Reviews By Stephen Rapid

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters Self-Titled Organic

After four albums, as front person with the Honeycutters Amanda Anne Platt has taken the step to release this latest album under her own name. The Honeycutters are still there adding the kind of musical support that only a band that has shared stages, studios and small vans can. There is no doubting Platt’s central role here as lead vocalist, songwriter and producer (along with Tim Surrett). She does all three with skill and a steadfast vision. The thirteen songs here are Platt’s observations on life and the many tribulations faced getting through it. These are real and recognisable relationships observed with the eye of a writer who understand the balances of the good and the bad and is well capable of putting them in a succinct voice that is sympathetic yet unyielding. Perhaps summed up by the line “If you have a heart, now and then you’re gonna have a little heartache.” 

The music is framed in a way that shows its roots in traditional country storytelling yet is aware of many other musical tangents that fit easily into the overall picture. The Honeycutters; Matthew Smith, Rick Cooper, Josh Milligan and recent addition Evan Martin are satisfying throughout, playing with an understanding and awareness of what makes the song work. This is a band who have found their place and now need a wider audience to understand that too. Platt may not have the recognition (or sales) of some of her contemporaries but that in no way takes away from strength of the music that is on this album.

The quality of the songs here is obvious but Birthday Song, Late Summer’s Child, The Good Guys and The Things We Call Home all have an immediacy that picks them out on first listen. The other songs soon also make their presence felt and underscore what a talent Platt is. She has proven herself to be in this for the long haul and an artist who is gaining in craft and ability with each release. Strongly making the point in moving from the band name, to putting hers out front, is may seem a risk after working under the band name until now, but it is a necessary step for the future.

Slaid Cleaves Ghost On The Car Radio Candy House

By now Slaid Cleaves has earned his place in the pantheon of songwriters who have proved their skill and craftsmanship as storytellers par excellence. This is thoroughly emphasised by this latest album which is among, if not, his best album to date. There’s no reason to expect that he won’t continue to equal and surpass this too. Production and guitar duties are handled by Scrappy Jud Newcomb who seems an ideal choice to bring these folk-rock songs to life. It is simply a case of everything working together in a way that makes it hard to single out any particular song, although there are some obvious choices to recommend, which are mentioned below.

The ringing 12 string electric guitar, for instance, signals the openness of the musical direction. One that rings true and has a certain weight and texture that allows the songs to breath in their own space. Cleaves has an immediately identifiable vocal presence; a perfect vehicle to tell this tales of makers, misfits, miscreants and the misunderstood.

Drunken Barber’s Hand a co-write with his friend and fellow songwriter Rod Picot (whose own version appeared on his most recent album Fortune) is an observation that the world going to hell in a handcart. Picott also wrote three other songs here with Cleaves. There are other co-conspirators too with four other co-writes sitting alongside his four solo credits. This makes for a varied lyrical overview from the straight-up country saw-dusted memories of The Old Guard through to the tenderness of To Be Held. There are number of different moods and tempos that give the album a listenability that holds the attention from opening track to last.

Kudos also to Cleaves fellow players who, under Newcomb’s seasoned guidance, deliver an understated but statuesque performance that is solid and supportive. All of Cleaves albums have been good and this one is no exception and undoubtably one of tyhe best. Slaid Cleaves music works very musc in the nowand as such as it can illuminate the human condition with insight and a soupçon of humour. Long may he haunt the airwaves and the ear canals.

Jade Jackson Gilded Anti-

The debut album from Jackson is a reflection of her no-bullshit nature. She worked in her parent’s small-town California restaurant and there fostered the beginnings of her song writing experience. She has teamed up with Social Distortion’s frontman Mike Ness to produce the album. A perfect pairing as Ness' two country-orientated solo albums are a themsleves a perfect blend of both his punk and country sensibilities. Here the music has a little less of the harder edged punk sound but is still imbedded with its attitude. Jackson had seen Social Distortion headline a show she had attended on her own and was immediately taken with their performance to the point she then knew what she wanted to do in a life-shifting experience.

But that doesn’t exclude any tenderness or more reflective moments like Finish Line (“My skin’s a lot thicker than you’d think it’d be”). There is some up-tempo twang too with songs like Troubled End, detailing a dangerous relationship. On the other side of embrace is Motorcycle wherein our protagonist rides off alone in the sunset on her motorcycle noting “my motorcycle only seats one.” Over the eleven songs Jackson shows a present-day notion of what relationships can offer a person in a society as it exists now rather than 10, 20 or 50 years ago.

Jackson wrote all the songs, one with Ness and two others with her band members. Mention should be made of their contribution and Ness’ decision to use her road band of Andrew Rebel, Jake Vukovich and Tyler Miller in the studio. There they are joined by Sara Watkins on fiddle for several tracks alongside, on one track, Greg Leisz on pedal steel and a guitar solo from Ness on another. Focal point though is her telling vocal delivery that conveys a number of hard fought emotions. The end result is immediately satisfying blending the likes of Lucinda Williams and Rosie Flores with some harder left field rock/blues influences in something that is both familiar and yet distinctive in its execution. While many of her Nashville contemporaries proclaim a “rebel attitude” it is more often than not tempered by a certain need to achieve, or at least aim for, wider radio exposure. Here Jade Jackson makes the album she wants to and the end result is raw and ready; indeed, gilded and gratifying.

The Whiskey Charmers The Valley Sweet Apple Pie

In truth, something of a vehicle for Carrie Shepard who is the singer and chief songwriter with this band. Her partner in this musical venture is guitarist Lawrence Daversa. Together with a selection of players they deliver a solid slice of Americana. From their base in Detroit they dispense their desert tones that sounds like they might orientate closer to the Mexican rather than the Canadian border. Indeed, the opening song is called Desert. They produced the album themselves (their second) and it a concise, clear sound that is centred around Daversa’s guitar and Shepard’s voice, both of which are compelling elements of the Whiskey Charmers appeal. Daversa bring different guitar sounds to the songs as appropriate but in each case, underlines his importance to defining their music. Equally Shepard has a vocal dexterity that allows her voice a certain enduring smokey whiskey charm.

The album credits the orchestra pit with a selection of additional instruments from Flugelhorn to bagpipes however none of these are distracting or to the fore in the mix. Songs like Melody (with soft pedal steel) contrast with the more percussion driven tracks like the title track or Dirty Little Blues which in turn give way to the twangier guitar-toned somas like Meet Me There. Overall there is an air of brooding restraint and darkness to the songs that set an overall mood to the album that is suitable to some late night noir listening. As with a lot of Americana albums the overall direction here provides nothing that is outside of the parameters of such a wide-ranging form. Rather its appeal is in its execution and the strength of the songs themselves. All the elements here are blended to produce an album of lasting quality. One to be shared.

Shoot Lucy The Soothing Sounds Of Smack Me

Second outing from this Minnesota based power poppy/roots inclined six piece. Formed in 1996 this is their second album release. It is a lot of fun. The band is led by Dave Bernston who is their song writer and lead singer. He can write songs with the humorous consideration of another’s partner on the opening Disproportionately Hot Girlfriend, to the more serious consideration of how a domestic fallout can have an effect, often unintentional, on those around the bickering and belligerence in Not Their War.

I’m Blind features some nice pedal steel from guest Adam Ollendorff. Elsewhere guitarist David Nahan plays some lap steel to add that roots feel. They appear to have two drummers which gives a strong rhythmic foundation. They are Scott Skaja and Steve Schultz. The line-up is completed by Chris Berg on bass and Jennifer Urbach on Hammond organ and backing vocals. All bring these songs to life. There is a little of the Rembrandts about them but with a perhaps broader sound base.

The album features 8 songs and all are underpinned by a strong melodic sensibility and Bernston’s vibrant vocal. Lost considers the advice of other, most likely, unwanted with lines like “you should really go to church” and “you should really quit that horrible band.” While Won’t Go That Far is the response of a potential girlfriend to his abilities in terms of his mode of transport or guitar playing ability leading her to put limits on their intimacy potential.

The soothing sounds on offer here may not send you to sleep but they will have you tapping your feet, (occasionally) singing along and enjoying this collection of songs that sound like they came from another time and place and the more welcome for it.

Mike Younger Little Folks Like You And Me Self Release

This Canadian singer/songwriter cut his teeth travelling around his native country and busking before he got the attention of a music publisher which led to his 1999 debut album Somethin’ In The Air. The album was produced by Rodney Crowell. For his next album, he worked with noted producer Jim Dickinson. That album has never seen the light of day but may yet emerge. From that you can surmise that Younger has some noted talent.

For this album, he has worked with producer Bob Britt. The album was recorded in 2013 and released last year. It is never-the-less timeless roots music that has a Band-ish overall feel in a soulful, rhythm and blues and country feel. Recording with a keyboard, bass, drums, guitar and backing vocal line up he has made a rich and rewarding album. However, as with a number of albums, it is initially one song that immediately draws you in and back to the album. That is true with this album and that song is Poisoned Rivers which has an impassioned vocal over a simple backing of percussion, harmonica and dobro. It is a rejection of ill-considered industry fracking and deregulation. A stripped back song that stands with the little folks who seem to count for less and less these days. He offers a similar worldview in the self-explanatory What Kind Of World. Elsewhere the songs have a full sound that has its antecedents in late 60s rock.

All songs are enhanced by Younger’s voice which is one that has character and clarity. The direction of the music is not something that the listener will not have encountered before by several artists but in effect originality is not really what is on offer here, rather it is the work of an honest craftsman. There is a vibe in the groove of the songs that often clocks in above the 4 minutes with a couple passing the 5 minute mark. This all sets the tone for the type of album that it is. One that will appeal to the listener who appreciates the looseness of spirit and the tightness of the playing.

Jamie Wyatt Felony Blues Forty Below

We are told that the title is a nod to those country artists who have spent time incarcerated and have used the experience in their musical endeavours. The LA based singer is a part of the revitalised California country contingent. A singer with an attitude that belies her age Wyatt had a record deal when she was 17 but for a variety of reasons developed a drug problem that resulted in her robbing her dealer and the serving an eight month jail sentence. All of which makes for a good background story but counts for little if the music falls short. Thankfully this 7-track mini-album delivers much and promises more. It seems that the jail time has given her a need to get back to the music; free of rehab and confinement. She had family roots in California with a distant relative playing in Bakersfield. Her own music veers more towards that location than the Music Row affiliations of Nashville. Even with the production values being polished and persuasive bryond their budget.

The songs draw from experience and Drew Allsbrook’s production gives them a clean and concise musical setting that is contemporary country with steel and fiddle prominent on the mix alongside the harmony vocals and solid rhythm. Wishing Well looks at the possibilities open to improve your life situation. Stone Hotel and Wasco are both prison experience inspired songs. While From Outer Space breaks that confinement and features some otherworldly steel guitar from John Schreffler Jr. (who has also played with Shooter Jennings). Ted Russell Kamp and Gabe Wincher also add their undoubted talents. Another rising star California country scene, Sam Outlaw sings a tender love ballad with Wyatt on Your Loving Saves Me, which itself offers another shot at redemption. Misery And Gin (which was produced by Mike Clink) was written by John Durrill and recorded by a performer who Wyatt had an obvious affinity with - Merle Haggard.

She has a smooth, crystal clear voice that is reminiscent of some traditional singers of the past and has also has been compared to Linda Ronstadt, which has some truth, but shouldn’t take away from her own approach and assiduousness. Felony Blues stands in good company with a wide range of outstanding female artists emerging from the fringes who are making their mark.

The Brother Brothers Tugboats Self Release

Brothers Adam and David Moss have covered a lot of ground prior to working together; the former has played and toured with Session Americana as well as Ana Egge amongst others. David Moss has previously released solo albums Bag of Bones and Songs For Willoughby after a spell playing with a number of artists like The Broken Stars and Satellite Ballet. Here together, the Brooklyn based twin brothers, explore their folk roots and exquisite sibling harmonies. They bring together not only a shared history but also the experiences they gained playing in a variety of different musical settings.

The EP has six tracks and the production was handled by Andrew Sarlo and it is simple direct and highly effective. Although there is no mention on the packaging I’m assuming that these are all original songs from the Moss brothers, other than Columbus Stockade Blues, a song that was written in the late ’20s. Some of the songs take a more melancholy timbre like Come Back Darling, while Notary Public is more upbeat and humorous if still dealing with a failing relationship. The closing Cairo, Illinois is also a gentle evocation of having to find one’s way in this life and look towards something that one can call home. The instrumentation is often just cello and fiddle, sometimes guitar but always enhanced by the brother’s vocal harmonies and interaction. You can place these brothers alongside many of the greats. A folk equivalent of the Cactus Blossoms more country take but equally as attractive.


Reviews by Paul McGee

Hometown Marie Wild Side Self Release

Authentic Country Rock from this Swedish band who really impress on this 4-track EP. They sound like the real deal and come out of the traps with the driving Like We Used To, which features a laid-back groove and some fine vocals. Unfortunately, there are very few details available about the band, although Facebook tells me that the four band members are named; Oskar, Simon, Gabriel and Accel. 

Cannot say who plays what, but the sound is really tight and could be any of the current crop of American Country bands that are breaking through Stateside. A previous EP in 2014 was called The Wanderer and they have a few more tracks on You Tube that are worth checking out.  

To add to my confusion, they are clearly a 4-piece but on the cover of the EP they are pictured as a 5-piece? Self sabotage – I would doubt it, but they could do with a decent media team working on their behalf.

Yours Tonight is a fine example of the band in full flight, while Run To You pears things back to a slow burn with some tasty guitar parts. The final song, Wild Side, is just made for Country FM and has hit record written all over it. More please.

Winter Mountain I Swear I Flew Astral Fox

Winter Mountain is the stage name of singer songwriter Joseph Francis (Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Piano, Harmonica). He is based in Cornwall, UK and his folk-rock sound impressed Cara Dillon and her husband/producer Sam Lakeman who decided to sign Francis to their Charcoal Records label after watching a performance in Donegal, Ireland. 

Winter Mountain released a debut album in 2013 as a duo, with Martin Smyth, an Irish musician who introduced Francis to Donegal and that meeting with Dillon and Lakeman. Smyth left in 2015 and now Winter Mountain is carried on the impressive talents of Francis. His is a sweet vocal and a gentle playing style, perfectly complimented by the coterie of studio musicians who contribute to this project. 

Produced by Joe Francis who also wrote all the ten songs featured here; tracks like Sunlight, Good Roads, Things That I’ve Done Wrong, Dragonfly and Before The Flood highlight an emerging talent that is deserving of great praise for this confident release.

Eric Ambel Lakeside At The Helm

I was first introduced to the music of Eric Ambel back in 1989 when he released a cracking solo record called Roscoe’s Gang (still have it on vinyl). As a one-time member of the Del Lords, he went on to greater fame as a producer and worked with artists like Nils Lofgren, The Brandos, Steve Earle, The Bottle Rockets, Joan Jett, Blue Mountain, Freedy Johnston and many others. 

He has spent recent years in various roles, either as a producer, sideman or sought-after collaborator. Lakeside is his latest song collection and follows on from Knucklehead (2004) and Loud n’ Lonesome (1994). The title of the new release is in honour of the Lakeside Lounge, the bar and music venue which Ambel co-owned and operated in New York’s East Village from 1996 until 2012.  

There are a number of different styles running through the 10 tracks here with a nod back to the days of Cash and Orbison on Let’s Play With Fire while Massive Confusion channels a Rockpile sound.  Don’t Make Me Break You Down has a slow brooding beat that places a mean guitar on top of a languid drum shuffle.  A cover of Look At Miss Ohio (Welch/Rawlings) is very well placed here with a slow pace that highlights an arresting guitar break to great effect. 

There is no doubting the wonderful paying talents of Eric Ambel and with the sweet melody of Buyback Blues followed by the instrumental, Crying In My Sleep, this collection draws to a very satisfactory close. Welcome back to an experienced and expansive artist.  

Hat Fitz Cara After the Rain Self Release

Nine songs over 32 minutes from this Australia-based duo that is made up of Hat Fitz; a wild man of the blues scene and Cara Robinson, who has a background in soul music having worked with artists such as Jamiroquai and Corinne Bailey-Rae. This is Roots music with a Bonnie Raitt meets Little Feat groove running through songs like Going Home and Doing It Again.

Cara sings with a clear, confident and sassy delivery and also contributes on vintage drums and washboard. There is a loose, ramshackle feel to tracks like After the Rain and Tank Man and the guitar & mandolin playing of Hat Fitz is very much to the fore. The album was inspired by true events in their lives, past and present and this is release number four in a career that has seen Beauty And The Beast (2010), Wiley Ways (2012) and Do Tell (2014) precede this current collection. Worth checking out.

Stephen Fearing Every Soul’s a Sailor Self Release

Stephen Fearing was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and grew up in Dublin, Ireland where his schoolmates included future members of U2. In the years since, he has developed into one of the finest songwriters in Canada and has built an international audience for his music.

This is his 10th release, including a live record, and all songs are written by Stephen Fearing with two co-writes. The studio musicians include John Dymond on bass, Gary Craig on drums & percussion, David Travers on horns and Rose Cousins on harmony vocals for 2 tracks. It all works like a charm with songs of real colour and personality. 

Lyrically there is a diverse mix of subjects from the know yourself message in the opening Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, to the loneliness of constant life in motion, Red Lights In The Rain. The message in Blowhard Nation is one of cynical electioneering and the boulevard of broken dreams for the electorate.  Throughout, Fearing comes across as an accomplished artist who is in command of every aspect of this project. Love The Deal speaks of embracing the challenges of life and forgiving our imperfections and Carousel deals with facing disappointment and counsels to "get back on that horse and ride again."

Another strong release from this talented singer-songwriter and one that adds to his reputation as a contemporary artist worthy of greater attention.

Lowri Evans & Lee Mason A Little Bit Of Everything Shimi

Six albums and Four EP’s into a career that has seen Lowri Evans and Lee Mason arrive at a juncture where they celebrate ten years of playing together. This is a live studio recording with no other musicians present to assist with the sound; a brave move but one that bears much fruit. This duo is really talented with Lowri singing like an angel and playing acoustic guitar while Lee Mason also sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, plus bass. 

The 12 songs featured here include three Welsh language folk songs and a version of Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out (Jimmie Cox). The other songs are all written by Lowri and selected from her back catalogue, apart from one Welch song (Can Walter), written by Meic Stevens. 

The songs are gentle vignettes of life with relationships examined, feelings explored and love lost & found. The harmony vocals are a joy throughout and the lovely understated playing on tracks like Seventeen, Corner Of My Eye, Maria’s and Everyone Is From Somewhere Else stand as fine examples of the artistic craft on display. Warmly recommended.  

The Buffalo Skinners Cease Your Dreaming Self Release

The Buffalo Skinners are a song-writing collective based in Sheffield. This release contains 13 songs across almost 50 minutes and includes the talents of Kieran Thorpe on Fender Rhodes Keyboard, piano & mandolin; James Nicholls on Violin; Peter Seccombe on various Guitars; Miles Stapleton on Drums and Robbie Thompson on Bass, acoustic & electric guitars. 

Over the past six years their first two albums, a self-titled debut in 2011 and The Other Nine To Five in 2014, have established them as a band to watch and they have gained much media attention.

This third album is produced by the critically acclaimed Colin Elliot (Richard Hawley, Kylie Minogue) and contains a bright airy feel to the arrangements. The band are a mix of many styles with a folk/roots feel to the arrangements and their shared vocal harmonies certainly impress. A touchstone would be early skiffle or the loose sound of jug band ensembles, with violin featuring high up in the mix. 

The celebratory swing to songs like We Get Along, Shoes, Monkey On Your Back, Sam’s Chop House and If You Won’t Love Me, Somebody Else Will, display plenty of talent and serve up tunes that make the listening experience worthwhile.

Lowlands and Friends Play Townes Van Zandt’s Last Set Harbour Song 

In December 1996 the late, great Townes Van Zandt played his last gig and this 14-track tribute to the talents of this singer-songwriter recreates that last set list, played at the Borderline in London. The project took the best part of a year to complete, recorded at various venues, and involving quite a list of musicians who all wanted to contribute.

Italian band, Lowlands are a Roots band who were formed in Pavia, by British born singer-songwriter Edward Abbiati and they have released 5 albums and 4 EPs since their debut in 2008. They anchor this project, along with other Italian musicians from their extended musical family and they are also joined by the likes of Sid Griffin, Chris Cacavas, Rod Picott, Antonio Gramentieri, The Lucky Strikes, Cheap Wine, Kevin Russell and Stiv Cantarelli just some of the artists involved. The liner notes name check a further fourteen players so you get the clear message that this was indeed a labour of love.

If you are a collector who must have everything in the catalogue of such great artists then the completionist in you will just have to purchase this release as a necessity. As with any such project the relative worth of the different tracks is entirely the subjective experience of the listener. Some of the songs fare better than others and the arrangements veer into new territory as the different artists decide to place their own individual stamp on the versions recorded here.

There are also a few cover versions included with two Lightning Hopkins numbers (My Starter Won’t Start, Short Haired Woman Blues), the Rolling Stones (Dead Flowers) and Elvis Presley (Ballad Of The Three Shrimps).

All the old favourites are here with Pancho & Lefty, Waiting Around To Die, Sanitarium Blues, Loretta and Tecumseh Valley all given strong workouts. There is narration by Barry Marshall-Everitt before each track and the idea to recreate this event has to be applauded. Some may wish to approach with caution while others may prefer to purchase some of the original material and hear it straight from the artist’s lips.

I Draw Slow Turn Your Face To The Sun Compass

This is their fourth release and I Draw Slow go largely unnoticed in their homeland, despite the fact that this album was entirely crowd funded from their loyal fan base. Much of their activity is focused on the American market and they are about to embark on their 14th tour of the United States, where they are very well received and revered. We should embrace their success in the Irish media wholeheartedly, as they carry a flag for all that is good in Irish Roots music.

The album was written by Louise and Dave Holden and features wonderful vocals by this brother and sister duo, with Dave also playing guitar/mandolin, Konrad Liddy on double bass, Adrian Hart on fiddle and Colin Derham on clawhammer banjo. 

The harmony vocals of Dave and Louise are a key component to the signature sound of this very fine band and with the interplay of banjo/fiddle and mandolin, rooted by the double bass pulse; the music merges with the sense of their Irish background and the best of Appalachian/Bluegrass music. 

 Recorded in a live setting, which helps the organic spontaneity of the ensemble, the sibling harmonies can be quite addictive and the singing here is so beautifully realised that the seamless rhythm folds around the melody in a very compelling fashion.

My Portion, Garage Flowers and Apocalypso are immediately entertaining with relationship stories of a very different hue – from addictive dependency, through the vain attempts to keep a relationship fresh and into an enduring love affair that lasts beyond time. 

The reflective Don’t Wake The Children, to a simple and sweet acoustic strum and gentle fiddle, pleads for time between a couple outside of family duties that weigh heavily on any relationship. Carolina is a similar acoustic arrangement that deals with leaving home fields for the promise of far-off adventures. Twin Sisters is an infectious tune that brings a distinctly Irish arrangement to what is a barn dance jig.

I Draw Slow seem to possess a strong work ethic and spend quite a bit of their time out on the road, quietly building their support base. They play with an energy and spontaneity that is infectious and clearly enjoy the creative compulsion to make music that lifts the spirit and lingers in the memory. Timeless.


Reviews by Declan Culliton

Andrew Combs Canyons Of My Mind Loose 

Nashville can often be a contradiction in musical terms. The home of what is marketed today as "country music" is essentially controlled by Music Row and its influence on country music radio, dictating a style of music that could not be further from what many of us consider to be traditional country music. However, take the short trip over the Cumberland River and out to East Nashville and you will find a cooperative of musicians who for the past number of years have been representing and playing a different brand of music altogether, mixing country with folk and fortunately also making industry breakthroughs in recent years. Often influenced by hoovering up their parents record collections their impact has been gradual but noteworthy. Caitlin Rose unlocked the door a few years back with her 2013 album The Stand In, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price simply kicked the door in with their 2016 recordings which both deservedly made inroads in the Billboard Charts. 

Andrew Combs is probably the next most likely candidate from the East Nashville musical community to follow in their footsteps. His second album All These Dreams (2015) established him as an intelligent, reflective singer songwriter with obvious comparisons being made to Nilsson and Glen Campbell. Canyons of My Mind finds the Nashville resident taking a large leap into areas not often visited by country artists. The song writing is equally impressive as his earlier work, visiting lost love (Hazel, Lauralee, What It Means To You), environmental (Dirty Rain) and political issues (Bourgeois King, Blood Hunters) but with arrangements that are much more adventurous, aggressive and in some cases mind-blowing. The swashbuckling anti-Trump anthem Bourgeois King ("feed us fiction, fabrication, make this country great again") introduces strings into a wonderful mix that you simply do not want to end. Heart Of Wonder, which opens the album, features screeching guitars, incessant piano and even a woozy sax finale. Dirty Rain, showcasing his incredibly gentle vocal range, finds Combs deeply concerned environmentally about our children’s future "nothing shines like it did before."

Combs writing has always been inspired, thoughtful and confessional and having recently wed his long-term girlfriend a number of the songs catalogue previous relationships and what might have been, possibly by way of exorcism as he enters this new phase of his life.

If there is any justice Combs should expand his fan base considerably with Canyons Of My Mind which represents the best of both worlds with beautiful Nilsson like ballads and more experimental material entering Tim Buckley territory. He certainly has the potential to be one of the standout Americana artists of his generation. Here’s hoping.

Jason Eady Self Titled Old Guitar 

An artist releasing a self-titled album mid-career is often making a statement or revealing a body of work more personal and reflective than their previous output. The sixth release from Texas resident Jason Eady is a departure from his previous recordings in that it is acoustic in total with the exception of pedal steel guitar.  It’s also a body of work that in a just world should further the reputation of an artist whose recordings to date are up there with the finest outputs of country music in the true sense over the past decade. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton may be hoovering up the awards and accolades, and more power to them, but Eady’s music is truer to the tradition of country music of outlaws Haggard, Jennings and Nelson than most other singer songwriters of his generation.

His latest album is so much more personal and reflective than his previous work. Exit the drinking, womanising and honky tonking and enter the concerned parent, loving husband and possibly reformed hell raiser as Eady pours his heart out over the twelve tracks on the album. Always an intelligent wordsmith, Eady has reached the age of forty and the album reflects midlife reconciliation rather than midlife crisis. More suited to the back porch than the barroom and clocking in just over thirty minutes the album includes what could be described as three spiritual tracks, the opener Barabbas, Rain and a cover of the Channing Wilson/Patrick Davis song Black Jesus. No Genie in This Bottle enters George Jones territory with its anti-drinking sentiment. Not Too Loud is a beautiful song written for his daughter as he considers the passing years from her childhood to womanhood. 40 Years closes the album with Eady delivering a semi spoken reflection of his arrival at middle age. Waiting To Shine (the longest track on the album at 4.21, coincidentally or not five of the other tracks are between 3.11 and 3.13 long) finds the writer on the road again and searching for the elusive words to pen another song ("Words are like diamonds, the best ones are the hardest to find, buried in the bottom on a hole, waiting to shine"). 

Eady once again employed Kevin Welch to produce the album which was recorded at The Blueroom Studio in Nashville, a venue used previously by Welch to record acoustic albums. Vince Gill, Tammy Rogers of The Steeldrivers both joined Eady in the studio with Courtney Patton (Eady's wife) contributing, beautifully it has to be said, backing vocals. Fellow Texan and pedal steel supremo Lloyd Maines input is telling on pedal steel, dobro and slide guitar. 

Eady already has a back catalogue behind him that sets him apart as a writer and story teller and which to date has not rewarded him with the recognition he deserves. It may require a song or two of his to be recorded by a ‘name’ in Nashville to introduce him to a wider audience. The sooner that happens the better.

Steve Gardner Bathed in Comfort Self Released

The story behind Yorkshire born Steve Gardiner’s debut album is worthy to be written about in its own right. A totally amateur musician, Gardner had written a few songs over the years without ever having performed them in a live setting with a backing band. He attended a Chuck Prophet show in London and having been blown away by the performance he started to contemplate how his handful of songs would sound rocked up with professional help.

Being aware that Chuck Prophet took on production duties together with recording and touring killer albums he audaciously e-mailed Prophet to ask if he would be prepared to give his four songs the kiss of life. To his surprise the challenge was accepted and in 2015 he found himself in San Francisco with Prophet and his backing band The Mission Express having booked a week in the studio to record a four track EP. To maximise the use of the studio time the four tracks ended up been increased to six with two late additions (in fact two versions of the same song), a country and a rocked up offering of The Day The Aliens Saved The World.  Encouraged by Prophet to consider writing  some more material to record a complete album Gardner did just that and returned to the same studio some months later with the balance of the album. Strongest tracks on the album are the instantly catchy What Would I Do, the opener Rosalie with slick banjo picking by James Deprato and both versions of the aforementioned Aliens, the ‘rock’ version recalling Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen at Parties.

The packaging and artwork are particularly impressive and wouldn’t  any artist, whether amateur or professional, just love to credit his band as including Chuck Prophet, Stephanie Finch, Vicente Rodriquez

Lauren Alaina Road Less Travelled Humphead

Voted American Country’s New Artist of The Year in 2012, Georgia born Lauren Alaina is a product of the American Idol TV series having achieved runner up spot in the tenth season. Road Less Travelled is her second album following the release of her debut album Wildflower in 2011 which entered the Billboard 200 Charts at number 5 selling 70,000 copies on the first week of its release.

Sticking very much to the roadmap of the commercial pop/country crossover genre,  Alaina’s output compares favourably with her peers Rae Lynn, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum.With a career very much in the ascendancy Alaina is currently on tour with Martina Mc Bride having supported Alan Jackson on his 2016 Still Keeping It Country tour. The twelve tracks featured are co-writes with Alaina working with some of the strongest songwriters in Nashville including fellow female country singer songwriters Emily Weisband, Emily Shackleton and Lindsey Lee.

The album is typical of what is been marketed in Nashville as country even though many of the tracks are devoid of any elements which qualify as country in the traditional sense. That said as a pop album it is undeniably strong if a tad over produced. Alaina possess a powerful and heavenly vocal and songs such as Doin’ Fine, Think Outside The Boy, Crashin’ The Boys Club, Queen of Hearts and the title track   are a clear indication of her ability to pen catchy radio friendly storytelling songs while  dealing with personal issues honestly such as parental break ups, growing up pains and  peer pressures.

Don’t expect to hear much pedal steel guitar or country fiddles and purist country fans will hardly embrace Road Less Travelled whereas lovers of radio friendly country pop will lap it up. A very talented young lady doing what she does remarkably well.

Urban Desert Cabaret Shadow of a Ghost Pumpkin

Urban Desert Cabaret is the vehicle used by  Joe City Garcia to produce and record his take on music and stories inspired by a life time of experiences in New Mexico, Los Angeles and California. His earlier career had included indulgences in psychedelia rock, Tex-Mex and punk rock having played in a number of bands in California including Joe City and The Nightcrawlers, The Crawlers and Dream Army. Having side stepped the music industry for a number of years Garcia was reinvigorated by his involvement in the Joshua Tree Music and Art scene and relaunched his career playing open mic nights in pubs and coffee houses in Los Angeles. 

The name of the project originates from a monthly event in 2013 organised by Garcia and his wife Joanna Fodczuk, a Polish abstract artist, which essentially was a meeting group for singers, songwriters, poets, artists and painters. Garcia vocal delivery is reminiscent of late career Guy Clark and indeed Terry Allen, his gravely delivery more often than not semi spoken.

Stand out tracks Go Away and Delta Bar both feature some delightful violin playing by Bobby Furgo, whose claim to fame includes being part of Leonard Cohens touring band in the early 90’s. UK famed folk singer songwriter Kirsty Mc Gee contributes backing vocals on Wouldn’t You Agree and the particularly impressive title track Shadow of a Ghost. Gar Robertson, who co-produced the album with Garcia, plays pedal and lap steel, electric and bass guitar. Danny Frankel plays drums and percussion.

Kelly’s Lot Bittersweet Self Release

Kelly’s Lot have been playing and recording (Bittersweet is their eleventh release) in Los Angeles since the mid 90’s. They consist of singer songwriter Kelly Zirbes and her band Perry Robertson and Rob Zucca on guitars, Matt McFadden on bass, Sebastian Sheehan on drums, Bill Johnston on sax, Dave Welch on trumpet, Bobby Orgel on keyboards and Frank Hinojosa on harp. 

Bittersweet, containing a hefty fourteen tracks, finds Zirbes stretching her musical parameters to deliver folky ballads, funky country, rocking blues and some full on, in fact very full on, rockers. Consistent throughout all the genres represented is the wonderful vocal delivery by Zirbes who also delivers a moving a capella on the hymn like Proud.

Come Home is a stripped back love ballad, featuring only Zirbes vocal and acoustic guitar courtesy of Perry Robertson. Mr.Chairman turns the heat up, a bluesy detour with a nice sax break by Johnston. Thorn, a dreamy country ballad, features aching pedal steel throughout by guest player Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams, Tift Merritt, and Tim Easton). Sleep explores darker territories, very effectively it has to be said. 

The title track Bittersweet is a heartfelt recognition for many Vietnam War veterans, lamenting their often lack of recognition and acknowledgement when returning from the frontline. Opening and closing with acoustic guitar and a whistling intro by Zirbes of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ it also features neat harmonica playing by Hinojosa.

Love Is Hard To Catch, with its sultry almost spoken delivery and kicking in at over six minutes, enters Marianne Faithfull territory as does the equally impressive On Fire with its thundering chorus.

Rick Monroe Gypsy Soul MRG

First things first. Rick Monroe ticks all the boxes for inclusion  in what is currently defined as country music in Nashville. Big arena sound, formula ballads, heavy production and slick guitar riffs. Think Eric Church, Zac Brown etc. Don’t expect any pedal steel or banjo. The Florida born Nashville resident six track mini album Gypsy Soul should without doubt  introduce Monroe to a wider audience given that it’s likely to be well received by Country Music Radio and credit to the young man as it is very good indeed in this genre.  Twelve years have passed since the release of his debut EP Against the Grain in 2005 and in that period Monroe has gained a reputation as a relentless touring artist visiting every US State except Oregon and playing support to Eric Church, Dierks Bently, Dwight Yoakam and The Charlie Daniels Band. His 2016 schedule included 120 shows and 100,000 miles of travelling.

The opening track This Side of You is a slick, sultry, come on song and is typical of what is to follow. The title Track Gypsy Soul, possibly autobiographical, follows a similar path, neat riffs, backing vocals and solo guitar breaks. Production duties were undertaken by Sean Giovanni on five of the tracks with JD Shuff credited with the remaining song.

Monroe has the songs, the image and the work ethic to join the elite modern country artists that play to large stadiums of fans on tours like Country 2 Country. Gypsy Soul could very well be his passport.

Norrie McCulloch Bare Along The Branches Self Release 

It only seems like yesterday when I put pen to paper to review Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues, recorded less than twelve months ago. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet Bare Among The Branches is the third album in three years for the prolific songwriter from Glasgow. 

The Son Volt influences so evident on These Mountain Blues remain but this outing is possibly more adventurous with the two opening tracks Shutter and Little Boat giving the thumbs up to early Van Morrison and Frozen River offering a more traditional country leanings with the inclusion of some slick mandolin playing by Iain Thompson. Around The Bend is an impressive ballad and very much true to form for McCulloch and the album closes with Beggars Wood a seven-minute journey through the passage of time beautifully articulated and enhanced by some distinctive guitar playing throughout.

Studio colleagues are his regulars, Dave McGowan (Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian), Stuart Rea and Marco Rea (The Wellgreen) together with Iain Thompson of The Bella Hardy Band on mandolin and Iain Sloan of Wynntown Marshals adding pedal and backing vocals. 

McCulloch’s work sits comfortably at the crossroads between folk and country and Bare Among The Branches is further evidence of a proficient and maturing artist, very much part of the wealth of UK talent currently representing the Americana genre. 

Cory Goodrich Wildwood Flower Self Release

Cory Goodrich is certainly no stranger to country music having won Jeff Awards for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash Revue Ring of Fire and her role as Mother in Ragtime. Together with her acting career she is also a singer songwriter and children’s music composer with two award winning albums, Hush and Wiggly Toes to her credit.

Wildwood Flower, her latest work, is a collection of folk and country songs, covers and originals, all featuring Goodrich playing autoharp, an instrument she was introduced to while researching for her role as June Carter for the stage play. The cover versions chosen are standards and include Ring of Fire, Shenandoah, Will The Circle Be Unbroken and all work comfortably together with a number of self-penned additions by Goodrich of which C’est Plus Facile Sans Toi (It’s Easier Without You) and Home To You particularly impress.  

Goodrich, together with being an accomplished musician, is blessed with a controlled vocal range which captures the intended old timey atmosphere throughout the recordings.

The title of the album is a Maud Irving poem, immortalised in song by The Carter Family and given an interesting makeover by Goodrich.

Production duties were undertaken by musician, actor and former musical director at Goodman Theatre Malcolm Ruhl, who together with Goodrich also contributes autoharp and backing vocals.


Reviews by Paul McGee


Ordinary Elephant Before I Go Berkalin

This acoustic folk duo is Crystal Hariu-Damore on guitar and vocals with husband Peter Damore on banjo, guitar and vocals. They have been performing together since 2011 and their debut release, Dusty Words & Cardboard Boxes appeared in 2013 and was well received at the time, This follow-up is a very strong statement of intent for the future. The harmony vocals are sweetly compelling in the 13 tracks and there is a hint of Natalie Merchant in Crystal’s phrasing.

Songs like Another Day and Can I Count on You? refer to the trials and tribulations of commitment and the routine of married life. Railroad Man is a fine tribute to a father and the values with which he was raised. Best of You speaks of not letting life get on top of our hopes and dreams and of turning hard times into positive experiences. Leaving Kerrville and Lady in the Elevator are two songs written from personal experience, one a near-fatal and life-changing road accident; the other a conversation in a hospital lift with a woman who was saying goodbye to her departing husband: ‘Too many machines sing their song around his bed; Too many words that she never said…’ . The Things He Saw is a powerful song that deals with Alzheimer’s in a moving and poignant lyric and highlights Ordinary Elephant’s great song craft and playing abilities.

Today Crystal and Peter call the road home, living full-time in a van and travel trailer with their dogs, exploring the country and creating music of real depth and dignity. Someone mentioned Rawlings and Welch in a review as a comparison and this is not wide of the mark when it comes to authentic, honest and heart-felt stories and character songs. This is a highly recommended release and the duo are ably supported by the subtle and understated playing of Jon Gaga on upright bass, Jason Crosby, fiddle & piano, Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin with Jono Manson, tenor guitar, David Berkeley, backing vocals and Mark Clark, brushes. 

Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra Waves Sun Sign

Ocean Orchestra is a Celtic fusion band that reside on the American East Coast and comprise mostly of Jennifer Cutting on electronic keyboard and accordion, Lisa Moscatiello on vocals and whistle, Andrew Dodds on fiddle, Zan McLeod on bouzouki, mandolin, and electric guitar, Tim Carey on highland bagpipes, Steve Winick on vocals, Rico Petruccelli on electric bass and Robbie Magruder on drums. 

They are quite a fluid troupe and play in different ensembles and formats. Indeed, there is an impressive array of guest musicians and performers on this new release and all bring a rich tapestry to the overall results. The key inspiration comes from the creative talents of Cutting who is composer/arranger of considerable depth. She holds both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in music and is the artistic director behind this project, her third release.

I am reminded of Steeleye Span when listening to the 12 tracks here, nine written by Cutting, with the inclusion of three traditional airs. The eclectic mix of accordion, fiddle, bouzouki, flute, whistle, piccolo and highland bagpipes lead a celebratory sound that is vibrant and pleasant on the ear. Lark in the Clear Air is particularly striking with the strong vocals of Polly Bolton subtly supported by Troy Donockley on whistle and Jennifer Cutting on an antique pedal-powered reed organ. Crane and Tower is another stand-out, with a damning lyric against unchecked urban development at the expense of the countryside: “Build for Jesus, build for glory/Dwarf the acre where we stand/Profits in the sky, Hosanna/Build it anywhere you can”. Powerful.

Leaves of Autumn is a gentle ballad with the Celtic harp of Sue Richards adding a poignant mood to the wistful vocal of Lisa Moscatiello. Everything Glows is a really terrific example of fusing music from India with the unique sound of the bagpipes. It is a great workout, fuelled by Bollywood Shouters, the fine drum/bass combo of Steve Loecher and Rio Petruccelli and layered with tablas, bansuri, flute, fiddle and rich guitar/keyboard lines. She is a fine song which sees a welcome appearance of the great Clive Gregson on guitar, slide and harmony vocals to complement the lead vocal of Lisa Moscatiello.  

The sleeve notes say: File under ‘Folk-Rock/Celtic/World’, so not really in our usual or sought remit but a perfect description for this global mix of traditional tunes and musical influences.

Dave Vargo Burning Through Self Release

This excellent musician graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston and went on to forge a very successful career as a touring artist and session player. He has worked with a number headline artists including Whitney Houston, Phoebe Snow and Vonda Shepard, but his talents as a songwriter have only been given the spotlight on this, his debut release as a solo performer. 

The eleven songs are written by Dave and co-produced with drummer Tim Pannella. Erik Romero plays bass and keys with Kim Boyko on backing vocas. The arrangements are all very impressive with fluid playing and a bright feel to the melody and rhythm. The commercial sound is perfectly captured on the opening song Come Take Me Home and the fluid guitar playing of Finding My Way to You, which captures a Hootie & the Blowfish vibe. 

Too Young To Be Broken slows things down with gentle acoustic guitar and a lyric about broken dreams and disillusionment. Waiting runs along similar reflective lines with a wistful look back at the past and regrets over choices made. The expressive vocals of Varo are perfectly complimented by the support cast and Don’t Think Twice is a fine example of the band in full unison and playing with a relaxed and loose tempo. Final track, Pieces of my Heart, is an up-tempo ending to what is a very strong debut release and one that comes highly recommended.  

Bill Jackson The Wayside Ballads Vol. 2 Laughing Outlaw

This release follows on from Volume 1, which was launched in 2015 and was an electric record, due to the group of songs chosen. This follow-up is a more acoustic approach with production by Thomm Jutz (Mary Gauthier, Nanci Griffith, Otis Gibbs etc.) in Nashville. 

The 11 new songs are mainly co-written by brothers Bill and Ross Jackson and the band is comprised of Pete Fidler on Dobro, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on banjo and fiddle, Daniel Kimbro on upright bass and Lynn Williams on drums and percussion. Bill Jackson plays acoustic guitar and sings, while producer Thomm Jutz contributes acoustic guitar, keyboards and backing vocals. Recorded ‘live’ in the studio and benefiting from an organic acoustic sound, the playing is understated, warm and welcoming. 

Songwriters occupy a crowded marketplace, but what can set them apart is a fine line between originality and simply being a copyist. The songs on this release are very authentic and have a feel of being around before. 

Story songs such as Gippsland Boy, Three China Ducks, Rollin’ Into Rosine, Time Will Judge and Pink Jesus ring true to life and carry the experiences and interpretations of everyman. Halfway House of the Broken and Every Day’s Drinkin’ Day  are two poignant songs that conjure up the  lives of the marginalised.The interplay between the musicians is a real joy and the entire project is dotted with little surprises and gentle grooves. This is roots music that will appeal to fans of folk and country ballads.

Bill Jackson’s previous releases include Diggin’ the Roots (2006), Steel & Bone (2008), Jerilderie (2011) which have been all well received in the media. He is a talented artist who is well worth checking out. 

Jeff Plankenhorn Soul Slide Lounge Side

Plank is a versatile musician who has been playing a variety of guitars for many years in Nashville and Austin, appearing on numerous records and releasing a batch of solo albums that have gained him an impressive reputation. This new release sees Brannen Temple on drums, Yoggie on bass, Dave Scher on guitar, piano, organ, Rami Jaffe on mellotron & Hammond organ, Peter Adams on clavichord, Hammond organ and Wurlitzer.  Ruthie Foster and Malford Milligan share both lead and background vocals and Miles Zuniga plays electric and acoustic guitars, piano and also sings backing vocals, completing an impressive line-up of players. There are other guests involved, namely his band associates in The Resentments and the overall impression is one of admiration for the musical depth and the range of skills on display.

Plank marries soulful vocals, with a touch of southern soul, a touch of funk coupled with country which all blend into an intoxicating sound.  However, it is the extraordinary guitar sound that carries the tunes from the opening Lose My Mind, through the slow blues of Trouble Find Me and on into the full throttle work-out of Like Flowers which sees Ruthie Foster singing her heart out.

Plank has played on records by Joe Ely, Ray Wylie, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy Lafave and many more.  All his experiences have led to standing dates with collaborative Austin bands, The Apostles of Manchaca, The Purgatory Players, and The Resentments. His Plank guitar is a creation that is stand-up lap steel guitar, which he picks with one hand and uses a slide with the other. The sound is down n’ dirty with plenty of emotive force and edge to the solos and riffs that he produces. Think Bonnie Raitt meets John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth and you have an idea of the quality and groove on offer here.

Dirty Floor is a stand-out with some really tasty guitar parts on top of a driving rhythm and Vagabond Moonlight is a slow country strum, while Mockingbird Blues is an acoustic blues. Headstrong is like a workout from the heady days of The Band and Live Today talks of making the most of the moment and forgetting the worries of tomorrow. This is a very fine release, most worthy of your attention.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Mavericks Brand New Day Mono Mundo

This is the first album of original songs from the reactivated Mavericks since leaving Big Machine Music Group and it finds that the Mavs are pretty much business as usual. The core team of Raul Malo, Eddie Perez, Jerry Dale McFadden and Paul Deakin are joined by the Fantastic Four, which includes long-time associate Michael Guerra on accordion, guitar and percussion as well as the brass section and current bassist. So, there’s nothing here that strays too far from what might be expected - and loved - from the band.

Per usual, the musicianship is without question and the focal point of Malo’s vocal prowess is well to the fore. The 10 songs have been written by Malo, mostly with co-writer Alan Miller. There is one solo credit and one on which guitarist Perez joins in. The themes are, as they have been of late, of affairs of the heart and in most cases the songs affirm love and life. I Think Of You, I Will Be Yours, I Wish You Well and the title track attest to the generous state of the heart. The more acerbic older songs such as From Hell to Paradise seem likely to remain in the past. This would seem to be one of the reasons that the Mavericks are often tagged as a good time party band which has both positive and negative effects, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

For any long time Mavericks fan though, Brand New Day offers a brand new way to get acquainted with the band with their trademark sound firmly to the fore. It is an album that many are already placing alongside the best of their earlier incarnation and it will give the Mavericks the impetus to carrying doing what they do best, hopefully making some new fans along the way too.

 Sam Outlaw Tenderheart Six Shooter

Following on from the success of his last Ry and Joachim Cooder-produced album, Sam Outlaw has followed up with an album that reinforces his trademark sound. His sound is focused around his distinctive vocal style and his neo-LA (So-Cal) country stylings. As the title implies, there is a new tenderness to some of the songs, especially as he and his wife now have a son. This makes the process of being a working musician, of being on the road, a lot more difficult, yet the call to carrying on making music is strong. In order to do that successfully there is a need to tour behind a new album and Tenderheart is that album and a fine one it is too. Prior to releasing Angeleno, Outlaw had self-released a vinyl album and  an EP. For both his last and the new album he has rerecorded some of those earlier songs, and on this album Diamond Ring, Two Broken Hearts and She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of) have been chosen beside 10 new songs.

The production this time out is by Outlaw himself and Martin Pradler. and here he works again with Molly Jenson, Daniel Rhine, Jeremy Long, Brad Lindsay, all of  whom contributed to the debut release Nobody Loves Sam Outlaw. Jenson and Long also appeared on the Angeleno album and this brings continuity to the context of his music. Outlaw is steeped in the music that emanates from Los Angeles. It is a broad spectrum of the country music that has always differed from that being produced in Nashville, but this is less Bakersfield and more Burbank. There is a nod to the border again with familiar mariachi moments that allow for a broad palate and musical expression. 

The songs are much enhanced by Long’s steel guitar and the equally sympathetic playing of all. Outlaw looks at love, loss, friendship and forgiveness. Everyone’s Looking For A Home is a universal statement of the wish to belong, to have a home, to find some peace in a crazy world. The title track is about finding that special relationship. Yet it’s not all on the upside as a song like Trouble asserts; it is an album highlight and is delivered with a kick that is welcome. She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of) looks at a relationship that has it’s warmth and is sung with a empathy that is easy to fall for. Two Broken Hearts is about lovers meeting and making their way in the world.

This is Outlaw doing what he does best and it is the next step in what has already been an interesting and individual musical journey, that has seen Outlaw gaining both critical respect and audience acclaim in a relatively short time. While Tenderheart may not be as well received as Angeleno in some quarters, to these ears, and after repeated listening. it is at least it’s equal.

Jim Keaveny Put It Together Self Release

The spirited troubadour returns with a brand new set of songs, most are solo writes and two are co-writes. There is a storyteller at work here who engages the listener with a loose amalgam of styles that  fall under the roots label. The album is co-produced by Keaveny and Bill Palmer who is also a player here and they are joined by a bunch of players who sound like they’re having fun and getting the groove right. The songs have a certain spontaneity totally in keeping with lifestyle of a wandering spirit, a man who looks at life with a wry smile and an open heart. 

There is also a border feel to some of the songs with the addition of guitarrón, trumpet and accordion. There are some great vocal harmonies behind Keaveny’s engaging voice and lyrics. This feels something like a conversation in a warm sunny place with a music drifting in on the wind. Given it was recorded in Santa Fe in New Mexico that may be an intention. Those who heard his last album (or previous releases) will know what to expect and newcomers are likely to be equally enchanted. This is not chart bound music, nor is it intended to be.

There is a strong folk/country axis to the overall sound with pedal and loop steel, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars and a solid rhythm section that are right behind the songs. There is also enough change of pace and texture to keep the album interesting. Most of the songs are over the 3 minute mark and several clock in over 5. The album opens with What I ain’t Got which is a précis of the things in his life that he has to hand. Is It You? opens with trumpet and a lyric about the person he has in his life. It is one of the album standouts in that it sums better than words what  Jim Keaveny is all about. The Grand Forks is an atmospheric song that mixes backing vocals with trumpet to create a Calexico styled instrumental piece. Also check out Blown Away, the heartfelt plea Please don’t Underestimate my Love, which is delivered in a soft and understated way. Limbo and Grim/The Mariachi Mantra builds from Alex McMahon’s pedal steel through to Eric Ortiz’s trumpet to create a soundscape that plays like the end credits of a modern day western.

Keaveny has put it together here in more ways than one and it underlines him as a fringe figure who continues to make music that recalls much but is very much owned by his attitude and his auspicious endeavours to be heard.

Christopher Rees The Nashville Songs Red Eye

From the first notes of this album you welcome the return of this distinctive Welsh wonder. As the title indicates, this set of songs were written with a number of co-writes including Rick Brantley, Mando Saenz, Sandy Cherryholmes, Amy Speace and others. However the recording, production and mixing was done by Rees at his studio in Wales and it features Rees’ notable attention to detail and a sound that brings his multi-instrumental abilities well to the fore. He plays everything here other than drums (Dan Tilbury) and pedal steel guitar (Aaron Goldstein - a talented player who has worked with Daniel Romano and The Cowboy Junkies). Another vital asset here is Rees’ dynamic and individualistic vocal, which is central to the album’s success. 

A listen to Something about Nashville will confirm that accomplisment to any listener. The song is about being separated from a partner who once shared the city together but is now not there. In the song A Place Upon My Face Rees’ writes that “I want my face to be a reflection of where I’ve been and where I come from.” In many ways his albums also offer the same sort of illumination. Each album is about a musical adventure and inspiration as well as a diary of where he was when he recorded it in terms of inspiration and application. Even though they are largely recorded back in his studio in Wales they draw from the experiences and the relationships he has made along the way. These are both personal and musical. 

Rees is an artist whose compulsion to make music as a necessary expression and fundamental need is evident. There is little doubt that the path of any independent artist is not a particularly easy one, but when the results are as good as this is, then it is one that needs to be encouraged and applauded. But if the end result was below standard then it would be easy to suggest that, as is sometimes the case, the continued release of albums may be something of a fool’s errand. That is not true of Christopher Rees, who has consistently proved his worth and the worthiness of his endeavours. The Nashville Songs is his latest album and long may he continue to do what he does so well.

Ed Dupas Tennessee Night Road Trip

The sleeve note from Dupas explains something of the genesis of this album - how a trip to Nashville and a stay in a remote writer’s cabin helped to inspire several of the songs featured here - songs born out of longing and some inner turmoil (I can’t let you go, I watch your picture on the wall, and I wait for it to fall - Do It For Me). Overall the mood is not upbeat, even though the music is. Dupas looks at his life, his hopes and his past and uses that to create this music and in doing so expresses something that many will have experienced themselves.

The album was produced, engineered and mixed by Michael Crittenden, who is also a part of the players who have brought these songs to life. Full credit to them and their individual talents. The album is a worthy successor to Dupas’ debut A Good American Life and underlines his talent as a writer, singer and performer. It has the feel and energy of such wonderful albums as Bob Woodruff’s 1994 album Dreams & Saturday Night which was produced at a time when a country album could rock while remaining true in spirit to the core music without becoming a parody of overblown heavy metal, as is often the case these days.

Mention should be made of the contribution of Drew Howard on pedal steel which does much to flavour the music’s roots orientation. Crittendon’s B3 and banjo also add to that overall texture. Dupas himself plays acoustic and electric guitars which complement his grounded and graceful vocal performance. He is joined on a number of these songs by vocalists Tara Cleveland, Judy Banker and Cole Hanson and all add a counterpoint and harmony behind the emotion evident in Dupas’s delivery. Too Big to Fail, Anthem and Everything is in Bloom are all examples that immediately stand out and show why Ed Dupas is an artist who well warrants investigation and interest. These songs have insight and inhabit a space that, if nothing else, shows that Dupas’ need to make music is a true one. That is something to be deemed as a worthy endeavour. 

Malcolm Holcombe Pretty Little Troubles Singular

There is little doubt that Holcombe has his detractors as well as his admirers. His grit and gravel sandpaper voice is not to everyone’s taste, but those that do fall under his spell seem to be growing and he is certainly been prolific of late with a number of albums to his credit over the last few years. This time out noted artist in his own right Darrell Scott has taken on the production duties. Holcombe’s bluesy tales, his own pretty little troubles, are as often about the world around him and how it is being eroded (Yours No More, Good Ole Days, Damn Weeds) as about his own life and times (Crippled Point O’ View, Outta Luck), some of the songs encompass both.

However these tales of woe are given a musical setting that always make them never less than interesting with a wide range of instruments adding substance and sustenance to the hardworn nature of the music. Many of the instruments are played by Scott himself but with major contributions from Jelly Roll Johnson, Joey Miskulin, Verlon Thompson and Denis Crouch. Mike McGoldrick brings a distinctly Celtic flavour to The Eyes O’ Josephine with Uillean pipes, which makes that song an immediate standout. Yet in the end it is Holcombe’s voice which is the most prominent feature of the tracks and the success of the album will largely depend on your liking for that particular vocal inflection.

For those that do like this sound, Pretty Little Troubles is a compelling album that employs all the skills of its participants to best advantage which makes it a highpoint of Holcombe recorded output. His pretty little troubles have produced some nuanced and balanced personal and unique representations of the blues that are as effective as many of the more applauded practitioners of that often ignored genre. Malcom Holcombe continues to do it his own way. Singular indeed. 

Angaleena Presley Wrangled Mining Light

For her second album Presley takes a particular stand for her take on traditional country music and against some prevailing attitudes on the role of the women gagged. Add to that a the album’s title and you get the impression that Presley wants to break free. She does this by expanding her parameters while remaining within the country corral. 

The songs also tell something of the tale with titles like Dreams Don’t Come True, Country, Outlaw, Mama I Tried and Motel Bible. The album’s overall tone is her largely contemporary takeon  a musical form she loves. The steel and baritone guitar on Only Blood takes things right back. This duet with Morgane Stapleton was co-written by Presley and Chris Stapleton and is a sweetly sung song of revenge and that “she’s been talking to Jesus and he said that only blood is strong enough to wash away your sins.” There is a distant distored male voice and some discordant sound that adds an air of disquiet to the song. Country heads the opposite direction with a rap vocal from co-writer Yelawolf that wipes the floor with some of mainstream country’s rap aspirations and mixes the two approaches with success. 

The songs are a mix of those written solo and co-writes. Dreams Don’t Come True with her Pistol Annies bandmates Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert. There are two co-writes with writers who had obviously played a major influence on her in terms of attitude and writing aspirations. They are Guy Clark in Cheer Up Little Darling (which uses Spanish guitar under Clark’s spoken advice over that intro) and Wanda Jackson (and Vanessa Olavarez) for Good Girl Down. Co-producer Oran Thornton also has a couple of writing credits (Mama I Tried and Motel Bible - the latter also with Trevor Thornton). Her own Outlaw makes the point that she doesn’t want to be a renegade or outlaw, that she would like to be a straight shooter on the hit parade, a place she has been with The Pistol Annies. However one gets the feeling that Presley would want to do that her own way rather than as any sort of record company puppet.

There is a whole bunch of attitude at work here that makes for an album that has both variety and velocity which in turn make it a step forward for Presley. However hse may still find her music sitting outside the tightly controlled focus of country radio’s current thinking - sad to say. 

The Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band Front Porch Sessions Family Owned

The big voiced Reverend is back with his band on these stripped back acoustic blues and country blues outings. So stripped back,in fact, that the Big Damn Band here is just two people; Breezy Paton on washboard and Maxwell Senteney on drums. However a lot of the performance are just Payton alone or predominately him. It was recorded on vintage equipment in order to capture a certain timeless quality that is not exactly retro but rather realistic.

Payton went in to lay down some old songs and some new songs in a live-in-the-studio format while capturing the looseness the title indicates. The results are going to please any of those who have witnessed the band’s live performances. It also stands up as a pure listening experience as it captures the spirit of the songs and the lineage that they convey, When My Baby Left Me by Furry Lewis being a good example. As is  the Reverend’s taken on the songs from the 1900 Let Your Light Shine, an infectious spiritual reading.

Between the covers and the originals there is not a lot of distance, which is to say the new songs capture the spirit of older ones. It is about intimacy and illumination, but also it is about Payton’s big and booming voice and his growing skills on his guitar on his Dobro. Not an album to please everyone, especially those with one foot in the honky-tonk, but for anyone who likes their music honest.