Tuesday
Jan082019

Reviews by Paul McGee

The Tumbling Souls Between the Truth and the Dream Wee Studio

This Scottish group has released a collection of folk songs that reflect their influences and the twelve tracks are all performed with great gusto and no small amount of skill. The collective boasts eight players who create a celebratory sound and the mix of fiddles, guitars, accordion, banjo, mandolin and piano serve up lots of fine melodies in what is quite an enjoyable listen. 

Grounded by the double bass playing of Keith Morrison, the talents of all the ensemble are given flight across songs like Knowing Where You Come From, King Of The Moon, Wishing My Time and Stornoway at 2am.

All songs are written by Willie Campbell a veteran of many years playing in different bands and other collaborations and his vocal performance is very strong here. Production by Pete Fletcher is bright and clear and the inclusion of a live track, Dance A Little Better, gives a sense of just how good these musicians are in a live setting.

Eryn Lady E Self Release

Sweet soul music from a talented singer who knows how to deliver a powerful performance across the six songs included on this EP. There is a blues feel to tracks like The You Missing From Me and Just Jump, while the Gypsy tempo to the arrangement on Stranger In My House is suitably different and adds a new focus. Running Red Lights is back to a soulful delivery and the production of Jack Daley, who also plays bass, is very sensitive to the undoubted vocal talents of Eryn.

Trevor & Sylvie Time Is Free Self Release

Trevor Wheetman and Sylvie Davidson are a husband and wife duo based in Nashville. Trevor is multi-talented and can lend his skills to being an actor, musician, composer, and musical director. He is also a multi-instrumentalist and together with Sylvie, who also boasts acting skills in addition to her musical abilities, they deliver folk-based music that is both engaging and impressive in equal measure.

All of the thirteen songs included on this debut are written by the duo, with the exception of a Mark Knopfler cover, The Bug. Wheetman pens four songs, Davidson takes credit for three and the remaining five tracks are co-writes. Production by Nick Foster is very proficient and the fine harmony singing is given a central place in the mix. Foster also contributes on guitars, slide, mandolin, dobro and banjo while the other studio musicians play in a restrained and tight fashion throughout.

There is a nature theme with songs like Stolen Flowers (a wedding with a difference) and Thirsty, which speaks of love, simple ways and going back to the land. Build This Love speaks of union and the bonds of family. All I Know is a catchy love song with strings arranged by Matt Montgomery and it is another good example of the craft at play here.

Idiot and Opposite Of Love, both have a slow groove and an easy vocal from Trevor that channels James Taylor. Cupid’s Confession is a real joy and a clever look at the routine involved when you are a bored facilitator of love. The Few and Through The Cracks are two stand-out tracks as the project winds down, the first a slow folk blues with fine vocals from Sylvie & Trevor and beautifully restrained cello provided by Alex Kelly; the latter an acoustic reflection on love with winsome vocals from Sylvie and again, the superb cello of Alex Kelly. Definitely a recommended release that continues to unveil new treasure on repeated listening.

Low Lily 10,000 Days Like These Mad River

This is contemporary Folk music played to a very high standard indeed. The 11 tracks display a vocal dexterity and harmony heaven from the three key musicians involved, Liz Simmons (guitar, vocals), Flynn Coen (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Lissa Schneckenburger (fiddle, vocals). There are two instrumentals included, The Good Part and Single Girl. The former displays the power of the trio, with accompaniment on banjo and bass driving the arrangement; the latter is a reflective piece with solo fiddle from Lissa that shows off her impressive talents to full effect. This collection of songs bears repeated listens and the clear vocal delivery and the terrific production of Liz Simmons raises the experience to new levels. Songs like Dark Skies Again, Hope Lingers On and 10,000 Days Like These bear strong testament to the joy of fluid playing, sweet melody and harmonious vocals. The superb cover of Brothers In Arms (Mark Knopfler) also sits comfortably into the overall thrust of the project and I have little doubt that seeing this group in a live setting would rank as nothing short of a compelling evening. Highly recommended. 

Lee Palmer Horns & Harps Self Release

In the liner notes of this release, Lee Palmer says that he has had the privilege of releasing 5 studio albums over the last 6 years and that this release counts as his most musical experience to date. We are not inclined to disagree at Lonesome Highway, having reviewed a number of his previous releases on the website. 

Ten tracks that are split between featuring acoustic & electric harp, courtesy of Roly Platt, and saxophone by Turner King. The rest of the band are terrific support players with the back beat of Sean O’Grady and the bass of Alec Fraser Jr. adding greatly to the loose feel and blues drive of these songs. The warm sounds of Steve O’Connor on piano, organ & wurlitzer are augmented by the impressive background and harmony vocals of Chris Ayries and the production is crisp and uncluttered.

Tracks like My Baby Again, Isn’t That So and Shake 'Em Blues provide a classic bluesy feel while Old Picture, Old Frame and Life Rolls On, highlight sweet guitar playing over a gentle beat. The big sound of Rockin' Strawberry Jam is countered by slow burn of Somebody’s Daughter, a song that addresses homelessness and one that stands out here among an impressive body of work.

Swampcandy Mine Self Release

This collective hail from Annapolis, Maryland and have a number of prior releases dating back to 2007. Ruben Dobbs is the creative force behind the band and in addition to playing guitar and singing, he displays a healthy disregard for being pigeonholed into any genre. Included here, across 13 tracks is a huge gumbo of swamp groove (JC’s Revenge), light New Orleans jazz (Party With The Devil), jazzy blues (Holy Rope), hard rock (Dead Man Walking) and some ragtime, polka sounds (Burn The Meadow). To say nothing of the spoken word links between tracks, some of which are very humorous, with the loose percussive sounds of a Tom Waits, delivered in tracks like Knock Out and Never Going Back.

There are credits for 18 different studio players who range on instruments from strings, percussion across a heady mix of banjo, piano, keys, vibraphone, bass and things that go bump in the night!! Interestingly, no guitars, as would be expected on a big production project like this – voodoo with a bit of the Devil himself thrown in for good measure. Addictive and very impressive.

Tuesday
Dec182018

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Amy Ray Holler Daemon

Indigo Girl Amy Ray possesses the musical and writing talents to effortlessly work folk, country, indie, gospel and blues like few others and her latest and sixth solo release, finds her at the top of her game. The album covers the emotional baggage of a lifetime spent in Georgia and is a reflection of personal struggles together with those of her fellow Southerners, across a range of topics including sexuality, racism, religion and addictions. It’s the third impassioned album of this year which follows a similar tread, the subject matter being the inspiration for two most impressive albums by younger female artists Kristina Murray (Southern Ambrosia) and H.C. Mc Entire (Lionheart).

Calling on the same production team and musicians as her 2014 album Goodnight Tender, the album includes guest performances by a host of musicians and has vocal contributions from Justin Vernon, The Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Vince Gill and Brandi Carlisle. Producer Brian Speiser also combines strings and horns this time around and with such a vast array of instrumentation it is to his credit that the sound mix is impeccable, each instrument crystal clear in the final mix.

The opening track Gracie’s Dawn (Prelude) lasts barely forty seconds before the stunning rocker Sure Feels Good Anyway kicks in. The song challenges racism head on and is a precursor for much of the compelling material which follows. Particularly moving are the final two tracks of the fourteen across the album. Bondsman (Evening in Missouri) inspired by the Debra Granik directed movie Winter’s Bone, paints a bleak picture of poverty and desperation ("Oh Lord, let me sleep through the thunder, Let me sleep through the rain, One more night before the bondsman comes, And takes it all away’’). Didn’t Know A Damn Thing, dedicated to the African – American author and social  activist Toni Cade Bambara, reflects on the  racial inhumanities and horrors inflicted on her people while she was a baby and young girl, oblivious to what occurring in her home State ( "Bodies were hanging, bodies were burning, And my Mama and Daddy, they were earning, I was rocking the cradle, while in that Tertile Black Bell, They were taking the blows for every toll of that Liberty Bell, I didn’t know a damn thing’’). Given the subject matter of much of the material, the album is also not without humour. Tonight, I’m Paying The Rent is an upbeat reality check about the toils of the industry, the hard-earned cash and the hardship often endured for that hard-earned cash. ("If it don’t feed the soul, it’s still heaven sent, Tonight I’m paying the rent!’’).

Holler is a reminder of exactly how gifted Ray is, as both a songwriter and storyteller, and her ability to translate personal emotional baggage in a compelling manner. It reads like chapters of a book by an artist that remains proud of her heritage having never abandoned her religion, while reflecting on being born during the civil rights protests in the 60’s, the horrors inflicted by her people on their neighbours, touring for over thirty years and the conflict of being a left wing and gay Southern woman. It’s a worthy successor to Goodnight Tender and one that will no doubt feature in my 'Best of 2018' listings.

 Whitey Morgan & The 78’s Hard Times & White Lines Self-Release

One of the caretakers of what many of us consider to be authentic country music, Whitey Morgan has been firing up audiences for a dozen years or more with his ass kickin’ and full on live shows. His studio output may be relatively sparse but always manages to recreate the hell for leather stage shows, that he and his trusty honky tonk brothers, The 78’s, continue to deliver.

Hard Times & White Lines sticks to his trusted formula of songs about drinking, drugging, suffering, self-destruction, surviving and carrying on, both from a personal and third person perspective. Don’t expect particularly deep thought-provoking lyrics to explore, that’s not what’s on offer here. Instead, we’re treated to full on straight-talking assault of hardcore country, kicking off with the opener and first single from the album Honky Tonk Hell ("The doors are always open and you're welcome inside, The whiskey and women or whatever you like, You’ll never check out of this heartbreak hotel, A man can get caught up down in this honky tonk Hell") – possibly a homage to a dodgy dive bar or maybe a state of mind. Raging guitars and pedal steel introduce Morgan’s raw baritone drawl on that first track and the ignition is finally turned off over forty minutes later, with the more traditional barroom country closer Wild And Reckless. ("Guitar on my shoulder, a drink in my hand, one keeps me from falling, one helps me to stand, I’ve been wild and reckless, a little insane, and there's a crowd just inside here calling my name"). The eight tracks that make up the balance of the album don’t stray from similar territory, though a cover of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid drifts somewhat into straight rock. It is one of three non-originals on the album, the others being Dale Watson’s Carryin’ On and Don Dupre’s What Am I Supposed To Do

Steel guitar always earns pride of place with Morgan and three peddlers are name checked on the sleeve notes - regular 78’er Brett Robinson and guests Larry Campbell (who also played on Morgan’s self-titled 2010 album) and Austin Tripp.  Also adding muscle to the guitar sound is Jesse Dayton alongside Joey Spina, Kevin Key, Tony Martinez and Dylan Dunbar. Bass and drums contributions are courtesy of Alex Lyon and Tony Dicello and Jim (Moose) Brown and Drew Harakal play keys. 

Morgan’s pace of life, by his own admission, has slowed down somewhat since becoming a parent and relocating to rural California and the aforementioned Carryin’ On -alarmingly similar to Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind! -  though written by Dale Watson, could be autobiographical, reflecting Morgan’s present predicament.  Hard To Get High, with its instantly catchy melody possibly refers to an earlier career chapter ("I put the lid on these pills, gave away that cocaine, I couldn't drink another whiskey to kill all this pain, your leaving left me damned down in this hole, and it's hard to get high when you're feeling this low").

There does appear to be an industry driven change in recent times – even if it’s at a snail’s pace – in respect of country music of the classic and outlaw kind. It seems to be slowly grinding its way back into favour with artists like Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson earning warranted exposure. Let’s hope the resurgence filters it’s way down to Whitey Morgan, there’s little doubt that it’s entirely deserved and anyone giving Hard Times and White Lines a listen, will no doubt concur.

John Blek Thistle & Thorn Self-Release

John Blek’s last album Catharsis Vol.1, released this time last year, was written while he was hospitalised having contracted a mysterious illness that side lined him for a number of months. Thistle & Thorn, his third solo release in as many years, was not inspired by such unorthodox leanings but still manages to improve on the lofty fineness of its predecessor. Recorded in both Wavefield Recordings, Clonakilty, Co. Cork and Louisville, Kentucky, the album contains ten songs written by Blek over a twelve-month period.

Whereas his last album flitted between folk and trad, his latest offering remains steadfastly in the former camp, a genre that Blek particularly excels in, both in his writing and vocal delivery. It’s a solid collection of folk ballads punctuated by some sumptuous vocal contribution’s courtesy of Kentuckian Joan Shelley and guitar work from her artistic partner and Grammy Nominated Nathan Salsburg. The production duties are by Blek and Brian Casey who also adds guitar, bass, piano, organ and mandolin. 

Conflicted emotions are addressed on The Body, the inevitable parting of former lovers driven by waywardness and neglect ("I’ve grown weary of you, the late nights and the drink too. Your foolish sense of duty, it means nothing to me"). It’s delivered delightfully in a call and response fashion by Blek and Joan Shelley.  Merrier euphoric times in (possibly) the same relationship are referred to the Colours Rising ("O my lover lay back down, I see the colours rising when you’re around"). Subtle strings courtesy of Lea Miklody and Dolcie Ross Keogh assist in creating a dream like ambiance to the song. IF I is an uncomplicated poem put to music. The Blackwater opens the album in an unhurried and patient manner, paving the way for what is to follow. Simplicity has always been one of Blek’s finest points and in a similar manner to his previous solo work, Blek’s vocals are out in front on Thistle & Thorn, but fleshed out more dramatically on this occasion by some wonderful instrumental arrangements. In Your Likeness considers existence and continuity, an ode to a fallen brother. Self-control, longing and mental well-being are present on the closing track All The Night. It’s an impressive closer to an album that once more reinforces Blek as one of the premier singer songwriters in the folk genre in Ireland and indeed beyond, where his talents were formally recognised in 2017 with his nomination for Song of The Year by The International Folk Alliance. 

With tours of Ireland, U.K, Germany and further afield programmed for 2019, Thistle & Thorn is a powerful statement to have to offer from an artist that pays homage to writers from previous decades such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Nick Drake as well as his modern day peers Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley and Alela Diane.

Daniel Romano Finally Free New West

You certainly cannot accuse Daniel Romano of being predictable or unproductive for that matter. Never idle or dwelling in one musical location, his output of eight albums in eight years have covered traditional country, folk, rock and roll, desert and ‘in your face’ rock. His latest release creates a late 60’s early 70’s ‘back to basics’ feel across the mainly acoustic recordings. In essence it’s a one man show, with the only contribution being that of Kay Berkel, who plays piano on Between The Blades of Grass and There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form.  Vocals, writing, instruments, production and engineering are all by Romano, with the album being taped on a four track Tascam cassette recorder from one microphone, which remained in a single position throughout the recording, picking up the various instruments from their locations in the room.

Finally Free may be a head scratcher on first listen and does demand repeated and undisturbed plays to appreciate, but it’s well worth the time invested. Romano admits that "A lot of it is intentionally out-of-tune and not sung obsessively, but I just felt like that's how it needed to be." Though the album may appear to be ‘mind changing substance induced’,Romano actually confesses that the lyrics came to him while driving across the Prairies and suggests that he does not necessarily totally comprehend them himself and therefore the lack of a lyric sheet is no handicap. It’s as equally challenging to interpret the albums title as it is the lyrics. The discerning listener may draw his own assessment from the streams of consciousness, but in real terms the charm of the album lays in the melodies and harmonies throughout.

Empty Husk, opens with gentle harmony vocals and guitar strumming before erupting mid-section and closing as calmly as it started. All The Reaching Trims is a beautiful ballad with languid vocals and acoustic guitar dancing from speaker to speaker. Both these tracks together with Gleaming Sects of Aniram recall early career Roy Harper, possibly played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm. The Long Mirror Of Time stands out, the most conventional and up-tempo offering, Romano’s vocals dip, soar and wail impressively aided by some delightful organ contributions. Celestial Manis is distorted, ghostly and searching, its trippy melodies recall Bowie at his most experimental, the sound of lost souls in purgatory seeking liberty. There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form bookends the album, mischievously distorted vocals, guitar and percussion combining seductively.

Followers may not necessarily have seen this coming but Finally Free is very much the sum of its parts, an album to be savoured in one sitting, preferably alone and in a dark room. Romano continues to challenge the listener as much as he challenges himself and this new album is yet another essential instalment from an incomparable craftsperson.

Bill & The Belles Dreamsongs, Etc. Jalopy 

Four-piece Johnson City Tennessee band Bill & The Belles signature sound is a throwback to popular music in America back as far as the 1920’s when Ragtime was the flavour of the day, soon to be overtaken by Jazz, Swing and eventually merging with country music as the preferred choice for many radio listeners. Bill & The Belles manage to recreate all these styles with their amalgamation of the various genre across the thirteen tracks that comprise Dreamsongs, Etc. Five of the inclusions were penned by lead vocalist Kris Truelsen.  

Reflecting a sound that is also closely aligned to bluegrass, it’s no surprise that they were nominated in 2017 for four IBMA Awards, though it hardly does them justice to pigeon hole them to one single genre. Banjo, fiddle, clarinet and guitar are provided by Truelsen, Kalia Yeagle and Grant Van’t Hoff respectfully, the trio also contributing harmony vocals, with fourth member Karl Zerfas adding bass. The musical arrangements, production and performances throughout are impressive and stylish.

Hum Your Troubles Away starts the ball rolling in simple Ragtime style, followed by the Hank Williams sounding - both in title and musical content - Lonesome Blues. A similar melancholy is visited in Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues – complete with yodelling – one of two Jimmie Rodgers songs covered, the other being the broody My Carolina Sunshine Girl. The self-written material compares favourably, in particular the timeless Wedding Bells Chimes and Good Gal I’ll Be Okay, both of which could have been borrowed from The Great American Songbook. 

The Jalopy Theatre and School of music, located in Redhook, Brooklyn, NY is a grassroots cultural centre preserving traditional music from The States and further afield, with an inhouse record label. Bill & The Belles debut recording is their latest offering and fits perfectly into Jalopy’s ethos. Anyone with an awareness and appreciation of old-time music should explore their impressive catalogue of artists.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown have developed a very successful touring and recording career presenting a similar approach to music of bygone eras as did the Manhattan Transfer some decades back. Here’s hoping Bill & The Belles can also continue the tradition.

J.R. Harbidge First Ray Of Light Absolute Label Services

You could be forgiven for assuming that First Ray Of Light was a recording by an artist hailing from Long Island or the like, given its Americana singer songwriter feel. In fact Harbidge hails from the Black Country and has been present in the Birmingham rock music scene for over two decades. Currently residing in Derby, First Ray Of Light finds Harbridge somewhat abandoning his rock and grunge background for a more polished and considered collection of songs. Included are some impressive weepies (When You Don’t Love Your Man, Learn To Love The Rain, A Side Of You That Cares) alongside more up-tempo songs including opener – and very much a song for our turbulent political times -  Turn The Screw, a damning commentary on political and financial institutions. The albums highlight and closing track I Know You Know I Know, which kicks in at nearly seven minutes, follows a similar upbeat and rattling sound. I Won’t Support Your Wars continues the political overtones of the opening track and the title track First Ray Of Light optimistically visits a sense of possible rehabilitation from darker times.

Nine tracks on the album are self-penned by Harbidge and one track is a co-write. He also contributes vocals, guitar, bass, harmonica and mandolin together with production, recording and mixing duties. The album delivers a collection of thoughtful and honest song constructions, easy on the ear and well worth investigating. 

Tuesday
Dec112018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Kathy Mattea Pretty Bird Captain Potato

Six years since her last release, Calling Me Home, sees Mattea return with a collection of twelve cover songs that highlight the talents which turned her into one of the most successful country singers of her generation. Not that she restricted her recording history to just one genre of music; Mattea has often explored bluegrass, gospel, celtic and folk leanings.

This release displays her wonderful phrasing and tone, despite some health scares over recent years which saw her temporarily fear the loss of her voice. Her ability to interpret a song over many years of experience has served her well and she tackles covers by Martha Carson (I Can't Stand Up Alone), Jesse Winchester (Little Glass Of Wine), The Wood Brothers (Chocolate on My Tongue), Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billie Joe) and Joan Osborne (St. Teresa) with her unique stamp of making the songs her own.

Mostly the songs are pared down to simple guitar or piano accompaniment and this allows for a new perspective on the sentiment or words contained within.  A good example is her treatment of the traditional arrangement, He Moves Through The Fair and the fine version of Mercy Now, a timeless classic written by Mary Gauthier. 

Production by Tim O’Brien is wonderfully bright and vibrant in the speakers and the musicians excel on every track. Welcome back to one of the greats.

Martha L. Healy Keep the Flame Alight Self Release

This is the second release from a Scottish artist who really impresses. Healy sings in a confident and strong style that brings an extra energy to these ten tracks and the instantly appealing openers, No Place Like Home and Fall In Love Again, have you hooked from the outset.

Recorded in Nashville during 2017, Healy used the production talents of David Spicher who had worked on her debut release, Better Days, back in 2014. Local Nashville session players on the sessions include Bill Cooley (guitars/bazouki), Todd Lombardo (guitars/mandolin), Rory Hoffman (accordion, piano), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle), Wendy Newcomer (vocals), Dave Racine (drums) and Chas Williams (Dobro). All songs are penned by Healy with one co-write included, We Will Be OK, written with Wendy Newcomer and a song that speaks of hope for tomorrow.

The title track is a personal testament to the need to keep enduring and work through the inevitable hard times that we all face from time to time on our respective journeys. The swing and the swagger of Woman With No Shame channels Dolly at her best and the Folk tinged Unmade Bed takes a wry look at an old relationship that time has passed by ("All that is left is the things that they should have said; in an unmade bed...").

There is a soulful power to Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream and the frustrated message of this song is extended into Sisters To Strangers, a look back at the toll paid in living a life that veers away from youthful hopes and dreams. The closing ballad, Don’t Give Up, is a fitting sentiment to an artist who has forged a career for herself that continues to grow and the momentum gained with this superb release will surely power her along to greater heights.

Lisa Mednick Powell Blue Book Self Release

This collection of ten songs has a release date in 2017 but only recently found its way to the Lonesome Highway mailbox. It is a real keeper and worthy of a belated review, albeit at the end of 2018.

There is a wistful atmosphere to these reflective sounds and a sense of long forgotten memories that come back to remind us of younger days. Understated, stripped back arrangements and a soft focus to the production on songs that resonate and repeat like some lost dream…

Victoria Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, Greg Leisz, among others, assist in the studio but it is the focus of Lisa and her husband, bass player and co-writer, Kip Powell, that brings the magic to tracks Checkpoint, Cold Coffee and Highway Prayer.

With a debut release in 1994, (Artifacts Of Love), it was 2002 before the release of her follow-up (Semaphore), until sixteen years later we are given Blue Book. This artist has played with Earl King, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry to name but a few and has quite an eclectic history, having toured with The Chills and Juliana Hatfield. Something for every taste here. 

Tom Freund East of Lincoln Surf Road 

A quality release from an artist who has been creating terrific music for over 20 years. He has collaborated with so many headline names, such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, The Silos to name a few… His song-writing is superbly crafted and his back catalogue is well worth investigation. On this latest release there are eleven songs and Freund is joined by a list of great players – drums from Matt Johnson (St. Vincent, Jeff Buckley) and Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson, John Cale, Blind Boys of Alabama), pedal and lap steel from Ben Peeler (Dawes, Shelby Lynne, Father John Misty), keys from Rami Jaffe (Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams) and Chris Joyner (Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones) and violin from Jessy Greene (Wilco, The Jayhawks). 

His writing is subtly laid-back in style but filled with little gems and great insights. A toxic relationship in Freezer Burn is captured in the lines "I was running on hope and fumes" while the self examination of a life lived in the fast lane (Brokedown Jubilee) is referenced with "I was a friend of the devil, but even he got sick of me." 

Abandoning The Ship and Homer Simpson’s Clouds (Day Of The Locust) are other tracks with real punch. Great writing and excellent songs that stay in the memory long after the disc has finished. Always a good sign!

Brad Colerick Nine Ten Thirty Back 9 

This is the fifth release from Los Angeles resident & singer-songwriter Brad Colerick. It was recorded in South Pasedena and co-produced by Colerick and Guillermo Guzman, who contributes bass and percussion across most of the 12 tracks.

They are joined by a group of local musicians who play their part in adding colour to the song arrangements. David Plenn on electric & 12-string guitars is very much to the fore as are the talents of Tim Fleming on pedal steel, dobro, 12-string and baritone guitars. 

Colerick sings in an easy style and there is a commercial, contemporary sound to tracks like Bachelorette Party, while Great Year and Millard Stream channel a Jimmy Buffet style and the sense of a soft breeze on a sunny day. Healer, Almost Home and Weeds are songs with a gentle tempo that drift along on a pleasant groove. A very easy listening experience. 

Ultan Conlon Last Days Of The Night Owl Darksideout

In the five years since his last release, this talented singer-songwriter has continued to grow into an artist of real quality and his creative muse is further enhanced on this latest project. There are twelve songs included and the warm production adds greatly to the arrangements and melodies of opening songs, As The Light Gets Low, The Town Square and Hall Of Mirrors, which set the tone for the rest of the album.

There is some lovely tight playing from the band that comprises of Ultan (acoustic guitars, vocals), Dave Curtis (electric guitars, baritone and 12-string guitars, piano, keyboards and vocals), Jon O’Connell (double and electric bass, acoustic guitar and lap-steel, mandola & vocals), Donal Kerins (drums, vocals), along with Jimi Higgins on percussion, Sabrina Dinan on vocals and Adam Shapiro on violin. 

Strings and brass add greatly to the overall production and these were recorded at Tesla Studios in Sheffield with additional musicians credited in the liner notes, along with pedal steel credits to Russ Pahl in Nashville, who plays on A Weak Heart Like Mine... This has recently been released as a duet with Mary Coghlan providing vocals to great effect.

Quite an investment in terms of energy and time, the commitment given certainly pays off and Ultan can move forward with some confidence into a future that holds plenty more opportunity to build further media attention.

Sorrow Ease and Hurt Inside are fine songs with gentle tones while Ojai takes things down a little with the reminiscence of a city trip, with an old flame, that still lingers in the memory. The radio friendly sounds of The Measure and Twice The Child are perfect examples of how astute a song-writer Ultan is; plenty of feel-good grooves and sing-along choruses that point to increased chart opportunity. However, it is the quiet, pensive strum of the final track, The Fine Art Of Happiness, that gives the greatest hint towards the future success of this blossoming talent. A release of some substance and one that comes highly recommended.

Sina Theil Under Cover Downda Road

Debut release from an artist who was born in Germany and has now settled in Ireland and taking her music career to the next level. Sina has quite a talent and her abilities have seen her songs achieve seven separate number one slots on the Country download charts from her Kildare base. 

This covers record has already gone to the number one slot on the Country download charts and to see what all the fuss is about; well, just go and buy this collection of eleven songs.

The difficulty with releasing a covers record is that you are "damned if you do; damned if you don’t…" Delivering a decent version of a favourite song is hard to do and if you fall short then you open yourself to all sorts of criticism. Especially if you decide to cover such diverse artists as Gretchen Wilson, Cheap Trick, Paul Brady, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Eagles.

The good news is that Sina carries it all off with some style and the overall production by Brian O’Mahoney at Golden Egg Studios in Portlaoise is very impressive. The players, including O’Mahony, deliver a tight sound across each track and the fiddle playing of John Davidson is a real joy throughout and brings a real country feel to covers of These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ (Lee Hazelwood) and I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick).

Some of the covers work better than others, which is only to be expected across such an eclectic mix of choices. However, the overall project is very infectious and the three Brandy Clark inclusions (Stripes, Crazy Women, Since You’ve Gone To Heaven) show the key influences in Sina’s choices. She certainly likes to rock it up but it is the superb version of Colder Weather (Zac Brown Band) that steals the show and points a clear direction for where this talented artist should concentrate when it comes to following this release.

A word about the stylish press kit that was given to Lonesome Highway and the colourful biography and three separate singles that were included. Proof positive that here is an artist with her eyes set on the big prize. The packaging is high quality and makes a statement about the very professional approach being taken here. 

A recent single is Travelin’ Soldier (Bruce Robison), covered by the Dixie Chicks, and is blended with the traditional Irish song, The Minstrel Boy, to great effect. Not included on this covers release but another reason to seek out this rising talent. Watch this space…  

 

Friday
Dec072018

Reviews by Eilís Boland

Nathan Evans Fox Texas Dust Self Release 

The title track of this outstanding second album from folk/Americana artist Nathan Evans Fox chronicles the tragic story of his grandfather, which Nathan discovered quite recently and which inspired the whole collection of songs here. His grandfather was a migrant Tennessean worker who ended up in Texas, volunteered for the army and was posted into conflict abroad. After a family tragedy, he was granted a compassionate discharge and returned home to try to pick up the pieces. The universal theme of the struggle of soldiers to return to civilian life and family after the horrors of war is explored with stark imagery -‘I can’t change all my ways, I can’t change the laws of grief’ - and with some fine fiddle playing and echoes of military snare drum from Nathan himself. 

Displacement - from family, from friends and from familiar landscapes - is the other overriding theme in most of the songs. A North Carolina native, where he was immersed in country, rock, bluegrass and gospel music growing up, Nathan spent a year working in the Texas flatlands. On the evidence of the melancholy songs that were inspired there, one can safely assume that it didn’t go very well.

Texas Blues No.7 deals with that time, when he struggled with his faith and had somewhat of a meltdown.  ‘Lost my taste for poetry, picked up my taste for gin’. Simple accompaniment by Nathan on acoustic guitar and some subtle Hammond organ are all that are needed as a backdrop to his gritty vocals.

St Louis is another song wherein the temptations of wanderlust are tempered by the worry of being away from ageing loved ones, this time bookended by Nathan’s superb mandolin playing. It’s not all melancholic, thankfully. There are some memorable love songs here too.

Despite what one would expect from the title, Grief Song is a beautiful love song accompanied by Nathan’s piano and fiddle, atmospheric upright bass from Mike Conners and enhanced further by gorgeous backing vocals from Lindsay Foote. She is a revelation throughout the album, but particularly on another love song, (the inappropriately titled) Texas Blues No.4, where she sings a duet with Nathan.

Corn Whiskey is a gentle country ballad about an Appalachian couple’s adventures in evading the law, which comes to the inevitable gruesome end. The staying power of love in a long-term relationship is explored in Quicksand, where more sweet piano playing from Nathan is perfectly enhanced by claw hammer banjo from Mike Conners. Seek out this excellent album and enjoy.

Montana Tunesmith Dream Catch Self Release

‘Never judge a book by the cover’ goes the old adage and I certainly learned this lesson when I first played this album. My expectations had been low - I didn’t particularly take to the stylised cover painting of the salmon leaping out of the lilac tinted lake (apologies to acclaimed Montana artist Monte Dolack) - I had speculated that this would be another collection of mediocre songs with a New Age sensibility. How wrong I was! From the very first chords I knew this was something special. 

Brothers Tim and Mike Nordstrom make up the band - Tim is the main songwriter and instrumentalist while Mike contributes vocals. For this their third album they have returned to Texas to work again with maestro producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines in The Zone studio, where everybody who’s anybody in Texas music has recorded at one time or another. 

I suspect Lloyd Maines had a simple task, however, along with his bunch of seasoned session musicians, because the material brought to him by this little known duo from Montana was indeed much better than average.  

This is true Americana music. Tim Nordstrom is justifiably proud of his home state and this pride permeates all the songs here, either overtly or covertly. The musical style is a combination of folk, rock and country. As well as Lloyd Maines playing his signature pedal steel and dobro etc, he is joined by Pat Manske (Joe Ely, Alexandra Escovedo) on drums and Dennis Ludiker (Asleep At The Wheel) on fiddle and mandolin.

It’s difficult to single out a favourite song, but title track Dream Catch is particularly memorable - inspired by the death bed story told by an elderly grandmother who once caught a 21lb fish and then let it go. They are joined on this song by renowned fiddle player Tracey Grammer, who  contributes vocals as well as a gorgeous fiddle instrumental interlude.

There are many story songs - Beatnik Son, Hillbilly Storm Chaser and Death of a Salesman are outstanding. 31 Flavors bemoans the decline of culture as a price for the rise of convenience and mass production. Destination Desolation is a rollicking country road song.

Unusually for a record, there’s a three song epilogue, ‘dedicated to Montanans who have protected the natural environment’. The first of these is overly sentimental, but it’s saved by some searing pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. Full Moon On The Missions and One Montana are truly beautiful and moving.

Tim and Mike’s vocals are clear throughout the album, and their sibling harmonies are as sublime as one would expect. If this album doesn’t make you want to go visit Montana, nothing ever will.

PK Gregory Honkabilly Blues Genuine Butter 

Some very funny songs from one-man-band PK Gregory which will whet your appetite to see him live. PK manages to inject humour into every situation - so much so that I found myself smiling through almost every song here. As well as being possessed of an irreverent sense of humour, he’s an excellent composer of melodies. He plays mainly electric guitar, which is punctuated by bluesy harmonica and percussion from a foot drum. 

There are love songs (of sorts!) like She Showed Me A Picture Of Her Cat and Beat Me Senseless With Your Love. Then there are more conventional love songs like She’s Not My Type (She’s Not You)  and Let’s Not Fight - which is a plea to a long term partner to hang up the gloves (although this one is not for the easily offended either).

He excels at evoking the gothic in the black humour of My Soul Is A Wasteland Of Pain And Death and The Executioner’s Song, both of which are delivered at lively ditty pace. By contrast, Heck Of A Deal delivers a serious message about bullying. Kelly Got The Stomach Flu is just hilarious. Best of all is the opening song The Jesus Cure in which PK details his Catholic schoolboy obsession with a young female teacher who happened to have been a nun!

The overall musical direction is country blues with folk and honkytonk thrown in. It was all recorded live in his home studio so there’s nothing fancy here, but I expect it’s a good indication of how he sounds in a live gig situation.Based in Arizona, I don’t expect he’ll be touring Europe anytime soon, more’s the pity.

The Mallett Brothers Band Vive L’Acadie Self Release  

If you like your rock on the heavy side, with a touch of country, blues and southern thrown in, then this could be the album for you. This is their fifth recording since the brothers Luke and Will Mallett formed their band in 2009. They’ve been playing in their native Maine and up and down the East coast and Mid-West of the US ever since. 

The title track Vive L’Acadie is a nod towards the Acadia region, which stretches from the north east corner of Maine right up into Quebec. However, apart from a Cajun feel to this opening celebratory song of all things French-Canadian (with superb fiddle playing from Andrew Martell) the rest of the album has a more conventional country rock feel.

There are story songs - Onawa tells the tragic true story of a head-on train collision in 1919, when 23 newly arrived Scottish and English emigrants lost their lives. There are trucking songs - the metal heavy Headed Home starts at a gentle pace as the long distance trucker bemoans his lot, only to build into a frenzy that even ZZ Top would be proud of. Then there are the songs of the ordinary working class heroes from every small town in America - Too Much Trouble is a musical contrast to most of the album with acoustic guitar and fiddle dominating.

But of course there are also the love songs. In Few More Dozen Roses the said flowers end up ‘on the side of the road’, allowing Wally’s steel guitar to get a peek in (it is otherwise drowned out in the mix throughout the album, as is the mandolin and banjo, unfortunately).

The album is attractively packaged in a trifold digipak with a lyric book (essential as Luke Mallett’s growly vocals are difficult to decipher!) and with lovely illustrations by Nyla Smith-Lachman.

Sunday
Dec022018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Ben Da La Cour The High Cost Of Living Strange FSCR

This is one of those albums that transcends all expectations because of the strength of the songs and performance. Da La Cour is a singer/songwriter in the roots/Americana mode but one who with this fourth release shows himself as a contender to join the likes of Rod Picott and Slaid Cleeves as contenders to the crown of Guy Clarke and other notable songsmiths. In the song Uncle Boudreaux Went To Texas he has written a couple of the best lines I have heard all year. “He swore he met Townes van Zandt outside a bar in Houston this one time, I always did believe him, my Daddy told me he was full of shit, he said the closest Boudreaux ever got to Texas was Willie’s Greatest Hits.” Although there are only 8 tracks on this mini-album all are strong and there’s variety in the mood and temposthat make for a consistently interesting listen.

Recorded in Nashville,itwas produced by De La Cour and Joe Lekkas and tight group of musicians who deliver their best shots. Fiddle and accordion join a bass, drum and guitar line up to deliver a warm and full sounding recording. De La Cour has a background in metal and rock but is now firmly ensconced in folk/roots story-telling. De La Cour has called this "Americanoir" - an appropriate description. One trackGuy Clark’s Fiddlesuggestthat he has absorbed some of the best writers around but these tracks are proof positive that his own writing is heading in the right direction. The themes may not be unique in the genre but they feature observations that are as true as any. Company Town is a look at the death of a town and the death of hope. Tupelo is a darker tale of escapism and endangerment. There is an acute sense of observation in the writing that is turned into memorable songs.

Da La Cour was raised in New York but moved to Los Angeles before settling in Nashville for the time being. He has couple of previous releases (A Wasted Moon and Ghost Light) before this current release which simply leaves you wantingmore from this engaging story teller. Hopefully in the not-to-distant future. He is expressing the need for humanity and the lack of it that exists in society at large. Something that has it cost in either living strange or in the strange aspects of living.

Thomas Gabriel Long Way Home Oxvision

On his recordings Thomas Gabriel sounds even more like his Grandfather Johnny Cash that even in the live setting. Gabriel himself has said he feels that he doesn’t have anything like the resonance and gravity that Cash had. Even so the casual listener may think that he is listening to tribute rather than a voice that respects and relates to such an icon. Once you get over the vocal affinity you are left with an album that in some ways has more in keeping with Cash’s later works than the earlier Sun styled recordings. This album, produced by Matthew Oxley, is centered around the voice but behind that is a forward looking set of arrangements that are full of atmospheric ambience.

In its favourit features 14 new original songs, some written by Gabriel, solo or with a writing partner Rick Scott or by executive producer Brian Oxley,for the most part. They are defiant statements of life as understood and realised by a man who had recently served several years in prison and had dealt with the demons of addiction. Cell is the most obvious of these but most of these songs have a darkness in their heart. In that light,Gabriel’svoice suits these tales of hardship and self awareness. However, there is a sense of redemption there also with a song like Come To Me song that offers a vision of a better place to lay your burdens down. Twangtown is a rebuke of those who have (always) favoured finance over heritage and real music in Music City.

Gabriel has said that this album represents and certain point in his life and recovery and that his next album will, likely, be coming from a better place. As it stands,musically,this is not intended as an easy listen. It is a recording that marks a scion of a legendary family trying to find his own path who sees no reason to try and change his voice to something different than it is. What it represents, is a living memory of an icon, while trying to find hisown identity andnever denying the lineage. It is a long way home for Gabriel but he is taking it one step at a time. Steps that in themselves are as strong as his voice. 

Carson McHone Carousel Loose

An artist with a back story that finds her playing a residency in an Austin nightspot at an age where she wouldn’t have legally been allowed to drink there. Now,after that live playing experience and with two previous releases behind herMcHone has sharpened her craft to include her past and her future. To encompass some traditional country influences that were part and parcel of her upbringing as well as to bring the music forward. This was done by bringing in producer Mike McCarthy who had worked with Spoon and Patty Griffin, to name but two. He has also gathered solid rhythm section over which fiddle, steel and electric guitar enhance and explore country’s perimeters without even losing sight of that musical core.

The themes of country music are here, the failed relationships (Sad And Gentle). Many come from an autographical background and some are revised and rerecorded form her earlier Goodluck Man release. Playing in bars from a tender age undoubtably will colour your viewpoint of life and relationships. Seen first-handthat experienceno doubt inspired some of these songs,which often have a melancholy undertow,that gives them a sense of confessional purpose. It is an album that is moving away from a strict traditional country base to something more contemporary and imbued with a wealth of other influences that are still aligned with a vision of where McHone might take this music in order to suit each song in its own right.

The upfront Drugs and Dram Shop Gal whose lines “But I still like to do my runnin’ round, so it couldn't be, I would not be bound” show that there is a determination to move on as a person and with her music. She is able to give each song on Carousel its own space and place allowing the songs their individual tempo and setting. There’s the piano and brushed drums mood of How ‘Bout it. That contact with the dance floor best of Good Time Daddy Blues. The overall mood of the album though is more plaintive without ever losingits energy and focus. McHone is exploring her options but has still created an album that manages to be considered country while moving beyond any restrictive boundaries. Life goes round and we wait to see which carousel horse McHone arrives on next.

Hunter Perrin Wild Card Self Release

It comes as no surprise that Hunter Perrin spent time as a member of John Fogerty’s band. He has distilled the elements of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll into a new album that delivers 10 songs in 23 minutesof American music that thrills and avoids and excess fat. It is a sound that some mayfind too sparse and stripped back but it’s one that this review revels in. The themes are classic and timeless and could have been recorded anytime since the 50s. 

Titles like A Tear From A Bloodshot Eye, Another Lonesome Night In A Lonesome Town and That’s You, That’s Me, That’s All cover some basic emotional modes of the heart with a strong sense of hook and melody that makes you think that these songs have been around for quite some time. They are all however written by Perrin and played with his band mates Christopher Allis on drums and Thomas Lorioux on upright bass. This duo lay a solid rhythm under which Perrin sings and plays a big Bigsby tremoloed guitar. One song, Gallup, NM (New Mexico) is a vibrant instrumental and is set in that particular location, as is California Is My Home; a song that details his previous and current home bases. He is equally well versed musically,having studied at Yale and the University of Texas,where he studied classical guitarist.  He played in a rock band in NewYork called Hi-Five and has subsequently started three other bands as well as releasing two solo albums.

Although this album is released under his own name it is more of a band album in overall sound. A sound that is obviously a deliberate one given his undoubted range and experience. Perrin’s wild card is his innate ability to produce an album that has no fat or filler and all of its ten songs are somemorable and deceptively simple in their recording that they feel fresh and fundamental.

Connie Smith My Part Of Forever (Vol.1) Humphead

There may be lot of singers in country music better known than Connie Smith but few are better vocalists. This is another collection by the (generally) reissue label Humphead who have a collection of double CDs that are mainly drawn from a particular time of an artist’scareer and from a label they can licence the tracks from. in this case Smith and husband Marty Stuart have made the selection of tracks that span her career. So CD1 runs from 1973 to 1985. Songs from when she was signed to Columbia that include a good half dozen albums. She worked with producers Ray Baker and George Richey during this period and the sound is steadfastly traditional country without ever getting stuck in a rut. The range of writers was equally varied from Hank Williams through Dallas Frazier to Steve Earle.

The second CD takes tracks from more recent albums and finds Smith’svoice if anything stronger and more authoritative. There aremany tracks from Long Line Of Heartaches that was released by Sugar Hill in 2011,as well as the Warner released self-titled album from 1998through to an album I wasn’t aware of entitled The Lost Tapes - Country Rewind 1972-2015 - which as it suggests is a collection of rare and unreleased recordings. Stuart acts as executive producer on these Scotty Moore produced tracks. The other tracks were produced by Stuart himself and the sound is balanced and undoubtably country and at odds with the move towards a more pop-oriented sound. One listen to My Part Of Forever and you hear a masterclass in country music as it should be.

One might readily assume that at least some of the recent tracks benefit from the playing of Smith’s band The Sundowners who included steel player Gary Carter as well as Robbie Turner. Steel guitar is very much in evidence and central to many of these tracks. As a career overview it is a well thought out selection that sees Smith at the top of her game after remaining vital for nearly half a century. Something that not many can say. Alan Cackett’s sleeve notes are informative and they complete the package. It leaves one looking forward to Volume 2.

Mike Blakely The Outside Circle Swing Rider

With the new Colter Wall album focusing on the Western side of country music this album from Blakely is welcome. Blakey isstoryteller and uses these ten tracks to paint a vivid picture of a time and way of living that is all but gone. He does so in the tradition of the original singing cowboys and exponents like Michael Martin Murphy, Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson. Blakey’s latest album is his 13th and a return to the C&W format that he featured on his first two albums. He is also the author of Western novels and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award and is steeped in the lores and motivations of those who love the feel of that time and those legends of the west, sung and unsung.

As a writer he has had his songs covered by the likes of Alan Jackson and Raul Malo among many others. Blakely is a native Texan who brings life to his songs of cowboys, round-ups and rodeos. His voice is ideal with a depth that is both warm and appropriately worn. The album was produced by Walt Wilkins and Ron Flynt and features a host of Austin players including Lloyd Maines on steel guitar, Rich Brotherton on mandolin and Kim Deschamps on resonator. The songs are originals written by Blakely solo or with Damon Rogersother than the traditional songThe Colorado Trail. The Ballad Of Josiah Wilbarger is a seven minute plus tale of the trials and tribulations of the rider and his encounter with a Comanche raiding party. It is a compelling story that does everything that is should over a simple and sparse backingfronted by Blakley’s captivating vocal.

This sub-genre of country may not be overtly popular but is one that still thrives and has many followers and exponents. If you are at all a follower of the Western ethos in movie, book or song then The Outside Circle is an album that you will want to explore and it is one I have returned to often since it arrived.