It has been interesting watching Malaya Blue progress through the blues terrain over the last year or so. Hard work pays dividends. I suspect it has been a major learning curve and you have to admire the work ethic that has driven her onwards and without doubt, upwards. She has clearly been dodging the minefields and the man-traps, looking at new stuff, re-thinking and listening, taking some sound advice and above all, putting in the time and the hard work.
After a well-received and talented debut album 'Bourbon Street', figuring prominently in the British Blues Awards nominations, the release of a double header single and popping up as No 1 on the IBBA monthly charts, it might have been tempting to relax a little and take some time out. On the contrary, she has appeared at over thirty different venues over the last year, ranging from big high profile gigs and a festival grave-yard slot to an upstairs bar in darkest Yorkshire - where The Hat saw her. It is no wonder that she got a standing ovation at her recent album launch and the offers continue to flow in, the radio plays mount up and the magazine profiles and dj interviews are getting more frequent.
The new studio album 'Heartsick' is the confident affirmation of a serious talent on the rise. It is a major move forward. Conspicuously, here there is a brand new line up of top flight musicians, some impressive guest appearances and some seriously strong arrangements and a production under the guidance of Paul Long that manages to move seamlessly from lean light touch to almost full bodied orchestral sound.
It is an interesting mix of original material and the opener title track 'Heartsick' gives the album a gutsy full band kick start. The arrangement also allows the hugely talented Dudley Ross some room to lay some breathless guitar work across the whole number giving it a terrific attack which is exactly how it should be as an opener.
With a change of mood, this is followed by a touch of harp-led swing, 'Hunny Little Day Dream' driven smartly along by the tight back line of Stuart Uren and Andrew McGuinnness giving it a joyful 'apple of my eye' lift to Malaya's vocal. 'When you're Colour Blind' drives along in a similar fashion and seems purpose built for radio play.
Then comes some interesting risk taking. Two tracks, 'Let's Re-invent Love and 'Acceptance' are put back to back at the centre of the album. They are both lengthy, 7 minutes and 5 minutes and both fairly slow-paced, yet there is no tiring here. Malaya is given arrangements where she is front and centre, with some strong lyrics and vocals and embraced by the distinctive guest harp of Paul Jones and some flowing keyboards from Paul Jobson. These are both winners and you are given more insight into Malaya's potential emotional breadth and range.
Indeed this reviewer particularly likes the way the piano and Hammond keys are used throughout the whole album with Carl Hudson's pin-point touch guesting on 'To Remain The Same' turning it almost into a Torch song - and you can see it in your mind's eye - probably lit by a single spot surrounded by heavy drapes. There follows the slightly anthemic 'I Have Arrived' which apparently is one of Malaya's own favourites. It has a great jazzy swagger and is probably - and quite rightly - a proper nod to her own serious arrival.
The strength of the musicianship on this album is seen everywhere, never intrusive and always as a perfectly pitched complement to Malaya's fluent vocals. Never is this better illustrated than on 'Strand of Gold' where both the sympathetic organ and beautifully judged guitar work take the track to a much higher level. The inclusion of the familiar song 'Hope' on the album will also please a lot of Malaya's fast growing fan base.
This is a carefully thought-out album. It is a fine showcase for Malaya. It extends her range of lyric material and vocal opportunity, surrounds her with high calibre musicians and production values and, without doubt, moves her onwards and upwards to greater success. Go and try to watch her live this year – she is going to be a busy lady...