Sunday
Aug192018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Kate Vargas For The Wolfish & Wandering Little Maniac

First up you notice the voice that has a rasp to it that makes it distinctive and individual. She is a songwriter who has written or co-written all the songs on this her third album. Producer Charles Newman has gathered around her, in a Brooklyn studio, a set of players who don’t play safe with this engaging take on Americana. The percussionist Granville Mullings Jr is central to the sound, using an array of junkyard objects that add a quirkiness to the direction the songs take. 

Some songs immediately draw you in like Common Creep, a sharp critique of an aquaintance, with its memorable chorus of “you’re a creep, you’re a creep … just like me” - showing that Vargas doesn’t exclude herself from criticism when considering life, love and logic. But there are many moments on this album that make you realise that Vargas is an artist who is pushing the limits of her personal vision to create music that is not simple or easy but rewards engagement. Her blend of folk orientated storytelling is placed in the middle of a sonic stream that washes over her voice, adding a dream like (or nightmarish) take on her songs that draw on literary sources to create the wolfish world she wanders.                                                    

She can strip the song right back to voice and guitar on Madeline (a song about a troubled patient in an asylum). Then Come Join The Show is set into a heavier palate that suits the song’s sense of unease. The songs are drawn from a personal journey that may not reveal their meaning on first listen, but if not then the nature of the setting gives a strong hint of the elemental inspiration behind these tales. Her upbringing in New Mexico undoubtedly influence her sense of intrigue and interest in folklore and supernatural instincts.

Kate Vargas is a performer who is likely to gain a growing audience for her musical stories and her third album is well placed to achieve that. She offers something in her music that is magnetic, menacing and meaningful. 

Benjamin Jason Douglas First World Blues Flour Sack Cape

From the get-go it’s easy to fall in love with this album. Sure the comparisons in terms of voice and writing style are pretty obvious and you can name your own names. The music touches on several roots orientated bases but is blended, like an old whisky, into something with a touch of bluesy woodsmoke and nocturnal deadly nightshade. It was distilled by Joe Lekkas and a team of like minded local musicians who understood the mission. Lekkas is also a player here, along with Ryan Dishen on guitar and Erin Nelson on drums. This trio are fronted by Douglas who is very much the big man with the big presence here. He also wrote all the songs on the album aside from Lekkas’ Tchoupitoulas.

The songs are largely life experiences that stem from the personal and the observed. The lyrics are good and worthy of attention. In Raggedy Andy Williams, about a marriage break-up, he tells his other half “you can have the records and the player too, ‘cause I can’t hear them now without thinking of you.” Tentpole has a gospel feel that relates to the teller wanting to be a “tentpole in the big tent revival.” The song opens with the voice of a revivalist preacher before becoming a jaunty, uplifting spiritual (including a verse of Amazing Grace). Walking Down The Grain is a chillin’ tale of the devil taking his Daddy’s hand and walkin’ him down the grain. There is a weight to this song that is palpable in its subtle menace. Lighter, musically, at least is the acoustic Doc Red Blues with guitar and mandolin behind a heartfelt vocal from Douglas. Street Preacher has also a tender heart, as does the album closer Gloria. Both show a more restrained and reflective delivery that work to highlight Douglas’ overall vocal ability and power.

The ten songs on the album sound like they should be part of some atmospheric HBO series, something like Carnivale. The songs are cinematic in both content and in the playing. The four musicians have produced something special that funnily enough is not that far from some successful artists who are currently riding high in the charts. The vocals are slightly grittier but the potential is there. These First World Blues are first class.

Letitia Van Sant Out In The Studs Self Release

The latest album from Baltimore based Letitia Van Sant is a beautifully laid back recording with simple, sparse and effective production by Alex Lacquement that places Van Sant’s voice, itself a versatile instrument, front and centre. Associate producer Don Goodwin also engineered and mixed the album. The songs are all folkish tales other than the one cover, a timely version of Stephen Stills’ protest song For What It’s Worth. Here Dan Ryan plays electric guitar, Dan Samuels plays drums and Lacquement the bass. But again this is an understated performance that makes the point of the song more poignant.

Elsewhere there are contributions from other musicians including guitarist David McKindley-Ward, Patrick McAvinue on upright bass and Laura Wortman adds harmony vocals on a couple of tracks. Overall this a tight knit unit that underplays the songs without ever short changing them in a way similar to the Cowboy Junkies’ production values on their Trinity Sessions album. This album stands alongside that in similarly allowing space in the songs. The lyrics (reproduced in the accompanying booklet) are clear, as is Van Sant’s voice which is able to portray the emotion of the songs without ever over delivering.

Where I’m Bound, the first track on the album, in timeless folk style opens with the lines “As my mother lay dying she called me to her side …” Her mother then advises her to follow the compass of her heart. This is something that Van Sant does through the rest of the album. In The Field she allows that her “soul is a field where her love may grow.” Nature and environment are also underlying influences on her work.

Van Sant was involved in environmental advocacy before she won the Kerrville New Folk Song Writing Competition. Previous winners include Nanci Griffiths and Lucinda Williams, which is a testament to her writing skills. She has released two previous albums (one as part of a band) but in many ways considers this something of a debut. There have been comparisons to Courtney Marie Andrews and certainly that can be seen if one considers Andrew’s earlier work. But Van Sant is quite different in her overall approach at this point. She sings in the title song “Am I wrong to want what I want?” The answer is “no” and in this set of songs she has produced a work that many may also want, as it is a striking and effective album from an artist with the vision, voice and songs to stand out. 

Speedbuggy USA Kick Out The Twang Wagon Wheel

An album to warm the heart of anyone missing the raucous rakishness of cowpunk. Speedbuggy USA are back with a thirteen track album of hardcore twang that announces its affiliation with the seminal debut of the MC5 with a similar attitude of no compromise. Not that it is without its airier moments such as the opening cover of the Monkees The Last Train To Clarksville. Then it’s largely a mix of hell-for-leather devil-may-care moments that recall the likes of Jason And The Scorchers and The Beat Farmers .... bands who understood where they were coming from and where they were going - which is more than some of the “country” bands lost in Hair Metal do today.

Opening with a vocal chorus Get Around leads to a solid rockin’ workout, while the next song Shaky Town puts more emphasis on the country side of what they do, with some steel underscoring the sense of movement that is prevalent in many of the songs. Between those two points of twang and fang they display their clear ability as musicians. Timbo and Seth Von Paulus trade tasty guitar riffs throughout the album, also notable for the talents of Brady Sloan on bass, drummer Jamie Dawson and Gregg McMullen playing pedal steel. These guys kick-ass as they tell the stories of tortured minds, devils inside and returning from the road.        

But they can also handle recriminations and regret as they do on the ballad Sorry. Long Gone shows they can strip it back when needed, with mandolin taking the lead. Honky Tonk Singer is another slow paced reflection of a wasted life. The song is laced with pedal steel again adding to its sense of loneliness. The album’s second cover is the Bobby Sharp written Unchain My Heart, first recorded by Ray Charles and given a impassioned and (lost) soul inflected delivery here. All this shows that within their chosen field of vision Speedbuggy USA are adept at delivering some engaging music. They do so with energy, conviction and cussedness that shows that even after numerous releases this band is far from spent and making their best music to date. Long may they keep kicking out the twang.

Lyman Ellerman  I Wish I Was A Train Woodshed Resistance

The album opens with Bigger Plan that I find not unlike one of the better Dire Straits tracks. It is a good introduction into the Americana world of Lyman Ellerman, a singer songwriter who has been through a lot of pain during his life not least due to the death of his son. His son was a drug addict and Ellerman has turned that hard journey into a song. The Addict takes a hard look at how the condition can devastate the person caught in the web and all those around them. It was written by Ellerman and Larry Brake who added harmony vocals on the recording. It is given a bluesy reading with co-producer Jason Morgan adding some telling guitar on the track, as he does throughout the album. The album is essentially Ellerman and Morgan providing the music behind Ellerman’s expressive voice.

The album is balanced between the songs that are shrouded in dark thoughts and those which express light and hope. This is not Ellerman’s first album by a long stretch and he has honed his craft since he first picked up a guitar in his teens. He is joined by Jessica Dooley for Nobody Knows You (Like I Do) which finds both sides recognising the true nature of the other. Ditches tells that if you wander off road you may never get back on track. Because Of You again is a slow blues that conveys that the only reason to get up in the morning is because of her. Shinin’ On Elizabeth is a tribute to love and its redeeming powers. The Stranger is an atmospheric story song that has a cinematic quality with spoken voice, insistent drums and raging guitar. One More Drink is an acoustic take on another self destructive lifestyle. Here Comes Tomorrow closes the album with the possibilities of a new day and a new beginning with some upbeat guitar and a persistent vocal chorus “Here the good times, here comes tomorrow.” 

This album represents who Ellerman is at this time in his life - the Nashville based singer songwriter who through the years has tried to reflect in his writing some of the harder aspects of life and death (which has seen him lose a lot of those close to him). The end result is a record that deals with some of those issues but does so in a way that offers understanding and insight - something that is often in short supply in the mainstream music that graces the radio today. Time, perhaps, to get on board.

David Starr South And West Cedaredge

Though recorded in Nashville with a crew of local session players, including the renowned pedal steel and electric guitarist Dan Dugmore, David Starr’s latest album does not fit with the current mainstream output - rather it crosses into an number of areas including country, folk and 70’s country rock. Not that these songs are without accessibility. Maybe You’re Not The One feels like a song that you already know. Written by Starr and Robby Hecht it could easily be a hit in the hands of a major label artist. The songs stand up to repeated listening without ever feeling like total classics. Starr has written the majority of these songs on his own but also some with such notables as Irene Kelly. She also joins him on harmony vocals on their co-write Don’t Give Me Hope. Starr produced this album which recalls a past that is rooted in bands like Poco, The Eagles and others who played melodic flowing country rock.

The songs largely deal with relationships, many looking at what could have been and what still might be. Listen to Night Rolls Around, Love Won’t Make Itself or Good As Gone in which Starr consider these options. In Until It’s Gone he sings of breaking nine of the Ten Commandments, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the tenth but he’s going his own path no matter what. If Nothing Changes takes a harder look at the direction society is taking in these days of fake news and fake attitudes. The lyrics have a certain poetic quality that sit with the overall musical setting.

There is one cover included which makes perfect sense of the overall mood and that is the Bernie Taupin/Elton John co-write Country Comfort. It fits as a reference point to a time when country music was neither traditional nor outright pop. As the title suggests, this albums brings together two places and times. David Starr lives in Colorado but also has a foothold in Nashville. The inspiration of birth places colours the overall mood - a mood that some will dismiss as not fitting with either the harder edged outlaw country movement or the more crossover pop/soft metal that dominates radio. That hardly matters for Starr who has made the album he wanted to.

Wednesday
Aug152018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Raven and Red We Rise Up Self Release

This Nashville based 5-piece release their debut album and the creative core of the band is Brittany Lynn Jones (lead vocal, violin, tenor guitar, mandolin & banjoin) and brothers Mitchell Lane (lead vocal, 6 & 12 string guitars) and Cole King (Mandolin). On this release they are ably joined by Paul Leech (electric & upright bass, cello) and Justin Collins (Drums, percussion). Excellent musicianship throughout and some superb harmony vocals. Plenty of highlights across 12 tracks that include Mirror To My Soul, It Could Have Been You, Moonshine and Makeup (One More Mistake), Grandpa’s Beer and We Rise Up

The stand out track is Wild Roses which also gets a reprise later in the song order, augmented by Winter Raven and World Traveller. Brittany weaves her 5-string violin through the melody lines with great skill and touch while the mandolin playing of Cole and guitar augmentation from Lane lead to a heady mix of Country, Folk and Bluegrass sounds that would lighten up any gathering of musical minds.

Cold Tone Harvest After You Copycats

What an impressive debut. This band is from Plymouth, Michigan and is comprised of Andrew Sigworth (acoustic guitar/vocals), Daniel Ozzie Andrews (acoustic bass/bass guitar/bass banjo), Brian Williams (drum/banjo) and Tony Pace (Dobro/lap steel/electric guitar).

Formed in 2008 and with a couple of EPs to their name, this full-length album is packed with terrific songs and some superb playing. All songs were written by Andrew Sigworth with the exception of Adeline, written by Anthony Price and a cover of Out On The Weekend by Neil Young. Adeline, Wake Me, Stealing Roots and Hold On all show different colours of this band and the trade-off is so engaging between restrained, slow tempo arrangement and full-on melody lines; equally compelling and measured.

Lap steel features throughout and lifts the song arrangements along with Sigworth, who has a particularly arresting vocal and his tone sits perfectly into the organic playing of the band as they trade off with lap steel, banjo, dobro and guitars, playing around the rhythm and tempo established by Ozzie Andrews and Brian Williams. 

They are not afraid to stretch their quintessentially country sound into new areas and the use of trumpet, tuba and trombone on a few of the later tracks is superbly judged as are the touches on violin/vocals (Erin Zindle), cello (Christina Furtado) and mandolin (Jay Lapp). There are additional guitar, keyboard & vocal parts from Chris Dupont and the 12 songs are uniformly impressive in their construction and delivery. One of the finds of 2018 without a doubt.

The Furious Seasons Now Residing Abroad Self Release

Based in Los Angeles, the contemporary folk sound of this trio is very rewarding and the playing is both understated and free-form with an easy, jazz-like groove. 

Davis Steinhart (acoustic guitar, percussion, vocals), Jeff Steinhart (bass, keyboards) and P.A. Nelson (acoustic, slide, resonator, high strung and electric guitars, vocals) produce a fine warm session across 13 tracks. 

The guitar work is very special and elevates the music on songs like Tethered, Fort Knox, The Muse, Marathon and Airtight display a mellow, gentle sound that is very appealing. Perfectly captured by the upright bass and fine guitar lines of So Sorry Adele on this, a sixth release that highlights their dedication to create clear, no frills melodies. Quietly contemplative and executed with grace and no little talent.        

 Seán Millar and Jon Sanchez It All Ends Tonight Self Release

Four tracks over sixteen minutes, the meeting of two minds and a lot of quality in the grooves. Séan Miller is well known in Irish music circles as an eclectic warrior of the bright and beautiful in song composition and creative thinking. Never one to shy away from a challenge, his career has taken him into the occasional cul de sac, but his bright light always finds a way home and guides him onto greater journeys. Here, he teams up with Jon Sanchez, one of the top guitar players in Texas who has played with, among others, Alejandro Escovedo and Rocky Erickson. It is a stripped down recording played live and produces music that is compelling with an acoustic rootsy feel to the arrangements.

Everyday’s A Holiday tells of a family dominated by an abusive Father, (street angel, house devil). There is a sense of liberation for the abused and downtrodden with the message that out of dark deeds, bright days can appear. The Gang is a reflection on being misunderstood and misjudged. Wayward youth looking for meaning. 

It All Ends Tonight speaks of loneliness and the need for intimacy. Bordering on the obsessive almost, in search of a dream? Like Jesus and Satan… Savage Pride is an anti-war protest song with the undercurrent of righteous indignation. Youth taken and hurled off the cliff like lemmings in a power play! 

Jon Sanchez plays electric guitars, piano and santur (hammered dulcimer). Seán Millar plays acoustic guitar, bass and sings. Daragh O’Toole plays organ. Recorded by Jon Sanchez and mixed by Daragh O’Toole, this is hopefully a teaser of more superb collaboration to follow… Watch this space?

Sugar Brown It’s A Blues World… Calling All Blues Self Release

Born in Ohio, moved to Chicago, this artist is authentic Blues at its best. Sugar Brown is back with a vengeance on his third release. Hummingbird kicks off with a tight rhythm, channelling the juke joint sound of the prohibition 20’s, barrelhouse piano adding to the magic created by electric guitar and baritone sax in the background. 

All songs are written by the man himself, although the second track, Love Me Twice, sounds just too close to BB King’s The Thrill Is Gone, for comfort. Hard to be truly original when it comes to the blues I know, but Sugar Brown always walks a tight line between innovative guitar playing and a nod to the past in aspiring towards a contemporary sound. The sweet tension created in Lousy Dime is reminiscent of a Tom Waits arrangement while the fiddle playing of Minnie Heart is very memorable. The shuffle in Sure As The Stars has a JJ Cale vibe running through the guitar playing with a ‘less-is-more’ groove. 

The title track is a slow burn with great piano and guitar parts as Sugar builds to a band coda. The acoustic blues of Hard To Love and Brothers bring out the preference of Sugar for analogue recording equipment and old microphones in what are timeless performances, as is the following track, Out Of The Frying Pan, which channels some of the great signature Blues sounds. The harmonica on What I Know and the front porch swing of Tide Blues are also a real joy. 

Not a weak track here and yet another testament to the talent on offer. If you want authentic blues, played in a traditional fashion, no frills, just great dynamic and skill, then look no further.

Lucky Bones Matchstick Men Self Release

The third release from Dublin singer song-writer, Eamonn O’Connor (aka Lucky Bones) and one that builds strongly on his reputation as an artist of real quality, who has been operating under the radar for a number of years now, but deserving of much greater recognition. The song arrangements are upbeat in tempo and reflect a band ethic rather than on previous releases which were more grounded in the familiar singer-songwriter tradition. 

Produced by Gavin Glass at Orphan Studios in Dublin, the playing is excellent throughout, dovetailing perfectly with the arrangements and melodies. The studio musicians are members of the Lucky Bones band; Conor Miley (guitars), Leon Kennedy (bass), Peter O’Grady (keyboards) & Binzer Brennan (drums). Gavin Glass also played on the project and the musicians add plenty of colour to the sensitive singing and words of Lucky Bones. I am sure that these songs would resonate equally well in a solo acoustic setting.  

The title track is written for Eamonn’s Father who passed away recently and it is a very poignant and heartfelt performance that sets a high standard for the rest of the album. Indeed, there is a sense of looking back at the years gone by and reflecting on lessons learned throughout. The sound channels Snow Patrol meets Del Amitri in places and the perspective of experience is never far away with a certain rueful melancholy running through the songs. 

The frustration and defeated stance of Neon Morgue give way to the hope and comfort of Home To You, with Ireland depicted as a long-missed girlfriend in a clever juxtaposition. These are mature insights into a life lived and the wistful vocals blend beautifully with the music on tracks like Gone and The Things That We Take In

The final song, The Walls, just nails it with a terrific arrangement that builds to a cathartic climax, a bare look at insecurity and sleepless anxiety; “Invent doubt, it’s all I ever do, Me, the walls, the moon”.

Such a fine release and well worth checking out.

The Needables Tales from the Fish Tank / Deep Down At The Bottom Of It All Self Release

Two Eps and a few years in-between. Met Floyd and Beat at a recent Birds of Chicago gig in Kilkenny, where they played support. What came across onstage was a pair of talented players having fun and producing a fine sound. They kindly gave me their music to listen to and review, after the show.

Funding a studio release is not for the faint hearted and this probably hints at why the band has preferred EPs to full-length albums thus far. Tales... first appeared in 2015 and includes 6 tracks that vary from the upbeat, good time sound of Bringing It Home and the easy swing of You Won’t Cry, to the slow strum of Oh Chicago and the reflective acoustic sound of It’s Better Forgetting The Things You’ve Done and Rainy Day Blues

Deep Down… appeared in 2017 and the unifying impression across both recordings is the excellent harmony vocals, coupled with guitar and mandolin, as these six songs continue to build upon the progress made by this talented duo. Baby I’m On My Way is a positive message and both Harder To Say Goodbye and These Dreams Of You are strong examples of song-writing that resonates after the songs have ended. Right Time has a good tempo and some great harmonica while closer, Guess It’s Better Late Than Not At All, slides along at a quiet pace and leaves you wanting... just one more. An act to watch out for.

Ashleigh Flynn & The Riveters  Home Perm     

This release marks a change of direction for an artist who grew up with bluegrass music and released a number of prior albums under the Americana/Folk banner. In the studio she again turns to old friend and collaborator Chris Funk (The Decemberists) who produced the project and recorded at the Halfling Studios, Portland, Oregon.

Ashleigh Flynn has turned to an all-female band, named The Riveters and they certainly kick up a storm with the dynamic guitar of Nancy Luca at its centre. Ashleigh contributes vocals/acoustic guitar and is aided by Nancy Luca on electric guitars, Carmen Paradise on bass, Jolie Clausen on drums, Jenny Conlee-Drizos plays organ/piano, Kathryn Claire on fiddle/backing vocals and Ara Lee backing vocals. 

The 10 songs are penned by Ashleigh with five co-writes, and a sound that switches between straight out Rock and Pop arrangements. The first six tracks hit hard with a sense of either The Runaways meet the Black Crows or the Stones giving Sheryl Crow a turn at the microphone.

The playing is very strong throughout with the guitar driven riff of This Love repeated on tracks like Cold Black Line and You Will Remember. The Pop sound of tracks like The Sound Of Bells, Too Close To The Sun and One Moment is replaced by the slow groove of Shrouded Sun and the influence of country roots returns on the final tracks with High On A Mountain and the standout Big Hat, No Cattle sealing the deal. So, a little scattered in direction but this is no rifle that Ashleigh is shooting; more like a shotgun aiming to hit as wide a target (audience) as possible. They sure seem to be having fun doing it too.

 

Monday
Aug062018

Reviews by Declan Culliton

 

 

Hadley McCall Thackston Self-Titled Wolfe Island

Every so often an album comes your way by an artist new to you that stops you dead in your tracks. This was very much the case, after a couple of spins, with Hadley McCall Thackston’s debut self-titled album. Comprising ten tracks and at marginally over thirty minutes, Thackston could have been tempted to include a few covers, or add a couple more choruses to a few of the shorter tracks to increase the length of the album. Fortunately, she declined, instead creating a body of work that is unconditionally her, warts and all, with lyrics which often carry personal messages.  It’s a beautifully written account of a young woman’s coming of age, with reflections on childhood, insecurity, adolescence, peer pressure, self-doubt and reconciliation.  

Thackston had intended packing her bags and moving from her hometown of Decatur Georgie to the bright lights of Nashville, in an attempt to establish her musical career. By happy chance Hugh Christopher Brown, of Wolfe Island Records, was introduced to her music by label mate David Corley and without delay redirected the Greyhound Bus from Nashville to Wolfe Island Ontario. The move was a meeting of minds, introducing Thackston to a musical family and environment perfectly suited to inspire her creativity. Much credit must go to Chris Brown for the uncluttered arrangements on the album, which complement Theakston’s gorgeous voice. The range of instruments used totals over twenty, from strings to guitars and accordion to ukuleles, an indication of Brown’s determination to make every track on the album shine individually, a task he passed with flying colours. The recording in the main took place at The Post Office in Wolfe Island Ontario with additional recordings at Sacred Heart of Mary Church also in Wolfe Island and at Broderick’s Music in Kilkenny, where Ger Moloney’s accordion pieces were recorded.

The word ‘timeless’ is possibly the most overused phrase in folk and country album reviews, but this album most certainly earns that banner. Thackston manages to blend old time country and folk, contemporary and even bits of jazz. Her vocals are from another world, with the ability to stretch one syllable words forever, she manages seven syllables on the word ‘God’ on the beautiful Redbird!

Her mellifluous vocals on the opener Butterfly considers the fragility of the young child growing up in a world of mixed messages and peer pressures (‘’and you are not afraid to fly wide pride, accepting all the joy your beauty brings’’).  Somehow, awash with divine pedal steel, fiddle and strings, fantasises about the dream lover yet to be met (‘’And on the day we finally meet I know we’ll fall in love, cuz you were put here on this earth for me from those above’’). Self-consciousness and insecurity surface on the melodically upbeat Ellipses, hitting a catchy groove that’s hard to shake off, as Thackston yearns for courtship (‘’ I’d take your sweet nothings for over diamonds any day, like the magpie who adorns her nest with treasures thrown away’’). She turns her attention to more worldly issues on the politically charged Change (‘’turn on the news and what do I see, another black man’s life cut short by the police’’). Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush) is traditional front porch country fare, complemented by lively fiddle playing by James Abrams and backing vocals by label mate Sarah Mc Dermott. Devil or Angel flawlessly blends folk with a quite jazzy vocal delivery. Last Mountain Waltz, the albums closer, returns to the front porch with a gentle tale of liberation and acceptance. It does not quite reach the two-minute mark but makes its point charmingly in four short verses.

Hadley McCall Thackston has created  an album that sounds like a June Carter and Amy Winehouse collaboration, written and recorded in heaven and communicated through a young artist whose vocals and poetry pay homage to both of these legends. 

Israel Nash Lifted Loose

Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, the classic 2011 release by Israel Nash Gripka, recorded in a dusty hay barn at The Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, singled out the young Ozarks Missouri born artist as one of the most promising emerging acts of that time, further reinforced by his dazzling live shows. The album ticked all the Americana boxes with Southern soul, blues, country and lots of attitude. The tracks Baltimore and Goodbye Ghost are as good as anything written under the Americana genre in the past decade. A victim of his own success  perhaps, Nash has failed somewhat to reach those lofty heights in subsequent recordings. Rain Plains (2013) and Silver Season (2015) followed, both receiving positive industry reviews, yet you could be forgiven for feeling that Israel Nash (he had dropped the Gripka by then), was avoiding risk taking with much of the material and sounding more and more like Neil Young & Crazy Horse on each recording.

Lifted, co-produced by Nash and Ted Young (Kurt Vile, The Rolling Stones), finds him in more experimental form and all the better for it.  Recorded in his custom-built studio named Plum Creek Sound in Dripping Springs Texas, its mix of layered vocals, horns, strings, guitars and percussion, combine to produce his most impressive work since Barn Doors. File under ‘Hippie Spiritual’, we are advised on the cover. With the ongoing turmoil of these uncertain and often depressing times, when all normal political and environmental logic is turned on its head, Nash has, by his own admission, has moulded an album ‘about love and peace and purpose, creating a space for those feelings and personal reflections to manifest’.

So does it all work? The answer has to be spectacularly so. The material was created by Nash from first principals, word by word, note by note, layer by layer, with Nash even utilising outdoor sounds of frogs, crickets, rattlesnakes and running water.  Rolling On (Intro) kicks the album off with  sixty seconds of a layered sound collage before exploding into the track itself, setting the scene for what is to follow. Spiritfalls sounds like a song you’ve grown up listening to, echoes of Neil Young minus Crazy Horse, it’s beautifully paced and decorated with some great guitar breaks. Northwest Stars (Out Of Tacoma) must have been composed outdoors staring skywards, you can almost feel the cool night mist amongst its dreamy, hypnotic textures. Strong Was The Night and Looking Glass are reminders of Nash’s ability to also create the less swashbuckling and melodic, both being simple yet spacious ballads. The Widow, (is that the crickets I hear in the background?) dips and soars gloriously, Beach Boys quality harmonies beautifully dominating – the majority of the harmonies were created by Nash himself – a wall of sound with sparring harmonies, synths and dubbed over voices, combining without ever competing. Sweet Springs also recalls The Beach Boys with harmonies that would not have been out of place on Pet Sounds. Golden Fleeces threatens to bookend the album on a more sombre and gentle note, before unexpectedly erupting into chorus and continuing to dip and soar beautifully.

Make no mistake, it’s not an album that fully sinks in on first listen, there’s so much going on that repeated plays are required – on headphones ideally – to take on board the musical textures, gorgeous harmonies, bells, whistles, strings, horns and more. Nash was always going to eventually equal the dizzy heights of Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, it’s taken him a while but with Lifted he has finally nailed it.

Mike And The Moonpies Steak Night at the Prairie Rose Self Release

If ever an album title and its cover left you in no doubt what to expect when you pop the cd in your player, this nugget from Austin Texas bad boys most certainly does. Six dudes chewing the fat outside a Texas honky tonk bar, with a blazing trail of fire following lead man Mike Harmeir, as he strolls across the dirt track street. It captures the album’s content perfectly, the material itself being a blazing trail of rip roaring country music Texas style.  Formed by Harmeier in 2007, it’s the fifth album by the Austin based Outlaw Country six-piece band, that also includes Preston Rhone on bass, Kyle Ponder on drums, Zachary Moulton on pedal steel, Catlin Rutherford on guitar and John Carbone on keys. They are essentially a touring band, knocking out close to two hundred shows a year, mostly around Texas and Oklahoma. 

Barely over a minute into opener Road Crew and you get the message, rollicking pedal steel, guitars and keys kick in over Harmeir’s mischievous rantings (‘’ he sells the shirts he drives the van, he’s counting money with a left arm tan, he’s a rambler gambler he just quit drinkin’ and he’s on the road crew tonight’’). Might Be Wrong recalls early Mavericks, Beaches of Biloxi’s rhythm is borrowed from Elvis’s Suspicious Mind and Getting High at Home is classic Texan honky tonk, great playing and equally sassy lyrics (‘’I still put my boots on and ask the girls to dance, but now I spend a lot more time wearing sneakers and old sweat pants’’). Wedding Band and The Worst Thing track are no nonsense straight country and the title track (based on a Houston bar where Harmeir got a residency when in his teens), is a heartfelt ballad of a broken marriage and misspent youth, as the writer recalls childhood memories of sitting in the bar with his father listening to country cover bands. 

Produced by Adam Odor (Reckless Kelly, Cody Canada, Raul Malo, Ben Harper), it was recorded in only five days at The Yellow Dog Studio in Wimberley Texas. 

It’s likely that Mike and The Moonpies will remain a working live band, surviving by packing up the van and travelling the length and breadth of Texas and Oklahoma, possibly without establishing a foot hold elsewhere. Maybe this album will break new ground for them, maybe not, it certainly deserves to. In the meantime, this, for me, is real country music by real country players. Don’t expect to spend endless hours pouring over the lyrics, regaling as they are.  Instead just crank it up and navigate some rip roaring, badass, no nonsense, dive bar country music. File beside Dallas Moore, Whitey Morgan, Reckless Kelly, Whiskeydick and Jamey Johnson.   

Sons Of Bill ‘OH GOD MA’AM’ Loose Records

Four years after the release of their last and fifth album Love And Logic, the Charlottesville Virginia band Sons Of Bill, have finally managed to release their eagerly awaited follow up. Plagued by personal issues, which included marriage breakdowns and addictions, the band – which features brothers Sam, Abe and James Wilson – overcame those setbacks and were in the studio recording the album, when James fell on glass, severing five tendons in his right hand, an injury that threatened to leave him without any movement in his fingers.  Fortunately, after a long period of recuperation, he regained the use of all fingers and the album could be completed.

Tragedy often leads to inspiration and all these wretched events contribute to a change in direction for the band, both musically and lyrically. Recorded in both Nashville and Seattle with producers Sean Sullivan (Sturgill Simpson) and Phil Eek (Shins, Fleet Foxes), the album experiments with a fuller and more expansive sound, without abandoning their trademark striking vocal harmonies. The album was mixed by Grammy Award winning producer Peter Katis, who leaves his stamp firmly on it, with a sound that often brings to mind early work by The National. No coincidence, as Katis has worked on seven of The National’s albums, contributing in no small manner to their distinctive sound. 

The opening track Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away contains only keyboard and vocals, a reflection of more innocent times perhaps, very much the calm before the storm.  Firebird ’85, the next track, takes off in a completely different direction with a heavy drum beat, some slick hooks and crisp harmonies. The intro to Believer / Pretender wouldn’t be out of place on an early New Order album, but like its predecessor quickly settles into an infectious power poppy groove. Green To Blue, the most uncluttered track on the album, has an earthy Pink Floyd sound to it and competes with Before The Fall as the standout track on the album. Easier finds them slipping back into cruising gear with a sound more in keeping with the work on their earlier albums. 

Despite recording five quality albums to date and having praised heaped on them by their peers, a deserved breakthrough has escaped Sons of Bill to date.  Hints at a change in direction did surface on their last album Logic and Love with Bad Dancer implying a more indie and less countrified direction. OH God Ma’am is a brave move, with more in common with New Order and Echo and The Bunnymen than Son Volt and possibly aimed at a wider audience. It may be a general change in direction or simply a temporary detour. Either way, it’s another great album by a band that should be shifting albums by the lorry load.

Martha Fields Dancing Shadows Self Release

Hot on the heels of her 2017 recording Southern White Lies, Martha Field’s latest album Dancing Shadows maintains her prolific output of recent years. Whether it’s country, folk, blues, Tex Mex or rockabilly that tickles your fancy, there really is something for all tastes in this strikingly packaged gem. 

It kicks off with the bluesy Sukey and tails off with the breezy Lone Wolf Waltz, fourteen tracks and over fifty-five minutes later. Recorded at Studio Recordoval in Chateauneuf – Sur – Charante France, it features musicianship that could hardly be bettered by the cream of Nashville session players. The musicians are in fact her European touring band, made up of Ubain Lambert on guitars, Serge Samyn on upright bass, Oliver Leclerc on violin, Danis Bielsa on drums, Manu Bertrand on dobro, pedal steel and banjo with Manu Godard and Vincent Samyn adding organ and piano respectively. Collectively these guys provide the ammunition to bring Field’s suite of songs to life and combine perfectly with her potent vocals across the fourteen tracks. ‘’14 songs that tell my story, past and present, through the mountains and valleys’’, she explains in the liner notes and it’s fair to say she pours her heart out from start to finish.

Not surprisingly, given her itchy feet – she seems to be constantly on the move – quite a few tracks are travel related. The burning desire to play Ireland is the theme on Exile and Paris to Texas – the first single to be released from the album – laments the distance between her two homes.  West Virginia In My Bones, delivered with maximum twang, pays homage to the lands of her childhood where she vows to return (‘’when I die bring me home, West Virginia in my bones’’) and the gentle ballad Oklahoma On My Mind aches with regret, possibly of love lost. Last Train to Sanesville and Hillbilly Bob are pacey toe tappers rocking along late 50’s Elvis style.

In a nutshell, Dancing Shadows is a fun album that is every bit as much Saturday night as Sunday morning listening, by an artist passionate about her art. Lets hope she makes that trip to Ireland, I’d expect she and her band are killer live! 

Ben Glover Shorebound Proper 

Recognising that the local market could not offer him a sustainable career from his hometown of Glenarm Ballymena, Ben Glover headed for Nashville a few  years ago where he has established himself as a highly respected songwriter, working with artists such as Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Neilson Hubbard. His songwriting talents were recognised in 2017, at the highest level, when The Americana Music Association voted his co-write with Gretchen Peters Blackbirds International Song of The Year.

Indeed the move has been a transformation for Glover, who now divides his time between Ireland and Nashville, co-writing, collaborating, and recording solo albums and working with his latest band Orphan Brigade, whose album Heart Of The Cave was recorded earlier this year.  His work on both sides of the Atlantic is reflected on Shorebound, which includes contributions from American’s Amy Speace, Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Mary Gauthier, Neilson Hubbard and Angel Snow together with Robert Vincent, Ricky Ross (Deacon Blue) from the U.K., with Irish artists Malojian (Steve Scullion), Matt McGinn and Anthony Toner also featuring.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard – he also features on Song for the Fighting – the album offers twelve songs, ten co-writes with the guests noted above, with two solo tracks also featured, the title track and Kindness. What You Love Will Break Your Heart opens the album in fine style, an upbeat poppy sound featuring Amy Speace on backing vocals, contrasting in style and content with the darker brooding semi spoken Catbird Seat, co-written with Mary Gauthier. Dancing With The Beast, the next track, was also recorded earlier this year by Gretchen Peters and is the title of her most recent album, it follows a similar menacing and grim style and is every bit as impressive as the Peter’s version. Northern Stars, which finds Glover teaming up with fellow countrymen Malojian (Stephen Scullion) and Matt Mc Ginn, is instantly catchy. Keeper Of My Heart, which bookends the album, is a gorgeous love song, possibly the albums stand out track, with Glover’s and Robert Vincent’s vocals perfectly matched.   

Glover’s previous two albums The Emigrant (2016) and Atlantic (2014), suggested an artist not quite convinced  where he should reside, both geographically and artistically. Shorebound is the work of an artist content, assured and very much at peace with himself.

Friday
Jul272018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Truckstop Confidential Fool’s Rodeo Self Release

This alt-country band from Atlanta, Georgia capture the spirit of what they do on their second release which follows their debut ep The Secret Is Out from 2016. This band is made up of veteran players from the local music scene. Their lead guitarist also has studio experience and he engineered and produced the album, which features a selection of 9 band compositions and shows that they have a knack for taking traditional country influences and giving them a little spit and polish. The band also includes Steven Hicks on vocals and guitar, Linda Dixon on keyboards and the solid rhythm section of Cris McAvoy and Brooks Robinson. For the album they are ably augmented by Kurt Baumer on fiddle, the slide guitar of John Ferguson and pedal steel player Steve Stone. 

Everything is in place for a good night out (or in) without ever feeling that band are about to change your perception of country music. This is down-to-earth roots music that is a group effort and displays the members individual talents. The songs are not without a cheeky sense of humour. The opening Binge Watching takes the action of spending hours focused on one subject - in this case a girl! The title track has a good chorus that makes it one of the catchier songs on the album, a song about movin’ on and burning bridges. The ballad Angels Appear uses the pedal steel to enhance the overall slightly downbeat mood. Big Time is built around a slide guitar and an expression of right place, right time. Camille has a classic feel that reminded me of a song I can’t quite place right now but was none-the-less enjoyable. More alt in approach is Something About A Train which has a requisite sense of movement in both lyric and structure. The album ends with an up-tempo call out that kicks up the dust and has some fine twanging lead guitar and piano to drive the album and song to its conclusion.

Truckstop Confidential are likely to be prominent in the live roots scene in Atlanta and their home State. They have the chops to deliver their songs with confidence and clarity. They are one of many regional bands who have deservedly gained a reputation without ever really gaining notice beyond their home turf. However this album seems to be on all the streaming platforms and is worth checking out at the very least. 

John Lilly State Songs Self Release

A thoroughly enjoyable release from the talented Mr. Lilly. His albums have always been made with heart and soul and this album is no exception. Lilly has written 12 songs, each about a different State and given an individual musical flavour to each track that relates to the musical heritage of the State in question. This makes for an album full of variety and texture that is given focus by Lilly’s engaging voice and the sheer enjoyability of the contributions of his accompanying players who are excellent throughout. 

Lilly wrote all the songs (bar an arrangement of one and a musical quote in another) as well as acting as executive producer with fellow producers Tommy Detamore, Charlie Barnett and Joel Savoy. They have gathered a section of some of the finest players around them including all three producers, alongside names like Floyd Domino, Tom Lewis, Bobby Flores, Ric Ramirez, Sonny Landreth and Brennen Leigh, among others. Pedal steel guitar, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, tuba and euphonium are among the instruments that add sonic texture to his odes to the individual States featured. Which in the spirit of Johnny Cash are: Maine, Texas, Oregon, Mississippi, Arizona, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Wyoming, Louisiana, Idaho and West Virginia.

As with any such album, some tracks stand out initially more than others - though the album as a whole works as a musical journey - so Nothing Short Of Texas captures the mood of 40’s Western Swing, In My Dreams Of Oregan has great harmony vocals from Lilly and Leigh, as does the waltz New Arizona Waltz. Gotta Go To North Dakota benefits from some sterling slide guitar work from Landreth and West Virginia Hills as a great period mood with a strong layered vocal chorus. Goodbye To Idaho also works in its stripped back setting of just Lilly's voice and his guitar.

This is an album that should be loved by anyone who likes well-played, well-crafted songs that are rooted in traditional modes and are as relevant to a listener today as back some 70 years ago. In other words, timeless.

Blue Yonder Rough And Ready Heart New Song

As well as releasing albums under his own name John Lilly is also a member of Blue Yonder, a band that plays on Tuesday nights in a venue, Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia. The band are Lilly, electric guitarist Robert Shafer and bassist Will Carter. On this recording, to fill the sound out in the studio, they are joined by Tony Creasman on drums, Russ Hicks on pedal steel and John Cloyd Miller and Gar Ragland on harmony vocals. The latter also produced and mixed the album which was recorded in Asheville, North Carolina.

Again this is another set of Lilly’s original songs which deal in the complexities and simplicities of human relationships. With life, love, losing, loneliness and long roads ahead. These are all songs that are fixed on a dial that shifts between classic country, swing, folk with touches of rockabilly and blues. The songs are testament to the themes that are reflected in the titles like Standing By The Side Of The Road, Green Light, You Can’t Get There From Here, Tombstone Charlie, Rough and Ready Heart, Lonely Hour and Well Acquainted With The Blues.

As with all Lilly’s song writing there are some memorable songs in this set that again makes it an enjoyable and lasting listening experience. Nothing here is going to change your attitude to classic country overtones of the Americana music that is the Blue Yonder remit. Rather, this is a solid, simple realisation of the music that inspired and continues to enthuse Blue Yonder and their weekly audience, as well as those who have encountered their music in recorded form. One listen to a song like Lonely Hour will tell you all you need to know about the quality that these guys deliver. It is heartfelt and human with an eye on a heritage where music was an important part of a lot of peoples lives. It is just that for these musicians and those who hearts are in the right place to enjoy it. 

Luke Tuchscherer Pieces Clubhouse 

The  new album from the English, New York based singer/songwriter has by all accounts taken a turn towards the harder, rocker end of the Americana spectrum - that may well appeal to those who favour the rockier moments of Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Springsteen. Not that Tuchscherer sounds directly like any of these it is rather the attitude he exhibits here. Perhaps best exemplified by The MF Blues - no prizes for guessing what the MF stands for! - a hard driving guitar laden rock-out that suits the title. More in keeping with his previous albums and roots oriented direction is Ain’t That What they Say? a song that benefits from a startling vocal, a memorable chorus and a dynamic that builds with the song. Tuchscherer can also deliver a slow song that is appropriately regretful in mood with harmonica and keyboards adding to the melancholy.

A former member of rock band The Whybirds he took a turn towards Americana on previous albums but here returns to an angrier, robust rock sound. In order to capture the intensity Tuchscherer and his band recorded the rockier songs live in the studio in the UK. It works by capturing that energy. Something that bands can often loose when entering a studio. Tuchscherer produced the album and knew what he was aiming to capture here. But it is balanced with the slower more melodic based songs working alongside the rockier material. In that light, Ghosts, a song that recognises mistakes and metamorphosis as one achieves some sense of understanding of one’s past and hopeful future. Requiem has a similar thoughtful quality but this time it turns its anger on those who would mistakenly see greed and power as the ultimate selfish goals … the rich get richer, while the poor put in the hours … it builds up to a burning guitar shredding climax.

The title track is one that again manages to sound positive though the words suggest something more adrift from that outlook. The final track See You When I See You is dedicated to his former band and is something of an invitation to do it one more time together “let’s hit the road together, while the world goes up in flames”. It is an overview of a career filled with promise. A promise that was not fulfilled though Tuchscherer continues to make music and to hold that belief that music has the ability to allow change to happen, at least in a personal capacity, if not for everyone. Pieces may not be for everyone but if you like your music to have a rockier edge then these pieces will fall into place.

Lachlan Bryan And The Wildes Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music Self Release

Described as a country album thatb is influenced by Billy Bragg and Leonard Cohen as much as it is by Willie Nelson and Townes van Zandt. It is the Australian band’s fourth album. It opens with the song I Hope That I’m Wrong which was inspired by a newspaper headline about the the surge of stories of abuse that women faced in various industries. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Middle Aged Man in some ways continues the theme by relating how the older guy chasing the younger girl is something of an (middle) age-old pursuit. But one that is far less tolerable in these times. 

The band add guest vocals on The Basics Of Love, which seems like a song you have heard before (and not the Waylon Jennings related title) but is an original. Though it is difficult to say with no (writer) credits available. It is the first of two duets were the added female voice gives greater depth to the song. In this case it is fellow Australian Shanley Del. The other duet is with Lindi Ortega and fairly untypical of her usual type of song. A gentle piano led ballad that uses both voices to good effect. Bryan is singer and piano player and could be thought of as someone who took Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album as a template and followed it to a logical, more country route. However throughout the album there are songs that also feature backing vocals from Imogen Clark. She wrote In New York with Wilde member Shaun Ryan. Perhaps one track to highlight for it’s emotional, quiet strength is Peace In The Valley. A song that displays a van Zandt influence more obviously than others.

The album was produced in Melbourne by Damian Carfarella, a new addition to the band. The result is an easy, relaxed listen with thoughtful lyrics and a solid, purposeful playing that doesn’t sacrifice capturing the right take for something more polished and perfect. I have a feeling that some girls might quite like this country music. Men however are not excluded.

I See Hawks In LA Live And Never Learn Western Seeds

While I have listened to this band in the past I paid more attention to the lyrics on this album as they just seem to stand out from the music a little more. The concept and humour of My Parka Saved Me was an immediate attention grabber with the spoken female lyric being followed closely by that of singer Rob Waller. It is both effective as a story and as an example of the bands oeuvre. The opening song is an ode to environmentalism and Ballad For The Trees not only mentions a selection of trees but also the under threat honey bees. Known as purveyors of  “psychedelic country” in California you can hear where that tag has come from but they are also an accomplished group of players who are musically adept and aware.

Guitarist and producer (and band leader) Paul Lacques knows what he wants this album to sound like and over the 14 original songs manages to create a range of musical sketches that gives the listener the space to enjoy what I See Hawks In LA have to offer. Waller has a baritone voice that has enough resonance to give each song its focus. He is ably supported vocally by the remainder of the band whose harmonies are a reminder of many a Californian band and singer of yore. This and their individual musical talents, which are enhanced by some additional musicians on keyboards, pedal steel and fiddle, all helps to make these songs shine and this is perhaps the best album that this combo has yet produced. 

The songs that stand out for a number of reasons aside for the afore mentioned My Parka Saved Me where drummer Victoria Jacobs provides the female vocal are Stoned With Melissa (a simple tale of daily imbibing), Poour Me a word play on “poor me” and “pour me”, as in, another glass of wine!  Aside from the intentional humour these songs often have something of the element of truth to them. They can also rock out as they do on The Last Man In Tujunga with its odd yet intriguing chorus of “I’m almost out of minuets and I”m almost out of bullets” and on the boogiefied workout King Of Rosemead Boogie.

This is the eight album from I See Hawks In LA in a career heading for 20 years together and they are continuing to perfect their individual take on Californian country music. There is little here that sounds like filler and much to enjoy. Long may they live and never learn.

Tuesday
Jul242018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Mean Mary Blazing Woodstock

This lady is a real talent and her back story is the stuff that makes a movie script seem far-fetched. Raised by a nomadic family, at times in the wilds and the woods, building their own log cabin and embracing a life of home schooling.

Mary James learned to play music at a very young age and is a novelist and a music producer, who has regularly appearared on Nashville TV shows, as well as running her own You Tube channel (35,000 subscribers). Her endorsing of Deering Banjos, an instrument on which she absolutely excels, is proof of her talents as a musician and her dexterity on fiddle and guitars is also most impressive.

Mean Mary is a performing name and whether touring solo or with her sometimes band, Mean Mary & the Contrarys, her musical strengths are always to the fore. While the banjo displays traditional bluegrass sounds, Mary plays the instrument in a way that makes it very melodic & tuneful.

Her brother Frank plays some excellent guitar and this project is a soundtrack to her latest book, Hell Is Naked, about a SWAT agent working undercover as a movie extra. The good thing is that the music stands up as a separate entity and it is not necessary to reference the book to enjoy the music that has been created as an accompaniment piece. 

Ten tracks and plenty of virtuoso playing from Mary & Frank James on banjo, 6 and 12-string guitars violin & percussion. Tracks like Rainy, Rock Of Ages, Lights, Gun, Action and the title track are all instrumentals and played with an elán and verve that is quite infectious. I Face Somewhere, Gone and Sugar Creek Mountain Rushare also expertly delivered. 

Her constant companion through much of this career activity is her Mother/author, Jean James. Some of their videos are a real joy to catch online and I would recommend a visit for a few giggles and to witness some fine musicianship into the bargain.

Mean Mary also peddles a sweet pickin’ balm as a sideline, aimed at all banjo players and beyond - a unique blend of natural plant oils infused with eight essential oils. These plant oils deeply moisturize sooth and protect your skin, keeping it supple for fast pickin’. 

Need I say any more…? Big smiles all round!

Spencer MacKenzie Cold November Self Release

Still in his teenage years, this young Canadian musician certainly knows his way around a fretboard. This is a second release and the quality of playing is very impressive indeed. There are hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the style with some excellent solo breaks and passionate Blues riffs. The future is certainly bright for this young player and already he is punching well above his tender years in terms of the quality of his sound and natural ability. 

The title track, Cold November, is a tribute to the families of the Paris attacks in 2015 and the studio musicians deliver consistently high standards across all ten songs (written by MacKenzie). Move On Down The Track; Haunt Me; Next Door Neighbour Blues and She Don’t Care are strong examples of the fine musicianship on display, with a horn section that impresses while the core band deliver a tight sound that allows MacKenzie to solo around the rhythm with an unrestrained joy. One to watch.

Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen 

This is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since Rattlesnake Cage appeared in 2014. A multiple Juno Award-winning producer, for this project he turned to long-time collaborator and friend, Jesse Zubot to assist in scoring and arranging the strings for five of the ten tracks included. 

With the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver providing the space required, Dawson recorded live with up to twelve microphones in various positions to capture the guitar and orchestration. Contributions from Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse Zubot and his brother Josh (violins) and John Kastelic (viola) create a rich tapestry of sound and the perfect back-drop for quiet days spent in contemplation or lazy evenings by the fireside with a favourite glass of wine, perhaps. Tracks such as The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Forge; Bone Cave; Old Hickory Breakdown; Little Harpeth and Bugscuffle are worthy mentions across the project but really, there is not a weak track on display.

Playing a range of guitars – acoustic, 12-string, national tricone, weissenborn, ukulele – the depth of Dawson’s talent lies in the fact that the melodic progressions are seamless and give the impression of total fluidity and graceful ease. Joined also by Jeremy Berkman (trombone), Nick Anderson (french horn), Sam Davidson (clarinet), John Reischman (mandolin) and Charlie McCoy (harmonicas) on selected tracks, it all works as a composite whole & the fact that he has produced and/or played on more than 80 albums since the turn of the millennium says it all really and speaks volumes for the national treasure that he has become in his native Canada.

The Vagabond Something Wicked This Way Comes Eggsong

Based in Norfork, England this ensemble releases their third album of songs and their sound is very much based in the area of Folk/Roots with traces of a harder Rock edge sprinkled through a number of the ten tracks included here. The band is comprised of nine members, which I am sure makes touring something of a logistical challenge; all those hotel rooms & meals to cover and the practicalities of transportation and instrument space - glad I’m not the tour manager!

In any event, their excellent music is well worth investing in and the organic sound is a heady mixture of fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, guitars, keyboards and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure! This raggle, taggle band of gypsies resemble a Fisherman’s Blues era of the Waterboys with elements of Dylan (title track), Randy Newman (Spiritual Man) and Three Dog Night (One For The Road). 

Tracks like Bright Are The Stars, Not My Day To Die and Zoetrope, are very melodic and overall, the celebratory sound is very appealing. The quality of musicianship and production from José McGill and Gregory Cook, both band members, is very clear and balanced to include all members in the mixing & mastering, so that none of the (many) instruments get drowned out. 

The Fretless Live from the Art Farm Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian four piece from Toronto & Vancouver who play fiddle tunes and folk melodies that are intricate, sprinkled with high-energy performance and a vibrancy borne from years of playing together. The goal is to continually push traditional music as far as possible and to expand the rhythmic, harmonic and structured arrangement style of the many folk genres. 

They have won multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle, viola), Eric Wright (cello), Ben Plotnick (fiddle, viola). This Live project was recorded at the Artfarm recording studio in front of an audience to try and capture the dynamism of their live performances. The tracks are all traditional Irish tunes and they are a vibrant and tracks such as Jenny Welcome To Charlie/ Bear Island; Johnny O’Leary’s/The Miller’s Maggot/ The Sally Gardens; The Pipe On The Hob/Bixie’s Jig and the closer, The Star Of Munster are all fine examples of this fine band in full flight. 

Dana Cooper Incendiary Kid Travianna

Working with co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz, this is the 28th recording in a career that has seen this artist work through the vagaries of the music industry since the 1970’s when he first recorded with Shake Russell and with his own rock band, Dana Cooper's DC3.

Incendiary Kid is a cohesive album of ten songs that cover a whole gambut of emotions, from wanting an idyllic World where love gets its own reward (Flat Made Round), sharing the daily load by reaching out to another (Traveller Too), isolation (Bird Or a Fish, Maybe Tomorrow), disillusionment (My America), relationships (Summertime Woman, Song of the West) and corporate greed (Making a Killing). With a sound that is based in acoustic folk/rock, Cooper’s finger-picking guitar style is complimented by his rich vocals. 

He regularly visits Ireland and travels around the countryside with a bus of tourists in tow; acting as both guide and performer at various stop overs. This is an activity that other artists have been turning to in recent times as an idea to open additional income streams and to keep their core fan base interested in ongoing activities and projects.