Tuesday
Jun282016

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Noam Weinstein On Waves Self Release

On Waves, the eight album recorded by Boston resident Noam Weinstein is soul drenched Americana, containing fifty six minutes of cleverly crafted songs, fifteen in total and often enhanced by delightful strings and horns. A reference point both to Weinstein’s vocal sound and the album’s musical content could be the work of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and yet the album also recalls the type of wonderful melodies created by Todd Rundgren on his 1972 album Something/Anything.

Dedicated to his recently deceased mother and recorded between the time of her death and the birth of his son the album is naturally full of mixed emotions including loss, grief, expectation, love, celebration and no shortage of humour.

Mother is more joyful and celebratory than sorrowful, Intelligent Design is rich, layered and benefitting from a lovely horn section. Over is poppy with a simple catchy chorus that connects instantly.

Recorded at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim) and mastered by Jeff Lipton (Arcade Fire) the album features fifteen musicians including bassist Derek Nievergelt (Coldplay, Herbie Hancock), vocalist Heather Masse (Wailin’ Jennys), drummer Stephen Nistor (Rick Rubin). 

Tokyo Rosenthal Afterlife Rock & Socks

Afterlife is the sixth album released by Tokyo Rosenthal. Performing as a solo artist and leading man with bands such as Harpo and Slapshot and Treo Gato in a career stretching nearly three decades, it was not until 20017 that Rosenthal finally recorded his first album One Score and Ten. The song Edmonton from this album was critically well received and lead to an award for cultural and artistic contribution to the city of Alberta and also resulted in a solo tour of Canada sponsored by West Jet Airlines and opening slots for Chris Hillman, Stephen Stills, Rick Roberts and Jackie Levon.

Like many Canadian and American singer-songwriters Rosenthal has developed a hard core following in Europe and the UK and regularly tours Europe. His influences include Gene Clarke, Jackson Brown, The Band, The Byrds and the album captures the familiar gentle country rock one associates with these artists.

Afterlife is produced by fellow Chapel Hill, North Carolina resident and previous member of Alex Chilton’s band, Chris Stamey, who also contributes bass on the album. It includes ten songs exploring various themes such as immortality (Afterlife), relationship breakups (Love’s Hurtin’ Real Bad) and politics (Cold War).

Post Byrds Gene Clarke can certainly be heard on The Pearl and Shreveport, which includes a clever use of the intro from Queen's Under Pressure. Tom Russell disciples will enjoy the Tex Mex feel to Love’s Hurtin’ Real Bad.

The CD also includes a bonus video of The Cold War.

Hackensaw Boys Charismo Free Dirt 

The Hackensaw Boys have always done old timey as good as anyone, plucking and strumming with the best of them. This time out they are produced by Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Linda Thompson, Paul Simon). The eleven track album is full of good time Appalachian - raw, unpolished and joyfully melodic.

It's old timey in style with modern day lyrics (Mama likes to rock, daddy likes to roll, Mama sips a bottle and Daddy tokes a bowl). The title of the album is taken from a percussion instrument made of scrap wood and metal and invented by former band member Justin Neuhardt.

The current line up of Hackensaw Boys is Brian ‘Nugget’ Gorby, Ferd ‘Four’ Moyse and David ‘Shiner’ Sickmen and Jimmy ‘The Kooky-Eyed Fox’ Stelling. Larry Campbell adds fiddle on The Sweet and guitar on Wolves Howling.

They're nine albums in with basically the same formula of fiddle and banjo-driven bluegrass with tobacco and whiskey fuelled vocals. It's great fun.

Ol’Nick tells of a devil-like character to be avoided (Grab you by your arm when he sees you cannot stand. Ol’ Nick gonna get you if he can), The Sweet swings along with a Dirty Old Town melody and World’s Upside Down questions survival in the modern world. It’s a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, stomping and hollering delight. Pass the jug.

Jeremy Nail My Mountain Self Release

Popped My Mountain into the CD player for first casual listen without carrying out any research into Jeremy Nail, a new artist to me. Immediate impression of both the tempo of the music and Nail’s sometimes semi spoken vocals was pain, a lot of pain.

Further listens and research revealed the source of the pain and the motivation for the album, the second recording by Nail following his 2007 release Letter.

Born in Albany Texas Nail relocated to Austin in 2005 to pursue his career in the musical capital of Texas. Together with his solo career Nail became a member of the legendary Alejandro Escovedo’s band and played guitar on one show of  Escovedo’s world tour in 2013.

After the tour Nail was tragically diagnosed with sarcoma, the result of an incident two years previously when he was kicked while working with cattle at home. Sarcoma is a form of soft tissue cancer that eventually resulted in amputation of his left leg. With his life and career on hold Nail’s main focus became learning to walk again with a prosthetic.  A reunion with Escovedo after a gig was the catalyst for The Mountain. Escovedo, who has faced serious illness himself suffering from Hepatitis-C for many years, acted as a mentor for Nail and his motivation was the driving force behind the album which Escovedo also produced.

The resulting set of songs vividly reflects Nail’s struggle, acceptance and recovery from his trauma. More stripped back than his previous work the emphasis being very much of the vocals which are often unhurried, dreamlike, almost suspended (Down To The Ocean, Survive, Brave).

Dreams is possibly the most radio friendly sound on the album, reflective and hopeful ("We’re given second chances, I finally see the light, The best things come from a higher place, You no longer have to fight") and includes some killer guitar playing by Chris Masterson.

Recorded over a three day period at Church House Studio, the album was mixed by Grammy Award winner Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash) and alongside Escovedo features a host of Austin’s finest musicians in Chris Masterson (electric guitar), Eleanor Whitmore (violin, vocals), Bobby Daniel (upright bass), Chris Searles (drums), Stephen Barber (piano and strings) and Dana Falconberry and Jazz Mills (backing vocals).

"The spirit grows when the wind of change blow in, I might fall, but I’ll get up again" Nail announces on the title track My Mountain. He certainly has turned personal tragedy into triumph with this wonderful piece of work.

Monday
Jun202016

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Bill Price I Can’t Stop Looking At The Sky – Grass Magoops

Inspired by the explorers Lewis and Clark, Bill Price took a lengthy trip around America and over a four year period wrote and recorded this extremely ambitious and hugely rewarding work. The journey covered over five thousand miles across the states of Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. His original intention was to compile a personal journal but the journey subsequently inspired him to put much of his thoughts and experiences to music. The end product includes two hours and twenty minutes of music, a one hundred and twenty page journal, a one hundred and sixty page book of essays and poems, posters and stickers. The album is Prices’ sixth release since his debut album in 2001.  

This review is based on a sixteen track sampler of music from the venture. The material featured on the album is hugely enjoyable and quite varied. I Don’t Want to Come Home is driving pacey rock, Makes Me Feel Better would sit proudly on Paul Simon’s Graceland while Heaven Collapse is all Tom Petty with predictable, yet wonderful, guitar riffs. If Simon, Petty and Jonathan Richman type 70’s rock is your cuppa, based on this sampler, you will embrace this enterprising product with open arms.

Daniel Romano Mosey – New West 

My abiding memory of Daniel Romano will always be seeing him exiting a taxi outside The Ryman in 2013 on his way to the Americana Awards Show. Resplendent in a colourful nudie suit, boots to match and a cowboy hat, flanked by two equally well attired cowgirls, he impressed as someone who when making a statement goes the whole hog. Mosey sees the enigmatic Romano moth ball the nudie suit and travel an altogether different highway than listeners to his previous albums would have anticipated. The Fifties/Sixties traditional country look on previous album covers has been replaced by a look closer to late 60’s Syd Barrett than Hank Williams on the album cover. Referring to his intention of exploring genres other than country Romano is on record recently stating “I’m trying to cover my ass so I don’t end up in some club I don’t want to be part of!”

A mere twelve months since the release of the excellent If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ the prolific Canadian has recorded most probably his strongest work to date, moving away from the Nashville and Bakersfield influences and exploring dustier border landscapes.  The addition of strings and horns often results in the material bearing a delightfully healthy relation to the work of Ennio Morricone. As was the case with If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ Romano plays all the instruments on the album with the exception of piano, horns and strings but  also managed to arrange the string and horn section. The album was self-produced by Romano and recorded in mono at his own studio in Fenwick, Ontario 

The opener Valerie Leon is a monster of a track, soaring gloriously from the word go with mariachi horns and strings a plenty and slick vocals. The rootsy Toulouse sees actress Rachel Mc Adams dueting effectively with Romano. Mr.E.ME is immediately catchy, humorous and again adorned beautifully by strings and horns. Sorrow (For Leonard and William) has a luscious flow with a vocal and lyric recalling Leonard Cohen. (Gone is) All But A Quarry Of Stone is the most ‘country’ offering including some pulsating keyboards. Equally striking is One Hundred Regrets Avenue, the albums longest track, a seductive piano ballad and an indication of Romano’s ability to be equally adept in penning a ballad as a swashbuckler. 

Echo Bloom Red (2016)/Blue (2013) - Self Release

Two very interesting offerings from an intriguing set of musicians recording under the name of Echo Bloom. The band/collectives title is a play on the phase Echo Boom which refers to the offspring of baby boomers and is a vehicle for multi-instrumentalist Kyle Evans who wrote and produced both albums. The albums form part of a ‘Colours’ triptych with each of the three albums experimenting an entirely different musical genre. The first album Blue represents chamber pop, the second and current album Red visits country(ish) rock and the final album of the trilogy Green will focus on classic pop.

The obvious comparison to Evans’ most ambitious project would be the work of Sufjan Stevens and lovers of Stevens’ work will find so much to enjoy in both these albums. Red features no fewer than ten musicians and describing the album as country rock probably does not do it justice. It often enters dark country-noir territory, no more so than the track Willingham which describes the execution of Cameron Willingham for the murder of his three daughters.  It’s beautifully atmospheric throughout, intense with delightful layered backing vocals adding to to Evan’s often whispered and strained vocal. Leaving Charlestown tells the tale of two lovers eloping from Charlestown in search of a new life. Evangeline recounts the writers failure to deliver on his promises to his lover. “The man you love so long ago‘s all torn and faded and there’s nothing left inside of him not full of hatred. Another Rose is straight down the middle honky tonk.

It’s quite interesting revisiting Blue in the context of reviewing Echo Bloom’s current album and certainly rewarding. The songs are more acoustic and highlight Evan’s seductive vocal often with sparse accompaniment of backing vocal and guitar. The description of chamber pop refers to the addition of viola, violin, French horns, cello and oboe which embellish some of the songs. Evan’s describes how the ideas for the songs on the album were larger and more symphonic than anything he had previously written and demanded absolute concentration and distraction free to complete them. As a result he relocated to Berlin which he considered the perfect location to finalise the album. 

Standout tracks are the quite stunning, minimalistic and haunting The Prostitute (Goodbye Savannah), The Flood, which has a definite nod in the direction of Sufjan Stevens and the equally delightful Fireworks. All in all two excellent albums by an artist that I have to admit passed under my radar but whom I will certainly eagerly wait for the release of the final album from the trilog 

Rachel Garlin Wink at July – Tactile 

This is the fifth album released by San Francisco based singer-songwriter Rachel Garlin.  Featuring twelve tracks, the album often brings to mind the earthy, happy work of Laura Veirs. The album is essentially a series of well written unconnected stories delivered by Garlin, both acoustically and with backing musicians, in a distinctive semi-conversational rather than powerful vocal. She plays guitar on all tracks with contributions from eighteen different musicians. 

Opening with Gwendolyn Said, possibly the albums stand out track, the song nostalgically recalls Garlin’s trips on the school bus and reading a quote from poet Gwendolyn Brooks “Exhaust the little moment, soon it dies.” The Winding Road breezes along, immediate and poppy. The Sea You See is an ode to Garlin’s mother who emigrated from Scotland. Colorado Rain is catchy and toe tapping and the reflective title track closes the album. All in all an uncomplicated, very listenable, enjoyable and particularly relaxing listen.

Rainey Qualley Turn Down The Lights – Cingle

Turn Down The Lights is the debut album from actress turned singer Rainey Qualley.  Daughter of actress Andie Mc Dowell and musician Justin Qualley, the 26 year old’s seven track release is firmly aimed at the country pop market. The material is likely to work with the current country radio listenership leaning heavily toward the commercial poppy end of the market. Qualley without doubt possesses a wonderful voice and considerable song writing ability, six of the seven tracks being co-writes with John Ramey. 

The opener Turn Me On Like The Radio is Kasey Musgraves territory, catchy, instant and radio friendly. Kiss Me Drunk recalls mid 90’s Alanis Morissette and Cool, Wild, Whatever closes the album in style, poppy, catchy and immediate. 

The album, recorded at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and recording Spa in Nashville, if anything suffers from over production in places with layered vocals and drum machines dominating but not particularly enhancing the songs. Qualley has unquestionably inherited her parent’s talents and ticks all the boxes to make an impression in the mainstream country market 

Erin Rae and The Meanwhiles Soon Enough – Clubhouse 

There appears to be an endless contingent of quality female singer/songwriters currently recording albums of exceptional quality. Nashville resident Erin Rae is the latest addition to a string of such artists that have made the first six months of 2016 particularly productive in terms of worthy releases. This debut album Soon Enough was recorded live in Nashville over a two day period and finds the Jackson-born Rae flirting between the Laurel Canyon country folk sound of yesteryear and the more current roots driven Americana. It’s a piece of work that seems to benefit from the short recording period, uncomplicated, stripped back, weightless and natural.

Regardless of classification the irresistible Clean Slate, the second of thirteen songs on the album, will certainly stand out with the writer as one of the finest songs of the year, enhanced by some glorious steel guitar it’s a song that seems to have been with the listener for ever.

The arrangements throughout are simple featuring Rae’s acoustic guitar playing often accompanied only by bass and drums, occasionally with the addition of pedal steel. Rae’s wonderful honeyed vocal stands out and there are delightful songs around in plenty from the unhurried title track to the aching melody of Owe You One.

She is a quality act signed to the Clubhouse UK label, here’s hoping we get the opportunity to hear this set of reflective songs performed live by an artist mature beyond her years. Most definitely for lovers of Laura Cantrell and Patsy Cline.

Sunday
Jun122016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

The Honeycutters On The Ropes Organic

More than fulfilling the promise of their last album The Honeycutters have delivered an album (their fourth) that underlines both the writing and singing talents of Amanda Anne Platt alongside the playing skills of her four band mates Matthew Smith, Rick Cooper, Tal Taylor and Josh Milligan. Alongside some additional guests on keyboards and harmonica, the North Carolina based band have doubtless built up a strong following wherever they tour On The Ropes, which far from what the title might suggest, is another knockout punch in terms of their recorded output.

There are songs here like Blue Besides that could easily fit on a Kacey Musgraves album while others would not feel out of place on a Eilen Jewell release. That just shows the versatility and scope of the band, it’s music and Platt’s writing. From the underlying sadness of the ballad The Only Eyes through to the dance floor dynamism of Let’s Get Drunk - a song that emphasises the “in for a penny in for a pound” nature of certain uncertain relationships. There are twelve songs written by Platt and one cover of the seemingly ubiquitous Hallelujah, a song that must be keeping Mr. Cohen’s accountant well pleased. My first thoughts were do we really need yet another version? That answer is open to debate but, in fairness, the version here is given a solid country take that is pretty original and played with the appropriate passion that makes it a worthwhile exercise.

On The Ropes is an album that any self-respecting admirer of the current blend of traditional country and roots Americana should be more than happy to be acquainted with. Recorded in a North Carolina studio with Platt and Tim Surrett producing they have realised an album that is free of outside influences and is all the better for that. As it says on the back cover “great music, no boundaries.” Nothing here disputes that claim.

John Doe The Westerner Cool Rock

At the age of 63 the former punk rocker is still making great music. Time has not only weathered his voice but it also has given him time to reflect. The passing of his friend and Dances With Wolves author Michael Blake has doubtless been a factor in the attitude of this record. He co-produced it with Dave Way and Howe Gelb. The sand worn, desert location of that artist’s work with Giant Sand is a factor in the overall feel that is purveyed on the album.

These songs are at heart a mix of acoustic folk orientated songs with some more solidly rocking moments to balance that out. The opening track Get On Board fairly steams along as it tells us that we are all on board life’s train. We all ride the rails at some point. Sunlight, the song that follows is a parched sun drenched song that has some atmospheric Spanish guitar underpinning its mood. A Little Help, with piano and pedal steel, notes that we all need a little help at times - something that all can relate to. Go Baby Go is a more robust and rockin’ tale of getting out there and doing it with a backing vocal from Debbie Harry. A song that could easily resonate with fans of Doe’s days in X. The isolation and sadness of Alone In Arizona is full of heartfelt thoughtfulness that requires some genuine loss in life to make it feel real. Sonically it is restrained but full of ambient sounds that are sympathetic to the song. In truth all the songs here have their place and an understated but committed performance.

It is a solid listening experience, an album in the fullest sense, rather than a random collection of songs. John Doe is still making vital music - some of the best in a long career. The Shephard Fairey illustration on the cover and the title maybe suggest something that is more akin to his work with the Knitters. However this is a wider exploration of openness, space and a sense of freedom that covers a broad but still essentially rootsy soundscape. One that Doe fans and those who look for engaging roots music should get acquainted with.

AP Mauro Rainmakers Lamon

As with any broad format there are a lot of people out there making records. They make albums to be heard to express a point of view or because they just want to. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good - or bad. It just means that finding a place in an over supplied marketplace is difficult. This is no reflection on AP Mauro or his latest release rather it is a fact of life. This 6 track EP was recorded in Nashville and was produced by Mauro and Dave Moody. Other than that and the fact Mauro wrote all these songs there is no mention on the cover of who the other players were. But they did a pretty good job in fleshing out these songs. 

The title song You’re A Rainmaker has a propulsive beat with guitar and piano lines under Mauro’s song that offers a wry look on political posturing and shows that the man possesses a solid voice. It’s easy to see the Springsteen/Mellancamp/Earle comparisons that have appeared in reviews. Comparisons that anyone who aspires to a “blue collar” ethos seem to pick up. They are valid if not essentially all there is to know about the music here. In the end most Americana music is redolent of something that has gone before. That’s pretty inherent in the DNA of the genre and can apply to any number of artists.

Of the other songs here all suggest a maturing artist who is developing his craft and while none of the songs have that classic quality that defines a career song These Chains and Lonesome Highways (a trucker’s tale) are well worth repeated listen along with the aforementioned Rainmaker. Those who have heard and enjoyed AP Mauro in the past will be happy that they have some new music to listen to. Others could well start here and maybe find a new name to add to their listening list.

Marlon Williams Self-Titled Dead Oceans

The New Zealand native opens this, his debut solo album, with a the attention seeking Hello Miss Lonesome a fast a furious song that introduces his distinctive and acrobatic vocal style. Previously he has recorded with a band The Unfaithful Ways but this solo album gives him the opportunity to explore a broader more eclectic set of songs. And while he has acknowledged the influence of Gram Parsons for playing country music with respect but with a rock ’n’ roll attitude this album would be hard pressed to be classified as country to some more traditionaly orienteted fans. Country, in truth, would just be one influence in many.

His songs, some co-writes, have, at times, literary and cinematic quality all directed by his undaunted vocal ability that matches the lyrical twists. Dark Child has that a certain sense of that hue in it’s overall delivery. I’m Lost Without You is a 60’s style orchestral ballad written in that era by Teddy Randazzo and is the sort of thing that Marc Almond (or any number of 60s balladeers) would feel right at home with and is full of expressive regret and longing. An ethereal synth solo underscores this dark mood and it is an album standout. Silent Passage is a cover of a Bob Carpenter song (the title of his 1984 album). 

There is a dark humour to Strange Things theme of death, strange dreams and things that creep in the night. Not exactly the theme of your modern country song! When I Was A Young Girl has an eerie folk quality that is stripped down to a voice and guitar setting that again highlights the qualities of Williams’ vocal dexterity on his version of a traditional ballad. The downbeat mood continues for the final track a restrained setting with vocals choruses that tells us that Everyone’s Got Something To Say. Something I would imagine is true of this album. I look forward to Williams next move after what is a pretty remarkable debut.

Scott Cook and The Long Weekends Go Long Groove Revival

This package comes with an extensive full colour booklet of lyrics, an explanation of the Nashville numbering system and a note from Scott as well as a lot of pictures. These pictures show the assembled cast playing Beersbie (also explained in the booklet). A good time was had by all from the evidence and that feeling seems to have extended to the music too. An open love letter to the world it says on the back cover. There has been some love expounded for most things although Bob Geldof and Bono (as well as Russell Brand) may not think so from their mention in Drink Poverty History. Although I think the attitude is tongue in cheek. “And there’s still no snow in Africa this Christmas, and good, ‘cause wouldn’t that be strange?” A cheap shot or a personal observation? One for you to decide, but from Cook’s sleeve note this is the view of a character in the song rather than personal observation.

Elsewhere the direction of Cook’s darts are aimed at big stars, the folk communities reliance on certain songs, a song about the “kid with the comic book” written by Trevor Mills and called exactly that. As an alternative to singing Happy Birthday he wrote his own song The Day That You Were Born

One of the centre pieces is the warm and full timbre of Cook’s voice. It matches his lyrical storytelling. There have been mentions of Guy Clark, John Prine in some of the reviews and to that I might add maybe a touch of Todd Snider and Fred Eaglesmith in their more humourous mode. He gathers members of his old band to, in his own words, “try to put summer on record.” Whatever the intention he and his seven band mates and co-singers have delivered an upbeat acoustic folk stew that both sustains and is flavoursome. 

Cook is a storyteller and and worthy addition to many other notable Canadian singer/songwriters. There are 13 songs on the album the longest and most wordiest is Talkin’ Anthropocalypsc Blues at over eight minutes. It’s fun and makes some points on subjects that interest and provoke Cook. Whatever spirit you take it it deserves to be taken. You may well need that long weekend to take it all in though. Pick a sunny one.

Clarence Bucaro Pendulum TwentyTwenty

The fourth song on this tenth release from the New York based performer is a song that immediately sounds both new and familiar as perhaps the best kind of song should. Girl In The Photograph has a light reggae-ish lilt that has an instant appeal. A substantial but breezy pop song about treasuring a photograph of a person who has meant much at one part or another of someone’s life. Bucaro is also touches on more troubled moments as in Tragedy where he doesn’t want to be caught up in the drama created by another, not wanting to be a part of their tragedy. Watching You Grow is a tender observation with accordion a part of the musical setting.

The subtle sense of melody as well as something a little deeper edge applies to many of the songs here and they become more appreciated with regular play. Bucaro has a strong velvet smooth voice that gives life to these reflective and intimate songs. Throughout he works with a band that includes Scott Ligon on bass and keyboards, Rich Hitman on guitar and pedal steel and Alex hall on drums, accordion and keyboards. A tight but essential unit of players under the direction on Tom Schick (who has previously worked with Ryan Adams) and Bucaro himself behind the production desk. My Heart Won’t has central characters  that seek but are wary of finding love, or anyway a love that might last. Another notable contribution comes from Alison Moorer who co-wrote and sings on the final song Strangers. There is a sense of melancholy in the strangers in the night theme that is reflected in the prominently featured pedal steel. That instrument does not a country album make though and this, overall, has a folkier feel - even with the full band there to give the songs some added strength.

Clarence Bucaro after nine previous albums should be making some headway in terms of recognition and judging by the overall consistency shown here on Pendulum, one can only hope that some of that might just swing his way. Even if that’s not the case in proves that although there is something of an overdose of singer/songwriter albums on the horizon there are still undiscovered performers out there who make travelling down our lonesome highway worthwhile.

 

 

Wednesday
Jun082016

Reviews by Paul McGee

David Berkeley Cardboard Boat Self-Release

These ten songs are companion pieces to stories contained in David Berkeley’s book The Free Brontosaurus. He uses the song characters to mirror the perspective of each story’s main character. This is an interesting idea and one that gives the listener the chance to absorb the songs/stories from different angles. Writing in character can give a song a somewhat distant feeling, but the reflections and insights in each song here can be taken as very personal. 

This is the sixth studio release from a literate, talented and accomplished song-writer who creates a gentle mood with his rich voice and a superb backing band that includes guitarist Bill Titus (Dan Bern, Brother Ali), trumpet and banjo player Jordan Katz (De La Soul, The Indigo Girls), bassist/keyboard player Will Robertson (Shawn Mullins) and drummer Mathias Kunzli (Regina Spektor). The harmony vocals of Sara Watkins are especially memorable and her vocals dovetail beautifully with Berkeley amongst the easy flow of these songs.

There are references to the sea with Setting SailTo the Sea and Cardboard Boat. Many of the songs contain a melancholy air touching on topics like relationship vulnerability, loss and regret; absence and a need to return; disillusionment and sadness and lost souls. However, there is also a perspective that new beginnings are possible and a brighter day awaits with new love and opportunity. This is folk music that is thought-provoking and delivered with great assurance.

Corinne West Starlight Highway MAKE

West has four previous releases and here the talented songstress has gathered a troupe of musicians who serve Starlight Highway’s ten songs with great reverence and some sublime playing. The arrangements are acoustic based with plenty of room for the various instruments to be heard and the production, by West herself, has to be applauded as she delivers a real gem. 

Her voice is very sweet and can soar with the rise of the instruments on songs like Give Our Ships Away and the jazzy tinge of Gypsy Harbor. There is the bluesy mood of Find Me Here and the old time swing of Cry of the Echo Drifter together with the rockabilly up-tempo pace of the title track. These are sophisticated songs delivered with fine feeling and restrained playing by an ensemble that includes the talents of Mike Marshall, excellent on mandolin and Henry Salvia on B3 Hammond organ, piano, accordion and Wurlitzer. Most of the songs are co-writes with the very talented Kelly Joe Phelps who adds some fine guitar and vocals on a number of tracks while Edo Castro on 7-string Fretless Bass and Ricky Fataar on drums give a solid rhythm to the melodies. A number of additional musicians add to the rich colour and the best way to enjoy these songs is to turn the volume up on the headphones and sip a slow glass of red wine to the sweet strains of, Audrey Turn the MoonTrouble No MoreMonday’s Song and Night Falls Away Singing – so much to enjoy.

Daniel Martin Moore Golden Age Sofaburn

This is Daniel Martin Moore’s fifth release. He possesses a beautiful voice which is startling like Art Garnfunkel’s and sings with a melancholic tone to melt even the hardest of hearts. Produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, the 10 songs here drip with atmospheric melody on the air of a soft breeze.

Joined by the subtle playing talents of Dan Dorff, Jr., Joan Shelley, Jim James, Kevin Ratterman, Dave Givan, Ben Sollee, and others from around  Kentucky, Moore takes his gentle reflections and turns them into finely polished gems of light jazz, piano-based, late night soulful spiritual searching.

Monday
May302016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

TWO FROM CANADA: A hotbed of some traditionally orientated country music

Ginger St. James One for the Money Busted Flat 

St. James is a Canadian singer and songwriter who has a passion for traditional country, rockabilly and blues. You can add the word rowdy to this description to help sum up her sassy attitude which may spring from her previous involvement in the burlesque scene. This 9 track album also has some more thoughtful and quieter moments like Honeymoon Stage, Best Of Me and You and Somebody Shot Me alongside the more up-tempo stompers like Train Whistle and the hard rockin’ Hair of the Blackdog

St. James has a commanding voice as well as a way with words that suits her chosen musical path. She is accompanied by a band of players including longtime guitarist Snowheel Slim and pianist Chris Altman, who join her on the credits for the mostly self-written songs. The set was produced by James McKenty and it is a step up from her previous entertaining EP release Spank, Sparkle & Growl, recorded with her previous band, The Grinders. One for the Money affirms that St. James is developing her craft in what might be considered a segment of the musical spectrum that is under represented. This is one for the moment.  

Eli Barsi Portrait of a Cowgirl Red Truck Int.

Barsi is an artist with a string of releases under her (cowgirl) belt and one I have not encountered previously. The Canadian roots/country scene is full of artists who tend not to receive much recognition outside their homeland. Barsi’s experience and talents shine on this album, which deals with themes related to farm and ranch life. She also touches on the more personal aspects of relationships such as He’ll be Back Again and I See You Everywhere.  

Barsi’s sound is a fairly satisfying blend of traditional and contemporary. A solid rhythm section gives a radio friendly base under the banjo, fiddle and steel guitar embellishments. Add keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars and you have a layered sound that isn’t retro, but stays within what can be rightly credited as country music. 

She has written all the songs here and the sound has a wide ranging appeal. Perhaps she should be considered as a parallel to singers like Joni Harms and Wylie Gustafson. They all come from a background rooted in the land, horses and a western lifestyle. Indeed Barsi has a number of “western” albums to her credit and Portrait of a Cowgirl fits well, as it is a musical evocation of an attitude and ethos that is fast disappearing, one which many are attracted to but don’t have the opportunity to live. This is something that Barsi considers (as have others) in Big Hat, No Cattle, but in the end the song Country Music Was Made for Saturday Night sums up the letting off steam, end of the week release that country music seems well suited for.

TWO COVERS ALBUMS: Two artists offering their choice of favourite songs - with the mixed reaction that that often entails.

Karl Blau Introducing Karl Blau Bella Union 

This album from Blau is far from an introduction; it is more an introduction to some of his favourites and is being presented as a country/soul album. This is a combination that is big buzz word right now. A look at Blau’s discography on his website highlights some of the numerous releases he has made over a 20 year recording career. 

There are twelve songs on this album which opens with the oft recorded That’s How I Got to Memphis. The sound is, in truth, not overtly country in a sense that fans of honky-tonk or Texas dance floor might imagine. Rather it is a blend of smooth delivery with soulful overtones that allows Blau’s warm, rich, deep vocal to sit front and centre. However, a little against type, there is little brass featured. Strings and keyboards feature with acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars.

The overall feel is perhaps a take on the more refined countrypolitan Nashville melodious sounds of the 60s and 70s. Producer Tucker Martine gathers together a set of players who clearly understand what the songs need to give them a makeover. How successful this is, and indeed, any cover is, depends on your relationship to the original or best known version. I’m curious as to how many of these songs Blau’s audience would have encountered previously. 

Woman (Sensuous Woman) was recorded by Don Gibson, No Regrets was written by Tom Rush and recorded by the Walker Brothers (amongst others). If I Needed You is perhaps Townes Van Zandt’s best know song. Dreaming My Dreams was written for Waylon Jennings, was a hit in Ireland when covered by Marianne Faithfull and was also covered by Patty Loveless. To Love Somebody is a Bee Gees song that has been recorded by a number of roots/country artists such as Blue Rodeo. The first single from the album is a compelling version of Fallin’ Rain, written by Link Wray. 

There is plenty here to both admire and enjoy and the album may serve as an introduction to Karl Blau’s broader musical world. It might even get some indie fans to explore the richness of country music’s past and in turn open the minds of some usually more strictly focused country fans. In the endit is down to the performance, the singer and the songs. Here the match is good enough to hold attention and to reassess the songs that Blau has chosen. He’s the one wearing the cowboy hat and embroidered jacket on the cover and this gives you a clue as to where he’s coming from this time.

Robert Rex Waller Jr. Fancy Free Western Seeds

Waller fronted the band I See Hawks in LA for some years now before deciding to release this solo outing, funded by Kickstarter. Divided into Side A and Side B, the first song from Side A is his take on Walking through your Town in the Snow and it is a good opening choice as it highlights Waller’s deep baritone voice. Written by Bruce Utah Philips the song sets you up for the Americana that follows, including a melancholic, but uplifting take on Neil Young’s Albuquerque.  From then on there are versions of songs from Ray Davies (Waterloo Sunset), Albert Hammond (The Air That I Breathe) and Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, which features an extended guitar outro. There are also lesser known songs such as the title track or Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars. There is also a short piano and vocal version of Amazing Grace 

Each listener will find their own loves and loathes, although nothing here should deserve the latter opinion. Waller has produced the album with Marc Doten and they ring the changes across the songs; some are stripped back while others offer a more cosmic sound. The version of the Doors The Crystal Ship fits that particular sonic sound well.

Doten is at the heart of the sound, playing keyboards, guitar and bass and he is joined by drums, guitar and violin. The album takes each song on its own terms and as such is difficult to pin down to any one single genre direction. Which, if you are listening without a particular preconception, offer a wide ranging listening experience.

With I See Hawks in LA Waller sings original song. Here he is given the freedom to interpret songs that have entered his consciousness in an individual, stylised way that makes the most of his voice and their musical settings. Enjoyment will depend largely on how willing you are to follow him down a winding path.

TWO FROM THE PAST: Two artists offering popular songs, with the mixed reaction that often entails.

Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock Mr Country Rock Humphead

Craddock is a singer whose recordings on this 2CD collection go from 1978 to 1986. He was a vocal stylist rather than a songwriter, recording songs that had a solid enough country backing, but were in many ways more associated with rock and pop. The set opens somewhat ominously with Knock Three Times which was a big country hit for him. After that we get 49 other songs including Dream Lover, You Better Move On, Come a Little Closer, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Think I’ll Go Somewhere (and Cry Myself To Sleep), Sea Cruise and a live version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On. Starting out as a rock ’n’ roll/rockabilly singer Craddock released records and toured in the 50’s before taking a career break. After that he returned as a country singer and it is from this period that these recording come.

There is a certain nostalgia about these songs that are largely inoffensive and inessential. They are not without a certain charm and highlight Craddock’s serviceable voice that owes a little to Elvis Presley in tone. The production makes the best of the backing musicians who include Lloyd Green on steel and there is enough variety in the tempo and tone to ensure a solid listenable experience. The penultimate track She Belongs to Me is not the Bob Dylan song but an unrelated, uncredited one. By this time, as exemplified by the final track I Didn’t Hear The Thunder, things had moved on as it is a largely keyboard-based song with backing vocals that is neither rock nor country. Billy “Crash’ Craddock is an performer who largely changed with the times and this compilation misses his early rock phase and goes from country to something more middle of the road.

Dave Dudley Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun Humphead

Humphead put together these two CD collections and, depending on individual preferences, some hit the spot more than others. This collection spans recordings from 1965 through to 1977, so the production from each period changes the sound and the musical backing styles. The difference between tracks 5 and 6 (You’ve Got to Cry Girl and What We’re Fighting For) is quite wide apart from Dudley’s voice. It is the earlier recordings that largely hit home the most for me.  

The version of Six Days on the Road is not the original version from 1963 but a later recording from 1975. The subject matter Dudley’s best known for are those that dealing with the trucking fraternity. Songs like the aforementioned signature songs along with Me and Ole C.B., Farewell to the Road, Trucker’s Prayer, Truckin’ Dad and the title track. There are also a wide variety of relationships that were also a staple of any singer’s repertoire. You Got to Cry Girl, a song he co-wrote in 1972, sounds like mainstream crooner pop to me. 

The majority of the songs are more about relationships than on the road themes. What is apparent throughout is the strength of Dave Dudley’s deep baritone vocals. He seems at home with the choices that the producers made to keep the songs relevant with radio styles when these songs were recorded. One writer Dudley turned to was Tom T Hall who provides some 14 of the songs - two co-written with Dudley and one, Day Drinkin’, on which Hall and Dudley duet on a song illustrating the title.

There is no getting away from the period sound of the production on these tracks, but that is part and parcel of the appeal. Dudley’s voice was suitable for this material, but he is most fondly remembered for the truckin’ songs. However there is enough here to show that Dudley loved what he did.

TWO FROM THE SAME SOURCE: Michel McDermott is the primary songwriter for both of these albums.

The Westies Six on the Out Pauper Sky

On this second Westies album the band continue in the vein that they set up on their fine debut release. The band is fronted by Michael McDermott and Heather Horton with five other players including guitarist Will Kimbrough and bassist Lex Price, who also produced and mixed the album. For the uninitiated there are some comparisons to the writing and sounds of Dylan, Springsteen and Elliott Murphy in the mix, but the Westies stand on their own feet and make a sound that will appeal to fans of certain periods of those other artist’s work.

McDermott is the writer and main singer here and the songs are dark and dirty and deal with the lives of those who exist in shadows and on the margins of a largely uncaring society. The songs tell truths and have undoubted passion and understanding for those who inhabit these songs. The Gang’s All Here is a strong ballad with tin-whistle that suggests a certain Irishness in ethos and community. Like You Used To is another ballad, sung this time by Horton, that seeks love from another in a way that may have been lost over time. Love is something that these characters seek and other songs here look for the meaning of that. Everything is All I Want for You and This I Know are declarations of hard won solace.

The opening If I Had a Gun pulls no punches in that the lethal weapon could either be “pointed back at me” or equally used to “blow them all to hell” and the sense of desperation is palpable. Henry McCarty is the tale of an Irish-American outlaw better known as Billy the Kid. It tells his tale, one often told before, in a way that has an understanding for who and how he became that legend. Sirens is the about murder and the deep devastating loss that results from loss of family. These may be not the stuff of mainstream music, but the performances here make these songs stand up and fight for themselves and they put up a good fight.

Michael McDermott Willow Springs Pauper Sky

Ostensibly this is a solo album from Westies frontman Michael McDermott, although the cast of players has names common to this album and Six on The Out. McDermott sits in the production chair this time, and while the Westies recorded their album in Nashville, this album was recorded in the titular Willow Springs in Illinois. McDermott started out as a lauded songwriter and singer and released his debut album 620 W. Surf  in 1991. Stephen King called him “one of the greatest songwriters in the world.” Indeed his Irish heritage has given him the gift of storytelling.

This album seems a little more oriented around an acoustic guitar, folkish approach, though the full band is present throughout to fill out the melodies and add a texture to the sound palate. The songs take a similar approach to those on the Westies album in that they are considered and concerned tales of the lives of everyday working or unemployed folk. 

A wider audience has so far eluded McDermott and that may be due to a superficial comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s work. That may be something initially obvious, but there are songs her that I’m sure the Boss would have been proud to have penned. Both men come from the “Judas” tradition of amped up electric folk rock in any case. This is something McDermott addresses in Folksinger. “I don’t wanna be a folksinger anymore, I wanna hear some big guitars.” In truth though he may always be a folksinger at heart , though one who also rocks hard.

There is a strong sense of melody and lyricism on display throughout the album. Soldiers of the Same War notes that man has been “fighting for a thousand years” and that war and all it brings is a constant, something we never seems to learn from. From reading the lyrics in the booklet one gets a sense of an overall despair and downbeat hearts. The feeling that a person who is a half empty guy who if he “wasn’t laughing … you could bet that he would cry”. But that would deny the positivity that is inherent in McDermott’s music and life. He has been through bad times and has come out the other side. In Let a Little Light In and Shadow in the Window, he underlines a need and search for love, both to give and to receive. 

I would place him along side Elliott Murphy as singer/songwriters who plows their own furrow, who continue to write songs that are relevant and real. They are artists who exist outside mainstream commercial success but who may be the better for it in terms of their artistic endeavours. Willow Springs is an album to savour, one to admire and one that salutes the human heart for all its frailties, faults and fervour.