

He sensibly explores different genres and tempos to create a mellifluous flow as he illuminates lyrical meaning through his vocal flexibility. He opens with a nod to Steely Dan on the funky groove of People Who Go Ta-Da!, which is shot through with a Randy Newman style irony. His unexpected use of a falsetto on the middle 8 is in the manner of a songwriter who wishes to add extra purchase to the sense of contrast.

The opening brace of songs fit together perfectly, as the brush stroked title track features a whispered narrative and subtle BVs, as he work his way through the early part of the working week over nuanced pedal steel.

His vocal is in the manner of a participant observer, though one still detached enough to pen such flinty poetic lines.

There's another palpable Steely Dan influence on the borrowed title of the chunky Falling Uphill, full of clever word plays, perfect diction and topped by full-blown BVs on the chorus.

The melodic lead single To Be Held is different again, with a whispered vocal and aching instrumentation which evokes the yearning lyrics. It's also fine example of the way he locks in producer Safir, who consistently explores the value of dynamics, restraint, tonal colour and Ian's vocal timbre. Shaw and his ensemble always consistently serve the song all the way through an album that invites the listener into a musical diary in which the characters fill a page and then move on.

The jagged funk of Say A Prayer For Baby Blue is the perfect vehicle for Shaw's filmic lyrical quality, which frames its minutiae with music subtleties and an occasional atmospheric sweep worthy of the colourful lyrics: "Take me away to where there's so music, dance me into your night of stars. Show me the days of sweet romantic, American songs young lovers in cars."

The sparse Little World is almost the opposite, with faux whispered cabaret phrasing and Safir's piano bringing focus to bear on some biting lyrics: "The notes are fewer, louder, prouder than you'll ever be."

He changes style again on Years, a Nashville sounding country duet with an unknown vocalist. It could have been a wistful book-end, but for the poignant acoustic meditations of We Stopped Talking. The latter could have done without the sugary pedal steel overkill which distracts our attention away from lyrical strength and a suitable emotive delivery.

In sum, this album is a celebration of all that is good about Ian Shaw. He moves from the ebullient to the reflective as he uses his vocal and lyrical craft to bring to life a typical Greek Street Friday.