Monday
Nov282016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers Pirate Party Self Release

Over the last few years Tom Mason has firmly nailed his colours to the mast with his Blue Buccaneers releases. The band name and title should give you a pretty good idea of where Tom Mason is coming from. It’s a pirate thing scallywags. In recent times Mason has released a pirate themed Christmas album Yo Ho Ho as well as The World Is Ablaze all of which, if you get in the mood, are entertaining, energetic and ebullient outings that will get anyone who is open to it in the party mood. 

Like the last album this set was produced by Thomm Jutz and the Buccaneers are a talented crew. Mason is the undisputed captain and handles the vocals, guitars, dobro, trombone, bouzouki and mandolin. Add to that violin, drums, bass, banjo and a whole lot of vocals and you have a fully realisied sound.

It’s interesting that after 4 such albums there are still songs that have you going with their infectious choruses. It must be all those pirate songs heard down through the years on film and TV. Bully In The Alley, Blow The Man Down, All For Me Grog, Haul Away Joe will be familiar to many. Mason and crew give them a good run for their money and display some fine playing and innovative arrangements (by Mason).Their take on Drunken Sailor for instance is given a twist by setting it to a Bo Diddley beat!

There are a number of original songs too that are written or co-written by Mason including the title song, Talk Like A Pirate (plenty of that here to give you a refresher course), Pirate Polka, In The Drink and Pirate Song (We’ll All Go Down With The Ship). A song that could easily be perceived as a forward thinking comment on the current state of affairs in the (dis)United States.

All in all, an album that while it may not be for everyone is full of life affirming spirit, tight playing and a sense of fun that is often lacking in these over-produced and over polished days. Long may Mason and his Blue Buccaneers rule the waves - as its likely in these programmed to death days that they won’t get to rule the airwaves. Still it’s never too late for a pirate party methinks.

Todd Snider Eastside Bulldog Aimless

Essentially this is a side project from Snider, a set of 10 songs that never outstay their welcome as the album clocks in at less than a half-hour. His Elmo Buzz pseudonym should be on the front cover but that may have confused things what with his other project the Hard Working Americans and all. It is a hard rocking album full of Snider lyrical asides and off beat, sometimes humorous observations. Snider has a distinctive voice that has gained in grain and grit over the years and is perfectly suited to this set of (assumingly) self-written songs. He also produced the album with Eric McConnell. They assembled a bunch of like-minded individuals including Snider on vocals and take-off guitar, McConnell on bass, Denis Taylor on some very upfront sax, Mark Horn on drums and Jen Gunderman on keys and vocals. These players all recorded their parts in the Sound Emporium in Nashville. While another set of players including Aaron Lee Tasjan, Paul Griffith and Keith Christopher (drums and bass respectively) were tracked in the Cash Cabin.

The title track, Hey Pretty Boy, Are You With Me? are all stand-outs but then the whole album rocks along at a pace. Those who enjoy the work of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages would do well to check this dog out. Rooted in rockin’ 60s sounds the album combines Snider voice and lyric with some off the leash riffing and energy. What’s not to like? 

AJ Hobbs Too Much Us Never Enough Booker

Hobbs is a classically trained musician who got hooked on country music (the good stuff) and his first show in the country mould was opening for Shooter Jennings. He met Ted Russell Kamp there playing bass for Jennings and they subsequently worked together with Kamp producing a previous e.p. and now this debut long playing album. The song Waylon & Merle may give you an idea of where Hobb’s heart really lies. He also includes a version of The Bottle Let Me Down that is in the spirit of its author, while also giving it some of the singer’s own style.

Aside from that, the songs are all originals from Hobbs with the exception of a Kamp song and two co-writes. All songs are taken from the storytelling tradition of using your own life as a source for the material. Hobbs admits to having problems in the past with drink and related issues. This is revealed in the opening title track. After that the song titles pretty much reveal their content in instances such as Life Without You, Daddy Loved The Lord, a song that displays a solid country/gospel theme that runs through the album with strong soulful backing vocals and organ playing a major role in many of the songs. That country/soul combination is one that has been currently explored in recent times. However, Hobbs seems to get the balance right so that it is overall a country album with an undercurrent of soul.

The production and playing are right behind Hobbs who has a strong voice much suited to the musical style he has chosen. His songs are about getting to the heart of some real life situations and experiences that are told with clarity and conviction. AJ Hobbs is not taking this music to places it hasn’t been before but, rather, he is adding to a tradition with some humour alongside the more harder hitting truths. Hobbs is a welcome addition to those exponents of California country music we know and love.

Lynne Hanson & The Good Intentions 7 Deadly Spins Self Release

Another engaging work from the Canadian singer/songwriter. Murder Ballads & Reckoning Songs it says on the sleeve and indeed these songs have a darker, edgier, rockier sound. Fellow singer/songwriter Lynn Miles brings out the rust and corrosion inherent in the seven songs here like Gravedigger, Water’s Edge and Black Widow.

Hanson plays acoustic and electric guitars and sings in a deathly clear voice on a set of original songs written solo or with co-writers Al Wood, Fraser Holmes and Miles. The accompanying musicians add tension and texture to the seven songs.  Songs that let you know where they are coming from “No hope for redemption … that’s what my Momma said” (My Mama Said), I’m digging in the dark ... digging to hide what I done” (Water’s Edge) or “Got a bible near my bed … and a shotgun by my head” (Cecil Hotel). These excerpts leave you in no doubt that these songs are a little different than the up-tempo, upbeat songs that are beloved by mainstream radio. This runs much closer to the bone(s).

Lynne Hanson has made strong albums in the past and this may be something of a diversion from the main path in terms of content and sound but this is a set of songs with a purpose and an opinion that makes it a pretty compelling listen. Just make sure to leave the lights on when you listen.

Tom Shed Davey’s Cornet Curly Maple

This songwriter has a number of albums under his belt. They are a mix of folky songs that tell stories of people and places. Shed and Nathan Smith produced the album in Nashville where they utilised the services of players like Steve Hinson (steel and dobro), Dave Pomeroy (bass) along with a selection of brass, keyboard and harmony vocals. The sound is warm and pleasant as is Shed’s voice.

These songs tell stories, for instance Bolita Sam about a murder in 1953, Ole Hickey’s Town about the rebirth of a town after a fire. As well as his own songs Shed includes three from Dave Grooms, one from Will McLean plus Stan Jones’s often recorded Riders In The Sky and the title song about the effects that war often has on a man (or woman) when they return home. The song was co-written by Shed and Janet Goodman. There is a mix of styles here from the more stripped back arrangements to the fuller sound songs, like the aforementioned title track Davey’s Cornet, which naturally features, understandably, that particular instrument. This gives a variety to the listening process. Just A Soft Echo is largely voice and guitar which perfectly suits the mood of the song. Conversely the arrangement of Riders In The Sky has a fuler sound with drums, pedal steel and a lead acoustic guitar break. The final track Groove, an instrumental, by way of complete contrast exemplifies that variety as it’s a brass and keyboard workout that closes the album on quite a different note to all that went before it, like it somehow strayed in from another album.

Shed is the sort of artist who will have fans who love his work and a ready audience that wants to hear them it, but for a number or reasons may find it hard to break outside of that particular audience. Those who are attuned to him will always want to hear more while the larger listening public will, which is true of many such artists, never take the time to find him or come across his music by accident. Those that do will know a good story when they hear it.

The Stray Birds Magic Fire YepRoc

Something of a change for The Stray Birds as they decided to bring in an outside producer. That choice was the notable producer Larry Campbell with whom they recorded the album over a ten-day period. They took the elements that had served them well through their previous albums such as the tight, lush sounding three part harmonies of the trio and their developing song writing skills which they opened to a wider approach to the process and subject matter. 

Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven, and Charles Muench all brought their A-Game to the sessions where they added to their own multi instrumental skills to those of Campbell, alongside drummer Shane Leonard, Kai Welch and Marco Benevento on keyboards. The end result is another step forward for the band and a step closer to wider public recognition.

For example, the percussion behind Where You Come From has a philosophical viewpoint aligned to a catchy chorus. The final song When I Die has an equally dark thread running through it. While, by way of contrast, Somehow steps back in time to stand close to what the Everly Brothers were doing at a certain period of their career. It’s soft harmonies and fiddle and steel guitar backing has a sweetness and instant likability. It is those harmonies throughout that are integral to what The Stray Birds have done since their inception. This time out they have added a much bigger sound and some fire and magic to the way they have conceived the album. It shows how a band can develop while fundamentally losing what was good about them in the beginning.

Sunday
Nov202016

Reviews by Paul McGee

Amanda Rheaume Holding Patterns Self Release

This talented singer-songwriter releases her fourth record and shows plenty of growth and maturity since her Keep a Fire release in 2013. Produced by Jim Bryson who does a really excellent job, the twelve songs featured are full of melody and catchy arrangements. The musicians gel together and display great talent in bringing the songs to life. Blair Hogan and Jim Bryson shine at various stages with some tasty guitar moments.

Many of the songs are coming from a personal place and the woes of relationships are covered in Blood From A Stone and Dead Horse. The prospect of turning attraction into something more substantial is covered with Get To The Part, Mind Over Matter and Time to Land. Keeping a positive outlook on life is the subject of Beat the Rain, Wolf Of Time and the outstanding track here, All That You Need, a song that asks for belief in our own strength and talents. Red Dress, finds Rheaume honouring the over 1,180 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. 

The song The Day The Mountain Fell, refers to a 1958 landslide in Prince Rupert, British Columbia that crushed small community of houses and two men who rescued a baby. The baby was a cousin of Rheaume’s and they called her ‘The Miracle Child’ because she was the only survivor.

Rheaume sings in a sweet but strong vocal with a nice tone to her voice, while the folk- tinged feel of the songs lull the listener into a nice cosy place of seemingly familiar territory. Nine of the tracks are co-writes with Amana writing two others and Jim Bryson pitching in with the closing song, On Disappearing, a perspective on passing time and our sensitive natures. A very engaging release and one that asks to be heard.  

Brian Cullman The Opposite of Time Sunnyside

Twelve songs and all written by an artist who has gathered an impressive list of musicians to bring this project to life. Co-produced by Cullman and Jimi Zhivago (great name), who also contributes on multiple instruments, this NYC writer/producer/musician shows enough confidence here to be a real player. This is only his second solo outing but he has Jenni Muldaur on backing vocals joined by Leni Morrison (The Darling Sins), Glenn Patscha (Ollabelle, Sheryl Crow) on piano and organ, Byron Isaacs (Ollabelle, Levon Helm) plays bass, Aaron Johnston & Didi Gutman from the Brazilian Girls are on drums & keyboards respectively, Jimi Zhivago (Glen Hansard, Rufus Wainwright, Kim Taylor) plays guitar, and Hector Castillo (David Bowie, Bjork, Lou Reed) engineered and mixed.  

Wow, this guy has some CV, having shared experiences in London with the likes of John and Beverly Martyn, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson and writing for such publications as Creem, Musician, Rolling Stone and The Paris Review, among others. He also produced sessions for Lucinda Williams & Taj Mahal, Ollabelle, and Persian-Indian group Ghazal; collaborating with Youssou N'dour on a record for Senegalese guitar wizard Jimi Mbaye; producing the soundtrack to the documentary Gypsy Caravan, and scoring Padre Nuestro, winner of the 2008 Sundance Festival.

Eclectic does not really cover it all but the songs here are the culmination of all these influences and really hit home as a work of real accomplishment. The swamp groove of Walk The Dog Before I Sleep is pitched against the slow gentle groove of Time If There Is Time and Hands Of The Rain. Beneath The Coliseum is a folk strum that harks back to an earlier time of innocence and easy days while the sound of Memphis Madeline is Dylanesque in content and delivery. Well worth investigation.

Robin Greenstein Tears & Laughter Windy 

This artist has been playing and recording since the 1980’s and this release is her first in over a decade. Robin plays both guitar and banjo, describing her music as "Acousticness". She mixes many styles with folk, jazz and blues highlighting her acoustic talents. She has also looked at women's lives thru traditional Anglo and Afro-American folk songs, releasing Images of Women Vol 1 & 2

There are similarities to both Dar Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter in the strong vocal delivery and the story-telling narratives. Hole in the Ground speaks of the troubles in the World while the light jazz groove of West Coast Swingin’ sits well against Eric Clapton cover of Tears in Heaven, co-sung with Frank Reno and a new take on a well-known song. A Tale Of Two Cities is about the aftermath of 9/11 and the coming together of communities in N.Y.C. and New Jersey. 

The relationship woes of Where There’s A Will There’s a Way reflects on a love gone cold with the routine of life; finely observed and well perceived with a message of enduring hope. The death of a child is sensitively visited in Happy New Year and the spiritual message of Buddha Watches Silently reflects on the inner journey we all must balance along our weary path through this world. 

John McDonough Surrounding Colors McDonough

Austin, Texas is home to this singer songwriter who releases his second collection of songs in the last 2 years. Dreams & Imagination was reviewed here previously and this time out the same studio band has remained, with the players delivering on all fronts. The 10 songs featured all display a confidence in the delivery and writing as we are given a strong mix of rock ballads and up tempo workouts. He is a fine guitar player and the piano and keyboards of Cole Gramling add real colour to the arrangements. Co-produced by McDonough and Kevin Butler (drums & electric guitar) the drive of the opening songs Tonight’s The Night, Save A Life and Open My Arms And Breathe lead into the more reflective Nowhere Else To Run. The Place Where I Belong is a country influenced groove that sits well alongside the easy tempo of All The Gold. Another solid project brought to fruition by this interesting artist who is quietly involved in a d.i.y. career that has to be applauded. 

Mary Beth Cross Feels Like Home MBC

Six songs on this mini release from a folk/roots artist who hails from Colorado. She has been making music since 2006 and has 4 previous releases to her name. Cross sings with a clear sweet voice and the cover versions of Kathy’s Song (Paul Simon), Long, Long Time (Gary White) and Shady Grove (Doc Watson) are given a bluegrass treatment that sits nicely alongside her original songs, Threshing Time, and Cottonwood Creek

However, it is the eight-minute medley of Summertime/Moondance (George Gershwin/ Van Morrison), mixed with her own original Pas De Deux (Francais) that is the highlight here. It is an audacious attempt to link 2 standards with unknown melodies but it does work well. The musicians play superbly together with bass (Adrian Engfer), banjo (Chris Pandolfi) and fiddle/mandolin (Jeremy Garrett), prominent in the mix and doing a fine job in backing up the fluent guitar work of Tyler Grant and vocals of Mary Beth as she follows her muse. Production by Chris Pandolfi is very impressive with a clear and spacious sound highlighting the excellent musicians throughout.

Monday
Nov142016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Reckless Kelly Sunset Motel No Big Deal

As a band who loosely defined what was eventually to become labelled as Americana, Reckless Kelly rocked, honky-tonked and country rootsified their chosen musical path since moving from Oregon to Austin and releasing their first album Millican back in 1998. The band is fronted by the Braun brothers Willy and Cody. For their ninth studio album, they are joined here by bassist Joe Miller, guitarist David Abeyta, and drummer Jaz Nazz. The latter two have been reckless for some time and indeed Abeyta has been a co-producer on their recordings with the Braun brothers over the last few albums. Guests on the album include Bukka Allen on keyboards, Marty Muse on pedal steel as well as Eleanor and Chris from the Mastersons.

All contribute to a full and eventful sound that while it may not have altered a great deal since they started, shows how that have matured, honed and clarified their sound. It is a pretty engaging one that has found them many friends and fans through the years. The album opens with the very accessible How Can You Love Him (You Don’t Even Like Him)? A fairly self-explanatory song in terms of subject matter. This leads to the hard rockin’ Radio and example of maybe how not to get on radio while considering what would. Willy Braun takes the lead vocals and has a strong, emotive and engaging voice that can handle the rockier songs as well as the moments of regret like the moody title track with ease. Braun is also the writer of all the songs here and as such sings them with the total conviction required.

There are few bands better at what they do. The kind of scrappy, rough-round-the-edges roots music that still has a tightness that comes from playing together for some time. It is shared experience that knows its own place and isn’t trying to be anything it isn’t. There has been no compromise in how Reckless Kelly have approached their music. There have been no flirtations with the big label and that has enabled them to be true to themselves and their fan base which knows what to expect from a Reckless Kelly album. That includes a clever, well thought-out and designed cover (it comes with a key fob that when used as a viewer reveals further hidden images) something that is easily the equal of any major album release these days. 

This is a set of songs replete with choruses and hooks that are trying to be too-clever but equally share experiences that are readily relatable. Volcano, Give It Up, Moment In The Sun are further examples of how this band delivers on its early promise. While Sad Songs About You is just that, a song of pure heartbreak and sadness. The final track Under Lucky Stars is a slow acoustic based ballad that balances well with the more upfront songs that also permeate the album’s thirteen cuts. There are vacancies in the Sunset Motel - check in and check it out at your leisure. You will be back.

Luke Bell Self-Titled Bill Hill

Bell seems to be picking up press for his third album release. Deservedly so as his new album, released through Thirty Tigers, is a good one. After growing up in Wyoming and playing in a variety of rock bands he moved to Austin where he honed his mix of honky-tonk blues and New Orleans r’n’b. Now he lives in Nashville and this album reflects that move. There are a few tracks from his previous album Don’t Mind If I Do including the opening traditional sounding Sometimes, in which he reveals that he feels being in a relationship is like “sometimes I feel well … but other times I feel like hell”. If these songs have been remixed or recorded is not entirely clear but as the credits list only a Nashville studio I’d suggest the latter. 

From then on it’s one strong song after another. Where Ya Been? about looking at the straggled stranger looking back at him from the mirror. The Bullfighter takes the analogy of taking on the titular role in a honky tonk bar. Working Man’s Dream is a fast and furious fiddle-fuelled song with a yodel that recalls the resurgence of hardcore hillbilly down on Lower Broadway and back in the day. The album closes with the New Orleans sound of a big solid ballad, a self-written song, The Great Pretender. It shows that Bell can take on different sounding songs and sound like he is at ease with them all. He is effectively becoming known with this release which has a greater prominence that his previous releases - and deservedly so.

Producer Andrija Tokic has gotten a good take on mixing traditional modes with some contemporary mores. With players like bassist Dave Roe, drummer Jimmy Lister, steel player Brett Resnick, fiddler Casey Driscoll and Caitlin Rose on backing vocals there is an expectation and all play their part in bringing these songs to life. Fiddle, steel, twanging guitars and feisty harmonica all feature prominently giving the whole album its context and clarity. Proof again that even in Nashville music that bears some relation to the reason the city made its name is still being played there, even if it is not getting past the front door of the established labels at this point in time. All you need to do is listen out for the likes of Luke Bell and you will be, if you’re a honky-tonk fan, a happy listener. 

Bap Kennedy Reckless Heart At The Helm

It was great sadness that I learnt of the death of Bap Kennedy and somewhat ironic that his new album arrived through the letterbox on the same morning. Without the added poignancy of his passing this would still be a great album in keeping with the overall body of his work either as part of his punk band, Energy Orchard, or his solo albums. Through his career he has been recognised as a distinctive and emotive singer and songwriter who first came to wider attention with his Steve Earle & Ray Kennedy produced Domestic Blues album and through such releases as The Sailor’s Revenge, Howl On (which also featured the late Henry McCullough on one track), Lonely Street or The Big Picture, an album that featured Shane McGowan and a song co-written by Van Morrison. Kennedy stood toe to toe with these largely better known artists and leaves a fitting body of recorded work behind him.

Reckless Heart was written and produced by Kennedy and was recorded in Northern Ireland with Rod McVey, featuring  wife Brenda on backing vocals and percussion as well as lead guitarist Gordy McAllister, bassist Nicky Scott and Rod McVey on keyboards. All provide a musical bedrock for these songs that is perfect for the rootsy flavour and relaxed feeling that the tracks purvey. There are obvious standouts like the story telling of the wandering Henry Antrim, the wish to revisit a missed opportunity on I Should Have Said It or Honky Tonk Baby a song dedicated to the object of his affections and the music of their choice. The Universe And Me is a sad consideration of his life and times, his music and his love. A song that is all the more affecting because of his demise. As the songs tells us truthfully that for many “there’s no music in money, there’s no money in love”. 

Once again you’re reminded of how much talent exists on these isles that has long been dismissed or ignored for not emanating from the US or being too closely linked with the jukebox/covers syndrome that has been associated with country cover bands and artists for a long time. His much-praised debut was released in 1998 and Kennedy has been at the forefront of original (what has come to be known as) Americana since then. Bap Kennedy will be missed for his on-going musical and writing skills that marked him as one of the originals - and best.

Ben Glover The Emigrant Proper

Working again with producer Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover has delivered an album that largely reflects the nature and life of the emigrant. To do this Glover has used a set of traditional arranged songs as well as such sterling songs as the fiercely anti-war song of the Australian campaign in Gallipoli in World War 1 and the devastating effects that conflicts brings. The oft recorded And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda never fails to move in its unsentimental impact. Here it is a slow piano-based ballad (played by on this track by Dan Mitchell) that runs over seven and a half minutes and slowly builds up as the story unfolds and the bitterness intensifies. It is largely a singer’s song and Glover gives a heartfelt vocal that underlines his presence in that area. The piano is a central to many of these songs giving them an intimate and understated feel that works well in the context of the album’s timeless themes.

Something that is apparent throughout and where an artist covers non-original and traditional songs is that it is often largely down to their vocal skills to make the song their own. So, while some of these songs have versions that are already ingrained in the memory, Glover adds his own personality to his reading of such songs as The Green Glens Of Antrim, Moonshiner and The Parting Glass. The latter is the opening track and one of the albums standouts. It is given a folky rendering with fiddle and acoustic guitar but has an energy that highlights the essential message of the song.

The new songs are written by Glover solo or with Gretchen Peters (The Emigrant), Mary Gauthier (Heart In My Hand), Tony Kerr Carpe (A Song Of Home). Aside from Eric Bogle’s … Waltzing Matilda, there’s Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here and Brendan Behan’s The Auld Triangle. All the latter are songs that Glover must feel are special enough to want to risk comparison to previous versions and in doing so he has given them context that are is as relevant to many today, as to the time or time frame that they were written. The appreciation of end result may depend on how open a listener may be to previously recorded songs but should also be considered in the way that fits with the new songs. Ben Glover is to be applauded for taking this risk; one that should establish him as an artist who can bring something of himself to all these songs. They have the capacity to make the listener reflect and think anew and that in itself is a pretty good thing all round.

Kaia Kater Nine Pin Self Release

The cover features Kater with back to the camera and a well-played claw hammer banjo cross her shoulder. Maybe signifying that this is an album, while that instrument is key, where she is considering other options than the usual routes. Kater and co-producer Chris Bartos have assembled a group of players who bring a set of tones that are as effective as they are unusual to accompany the banjo. These include flugelhorn, trumpet, electric guitar and moog alongside upright bass and fiddle. There are also several credits for backing vocals which play a subtle part in the proceedings. It is Kater’s banjo and voice however, that are the centrepiece to the recording.

Recorded in Toronto, the album highlights a combination of traditional arrangements and self-written originals. Kater has sleeve notes on the album that are related to the traditional song’s sources. All the material however fits seamlessly together with an experimental discourse that, while it is rooted in her musical heritage and that of the banjo, offers something a little different. Some of the tracks take a more stripped down approach like the song Little Pink.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird has a sense of acapella with some minimal percussive effects behind the voice. In other cases, though the instrumentation is largely voice and banjo, the arrangements feel more contemporary in outlook. The final track Hangman’s Reel is a fiddle and banjo reading that feels very traditional and shows Kater’s understanding of the instrument’s potential past and present.

The songs are strong and her voice compelling which makes her one to watch in the ever-growing list of those playing their individual take on old-time and bluegrass music. She has also got a strong visual presence that helps her to stand out. Something that always helps in what is a difficult time for any artist to gain attention for their music.

Jesse Dayton The Revealer Hardcharger

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad album from this Texas roots/country/rocker since his debut album back in 1995. Raisin’ Cain introduced a prodigious talent as writer, singer, guitarist and later as a producer. Since then there has been some seven albums under his own name between that album and this new set of songs. All but one of the songs are written (or co-written) by Dayton. The one outside song is from the noted artist Mike Stinson, who also plays drums on some of the tracks here. Brennen Leigh also duets with him on Match Made In Heaven (the duo also have released a full duet album Holdin’ Our Own back in 2007). Dayton plays all guitar as well as bass, percussion and keyboards. On the latter three he is also joined on different tracks by Eric Tucker, John Evans, Riley Osbourne and Erich Hughes. Beth Chrisman adds fiddle on several tracks. Evans also is the main producer here (he himself has made a number albums, one which I managed to track down a while ago was Biggest Fool In Town which I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is something of the outlaw outlook about Dayton and his ‘go-your-own-way’ approach he has taken to his music. He also has played with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the past. There’s nobody looking over his shoulder here advising that this or that might be better “received’ if it was polished more. This is rough and ready and infused with the energy of the booze fuelled spirit of the honky-tonk and roadhouse. The opening song also reasons that that such an attitude was an inherited thing when he tells us that his Daddy Was A Badass. The humorous I’m At Home Getting’ Hammered (While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed) is one of those oh so country songs that will always raise a smile, not unlike the Notorious Cherry Bombs It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long did. Dayton previously released a version of this song on the spoof album Banjo & Sullivan in 2005. This was a fictional band that featured in the Rob Zombie directed The Devil’s Rejects. Dayton has worked as an actor himself in subsequent films directed by Rob Zombie. Holy Ghost Rock ’N’ Roller is as you might expect a full-on piano-thumping stomper which is prefaced by a sampled diatribe about the evils of rock ’n’ roll. The Way We Are is another song that considers the life of a “this or nothing” working small-time musician looking towards “the hour on stage … playing for minimal wage … we do it for nothin’ or drinks from the bar.” Never Started Livin’ is a love song that is followed by the acoustic guitar and vocal finale Big State Motel which again deals with the life of the drifter, those who know no other way of life.

But it is his musical output that concerns us here and Jesse Dayton is the real thing and joins the ranks of those unreservedly in thrall to the throne of high octane country and rock ’n’ roll. The Revealer offers the listener some righteous unrighteous uncluttered music that will shake, rattle and country roll.

Monday
Oct312016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms Innocent Road West Sound

A musician based in the thriving Portland, Oregon roots music scene Caleb Klauder plays old-time and bluegrass music with Foghorn Stringband. He also has a deep seated love of traditional country music which he plays with a honky-tonk ensemble of like minded musicians. They include vocalist/guitarist Reeb Willms with whom he has released a previous album Oh, Do You Remember a set of close harmony duets written by the couple. Now some four years later they’re back with a new collection of songs that are a mix of original songs written by Klauder with a selection of covers like Buck Owens’ There Goes My Love, a George Jones co-write I’d Jump In The Mississippi as well as some more recent material like Paul Burch’s C’est Le Moment.

Again their two voices intertwine and weave the harmonic threads into something strong and colourful that blends elements of the front porch and the honky-tonk together. The musicians who accompany them are an important part of the overall picture; some have played with Klauder for some time. Ned Folkerth on drums and Jesse Emerson both also appeared on Klauder’s 2009 country album Western Country. Joining them also are Rusty Blake on pedal steel and guitar, Sam Weiss on fiddle and Jason Norris also on fiddle and harmony vocals for three tracks. Klauder is in the production chair and has delivered a bright and warm sound that is immediately captivating. The album was recorded by Mike Coykendall who along with Klauder and Blake mixed the album in Portland. The is a strong sense of music made for its own ends. There is no feeling that it is aimed at anyone in particular rather a group of musicians making music that they (and we) will enjoy for what it is. 

Klauder’s You’re the One is an a standout sounding like a song that should have come from several decades ago it is a plaintive love song. While rooted in past-times there is a hearty relevance to these songs. The themes are those that will always concern songwriters. Songs that chart the up and downs of relationships in a clear and unequivocal manner. Yet they do so in a way that’s uplifting and light on its feet. Montana Cowboy a song of yearning for home written by Jack Sutton that has Willms on lead vocal and she tells us of longing and loving. On songs like There Goes My Love (which shows clearly the blend of stringband and country influences) and Just A Little they sing together in close harmony that emphasises the idea of togetherness.  

Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms have delivered an album that is top notch in every respect (inclining the eco-friendly cover) and though they may not be a name as familiar as the likes of Wayne Hancock to many they are well deserving of reaching a wider audience with their truthful music. 

Joe Purdy Who Will Be Next? MC 

It’s always slightly alarming when you came across an artist whose music sparks interest and you check their website to find that they previously had 13 other releases without coming onto my radar. Joe Purdy is one such artist. Not being aware of the previous work this album is solidly in the protest song/aware folk singer section of the aisle. And maybe the time is just right for a singer to stand up and make his feelings known in the long tradition of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan up to more recent protagonists like Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Dan Bern or Tim Easton. Of course, many bands have released records that include songs that rally against the many ills that prevail today. But equally there are those who don’t want to know, who want the act to “just shut up and play the hits”. Those who may like the act but not the political viewpoints expressed. Witness the CSN & Y, or Bruce Springsteen as just a couple of examples. 

But back to the music and that is pretty damn good. The album opens with New Year’s Eve and some understated organ playing before Purdy expresses his wishes for his own life, his country and then for a world deep in inequality and self-destruction. A hope for something better and free from “all war”. A wish that is likely never going to be fulfilled but one that needs to be expressed. The title song asks that simple question regarding the ever mounting toll of gun deaths. Not a sentiment that will find favour with an ever growing section of the divided, entrenched polar opinions of many Americans. So it goes on to the point where you can’t really separate Purdy’s opinions and worldview from his music. You will either be agreeing with his stance or you will want to listen to someone who has no obvious opinions or who holds the same viewpoint as yourself. There is a subtle accompaniment to the music which features an understated rhythm section, some B3 organ, pedal steel guitar and fiddle (from Scarlet Rivera). The latter in fact reinforces some of the abundant Dylanesque music references throughout.

In the end though it is Purdy’s lyrics, voice and worldview that are central to the album. Purdy with an acoustic guitar is likely to be as compelling live as he is here on record. There’s no doubt that voices are need to counter balance the corporate propaganda and fear that is prevalent today. Purdy is one of those voices and his songs are heartfelt and necessary - as well as working in a purely musical contact too.

Sean McConnell Self-Titled Rounder

A Nashville based songwriter with a neat turn in melodic and emotionally sustained songs. This is his debut release for Rounder after a series of self-released recordings. McConnell grew up wanted to be a songwriter and toured around the States performing and honing his craft which has resulted in this album. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ian Fitchuk and Lason Lehning it has a big, sculpted sound that falls somewhere between the mainstream and something more suitable for the fringes. These are songs that were started in isolation and were developed to where they are now. As their is noe specific title other than the artist’s names these songs take on something of an autobiographical  honesty. Queen Of Saint Mary’s Choir being a case in point.

With a tight studio band behind him that included both Fitchuk and Lehning as well as guitarist and banjo player Danny Radar and bassist Tony Lucido they have together delivered a set of songs that should have a wide appeal. McConnell has previously had success with his songs being recorded by the diverse likes of country singers Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Wade Bowen, pop singer Christina Aguilera and rock singer Meat Loaf. All going to show that McConnell’s songs are broad enough in category to fit any genre.

There is a smoothness to the songs and singing that has none of the outlaw grit that some may seek. Rather there is an immediacy and likability that rewards returning to the songs. That is not to say that there aren’t some more complex ideas to hand like the religious current that runs through Running Under Water. In One Acre Of Land he tells of this piece of property as against the travels of a musician. A ballad that has an honesty and sense of hope that is the central tenet of McConnell’s music. McConnell is a songwriter, that is who he is and who he wants to be; whether writing for other or for himself he does the best he can to make what he does have some sense of belief. Others can share that belief too on this fine album.

John Prine For Better, Or Worse Oh Boy

No real surprises here then. As the follow up to the acclaimed 1999 release In Spite Of Ourselves this is another instalment of John Prine singing with a variety of female duet partners in the style of the classic country duets albums of the past (and present). Some wish for an album of new self-penned Prine songs - something that may be in the pipeline (as a teaser the final song Just Waitin’ is sung by Prine solo) is but for now this is a pleasure to hear. John Prine, even in his prime, would never be consider a vocalist’s vocalist. Not that that matters I’d rather hear Prine’s expressive voice really get to the heart of a song over a faultless but emotionless delivery any time. 

Producers Jim Rooney and Prine have given the album an understated setting and a warmth that serves the songs well and players such as Al Perkins, David Jacques, Lloyd Green, Shad Cobb, Ken Blevins and Susan Tedeschi all bring their individual and group skills together to make the backings work in such an unobtrusive but oh-so-right way. It is however the selection of vocalists that Prine duets with that make it an interesting collection. They are, big breath, Iris Dement, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Holly Williams, Kathy Mattea, Morgane Stapleton, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Susan Tedeschi and Fiona Prine.

Now everyone will pick their own favourite female voice and how well it works with Prine on their chosen song (or songs). Songs that are lessons in classic country storytelling from the pen of such writes as Allen Reynolds, Hank Williams Snr, Buck Owens, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Sammy Lerner, George Jones, Vince Gill and The Dixie Chicks. in some cases such as Mental Cruelty the male/female perspective adds a new  dimension to a song normally sung from the male viewpoint. All the component parts of the album come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable collection. Definitely for the better.

Cody Jinks I’m Not The Devil Thirty Tigers

Another contender for outlaw of the year. Cody Jerks is a country artist who arrived there via a time spent playing heavy metal but who grew up listening to the country music his father loved and so he has returned to that. His songs, voice and approach are undoubtedly much closer to Texas than they are to Nashville. These are songs that speak of hard times, hard work and hardened attitudes and hard country. It is an album shot through with conviction and trying to convince that he is neither the devil or a saint. The majority of the songs are self-written odes to a chosen lifestyle, there are three co-writes and two covers. Both Sonny Throckmorton’s The Way I Am, the Billy Don Burns song Church At Gaylor Creek fit the overall patina of the album. 

Recorded at the Sonic Ranch in Texas it was produced by Joshua Thompson with a set of players who understand the songs and how they should sound. However, it is Jinks voice that is the centrepiece of these largely mid-tempo songs. it has the kind of depth that is important to give the album a feel that is right and ragged. The thirteen songs are chosen to give an idea of who and why Cody Jinks is who is at this time. Like artists like JP Harris or Jamey Johnson you don’t feel he will tire of playing country music in the long term even if he chooses to explore the possibilities of his music and where he could take it. So, it’s not without possibility that one of his songs (or albums) could connect in the way that either Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapelton has you still get the feeling he will be more in the Haggard mode by remaining in the country mode while considers it’s potential.

The fact that so much of the material here is of similar tempo and mood actually gives the overall album a setting that builds on the continuity of its themes. There are many individual songs here that are worthy of special mention from the title track to Grey, Church At Gaylor Creek, The Same or the more up-tempo Chase The Song to the Waylon-ish No Guarantees. On their own any of these songs speak of the concerns that would be real to any hardcore country fan. With enough twang and steel to satisfy I’m Not The Devil is a worthy of passage to a country music heaven’s gate.

The Mavericks All Night Live Mono Mundo

Have departed from the watchful eye of Valory/Big Machine The Mavericks are now in control of their own destiny in terms of the recorded output. The first fruit if that is this 16 track live document that concentrates on their more recent material rather than on the better know “hits” of yore. Though they may surface later as this album is subtitled Volume 1. In the end this is a recording that sounds fully live in the best sense with a band firing on all cylinders. The four main men are all superlative players and it is good to see suited and booted keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden a fully paid up member of the band. He has had a long involvement with The Mavericks in the past as a sideman and has been a major addition to their sound for some time. There are, of course, as usual a number of other players who join the band onstage: Michael Guerra, Max Abrams are both long serving sidemen while Matt Cappy and Ed Friesland are more recent additions to the brass, accordion and percussion section of the touring band.

However, the focus is on founding member Raul Malo whose vocals are the focal point of the show. But you can’t deny the power and drive of Paul Deakin’s drumming or the sonic thrust of Eddie Perez’s lead guitar playing. But as already stated this is a unit, a band playing as one but also having fun with it. They have been called the best party band around (or in some case wedding band) this is to overlook the skill and ease with which the deliver there sets. There may not be a whole lot, in the live set, that can be said to be pushing musical boundaries. That however is not really the point they are  there to entertain and be enjoyed on their own terms. 

The majority of the songs are written by Malo either solo or with other co-writers and as such are perfectly suited to his overall musical muse. The one exception is his comparatively laid back rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest. But aside from the occasional breather this set is an ‘up and at them’  full energy set that has highlights such as the closing song Waiting For The World To End, the reggae tinged What You Do To Me and Summertime, the piano boogie of As Long As There’s Lovin’ Tonight or the thrust of I Said I Love You with some tight guitar from Perez. The Mavericks mix and blend a variety of musical influences that include latin, country and pop. They do it well as this recording is a testament to. They emerged as country act but have now moved beyond any simple genre classification to become band equally at home in the studio as on the stage. Doing it their way they live up to their name. 

The Handsome Family Unseen Loose

The spotlight was briefly turned on The Handsome Family when their song Far From Any Road was used in True Detective. How that has effected the band in the long term may be something that is open to debate. For now they are now back with their latest collection which continues to explore their unique sound. It shows the duo’s contained development as recording artists and the creative input of the husband and wife duo. From the always interesting lyrics of Rennie Sparks to Brett’s more distinctive vocal presence along with his expanding skills as a producer/engineer recording largely in his home studio.

There is a subtlety now with the arrangements that along with Brett’s multi-instrumental skills sees the inclusion of a range of guest players on mandolin, dobro, drums, guitar and pedal steel. Other than that Brett played or simulated all the other instruments. Rennie adds banjo and autoharp as well as supporting vocals. It is this division of labours that gives their recording work its distinctive and memorable sound. One that is often quite different in a live setting which has gone from the duo plus backing tape to a sometimes-full band. 

But it is the music that we are looking at here and that, for long-time fans, continues to reward. They have rarely deviated from a core sound since their inception rather they have honed and crafted it to give the listener a more textured and layers sound that comes from experience and a continuing wish to make music on their own terms. On this set of songs the immediate songs that infiltrate my consciousness are Gentlemen, Back In The Day, Underneath The Falls, The Sea Rose with it’s dueted female vocals. A song that seems charming but has a siren call to death as it’s theme. This again underlines the important input Rennie’s words are in making these songs so ‘handsome’.  

Whether this album will find itself in a wider public consciousness or not is somewhat beside the point (expect in terms of sales or audience attendance). What matters is what’s in the grooves and Unseen is a complete an album as The Handsome Family have recorded so far. It is music that loosely falls under the Americana banner but in truth is influenced and inspired by all the music Brett has heard and all the imagination for storytelling that Rennie conceives. They may remain unseen in a larger context but they should not be unheard. 

Keegan McInroe Uncouth Pilgrims Self Release

This album does not sound the way I expected from it’s cover. It is an album that from the first song seems rooted in country music’s storied past. The opening song Country Music Outlaws talks of those very fellows, whilst declaring that he is not one of those but their influence is none-the-less strong throughout. Roger Ray plays pedal steel (a role he he’d down with Jason Boland for a good few years). This instrument has a lot to do with the traditional leanings of the sound. McInroe is also joined by Ginny Mac on accordion, Derrin Kobetich on mandolin, Austin Smith on fiddle and harmonicaist Gary Grammar among a number of other guests. The latter features prominently on many of the songs. The album was produced by McInroe and engineer and mixer Ben Napier in a studio in Fort Worth. The people and place are the reason it sounds the way it does.  

Uncouth Pilgrim is McInroe’s fourth under his own name. It combines his own song with a couple of outside songs and it further lays out his blend of country, folk, rock and blues in various mixes using his full band to tell his stories. The singer has a gritty and heartfelt voice that is completely suited to the song’s delivery. Begona and Verona are both solid standout tracks of love under difficult circumstances. Again, the supporting players add just the right sense of atmosphere to the songs. Woody & Ruth is folkish tale of traveling down life’s uncharted highways and how the titular persons met. I Got Trouble has some dirty guitar riffing that emphasises the fact that the singer has indeed got that very thing with a capital T. It features effective female backing vocals and soulful organ interludes. Sonically it is more left field but it works a treat. Also, adding variety to the mix is Nikolina with a deeper more gravely vocal that is piano based and from the Wait’s school of rendering. With a distorted jazz brass arrangement that shows that McInroe can turn his hand to a number of different musical modes to best suit a song.

The album clocks in at over an hour but such is the diverse nature of the production and of the writing that there is enough variety throughout to sustain interest. On second thought given all that has gone into the album maybe the cover is exactly right. It would be uncouth to admit otherwise.

Wednesday
Oct262016

Reviews By Declan Culliton

Sarah Morris Ordinary Things Self Release

First listen to Ordinary Things brought to mind the Ohio singer Rachel Sweet, who’s blend of country infused pop was to the fore in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Not sure why she was released from my memory bank having not listened to her music for over thirty years but I did detect quite a number of similarities between her and Sarah Morris. Crystal clear voices, snappy country pop and simple but cleverly crafted songs mostly involving relationships, being the common tread between the two artists.

Following her previous two albums Grateful Moon (2011) and Lonely or Free (2012) Sarah Morris took time out from recording after the birth of her second child before returning to the studio earlier in spring 2015 to record the eleven tracks that feature on Ordinary Things. Recorded at River Rock Studios Minnesota with her band which includes Thomas Nordlund, a technically superb guitar player (whose solo album is coincidentally reviewed in this section), Andrew Foreman on bass and Zachary Schmidt on drums, percussion and keyboards, Morris also contributes acoustic guitar. Production duties were carried out by Eric Blomquist. 

The real winner on the album however is the heavenly quality of Morris’ soaring vocals that dip and soar throughout and leave a lasting impression with the listener.

No Memory is instantly catchy and hum a long, both Sway Me and Lie Here Tonight follow a similar path, delightfully mainstream and certainly radio friendly. Hope Sweet Hope fittingly closes Ordinary Things on a high note completing what is an upbeat and solid collection of songs delivered in some style.

Rachel Laven Love & Luccheses Self Release

I have Rebecca Roselly, who together with her husband Simon form the UK Roots band The Rosellys, to thank for the introduction to Rachel Laven, a 24 year old Texan singer-songwriter. Rachel guested at a show in Nashville that featured The Rosellys and certainly made a marked impression with her brief appearance.

A winner of the Texas Music Coalitions Artist of the Year while performing with her family band The Lavens she was also recently voted San Antonio’s Best Female Vocalist.

What places her ahead of many of her contemporaries, with ambitions of an industry breakthrough, is the possession of a quite luscious voice that recalls a young Carlene Carter and places Laven approaching the territory of the new breed of young gifted female songsters Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Munroe.

 Love & Luccheses features eleven songs, eight of which are written by Laven, three co-writes and one cover Something Like Heaven written by Walt Wilkins. It’s altogether a solid collection of songs ranging from ballads Each Other’s Shoes and Something Like Heaven with echoes of Patty Griffin and the beautiful title track to the ripping Do You Dare which is straight in your face 80’s Carlene Carter fun country at its finest. 

In summary the song writing and delivery on the album suggests a maturity way beyond Laven’s years and the potential for much bigger things going forward.

John Blek Cut The Light  Self Release

‘I would bleed myself dry, I would take the blows for you, I regret the day you went away, And the things I put you through’

The opening lyrics to the debut solo album from John Blek sets the scene for a collection of well-constructed songs often depicting tales of lost love, heartbreak, despair and sorrow.

The frontman of Cork roots outfit John Blek and The Rats abandons the more swashbuckling and high gloss style of his writing for the band and explores territories more familiar with recent outputs from artists such as Richard Thompson and Ryley Walker. The album as a whole leans towards a British / Irish folk sound with also a healthy nod towards more traditional Irish music in parts particularly on both Where Are You Tonight and Lightness vs Weight.

Often stripped to the bone the emphasis is always on the lyrics and the stories they reveal.  Rich in emotion and melody Ruby Blood, one of the albums strongest tracks, is achingly mournful and melancholy (Did you hear my heart, break in two, Ruby blood, Ruby blood that bled for you).

Little Sparrow certainly calls to mind Richard Thompson both in melody and style, The Northline speaks of unrequited love. The Night and the Liquor tells a tale of unrepentant, reckless over indulgence, weightless in its delivery and featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar. Recorded at Wakefield Recordings in West Cork the album was produced by John Blek and Brian Casey (who also contributes piano, Hammond organ and guitar).

Unlike Blek’s work with The Rats Cut The Light is not the album you’d choose to select to liven up the party instead it’s a consistent collection of ballads by one of the most impressive Irish songwriters to emerge in recent years.

Amanda Shires My Piece of Land BMG

Musically Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell are a marriage made in heaven and this latest offering from Shires speaks volumes of their compatibility also as partners and parents. 

Isbell has been since his early days a song writer of absolute talent whether it be his classic Drive By Truckers songs Decoration Day and Outfit or his work with his band The 100 Outfit which resulted in some equally impressive offerings such as Sunstroke and Streetlights. However memorable his early work was it has been surpassed by his output since his relationship with Shires began, her steadying influence and support instrumental in Isbell reaching a stage where he must be considered the leading singer songwriter of recent times.

In a similar vein based on My Piece of Land, the sixth album released by Shires, domestic bliss, motherhood and contentment seems to have had a positive creative influence resulting in the strongest album of her career to date.

Lubbock, Texas born Shires professional career started as a teenager as the violin player and member of Bob Wills backing band The Texas Playboys. Releasing her first album Being Brave in 2005 her fragile and sweet vocals, flawless violin skills and an ability to write heartfelt songs in the folk/country genre suggested a young lady with immense potential.

The quality of her debut album was equalled by her 2009 recording Sew Your Heart With Wires and possibly surpassed with the Carry Lighting (2011) and its successor Down Fell The Doves (2013). My Piece of Land, however, is a further step up from her previous work containing some beautiful songs both revealing, honest and personal.

Written while Shires was pregnant When You’re Gone reveals the loneliness of the house bound Shires while her husband is on tour ("I’ve learned exactly which of the floorboards groan and how the ac exhales when it kicks on"). My Love (The Storm), is one of two co-writes on the record with Isbell, the other being Pale Fire. Nursery Rhyme anticipates the birth of her first child ("My breath a prayer I’m holding in, I know you’re coming soon").

However it is the closing track You Are My Home that is the stand out song on the album. A seductive love ballad which features some glorious violin playing by Shires  and an equally impressive guitar break by Isbell, it’s a piece of music that having listened to a number of times will take some time to leave the listeners memory bank.  ("Your six one frame, my address is your name, high ceilings and walls, walls are just walls, and you are my home"). Production duties were undertaken by Dave Cobb with Isbell adding guitar and piano. Nashville session players Paul Griffith on drums and Paul Slivka on guitar also feature.

In an industry where heartbreak, failure and defeat more than often act as inspiration to song writers it’s a breath of fresh air to have a wonderful set of songs created by love, honesty and contentment. Highly recommended indeed.

Vicky Emerson Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down Self Release

Third outing from the Minneapolis resident Vicky Emerson and it’s an album that is immediately listenable from the word go. The opening track Under My Skin kicks the album off in fine style and what follows is a collection of quality songs that really work.

The sound throughout is a blend of folk, country with a splash of blues here and there. The song writing is strong, intimate, contemplative and matched by elegant playing throughout, mostly undertaken by Matt Patrick. 

The previously mentioned Under My Skin rocks along to a chunky guitar driven rhythm. Dance Me Into The Night, enhanced by some delightful fiddle playing, simply drifts along and tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen. Silhouette tells a tale of lost love and opportunity, delivered with a disciplined and soaring vocal. Runaway Train does its title justice, rolling along at speed and Save All My Cryin’ (For Sunday Afternoon) is as country as it comes, with shades of Emmylou Harris and including some smart guitar and pedal steel licks. September Midnight is a beautifully paced and immaculately sounding love song, possibly the albums strongest track. 

As was the case with her previous albums Long Ride (2009) and Dust & Echoes (2012), production duties were undertaken by the aforementioned singer – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matt Patrick who also co-wrote two tracks on the album.

Thomas Nordlund Divide Avenue Codesong

Stunningly atmospheric and technically superb Divide Avenue is an eight track instrumental album by Minneapolis based guitarist and composer Thomas Nordlund.

The album pays homage to the expansive landscapes of Baja, Mexico and was recorded live at The Hideaway in Minneapolis. The lead instrument is Nordlund’s electric baritone guitar and includes the input of six other musicians who contributed 6 string guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, wurlitzer, Rhodes, piano, bass and drums.

The result is quite stunning with the open desert and burning sun imagery being evoked not by a mariachi musical expression, as might be expected,  but by an intoxicating jazzy sound which often revisits some of the  jazz rock guitarists so popular of the 70’s such as Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell.

Instrumental albums can often be difficult listens and Nordlund’s debut album is no exception. They generally suit a certain mood and require more than couple of listens to digest. Divide Avenue is no exception but on repeated listens reveals itself as a wonderful body of work which would certainly work well as a film soundtrack. 

The Sawtooth Brothers One More Flight Self Release

Eight album in from the Minnesota band consisting of two sets of brothers, Ethan & Jesse Moravec and Clint & Luke Birtzer. It’s also their first album featuring all original material and was supported, as so many albums are these days, by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Named The Sawtooth Bluegrass Band in a former life, the band dropped the Bluegrass from their title and widened their musical horizons dipping into folk, country and a bit of pop together with their core old timey sound. The change in direction will no doubt appeal to a wider audience and avoid the band being pigeon holed into one particular genre, even if it may upset some of the purists. The end result is One More Flight which offers a rich mix of all these genres and creates a sound quite similar in style to their counterparts Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line. 

Lead vocals are shared on the eleven tracks between Jesse Moravec and Clint Birtzer, the other two members adding harmony vocals. The instrumentation, flawless throughout, consists of violin, mandolin, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and resonator guitar.

The album kicks off in fine style with the catchy and audacious Another Cliché giving a taste for what will follow. Next up is County Road X which features some heavenly violin breaks by Luke Birtzer. Summer All The Time is delightful, a combination of vocal harmony, bubbling violin and mandolin breaks that combine perfectly. The title track, possibly the albums standout, is the perfect mix of old and modern and sums up what the brothers do best. Take Me Away is an intoxicating and fitting closing track to a very impressive and cohesive collection of songs by a band certainly worth checking out.

Adam Levy Naubinway Self Release

Before listening to this album I was somewhat intrigued by the stark and rather disturbing imagery on the cover and inner sleeve and was interested as to how the artwork related to the album. I was aware of Adam Levy as band leader and singer-songwriter with Minnesota band The Honeydogs, but was completely unaware of the motivation and the event that lead to the recording of this solo effort.

Written in the memory of his son Daniel, who having battled with mental illness for a number of years, tragically took his own life in 2012, Naubinway is understandably anything but an easy listen. The lead up, event, aftermath and topic of suicide and mental illness are dealt with openly, honestly and was no doubt part of a grieving process surrounding such a painful ordeal. Understandably Levy found it impossible to write creatively for a couple of years after the loss of his son but was eventually inspired by Daniel’s artwork, having poured through the many sketchbooks he left behind. The album’s title Naubinway is the name of a small beach at Lake Michigan and is the last place that Daniel’s mother saw her son smile.

The lyrics are often pain staking to read and one can only imagine how difficult they must have been to compose and record. Tracks such as How I Let You Down ("Daniel, all your sketchbooks are a journey, the pain revealed…..We’re still learning how to be without you. Daniel, you ventured on to the thin ice. We threw you so many lifelines. You burned them to the quick") and Pitch Black Path ("It’s long and its dark. It’s a pitch black path lit by nothing but a spark and it won’t get any better till you move on") leave nothing to the imagination. 

The title and closing track, detailing the trip to dispose of Daniel’s ashes in Lake Michigan, would challenge any listener as would the accompanying photograph of the young man beside some of his striking artwork. ("A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway"). As with the opening track Take it as it Comes it features only vocal and acoustic guitar by Levy suggesting that the message was too personal to have an input by others.

However, beyond the despair and darkness the album reveals itself as a beautifully constructed, intelligently written set of songs, quite a few which recall a mid 60’s Beatles sound, How Your Well Runs Dry, This Friend and Atoms Never Die in particular. Marigold is a lovely honeyed ballad, I Wish You Well an equally upbeat love song both of which feature some dreamy steel guitar courtesy of Joe Savage.

Levy is on the record saying that the album was not about immortalising his son, which he would not have wished for anyway. It was primarily written by way of personally dealing with the loss. 

Produced by Adam Levy and Scott Miller and recorded at both their houses and at Essential Session Studios Naubinway is a striking body of work that deals honestly and compassionately with a particularly difficult subject matter. Well worth investigating.