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Saturday
Jun162018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Wylie and The Wild West 2000 Miles From Nashville Hi-Line 

Wylie Gustafson is in it for the long haul. He has walked the line of authentic traditional country music since his debut release in 1992. He has released 22 albums to date and the standard of the music has always been top notch. There was a time I remember that Wylie was a mainstay of CMT when it first was broadcasting in these parts. But times change and as things stand now he wouldn’t have a chance ofgetting exposure. Something that he tackles on the opening song,Nashville Never Wanted Me. Another factor that appealed, as a spectacle wearer myself,was that Gustafson wore glasses - one of the few country singers to do so. 

Gustafson lives on aworking ranch in Northern Montana and as such,brings the two parts of this traditional form together,country and western. He does so with a genuine passion, perception and panache. Nothing about this album could be said to be trying to redefine the genre. Rather itbrings a timeless approach to the music. That and a set of musicians who deliver the goods. Guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Chris Scruggs are superlative - as usual. The rhythm section of Mike Bub and John McTigue also provide the necessary bedrock that you would expect from such seasoned players. Clayton Parsons and Mark Thornton both add guitar and the former also plays the pedal steel featured throughout the album. Vaughan is quoted as saying “rarely do I encounter music as unaffected and heartfelt” and you know, with all the sessions that Vaughan plays that counts for something.

Of the 15 tracks on the album the majority are composed by Gustafson and cover such topics related to his lifestyle like Wild Rose Of The Range, Cowboy Vernacular, Cowboy Daddy and Road To Narvacan. Others like Little Secret and Hope Lives In You are more relationship related. There are two examples of his trademark yodel too in Hot Rod Yodel and Ukulele Yodel. The five covers will be well known to many and all are well chosen to fit Gustafson’s voice and the overall context of the music featured. Two are Nick Lowe songs (Lowe has often acted as a touchstone for a certain segment of the alt-country fraternity) in (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding and I Knew The Bride. Sitting alongside the classic Sea Of Heartbreak, Robbie Fulks’ Tears Only Run One Way and Stan Jones’ (Ghost) Riders In The Sky which closes the album on a high note. Long may he ride the range and given that this is one of his best albums he still has a lot of trail to cover.

Charlie Smyth The Way I Feel Self Release

Recently on the Lonesome Highway radio show I played the song The Cold Hard Truth by Jamie O’Hara so it was something of a coincidence that the next day this CD arrived. I immediately noted that track 4 of this CD was a version of that very song. The second thing that gained my attention and interest was that it was produced by Andy Gibson, noted for his upright steel playing and production with Hank 3 and Bob Wayne. However the first think you notice is Smyth’s lived in, purposeful and barbed baritone. That, with the harmony and duet vocals of his wife Kalee Smyth, offer their take on classic country duo singing - a combination of opposites, sort of the beauty and the beast that is both effective and affecting.

Smyth matches his own songs with some interesting cover choices. Along with the aforementioned Cold Hard Truth the album opens with Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise which fits better in the overall contect that might be expected. Then add in Star Spangled Banner, Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes and the George Jones, Roger Miller co-write That’s The Way I Feel. All are given a pretty reasonable turn out,some working slightly better than others,but all fitting the context of the album. Gibson and Smyth’s production is a solid take on an interpretation of classic country stylings while feeling more alt.country than roundly retro.

Given that Smyth’s musical career started as a punk rocker in Chicago and Seattle as well as a spell playing with no-waver James Chance, there is a finely honed balance of respect and irreverence that gives the album a sense of nowness that certainly veers more towards outlaw and out-thererness than orthodoxy,without ever going off the rails into something more akin to his former musical directions. However, it is on his ownsong writing that you get a sense of the strength of what Smyth is capable of. Faithfully, Paint, Country Girl and Shore which all open what is delineated as Side B of the album show both a good sense of melody and word smithery as well as defining this particular sound. The version of Star-Spangled Banner though, in truth, feels more like a statement as it features a lone fiddle and feels like a lament for his country’s lost identity rather than a celebration.

There is much on this album that makes it one to get acquainted closer with inits entirety rather than picking out individual tracks. Smyth doesn’t look a typical country hipster on the cover, even in his stars and stripe shirt, rather he has the look of a life-worn rocker. He has, however, crafted an album that encompasses much of what he has been through to get here while also perhaps a connection with a simpler time and music. Where he goes from here,given where he has been in the past,is entirely up to him but it would be good to think he will explore these roots further.

Ford Maddox Ford This American Blues Porterhouse

This band is led by Chip Kinsman and producedby his brother Tony. Both brothers have a long history of being involved with some ground breaking musical ventures. They were founding members of The Dills who releaseda number of7” singles, including You’re Not Blank, Class War and I Hate The Rich. The duo then explored the energy and directness of that music,blended with a love of country music,to great success in Rank & File. They released 3 albums starting with Sundown and Long Gone Dead on Slash Records before moving to Rhino for their, more robustly rockin’ self-titled third album. Seeking other viewpoints their next venture was Blackbird wherein they took on a harder soundincluding the useof some electronics. There followed a return to their roots with the Western themed Cowboy Nation, in the late 90s. The duo recently returned to music with the band Ford Maddox Ford which featured Chip as a playing member and Tony as producer. Shortly after releasing this debut album came the sad news that Tony had passed away from cancer.

Ford Maddox Ford (named after an American author) include (alongside Chip Kinman), Dewey Peek on guitar, Matt Little on bass and drummer S Scott Aguero. There are eleven tracks,mainly written by Kinman and Peek,with one (Quicksand) written by the two Kinmans and one cover ofthe Wilbert Harrison songLet’s Work Togethera song best known by versions from Canned Heat and Brian Ferry. 

The song combines much of the duo’s DNA right back to the Dills days as it is a hard guitar-led sound that acknowledges a lot of influences including the blues mentioned in the title. Chip Kinman’s distinctive vocal is at the heart of the band’s sound. It is that which pulls all the iterations of their music together. That and Tony Kinman’s stripped back and direct production. How Does Your Horn Sound Today is a slow questioning song with slide guitar that allows them to stretch out at a slower tempo. It may be that some fans of Rank & File and Cowboy Nation may not feel totally comfortable with this harder, bluesier direction. But it is rather, another aspect of their sound rather than a total departure. Many of the themes and threads are the same as they have considered since they started playing. Promised,which opens the second side of the (deep blue) vinyl editionmay remind some of the Only Ones with its angular, unhurried approach. The riff laden Before The Fall is another strong moment as is the motorised closing aforementioned cover song.

All in all, a promising return, albeit tinged with a deep sadness, that marks Ford Maddox Ford as a further step in a musical passage that is still open to exploring sonic possibilities that work together.

Stevie Tombstone On The Line Self Release

In common with many these days the latest release from the hardcore troubadour Stevie Tombstone is a 6 track EP (or mini-album if you wish). Either way it leaves you wanting more. Not that this is the singer/songwriter’s first outing as he has 4 previous releases under his belt. He formally fronted a band called the Tombstones in Atlanta before proceeding with a solo career that combines hardcore country, country blues, folk and raw blues into an alt. country roots alliance.

For this outing Tombstone has produced a stripped back sound that is centred by his heartfelt and hall-marked vocals. These are songs drawn from deep inside a soul that has seen the voraciousness of life and how it manages to uplift and also, on occasion, crush the spirit that is central to us all. Tombstone though has the capacity to turn these observations and experiences into songs. Indeed, in this light he walks a similar line to Michael McDermott, another singer/songwriter who speaks his own truth. Tombstone’s music is a little more inclined to the real deal country line perhaps. 

The one cover is a choice that makes perfect sense here. Wreck On The Highway is an oft-recorded public domain song written by Dorsey Dixon in 1937. It is a song that reflects on the reaction of the singer after coming on an alcohol related fatal crash and as such a warning indelibly told. Tombstone’s own songs include Take This Pain about wandering the world alone. The track features some effective steel from Scott Lutz. Right State Of Mind has fiddle, upright bass and acoustic guitar and tells of a substance that might bring one to that condition. Forty Dollar Room reflects on what it is like to be in such a location and again in a lonesome state of mind. The title song has a piano theme played by Joey Huffman and a vocal from Shelli Coe that is a pledge of fidelity over a building track with organ a spiritual quality that again shows that Tombstone is a soulful and singular vocalist who delivers these songs with the kind of believability that aligns him with some of his more lauded peers.

The track At Least I’m Genuine is a selective list of the singers’ many faults and concludes that while he may not be the best you’ll ever find at least he’s genuine. That sentiment may in fact sum up Stevie Tombstone. There are others with a similar conviction and talent but Tombstone comes across as just that - genuine. And that counts for a lot in my book. 

Gerry Spehar Anger Management Self Release

I Hold Gravity,Spehar’s previous album,dealt with some fairly weighty life issues and was recorded just before his wife passed from cancer. Given the title of his new release things would appear to be still weighing heavy on his soul. This is, in essence, an old school protest album albeit with some tangential influences involved. Essentially a roots album with folk overtones and elements of other influences mixed in. The album was produced by Spehar and I See Hawks In LA’s founder Paul Lacques with help from Tommy Jordan. All were also part of the assembled team of players that included such as LA country stalwart Brantley Kearns on fiddle. The songs are a mix of solo written material and some cowrites. All feature the centrality of Spehar’s warm but forceful vocal (reminiscent of a number of old school troubadours) over a varied and interesting set of arrangements that keep the album moving along at a satisfactory pace.

Spehar’s touchstone was the integrity and honesty of Woody Guthrie (to whom the album is dedicated). The music though is written for these times with songs like Thank You Donald and Bitch Heaven that puts the current protagonists in the same frame … “old man Trump had money and Woody had song.” This sits alongside a hard ballad like A Soldier’s Spiritual a song that considers the plight of many a war veteran facing anuncertain future. Elsewhere he tackles other topical issues with a sense of anger, frustration but also with wit and humility. The last song on the album asks the simple question What Would Jesus Do? He wonders would Jesus build a wall or would he cut taxes on the rich and leave the poor without healthcare. Pertinent and perceptive for an unsure time. While he also asks about the lessons of history in Pearl Harbour,about that infamous attack and what was learned from it.

Many casual listeners take the attitude when faced with a particular viewpoint that may or may not coincide with their own of “shut up and just sing.” All well and good but the art of the protest song is one that should not be forgotten or ignored. Here Spear’s personal opinion is expressed when he sings (rather than the in-between song asides that often occur in a live situation) and, as such, he has made an album that also works on a pure enjoyable musical level,so that even if the words didn’t mean jackshitthe music should please. It is a well produced and performed album that has a depth of meaning beyond the more usual subject of relationships. Spehar and his co-writers have something to say and hopefully in doing so they have managed some of that anger that was invoked by recent events. For all that,listen to this for the character of the singing, playing and sincerity and hopefully some of the sentiments expressed will get through too.

Mike Aiken Wayward Troubadour Northwind 

The title of this album sums up the overall attitude of this singer/songwriter whoselatest release is a well produced and played set of original songs and a couple of outside covers. The album was recorded in the main in Nashville and Aiken secured the services of some top-notch players in theshape of guitar-slinger Kenny Vaughan, bassist David Roe and drummer Tom Hurst. Aiken added his skills on a variety of guitars and his wife Amy adds harmony vocals and a range of percussion instruments. The titles of the songs are an indicator of the subjects that Aiken writes about such as Two-Lane Highway,about the places such structures can take you to. Hard Working Girl is a non-judgemental overview of a person caught in that lifestyle. The trials and tribulations of the machinations Music Row is the subject of Nashville Skyline. Aiken’s interest in sailing is touched on in Chesapeake. A Little Lazy In Your Life has a jazz feel that suits the mood of the song while Hangover Helper praises the hair of the dog as a way to escape a previous night’s excesses.

Mark Collie and Shawn Camp wrote Dead Man Walks Before He Runs and it has a darker mood about trying to escape from a correctional facility delivered with a bluesy guitar-led feel that has a certain sense of desperation. The other outside songs are Penelope and Real Mean Dog; the former has that beach front, light reggae touch on a song about wanting to return to Jamaica, whilethe latter is a twangy tale of man, dog and pick-up truck. Both left behind in a relationship gone sour.

Aiken’s music has been described as a mix of country, folk, rock and Buffet style back porch, ocean beach music. He grew up in New York State and currently is based in Norfolk, Virginia. His wide-ranging Americana has a broad approach that should appeal to many. This is an accomplished album of roots music that will further enhance Aiken often praised body of work. The work of a troubadour who finds much to enjoy in life and conveys that feeling in his music.

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