Thursday
Aug102017

Reviews by Declan Culliton

 

Jason Wilber Reaction Time Wilber Tone

Jason Wilber is best known as John Prine’s trusted side kick and guitarist of the past two decades which often overshadows his impressive solo musical output. Reaction Time is his tenth album despite spending much of the past twenty years on the road touring with Prine or in the studio recording with him and the many collaborators that have featured on Prine’s albums over the years.

It’s also Wilber’s first full studio album of self-penned songs in eight years, following his covers album Echoes (2016) and Live And Otherwise Volume recorded seven years ago.

When considering Wilber’s music I’m reminded of both Rodney Crowell and Nick Lowe for a number of reasons. His output, and no more so than here, is a blend of both these artists mixing Americana with British Roots and Soul music to perfection. Equally similar to Lowe and to a lesser degree Crowell, his back catalogue includes many top-notch albums that should have and probably would have been better recognised had he concentrated on a solo career without the diversions as a band member and session player. His 1998 debut album Lost In Your Hometown was Americana before the term was conceived and Behind The Midway released two years later was equally impressive. 

The title and opening track of Reaction Time sets the benchmark for what is to follow, a slick breezy guitar intro, pounding drums and controlled vocals combining to give the song an early REM feel. Love Me Now heads down a slightly funkier path, Jealousy and Envy kicks in with a Rolling Stones’ Miss You riff, perfectly paced and infectious. Something Somewhere and Shame On You bring to mind much of what his fellow Nashville resident Jason Isbell is writing these days, both artists possibly inspired to some degree by John Prine, the latter song a flowing piece of music that connects on first listen. I’d Love Another Saturday Night, is the liveliest song on the album and possibly a good choice for "the single". It’s a topic that has been written about by endless of musicians over the decades yet Wilber’s effort sounds refreshingly crisp and original. Heaven, the most traditional country track on the album finds Iris DeMent adding harmony vocals and Allie Summers on violin. A gorgeous song conjuring up heavenly scenes and images of old farm houses, dusty paths, country cooking and simple living, it closes the album in style.

As can be expected the playing is elegant and faultless throughout with Wilber joined by bass player Glenn Myers, percussionists Ben Lumsdaine and Devon Ashley, Chris Erbacher adds pedal steel.

This latest album is another welcomed diversion from the day job by Wilber and one that will undoubtedly continue to be revisited by me in the coming months. 

Rachel Baiman Shame Freedirt

When considering current female singer songwriters who also excel as fiddle and banjo players the names Gillian Welch, Rhiannon Giddens, Abigail Washburn, Alison Brown and more recently Kaia Kater immediately spring to mind. Well it’s time to add Rachel Baiman to the list and near the top at that. The 27-year-old Nashville resident and multi-instrumentalist has most certainly hit the ground running with her debut solo album Shame.

Baiman  is a member of 10 String Symphony, a duo with Christian Sedelmyer, both five string banjo players whose 2015 album Weight Of The World featured on NPR’s listings of newest and most promising voices in Americana on it’s release. For her debut solo album Baiman engaged Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange as producer resulting in a less stripped down and fuller sound than that of 10 String Symphony. It hardly needs noting that the quality of the playing is dazzling, from Baimans banjo and fiddle to the guitar and keyboard input by singer songwriter and session player Josh Oliver and bass player by Marlin. 

Raised in Chicago, both her parents were political activists, her father a radical economist and her mother a social worker, she is the co-founder of Folk Fights Back, a political organisation who perform benefit concerts and events in response to the current political administration in the States. Not surprisingly a number of the tracks visit and question social issues, religion, politics, racism, inequality and abusive relationships. 

Getting straight down to business by questioning religion on the opener and title track Baiman probes "Well old white men write books about faith and healing love, And old white men look happily onto others from above, In the name of sweet religion they would lay their claims on me, And ask me to be grateful for triumphant jubilee." Acknowledging both the joy and responsibility of love and relationships Something To Lose simply drifts along with Baimans banjo perfectly placed in the background. 

Echoes of Gillian Welch surface particularly on I Could Have Been Your Lover Too and Wicked Spell, written by Michael Bowman alongside eight self-written songs by Baiman. Fittingly the other song covered on the album is Never Tire Of The Road written by Andy Irvine, chronicling the struggles of the underprivileged and left behind. 

The greatest accolade I can suggest in respect of Shame is that much of the material is everything you would hope for in a Gillian Welch album and praise hardly comes higher than that. 

Carter Sampson Queen Of Oklahoma and Other Songs CRS

Carter Sampson’s 2016 album Wilder Side was hailed as one of the finest releases of that year at Lonesome Highway and her performances at The Kilkenny Roots Festival earlier this year confirmed her status as yet another outstanding artist that had remained under our radar despite having released four previous albums.

It’s also fair to say that despite Wilder Side deservedly receiving rave reviews in Europe her back catalogue equals the high standard of that album as evidenced by Queen Of Oklahoma and Other Songs which gathers material from all four earlier albums. Released to coincide with her European tour earlier this year its sixty minutes feature fourteen tracks in total.

Mockingbird Song, released in 2011, is represented by five tracks including the zappy opener Be My Wildwood Flower followed by her signature tune Queen Of Oklahoma. Jesse James, Sanctuary and Better Ways also feature from this album which truthfully should take pride of place in any serious collectors’ catalogue. Much fuller, rockier, rousing and less country than Wilder Side, think Kathleen Edwards and you’re on the right page.

I Am Yours and Wild Bird are included from her acoustic EP Thirty Three recorded in 2014, both delightfully melodic country folk.  A fuller version of Wild Bird features on Wilder Side. Six tracks are presented from Good For The Meantime, released in 2009, the aching love song Let’s Get Back and the snappy Payne County Line are particularly impressive. Annie is the only inclusion from her debut acoustic album Fly Over The Moon recorded in 2004.

The album is a welcomed roadmap of Sampson’s career as a young songwriter to the present day. Weaving seamlessly between folk and country it’s indicative of a self-assured and extremely talented artist who without doubt will have lots more to offer going forward.

Chris Jamison Mindless Heart Self Release

The cover of Mindless Heart features a non-descript hand drawn red heart depicting I Love You which, not being familiar with Jamison’s previous albums, drew expectations of an acoustic based album of love songs and the like. However, this assumption transpired to be miles off the mark. Currently based in Ashville North Carolina, this the sixth studio album recorded by the Texan and it’s a cracker. A splendid mixture of country, soul and blues across eleven tracks it features an impeccable group of Texan players who joined Jamison at Whiteroom Studios in Austin Texas for the recording which was co-produced by Jamison and Sebastian Cure.

The title track showcases Jamison’s exquisite vocal, intoxicatingly soulful on a track that is thankfully uncluttered, a feature that repeats on All In Good Time and Lovers Lane both also benefiting from a less is more approach. Wanderin’ adds some funk bordering on reggae to the mix and Blue Cadillac laments the passing of Hank Williams.

The pedal steel guitar playing by Simon Page on Wanderin’ and Blue Highway manages to exquisitely enhance Jamison’s self-assured vocal delivery. Deadstring Brothers and Israel Nash spring to mind as references on both tracks whereas on some of the lighter moments on the album comparisons could be made with Josh Rouse.

Prinz Grizzley Come On In Shedmusic

Honky Tonk, pedal steel guitar and country waltzes are not exactly what you might expect from an Austrian artist but Prinz Grizzley, the brainchild of Chris Comper, manages to combine all three as if they were in his bloodstream in his debut album Come On In

Comper made a considerable impression with his live shows to packed houses at The Kilkenny Roots Festival early this year and Come On In (to be released in Europe this September) is further testimony that Americana and Country Music of the highest quality exists and survives beyond the U.S.A.

Comper formed the Indie Rock band Golden Reef in 2001, recorded two mini-albums and four full albums but despite positive recognition in the Austrian music press they failed to light a fire. A further diversion saw Comper form Grizzley & The Kids who released an album titled Temporizer in 2014, aimed more at the commercial pop market. 

However this album recorded between November 2015 and February 2016, finally found Comper hitting his sweet spot, writing and performing music from the heart, eleven self-composed and cohesive songs that work remarkably well together.

There’s so much to love about the album, not least the absolutely stunning Walls, the standout track on the album. Think Ryan Adam’s Jacksonville City Nights period, gorgeous layers of vocal, harmonies, searing guitar and wicked pedal steel combining to create a sound that you do not want to end. Tell Me Why, a stripped back heartbreaker closes the album, a lament to love slipping away, melodic country folk, its recipe out of the Neil Young cookbook.

The opening track Wide Open Country sets the scene for much of what is to follow, harmonica joined within twenty seconds by weeping pedal steel and Comper’s vocals dipping and soaring between chorus and verse. I May Be Late is no nonsense honky tonk featuring the standards – bars, wasted relationship, and unrequited love- all brought to life by lashings of twangy guitar and pedal steel.

Produced by Comper and Oliver Varga at Green Hill Studios in Rohrbach Austria, Come On is a joy from start to finish, nothing new or ground breaking, simply good lived in music that hits the spot from an unexpected source. High praise also for the wonderful no frills yet striking artwork and packaging. Well worth checking out.

Front Country Other Love Songs Organic

Front Country made quite an impression on the writer when they performed a rousing set at The Station Inn in Nashville last September on the opening night of The Americana Music Association Festival. The quality of the playing, energy, vocal harmonies and full on performance brought the house down, even though they played the graveyard shift from 12am to 1am after a long day of music and festivities. Difficult to categorise, contemporary Bluegrass or more accurately Soulgrass might best describe their sound, a direction that many young bands have travelled to get a foot in the door of an extremely crowded market. What raises Front Country above the parapet is the input of lead singer Melody Walker whose gutsy soulful vocals take centre stage much like that of Brittany Howard as part of Alabama Shakes. On receiving the album I wondered how the high quality of their live act would transfer to my living room via the studio and it’s fair to say that it does capture their dynamics particularly well.

Brought together as a professional outfit having won open mic contests at both The Rockygrass and Telluride Festival in Colorados  the band consist of Adam Roszkiewicz  ( mandolin, banjo, vocals), Jacob Groopman (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Jeremy Darrow (bass), Leif Karlstrom ( five string violin) and Melody Walker (vocals, guitar and percussion).

Of the twelve tracks on the album eight are written by Walker, two instrumentals composed by Roszkiewicz with the two remaining songs being covers of David Olney’s Millionaire, a song they felt compelled to include given the political climate when the album was being recorded and The Carter Family’s Storms Are On The Ocean. The playing from start to finish is flawless, particularly on the instrumentals T.H.A.T.S and Sometimes It Does where Karlstrom’s violin work simply soars above Roszkiewicz‘s clever banjo picking. Good Side is performed a Capella with Roszkiewicz and Groopman resplendently accompanying Walker opening vocals.

Front Country have managed to cherry pick old timey and  soul with a dusting of FM rock to present a body of work that is sure to appeal to a wide audience and deservedly so. 

Sunday
Jul232017

Reviews by Eilis Boland

Furnace Mountain Shadow Of Plenty Self Release

An absolute joy from start to finish, this sixth album from well established Virginian old time string band Furnace Mountain cements their reputation as one of the foremost exponents of the music, bar none.

Superbly produced by their own Danny Nicely, who also plays mandolin and guitar throughout, the vocal duties are ably shared by the other three members. 

Rooted in the traditional Appalachian folk tradition, the timeless quality of the music is exemplified by the title track, Shadow Of Plenty. The pure harmony vocals of Morgan Morrison and Aimee Curl evoke the vision of a pastoral idyll, but by the end of the song, one is left with a foreboding that the bounteous façade is overhung by a dark cloud.

David Van Deventer ain’t called Fiddlin’ Dave for nothing – he’s a demon on his instrument! He also writes much of the music and sometimes the lyrics. His vocal style and indeed his playing is reminiscent of the late fiddle maestro John Hartford – particularly evident on his songs Ramblin’ Jack and The Last Song. The ironically named Inchworm Set showcases the skills of the whole band, where Dave’s fiddling interweaves with bouzouki (unusually) and mandolin, backed up by bass, and all at breakneck speed.

While most of the album relies on original material, there are a few covers, the most memorable of which is the oft-covered love song, Ewan McColl’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Here Aimee and Morgan blend their voices in a delicate near-perfect rendition of this beautiful song- a version I would like to think Peggy Seeger herself would approve of.

The sleeve is beautifully illustrated and there’s no need for a lyric sheet here - the well honed vocals are true and clear.

Red Herring Here To Distract You Self Release

This is the third offering (and second studio recording) from the Dutch folk roots string band, who are regulars on the folk club and festival scene in mainland Europe. The standard of musicianship throughout this self-produced recording is superb, and each of the four band members is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. Their influences are wide – there are obvious bluegrass, folk, jazz and celtic elements to many of their songs and instrumentals.

The fiddle chops of Joram Peeters and his versatility of tune writing is showcased in the instrumental set of three tunes Pigs Upon A Ninja. It moves from a Scandinavian influenced tune into a gypsy jazz number, and then, in the uplifting final funky tune, one is deliciously blasted by the uileann pipes (yes, you heard me correctly) of guest Michael Boere. 

The Beaten Track was co-written by Arthur Deighton in the aftermath of the loss of his sister, and he sings it sensitively, with sweet banjo contributed by guest Floris De Vries.

Dougie MacLean’s ballad on the pain of emigration, Garden Valley (familiar to Irish audiences from the singing of Cara Dillon) is still topical and the lead vocals are taken by bassist Loes van Schaijk, with Floris de Vries on dobro.

Loes also writes and sings the opening song, No Hearts Won – its beautiful tune is a winner, but as on many of the songs here, it is let down by clumsy lyrics. Joram Peeters’ talent in composing tunes is again overshadowed by the lyrics in the sublime country blues of A Loved Man’s Lonely Blues, and the less said about the attempt at humour in his Rather Die Alone, the better!

Joram redeems himself  though on the delightful jazz-inflected instrumental WhatsApp Doc which he cowrote with Arthur Deighton, featuring both of them on duelling mandolins and more tasty banjo from Floris De Vries. There are also covers of two bluegrass standards – Uphill Climb from the pen of Chris Jones and Don Reno’s Barefoot Nellie.

This release is accompanied by a beautifully produced booklet, with notes on each track and quirky, attractive artwork. An interesting album, though probably not for the bluegrass purist. The services of an independent producer could help to iron out the blips next time around.

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro Static In The Wires Del Mundo 

From the opening chords of this album, one is thrown straight into the country blues of the Deep South … but the surprise is that Martin Harley is an Englishman! He has previously fallen under my radar– but I am very pleased to make his acquaintance now.

A phenomenal guitarist, particularly an exponent of lap slide, Martin is also a talented songwriter with a strong distinctive voice. Martin’s musical compadre may be familiar to you already – Daniel Kimbro has been the bass player with the Jerry Douglas Band for the past four years. A Tennessean with a bluegrass background, Daniel has collaborated with many well regarded fellow Americana musicians, and just recently played on the Transatlantic Sessions first American tour.

Although regarded as a bassist, Daniel also contributes piano and guitar here, as well as coproducing with Martin Harley on this Nashville studio recording. The two have been friends and collaborators since they were introduced by mutual friend Sam Lewis a few years ago, and this is their second recording together.

In a recording of superb songs, it’s almost impossible to highlight one above the others. Gold is a particularly delicious slice of sultry down home folky blues, that of a contented man who has found the peace he’s been searching for.

There are jazz and soul inflections throughout, and Daniel’s sometime boss, Flux himself, guests on dobro on Feet Don’t Fail Me. The lyrics are never clichéd – themes range from escaping from ‘one horse towns’ and ‘mean old cities’, and thankfully there aren’t many broken hearts to contend with.

This is a match made in heaven, with Martin Harley’s guitar work and songwriting matched by the musical innovation of Daniel Kimbro. Not to be missed.

Cormac O Caoimh Shiny Silvery Things Self Release

Corkman Cormac O Caoimh releases his fourth album, well produced and recorded in his native city, with a host of local musicians aiding and abetting. All twelve songs are originals, with O Caoimh taking the lead vocals, and Aoife Regan contributing backing vocals on all songs.

Almost all of the songs have a predominantly 80s pop rock feel – think Paul Heaton/Prefab Sprout meets Paddy McAloon, but without the latter’s cynical insight, perhaps. There’s lots of melodic guitar work from O Caoimh, and pleasant piano and keyboard contributions from Cormac O’Connor.

Deviation from the 80s sound is really only hinted at in a few of the songs – In The Hollow Of An Old Oak surprises with it’s swamp rock feel; there’s a welcome funky bass backbeat and saxophone let loose in A Parked Car; and the title track itself strays into jazz pop territory.

The lyrics stand up well on their own. At times cryptic, any of them could be read aloud as works of spoken word. The cover is complemented with photos of – yes, shiny silvery things.

 

Friday
Jul142017

Reviews by Declan Culliton

David Corley Zero Moon Wolfe Island

Less than three years ago David Corley was virtually unknown in the music world. Zero Moon is his second full album following a whirlwind two-year period which saw his debut album Available Light make a considerable industry impact, particularly in Europe, and a tour that almost ended tragically when a heart attack on stage in Groningen, Netherlands resulted in a long period of hospitalisation and subsequent recuperation. While recovering Corley recorded the seven-track mini album Lights Out, much of the material a reflection on his near-death experience. Having not entered a recording studio until he reached his early fifties Zero Moon is a continuation of the creative purple patch that Corley is currently enjoying.

Much of his latest album is bleak, desolate, searching and questioning, and all the better for it. The striking artwork (created by Kevin and Cynthia Kehoe) is monochromatic and stark, as are the barely legible hand-written lyrics by Corley himself, the only hint of colour featuring in the track listing and emblem on the rear cover. Equally dark, cold and edgy are many of the lyrics that feature on the eleven tracks.

I often wonder if the classic Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street were to be released today which of the numerous sub-categories would it be pigeon holed in, alt-country/Americana/indie rock or possibly country rock. Back in the day it was simply a ‘rock’ album, no more no less. David Corley’s music, for me, fits hand in glove into that simple one word categorisation and particularly on this new album. 

It’s a long player in the true sense, you’ll need to set aside the best part of an hour to play it start to finish and three of the tracks (Zero Moon, Desert Moon and Burning Chrome), each one memorable, contribute to about a third of the album.

Recorded at The Post Office Studio, Wolfe Island, Ontario and produced by Corley’s right-hand man Hugh Christopher Brown, the sound throughout is beautifully loose, flowing and sounding very much like a live recording.  The aforementioned Zero Moon and Desert Mission (inspired by Cormac Mc McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian) thankfully were not edited to the too often customary four minutes but instead were allowed to drift, ebb and flow giving the impression that things were going so well in the studio that the only direction was – keep on playing and see where we end up. His studio band are the same musicians that featured on Available Light and Lights Out. Chris Brown playing keyboards as well as production duties, Gregor Beresford (Barenaked Ladies, Suzanne Jarvie) on drums and Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, B.B.King, Al Di Meola, Ani DiFranco) playing bass. Sarah McDermott and Kate Fenner contribute backing vocals. Notwithstanding the quality of the musicians employed the most potent instrument is Corley’s voice, broken, whiskey torn, raspy and growling, perfectly suited to the subject matter that often concerns dark and painful landscapes. As with his previous recordings we are given a glimpse of Corley’s personal life, trials, suffering, frustration and distress. A door opened momentarily but never left open for too long, leaving the listener with only a brief opportunity to observe the contents.  His lyrics continue to be beautifully abstract at times "Then pirates arrive, knives in their teeth, and dancing girls are filling the streets"(Zero Moon). "Mean beings wring their hands and hang their heads in darkness while our imagination founders on the rocks"(Vision Pilgrim). Whirl recalls his recent health issues in no uncertain terms "I’ll just whirl and hope that the wind don’t die, just in case – you know who to notify, my next of kin."

Down With The Universe which featured on Lights Out is given a second outing and Take Me Down Some and Splendid Now both echo early 70’s Stones. A Lifetime Of Mornings tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen, delivered semi-spoken.

Given the stature  of Corley’s output on this album and his previous work, one is left wondering where his industry standing would be had his career kicked off a few decades ago, though possibly it was the life and near death experiences that were the catalyst, inspiration and motivation for the wonderful body of work he has delivered in the past few years.

An album of the year contender for this writer, hands down.

Emily Barker Sweet Kind of Blue Self Release

Having developed a quite British sound from her work with The Red Halo Band spanning nine years  and with over fifty unrecorded songs of varying  styles already in the slow burner, Australian born Emily Barker decided to experiment with a change of producer for her next project. While recording The Applewood Road (2016) album in Nashville -with Amy Speace and Amber Rubarth- she struck gold when a recommendation by sound engineer Chris Mara resulted in an introduction to Matt Ross-Sprang. Having produced a couple of the finest albums released in the past two years in Margo Price’s Midwest Farmers Daughter and Jason Isbell’s Something More, together with having worked at Sun Studios for eleven years, Ross-Sprang could not have been a better pair of ears to consider Barker's war chest of material.

On hearing a selection of Barkers songs Ross-Sprang wisely identified a core soul and blues tread in many of them and recommended Barker went on a musical diet of Ann Peebles, Dan Penn, music to her ears having grown up as a lover of Aretha Franklin and all things soul.

Never one to do things in half measures, fast forward to June of that year and Barker found herself at the hallowed ground of Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis surrounded by the tightest bunch of local session players you could imagine in David Cousar on guitar (Al Green), Rick Steff on keyboards (Lucero, Dexy Midnight Runners), Dave Smith on bass (Norah Jones, John Mayall) and Steve Potts on drums (Neil Young). Susan Marshall and Barker herself were on hand to contribute backing vocals. Recorded and mixed in seven days the resulting album is a collection of ten songs soaked in emotion and melody that work wonderfully together ranging from hard boiled soul and blues but also leaving plenty of room for the melodic ballads that Barker has a particular gift for penning.

Three of the songs included are co-writes with UK singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine, the heart wrenching and quite beautiful ballad – a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Sister Goodbye, the equally moving Over My Shoulder and the upbeat Motown sounding More!, featuring saxophone and trumpet by Jim Spake and Marc Franklin.  No.5 Hurricane, co-written with Eric Palmqwist sees Barker visiting a style closer to her previous work with The Red Halo Band, an achingly gorgeous new love/old love song. 

 A hugely talented and focused artist, never standing on her laurels and always stretching her musical parameters, Sweet Kind of Blue is indeed a triumph and a delightful diversion for Barker.

John Murry A Short History Of Decay TV 

Much as I dislike rolling out the ‘difficult second album’ cliché, it could hardly hold more relevance than A Short History Of Decay, the sophomore album by John Murry. His debut The Graceless Age was considered by many in the industry as a masterpiece, a road map detailing a lifetime of emotional, physical and mental turmoil. Autism, mental health issues, institutionalism, rejection and drug addiction all contributed to an album that appeared to play out as cold turkey, exorcism and closure. 

Murry’s state of mind and health seemed to be in a good place and even if sales of The Graceless Age did not necessarily provide a retirement fund it presented him with a touring platform, a regular though possibly cult following, the confidence, motivation and platform to further his career.  His well-documented loathing at the prospect of residing in California resulted in a relocation to Kilkenny, where he was welcomed with open arms by the art appreciative community, and he appeared to be in a good place mentally, physically and emotionally. 

However, stability was short lived and over a few turbulent years further challenges presented themselves including the sudden death of Murry’s mentor and guiding light Tim Mooney, who had produced the previous album, and an acrimonious marriage break-up, both of which threatened to re-open scars barely healed and seriously challenge the vulnerable artist. Left without a regular touring band, no record label and limited income Murry continued to his perform raw, emotional live gigs sometimes with guest musicians, more often solo. He released the EP John Murry Is Dead in 2016 but the prospect of a second full album seemed to be drifting away.  

An encounter with Michael Timmons of Cowboy Junkies fame followed, (Murry opened for them at a show in Glasgow), a friendship developed and Timmons greatly encouraged Murry to consider recreating, in the studio, the raw passion, emotion and honesty that pours from every inch of his body during his live performances. After a few false starts a recording session lasting five days was lined up at Timmon’s studio in Toronto with Peter Timmons (brother of Michael) on drums, Josh Finlayson (Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass and Cait O’ Riordan contributing backing vocals and most likely also moral support - having performed on stage previously with Murry. All guitar and keyboards were handled by Murry with Timmons, always the master of atmosphere, providing the structure, guidance and most importantly the discipline necessary to get the album down over the short period with the emphasis always on Murry’s vocal and his parables. The sound is more often than not paired to the bone, toned down, forthright and at times delightfully shambolic. Gone are the layering, multi instrumentation and sound effects that adorned The Graceless Age, Timmons simply and cleverly provided Murry with a blank canvas to express himself and set about creating an unobtrusive musical backdrop that never gets in the way of the vocals.

Most importantly Murry, with more than a helping hand from Timmons, did not attempt to create The Graceless Age Act 2, what would be the point and ironically the only track on the album that might have fitted snuggly on his debut is a remodelling of the Afghan Whigs What Jail Is Like.

The album is named after a book title by French philosopher Emil Cioran and the tracks One Day (You’ll Die) and Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) both consider mortality - a subject which Murry appears enthralled by – though it’s difficult to decipher whether irony outpoints rancour, which can sometimes the case with Murry’s song writing.

"All I Do Is Fix Whatever I Broke the Day Before" admits Murry on Under A Darker Moon, testament to his chaotic behaviour. It’s a driving song with layered, echoed vocals and screeching guitars with more than a nod in the direction of Velvet Underground. As with much of the album it takes on another dimension when heard on headphones where the production and mix really hit home. Defacing Sunday Bulletins is equally turbulent, fuzzy guitar glancing over the shoulder of Finlayson’s thumping bass lines. 

In many ways it should be celebrated that this release has seen the light of day given Murry’s wayfaring existence. A slow burner without doubt and one that even the most astute ear may require a number of visits to get fully on board but a more than laudable successor to The Graceless Age. Highly recommended. 

Sophia Marshall Bye Bye Self Release

Due for release in late August Bye Bye follows Sophia Marshall’s five track EP The Paper Thin, released in 2015 and is further testimony to the vocal and song writing talents of the former member of boy/girl duet The HaveNots.

Marshall’s industry internship has included support act to Peter Bruntnell, Frazey Ford, Tift Merritt, Be Good Tanya’s, The Sadies and Sam Outlaw and it’s not difficult to identify certain influences gathered along that journey, most particularly in her capacity to fashion uncomplicated compositions using the basic tools, simple language and abundant hooks. 

Boasting a beautifully unadulterated and natural voice, which sounds all the better for Marshall’s tendency, unlike many UK Americana artists, not to adopt a West Coast accent but to use her own natural pronunciation to full effect. 

The album brings to mind the work of fellow UK artist Thea Gilmore in many ways, mixing powerful hard edged catchy songs like the title track and Losing You (co-written with Liam Dullaghan) with the more acoustic Sarah’s Room and surreal Beauty Sleep.

Catch Me shifts in the direction of Jesse Sykes with lots of twang and boldness, Hey Al, Woah! (great title!) is equally edgy while the atmospheric two-minute closer Drunken Sailor is delivered vocals only with Marshall given a helping hand by Jay Hardy (Hardy Band) and some cleverly plotted over dubbed vocals.

While titles such as Bye Bye, Losing You and Missing Pieces suggest looming despair and hardship, the subjects are dealt with in a positive, upbeat and assured manner suggesting an artist that is marching forward ready to embrace anything that comes her way. Most impressive and perhaps a door opener for Miss Marshall.

Suzanne Jarvie One Take Only Dirt Road

I have to admit arriving a bit late to the party when it comes to Suzanne Jarvie. She played Ireland in September 2016 in support of her album Spiral Road album but I was abroad at the time and did not get to see her show. Having been really impressed by her performance in Kilkenny recently supporting David Corley, I welcomed the opportunity to review her mini album One Take Only released in 2016 as a stop gap between her debut album and it’s successor In The Clear, due to be completed later this year.

Jarvie is yet another impressive female singer songwriter to emerge from Canada in recent years following the path taken by Sarah Harmer, Oh Susanna and Lindi Ortega. Born in Honk Kong and raised in Toronto, a lawyer by profession and the mother of four children, music was primarily a hobby for her from a very young age. However, a near tragic accident whereby one of her sons fell down a spiral staircase and his subsequent recovery was the trigger for her debut album Spiral Road. The album made a favourable impression particularly in Europe where it reached No.7 in the Euro/Americana charts.

This mini-album includes six tracks in total, two originals and four cover versions. Produced by Hugh Christopher Brown, Jarvie is joined by her daughter Sara Jarvie Clark on backing vocals and violin on Believing, a track which featured on the TV series Nashville. The covers versions included are Dylan’s Senor, Sweet Carolina from Ryan Adams and Hills of Home written by Ralph Stanley. However, it’s the two original songs that shine most brightly, the stripped to the bones opener You Shall Not Pass  and closer Shadow of the Sultan both of which feature  angelic vocals that above all seem to be delivered by an artists that actually loves what she is doing.

Jean Shephard Country Music: Pure and Simple HumpHead

Jean Shepard, who passed away in September 2016, was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for sixty years and one of the most iconic female honky tonk singers in the history of country music. Often overshadowed by artists such as Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn she made her debut in the country music charts as a teenager in 1953 with A Dear John Letter. Released as a duet with Ferlin Husky it charted at No.1 in the country charts and remained there for six weeks. Totally uncompromising, Shephard was an unapologetic champion of traditional country music, a principal that in many ways may have limited her career opportunities at certain times. Uniquely and unlike the majority of female country singers, she launched her career as a solo artist whereas her peers generally performed as family groups, band members or duets. For ever a risk taker many of her early releases were quite daring for the times with titles such as Then He Touched Me, Many Happy Hangovers To You, Don’t Fall In Love With A Married Man and My Arms Stay Open Late. Her debut album Songs Of A Love Affair, considered to be the first concept country album to be recorded, was released in 1956 when she was only 23 years old. The album featured some of the industry’s finest including Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, Bill Woods and Clarence Lee and consisted of twelve original songs with Shepard having an input into the song writing.

Shepard signed to Capital Records in 1952 and this double album collects no fewer than fifty songs released on that label between 1964 and 1978. Interestingly the tracking is not in any chronological order kicking off with A Real Good Women (1968) and closing with I’ll Take The Dog (1966). The real winner is the consistency of her incredible voice throughout and her staunch insistence in ‘keeping it country’ and avoiding any pop crossover regardless of the pressures from Music Row.  Shepard survived many industry and personal difficulties, most particularly the tragic death of her husband Hawkshaw Hawkins, who perished in the plane crash that also claimed the life of Patsy Cline yet she continued to perform until twelve months prior to her death from Parkinson’s Disease.

 This delightful collection of songs is an absolute vindication of Shepard’s insistence of keeping country music simple, pure, and unadulterated and far outshines the majority  the hybrid product currently masquerading as country on Country Music Radio.   

Erin McLendon Making It Up As We Go Self Release

Ticking all the boxes for what passes today as radio friendly pop country this is the second release from Music City resident Erin Mc Lendon following her 2015 recording Fire & Wine which was nominated as an album of the year by IMEA (International Music and Entertainment Association). 

Originally hailing from Durham North Carolina, Mc Lendon graduated with A Bachelor of Music degree in Commercial Voice, a qualification that involved particular emphasis on the business side of the music industry. Her musical inspirations include a diverse range of artists from The Beatles to Tina Turner in the more popular genre but also soul queen Aretha Franklin and country icons Brad Paisley and Reba McEntire.

Opener When God Made a Woman is particularly radio friendly, densely layered, lots of hooks and a gospel like closing chorus. Don’t Believe My Eyes Anymore takes a swipe at the insincerity of dating sites and Honolulu Love is a stripped back ukulele lead song dealing with young love.

The title track suggests a random care free artist taking things as they come. However, the album gives the impression of an artist with her finger firmly on the pulse and more than aware of her market and the type of product that opens doors. McLendon is one of so many young female artists that are products of the America’s Got Talent formula sound but to her credit Making It Up As We Go has the songs, the sound and the self assured vocal delivery to position her ahead of a lot of her contemporaries.

Jeffrey Halford and The Healers Lo Fi Dreams Floating

The title of the album is a reflection on Jeffrey Halford’s efforts to make a recording with a particularly warm sound reminiscent of some of the classic recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s. Co-produced by Adam Rossi and Halford and using vintage equipment including Sears Silvertone, Danelectro and Harmony guitars, the album without doubt does succeed in nailing the intended stripped-down sound. 

Texas-born but spending much of his childhood in various parts of California, Halfords childhood was never conventional as his nomadic parents moved from location to location, sometimes by choice and other times by necessity. Heavy exposure to classic AM Radio and artists such as The Doors, Marvin Gaye and Howlin’ Wolf sowed the seeds for a musical career that kicked off by playing street corners in San Francisco, forming rockabilly band The Snappers and for the past two and a half decades touring and recording with his current outfit The Healers.

Lo Fi Dreams is his eight release and represents everything roots music stands for, mixing blues, country, soul, rock and roll and most particularly attitude in abundance.

Elvis Shot The Television is a funky recollection of a bored and wired Elvis misbehaving, opener Two Jacksons is a slick, smooth tale of an encounter with an attractive sales assistant. Halford lets loose and cranks it up a notch or two on Bird of Youth before slowing things down with the atmospheric and amusing Sweet Annette which recollects a visit to a remote diner.

Saturday
Jul082017

Reviews by Paul McGee

Eileen Kozloff Just Words MoosiCowlia

The sleeve says to file under Americana/Country and who am I to argue? However, on listening to these songs the sound has more in common with traditional Folk music to these ears.

The opening track, Always Wrong From The Start, sounds like a Mark Knopfler riff with John Kelly playing very fluid electric guitar melody.  The pedal steel on Coming Back To You has Rob Pastore turning in some fine backing runs. Guitar Man sounds like a Neil Young tribute complete with harmonica part from Hank Woji, who also produced the album and chipped in with acoustic guitar parts on a number of tracks. The violin of Jeff Duncan comes to the fore on 5,775 to dramatic effect in setting an atmosphere for the acoustic guitar work of Eileen Kozloff .

And so, the rest of the project unfolds across the 11 songs included here. Autoharp dominates the arrangement on To The River I’ll Go and there is a distinctly Folky feel to the traditional sound of No More War Anymore and the sweet strum of Asunder and Take Me Back

Eileen Kozloff is a multi-instrumentalist who has been actively involved in the autoharp world for many years. She is best known for her unique "pick-less" style of diatonic autoharp and for her clear vocals.

She has released two critically acclaimed CD’s with her former band, Well Tempered String Band and is now performing as a solo artist having released Solitary Rider (2006) and Hearts And Souls Entwined (2007). Both recordings were released under the Moosicowlia Label and this third release builds on the positive critical reaction she has been receiving. 

The Furious Seasons Look West Stone Garden

This band is based in L.A. and has released four previous albums as a 5-piece. This project is an acoustic affair with David Steinhart and Paul Nelson on acoustic guitar and vocals and Jeff Steinhart on stand-up bass. 

The vocal harmonies are beautifully mixed with some excellent playing and the understated nature of the production leaves plenty of room for the talents of these players. Lyrically the songs address relationship issues in all their different guises. 

Long Shot speaks of working through difficult times and What’s Coming Next laments over a past relationship now ended. Best Plans deals with the loss of a business while The Tape charts the life of an older family member who lived through hard times. Summer Flame is a memory of young days and innocent beginnings.

The final song is superbly crafted and tells of 4 friends who shared close birthdays but sadly only one now remains alive. There is the suggestion of a drink problem in the lines; “Just this one”; Became early hours, I put another day to waste, I wish I’d never got the taste, You can believe that you’re not to blame? and Hey denial - have you met shame?"

Excellent stuff indeed and there is a nice warmth to the production, with the easy, fluid playing an understated joy. A gentle record to suit the mood on a lazy Sunday morning over a hot coffee and the hint of Spring in the air. 

Harrow Fair Call To Arms Roaring Girl

This duo is Miranda Mulholland (Great Lake Swimmers, Belle Starr) and Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players). Miranda has built a strong reputation as a sought-after session musician and has played and toured with many top-line acts over the years, while Andrew Penner has been involved in Canadian Country music for many years now.

This release slots into the interesting & quirky world of the Handsome Family or the Civil Wars as a reference point. The playing and the production is innovative and edgy with songs like Call To Arms, Bite The Way and Hangnail challenging the listener with a dynamic that excites.

Recorded in Toronto and produced by Andrew Penner, the superb arrangements highlight the many talents of these two musicians who impress greatly. How Cold has a traditional folk feel with a modern treatment while Emmaline highlights the fine vocal of Miranda and the haunting, understated violin parts. It all comes together on the final track, Been There Ways with a haunting delivery from both musicians and an arrangement that leaves you wanting just one more song.

Well worth checking this one out and it just gets better and better with repeated plays.

The Fretless Bird’s Nest Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian group of four musicians who play instrumental music on string instruments. They are made up of Karrnnel Sawitsky on Fiddle & Viola; Trent Freeman on Fiddle & Viola; Ivonne Hernandez on Fiddle & Viola and Eric Wright on Cello.

In 2012 they released their debut album, Waterbound, which was awarded Instrumental Album of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards. The Canadian Folk Music Awards saw the group win both Ensemble of the year and Instrumental Group of the Year. 

This new release sees the group take the traditional airs of past compositions and apply a current interpretation which keeps the music alive and vibrant. There are nine songs across 36 minutes and the dynamic in the playing is constantly shifting in order to hold the attention of the listener. Ronim Road/Bella Coola are two original pieces that sound steeped in the Irish tradition of jigs and reels, while Maybe Molly is an infectious jaunt across the sunny fields of a summer’s day. Hidden View is a more reflective arrangement, as is the closing track 38 & Gone.

Musically, the goals of the group are to expand the many folk genres they visit. All four members have come from very different traditional and contemporary backgrounds but are influenced to push traditional music as far as possible.

Jon and Roy The Road Ahead Is Golden Self Release

There is a nice groove and a low-fi appeal to this release from duo Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer who have released this new album – their 7th in a career that has seen them develop from an initial meeting at University. Hailing from Victoria, BC the vocals/guitar/harmonica of Middleton are perfectly in synch with the understated drums/percussion playing of Vizer. In the gentle song arrangements lie a hidden depth where on repeated listens the melody lines come through and the play Louis Sadava on bass is supported by co-producer Stephen Franke who plays Wurlitzer and piano. Roots/Folk music to calm the soul and tracks like Breakdown, How The Story Goes, Nothing But Everything, Every Night and Windowlinger in the mind and boast of a fine release that is worth checking out.

Annie Gallup Lucy Remembers Her Father Gallway Bay

Annie’s website describes this latest release as twelve new songs that are meditations on fragility, mortality, family, survival, and love. Who am I to disagree? Along with her close collaborator Peter Gallway, Annie Gallup has been releasing music of real depth and quality for many years now and she deserves due recognition for the musical vision and scope that is brought to the table. Visceral and challenging but never trite, her muse is worth the surfboard ride across the waves to a quiet destination. This release feels deeply personal, like eavesdropping on a conversation that you should not be listening to, but all the more compelling for the experience.  Hers’ is a singular talent, reflective and yearning for something just beyond our reach. Songs that deal with the past and the fragility of relationships are laid bare. Being Her Child, Lucy Remembers Her Father andBluebird explore the complexities of the family dynamic. Other tracks look into relationships, devious and needy; Loyalty, Strange Boy, He Will Never Love MeLuminary looks at estrangement and unresolved love with a curiosity while Story is a spoken word reflection on the pointless search for meaning in all the grief we encounter. Very impressive and rewarding but not for the faint-hearted.  

Rachel Sage The Tide MPRESS

This 4-track EP adds to the impressive catalogue of music created by Rachel Sage over a career that has seen her release a body of work that stands tall against many of her peers. Her accomplished and comprehensive catalogue captures a voice and music that hints at greatness and this current project sees the proceeds donated to one of the world's leading international refugee assistance organizations. Songwriters come & go but this lady is a real keeper – sublime composition and melody combine to create a powerful result. These are protest songs and reflect on the need for both empathy and acceptance in the World right now. The title track speaks about compassion and the need for everyman on our various journeys. Disarm Distrust is written for the victims of the recent Orlando shootings and Tomorrow speaks of euphemisms and hope.

Oh Susanna A Girl in Teen City Stella

This is a paean to the past from an artist who has taken a look through life’s infinite telescope to chart the path that she negotiated in order to arrive at a signpost that reads ‘What Next’? Produced by the talented Jim Bryson who contributes on guitar, keyboards & vocals, the 12 songs that cover almost 50 minutes read like a ‘dear diary’ exercise in exhuming a past that sits very much in the present tense. My Boyfriend, Getting Ready, Walked All the Way Home, Tickets On The Weekend and My Old Vancouver give a sense of what is at play here. Quality playing and production, allied with a strong song-writing talent make this as strong as her past releases and an artist well worth exploring further. 

Ted Russell Kamp Flying Solo PoMo

This accomplished artist has been a favourite of Lonesome Highway across his seven critically-acclaimed albums that nail the country / roots / Americana flag firmly to his mast. For this release, he has taken 12 songs and played them in a largely acoustic setting with six songs recorded at shows or radio stations and six as brand new songs recorded at his home studio, The Den. From the mandolin rhythm of Old Folks Blues to the soulful groove of If I Had A Dollar; the reflective acoustic strum of When She Flies and the bluesy beat and feel of Lookin’ For Someone, it is evident that all is well in the world of this talented artist and he has produced another work of creative depth as a solo performer.    

Worry Dolls Go Get Gone Self Release

After two EP releases (2011 & 2015) this duo decided to change their focus and relocated to Nashville in order to record this debut album. The ten tracks are a mixture of gentle, stripped back acoustic Folk and some up-tempo arrangements played with a quiet confidence and a focus to deliver work of an enduring quality.

Duo Zoe Nicol and Rosie Jones team up with producer Neilson Hubbard who has worked with artists such as Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Ben Glover and Amy Speace. Together they create some fine moments and the uncluttered arrangements allow the sweet melodies and hypnotic harmonies to flourish. She Don’t Live Here, Things Always Work Out and Someday Soon are three highlights and the experienced studio musicians add greatly to a relaxed feel and a gentle mood that soothes across the listening experience.  

Son of the Velvet Rat Dorado Fluff & Gravy

Don’t be put off by the very strange band name. Son of the Velvet Rat is the project of Austrian Songwriter Georg Altziebler and his wife Heike Binder. He plays a variety of instruments and she adds organ and accordion. They live in Joshua Tree and the California desert runs through the sparse mood of the ten songs shared here. Victoria Williams is among the notable musicians who add their talents to this project and the impression is one of ragged savoir-faire or, as producer Joe Henry says on the liner notes; songs that hint at bankable redemption. Fragile vocals counter the sweet melody lines of songs like Love’s the Devil’s Foe, Starlite Motel and Sweet Angela, while the loose feel of the recording, completed over a few days, is always to the fore. Moody and magnetic. 

Sunday
Jul022017

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dan Stevens Runnin’ The Backroads Gatorbone

This is a man who sounds comfortable in his own skin. By his own admission an old hippie who takes the values that accompanied that profession and has moderated them as time goes by. Stevens does this with a modicum of humour and happiness with lines like “I still love my darling wife, but now it takes a pill” (Another Sad Country Tale). The opening song Crush Hour Traffic is about a working man getting home through traffic - traffic often miss-referred to as “rush hour” which he felt need a new, more apt descriptor. 

What Stevens does is not particularly new, musically outstanding or littered with contemporary clutter; rather it is a solid, satisfying, rounded take on one person’s life perspective that covers environmental issues (Blair Mountain), how a 60’s radical was reduced to selling cookies (Jerry Rubin);his drinking habits of yore (I Drink Gin) or the way established religious groups spend more time to destroy each other rather than saving souls (When Jesus Sang His Songs For Us).

Stevens has written all the 13 songs on the album which includes a fold out poster with the packaging that has an explanatory note on each of the songs and why they were written. Stevens co-produced the album and had a bunch of musicians around him who round out the songs to give them added depth and texture. The instruments involved include Irish Flute, Pedal Steel, Concertina, Clawhammer banjo, fiddle, accordion, harmonica and guitar, which makes for variety in both overall sound and tempo. Runnin’ The Backroads is roots music that takes on the view, goes for the scenic route with very little thought of ever getting to a big city Music Row. It’s all the better for that.

Bill Booth Some Distant Shore Wheeling

Born in Maine but now residing in Norway Bill Booth has a long musical and recording history that goes back to the mid-Eighties. He has been compared to Tom Russell and Tom Pacheco with a touch of Mark Knopfler and those comparisons are fair enough as far as they may help to delineate the overall territory that Booth inhabits musically. The music has a Celtic influence in both lyric and musical content. It is folk in form but with other influences, like roots rock, around the edges.

The opening song is a tale of Dublin born Arthur O’Neill who led a group of the Irish Brigade know colloquially as Wild Geese (as is the song). Booth notes that these songs were inspired by tales of Ireland, Scotland and England that he had heard back in his home state of Maine. So, Cliffs Of Dover is about emigration with a loved one from Aberdeen to Nova Scotia. This slow-paced ballad has an appealing setting based around Uilleann pipes which emphasize the melodic structure and Booth’s warm singing voice and interesting lyrics. Not all songs deal with purely times gone by and City Of Rubble is a powerful lament against war. Wars which turn cities and lives to rubble; from Berlin in 1945 to recent destruction in places like Fallujah. 

Several of the albums songs hit a similar melodic mark that soon finds them rewarding repeated listening. No doubt that his experience and years give his voice some grit and gravitas. Booth has produced the album with an even hand and the music is largely understated but effective in allowing Booth to tell these tales. Musicians include Bill Troiani who was a member of the Tom Russell Band in the past alongside Paul McKernan’sdistinctive pipe playing and drummer Alexander Pettesen and Eddy Lyshaug accordion contributions. All can be heard on the driving instrumental Skerry Reel. Molly McKeen salutes a fiddle playing colleen with a foot tapping momentum. 

Bill Booth is a new name to me but an artist deserving of some wider recognition and a performer who would likely do well on these shores with some decent exposure. Booth is a craftsman who has learned his trade through the years.

Mark Sinnis One Red Rose Among The Dying Leaves 9th Recordings

Sunnis, somewhat demonstratively calls his music “Cemetery & Western.” A mix of roots-rock country fusion that has hints of Johnny Cash, Elvis, rockabilly and on the title track a Celtic influence, with tin whistle and pipes, which offers something of a graveside sliver of hope on some dark days. Sinnis’ has a big voice and a big band behind it. The 825 has some eight players, several who are multi-instrumentalists. This gives the songs a wide range of sounds from the aforementioned Celtic tone to a more south of the border touches like on the guitar tango twang of Why Should I Cry Over You.  While In Tupelo is a tribute to the Memphis King. Sitting At The Heartbreak Saloon is a throwback to some classic 50’s country and tear-stained beers. He changes his vocal delivery to match the mood and the era in which the song’s structure is sonically set.

That theme of rejection and dejection is further explored on the vibrant, horn and twang guitar laced Tough Love (Is All She’s Got) - an explanation of the reasons behind a failed marriage. In truth, a fondness for some classic country and country rock pervades many of the tracks. Something that Sinnis and George Grant’s production emphasises while also remaining on the right side of these influences and not outweighing the need to make the music relevant to who they are now. Even though the closing song is about listening to a radio station 1050 WHN back in the day. 

Sinnis has a wide vocal range that serves his self-written songs well, giving these songs the kind of gravity that they need to make them reflect the way that his life took a down turn that ended with a divorce, but never sounds maudlin when it doesn’t want to. As the title suggests this music looks for the positive, for the rose among the dying leaves. In the end Sinnis has found that flower and hope.

Tim Grimm and the Family Band A Stranger In This Time Cavalier

Singer/songwriter Tim Grimm has been around for some time delivering his folk songs to live and listening audiences around the world. With more than 10 albums to his name he has been refining his music to bring it to the point where it is now. Grimm has been compared to such classic inspirations as John Prine and Guy Clark and on this album, I’d suggest that with songs like Gonna Be Great there is something of a passing resemblance in the direction of Lenoard Cohen’s delivery too. Not that in the long term it does much for an artist to be saddled with comparisons to artists of such stature without it sounding that they are somehow in their shadow.

Tim Grimm is following his own path and on this release, he is joined by three members of his family. Jan Lucas on vocals and harmonica, Connor on bass and Jackson Grimm on all things stringed. Additional guests include Hannah Linn on percussion and Diderik Van Wassenaer on fiddle. All in all, an accomplished team who bring life to the songs and their performance. But it is Grimm’s voice and songs that are the focus of the album and songs like Thirteen Years fit the classic storytelling mode of folk and country. It is a clearly observed tale of local family history that brings in logging and the use of the wood to create a guitar from a fallen tree.

The apple didn’t fall far from that deeply rooted tree it seems with a number of songs here being written by Jan Lucas and Jackson Grimm. Black Snake is a dark tale that is at times reminiscent of some of Sam Baker’s song writing. A song that looks at how progress has again infringed upon a small community’s lifestyle “the beast they call progress eats money and gasoline.” The songs have some hard electric guitar tones to underscore this sense of anger. Their Finding Home is a gentler evocation of trying to follow your heart and the road home.

Darlin’ Cory is traditional song done with an old-time expression of the ages. Banjo and fiddle are central to giving the song its off kilter sense of foreboding. As the title suggest these are songs of people looking at a changing world and trying to make sense of it in song. It can safely be said that Grimm and his family have given food for thought in something of a feast of words and music.

Sam Baker Land Of Doubt Self Release

Anyone who has followed Baker’s progress across his albums will have an idea of what to expect from a new album. Knowing his personal story and how he, at times, struggles with the making of his music following the injuries he received in a terrorist attack on a train he was travelling in. However, at this point that is water under his bridge as Sam Baker knows how to get the best out of Sam Baker. This is slow and nuanced reflection of a man looking at a land riddled with doubt and distrust.

For this album Baker has called in renowned producer Neilson Hubbard to helm the production and they have also brought in Will Kimbrough and Dan Mitchell along with string players David Henry and Eamon McLoughlin to add much to these restrained sonic landscapes. The album is a mix of Baker’s poetic songs and a number of instrumental interludes. These are songs put on a musical canvas in an abstracted way but with a subtle sense of beauty.

A song like Margaret is a gentle observation of how love can change a person and in turn those around them. The Feast Of St. Valentine also ponders a day when love is celebrated. The lines take a soft focus look at how a particular day may slowly evolve - “what is not to like, this kind of day, first it snows, then it rains like hell.” By way of contrast Leave asks one who has squandered a trust to go. For those who do not know Bakershis soft, almost spoken delivery may be disconcerting  to listeners used to more overblown delivery that would do nothing for the delicacy of these songs. It is however Baker’s distinctive voice that is essential to making these songs what they are.

Land Of Doubt stands with Baker’s best and emphasises his singular vision for his musical endeavours and the musical team around him have further enhanced the placement of these songs in a (not) popular (enough) consciousness. It is an album that can leave little doubt about its worth for those who understand its underlying message of love and beauty.

Pete Sinjin The Heart And The Compass Hootenanny Arts

The title refers to Sinjin’s combining the two together to guide him through his life. Allowing that his heart is his moral compass and it leads him to explore the direction that his life and music may take him. His music is a combination of solid singer/songwriter observation that translates into melodic and multifarious views of everyday existence. Songs like Radio Tears and Stolen Afternoon, 1951 are reflections of some intimate moments that however fleeting have made an impression. Both feature notable vocal contributions from fellow singer/songwriter Michaela Anne. While another couple of tracks Breathing The Same Air and Goodbye Knoxville kick things up a notch with a solid beat and add to the overall mix of moods on the album. The Letters, sounds like it would fit right in with the science that developed on Lower Broadway back in the 90s.

Sinjin started his musical journey playing some more robust punk rock before he evolved his muse and reaches back to some of the classic rock and soul music he listened to growing up in Pennsylvania. To help him realise where he is currently, he brought Bryce Goggin in to co-produce the album with him. Then he put together a set of players that included bass, drums, violin, mandolin, pedal steel and electric guitar along with some harmony vocalists to deliver a sound that has warmth, space and spontaneity.

The essence of the songs is a wry look at love in all its aspects from Desperate Kind Of Love to That’s My Heart. Songs that are sometimes explicit in their thought process while others are more veiled. Overall though Sinjin delivers them with a committed and centred vocal that makes the album a very listenable and likeable experience. This is Americana with a strong country/folk-rock overtone that has enough among it’s 11 tracks to warrant placing Sinjin on the radar and wondering where his compass will take him next.

Michael Hearne Red River Dreams Howling

Hearne is a native of Dallas, Texas who now lives in New Mexico. He has been involved in the music business since the 70s and is both a writer/performer and promoter. He delivers what is essentially a gentle, genuine take on country, folk and Americana. He takes his classic influences and delivers them through a velvet voice and some introspective songs. This album mixes a number of co-writes (often with his friend Shake Russell) with some well know material like Gram Parsons’ Return Of The Grievous Angel, Michael Martin Murphy’s Drunken Lady Of The Morning and Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain.

Hearne is credited as co-producer also (with Don Richards) and they also form the core of the band. Both playing multiple instruments throughout the album where they are joined by a number of local players who add drums, piano and pedal steel to fill out the songs. Hearne’s own songs fit easily beside the aforementioned songs with titles like Blue Enough, The Highway Is A Friend Of Mine - a song that is directly related to a life travelling and playing. The nostalgic Back In The Day and the reflective and instructive Lesson To Be Learned From Love.

All of these songs are not far from the template of the early Eagles with a strong country undercurrent and warm harmonies. The have a pleasant, undemanding demeanour that sits comfortably - a peaceful easy feeling perhaps might best sum them up. It is the music of a man who is at peace with himself and his music and wishes only to find an audience who are equally at home with music that reflects on a wilder past but one that has settled down and fits like a well-worn pair of jeans.

While Hearne’s take on the better-known songs may not replace them in most people’s memories they still work in their own right and as reminders of when you first became acquainted with the original versions. Hearne’s music ability should not be overlooked either as his playing throughout contributes much to the album’s completeness. This is old school and proud of it and there are many who will applauded it sentiments.

Gerry Spehar I Hold Gravity Self Release

The inner sleeve of this album contains a sleeve note that is a dedication to his lost long-time love, his wife - Susan Nancy Miller. As a result, the songs have an edge, a sense of loss and longing. The opening song Dirt (co-written with Susan and Bobby Allison) refers to “it all comes down to dirt” and has an edge that suits that sentiment. There are other co-writes here with Susan as well as several written by Spehar solo. He employs the band I See Hawks in L.A. throughout the album along with a number of other guests who between them, play a wide range of instruments.

The title track is a pure and direct love song that is sung with obvious emotion. Holy Moses Doughboy tells of a World War 1 veteran who returned from the conflict to deal with the inner conflicts of isolation. The music uses martial drumming and trumpet to add to the overall soundscape. Closer to (everyone’s) home is Mr & Mrs Jones, about the need to compete with the titular couple idea of perfection. It has a groove with Hammond organ that somewhat lessens the pithy observations. How To Get To Heaven From L.A. has a Guy Clark feel (and Spehar has a similar vocal approach with sounding like the great man). The closing song, a Spehar original again, is Into The Mystic, a song that is about the open range and an open heart that asks “where are you going, why would you leave.”

Gary Spehar was a member of the Spehar Brothers Band who quit the live circuit when he had a family to raise. This is his return to the fray - even if the mood is more considered by personal loss. It is a labour of love in more senses than one but one delivered with conviction. Spehar is a songwriter who makes his points with some skill and produces an album that is musically rewarding for the listener as it must have been for him to make it.