Though When You Comin' Home? is J. Blake's solo debut, it's hardly his first outing. Previously he's founded two other bands (Roadkill Breakfast and Stiletto Wheels) and has played his guitar both as lead and as a solo act throughout the New York area. So it's safe to assume going in that he knows what he's doing musically. For When You Comin' Home? he's focused his efforts solely on the blues genre and rounds out his sound with a four-piece backing band.
In the grand tradition of the blues, there are a good number of covers offered up here. Blake and the band take on the Howlin' Wolf classic “Spoonful” and do an excellent job of presenting it in a different light. They go against the grain of the original by framing it more as a beatnik jam: Blake sings in a cool whisper as dense drums carry the track with a simple beat. The keyboard also takes a prominent role, accounting for much of the additional minute in the song's run time, mostly during the intro.
Other covers are more subtle in their differences. “Honey Bee” (Tom Petty) falls very close to the original in terms of sound. “Headed Out to Vera's” (John Pizzarelli) departs from the lounge original mostly in tone: Blake's voice, with just the slightest rasp to it, combined with more focus on the guitar work than the original, places the song firmly in a truck-stop jukebox. The Zepplin standard “Rock and Roll” sounds much brighter, having brought the keys high up in the mix.
J. Blake and his band make good use of fundamental blues structures throughout the album. Where the band makes their mark is in atmosphere. The five-and-a-half minute title track is how someone like I, who has only a basic familiarity with blues, pictures the genre: a slow, expressive, at times sparse and at others bursting short story. There's lots of repetition in the lyrics, but as Blake continues to “wonder when you comin' home” the desperation of the words increases without overtaking everything else. Indeed, the backbone of the song remains the music itself and here we get some great riffs and fills to bridge the gaps between lines. “Rocking Chair” is lyrically quite brief, allowing for the band to flex their technical prowess. Starting early in the second minute, a spiraling guitar solo plays for over half a minute and before trading places with a Hammond-tinged keyboard before returning to Blake's vocals and the song's steady pace.
The album remains solid throughout with the only weak link being the previously mentioned “Honey Bee” cover. It would have been nice to hear more out of the backing players, particularly in the early half of the record; I can hear the keyboards and bass in the mix but there are times when they're buried just a little too deep. Then again, it is Blake's record, so it only makes sense that the guitar playing would take the lead.
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