San Francisco’s Jay Middleton is no stranger to longtime music fans. Though it’s been nearly three decades since he lodged his last Top 40 hit in the United States, the outstanding singer has never stopped living and breathing music. His new release Forward highlights his songwriting ability alongside his outstanding vocal talents with a six song EP collection that, as the title implies, looks forward toward a better day. The songs came out of his perspective during the COVID crisis and the ongoing doubt facing our world today and he’s recruited exceptional talents to aid him in crafting this potentially instant classic.
Forward begins with the EP’s first single “Last Time”. This is a vigorous way to kick off the release and finds Middleton fully engaged. It sounds like he hears this song as his prime moment to establish the EP with a single performance. He begins it in an ideal manner. It swells to life and the horns contribute to the liveliness of the single as a whole. With some timely organ fills thrown in for good measure, it brings an added character to the performance that puts it over the top. His lyrical acumen brings added dimension to the piece as well. He’s joined by current Jefferson Starship guitarist Jude Gold on the track alongside several powerful musicians capable of making his vision a reality for listeners.
Co-writer and guitarist Vernon Black makes his presence felt during the EP’s third song “Hard 2 Luv U”. His biting lead guitar transforms this blues-tinged track but never dominates. It’s Middleton’s presence that once again figures as the defining element. Middleton’s experience also shines through in the backing vocals as he uses this tried-and-true accouterment as well as anyone. They accentuate his talents rather than obscuring them. It shares the same lineage as the opener in the sense that he builds it around a memorable groove.
The dramatic rise and fall of the arrangement for “Whispers”, plus its acoustic foundation, makes this much different from the preceding fare. Middleton, however, demonstrates the necessary nuance to inhabit every passage of this song with the same flair that distinguishes its predecessors. It never sounds painfully orchestrated but, instead, has a natural flow that carries listeners through an exquisite musical landscape. It pairs quite nicely with the title song. They share the same contemplative demeanor, but the title song goes a step further with its naked vulnerability.
The finale “Get A Little” has a slow burn gospel flavor listeners should appreciate. The mid-tempo movement of the piece allows it to develop in a patient manner and the aforementioned gospel influences manifest themselves in the emphasis on backing vocals exceeding even the previous tracks. It is a fitting conclusion. Forward comes across as an EP that took Middleton a few months to write and a lifetime to live. It makes for a fulfilling addition to any music lovers collection and serves notice that Jay Middleton is far from finished. We’re better off for it.