Friday
Jul272018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Truckstop Confidential Fool’s Rodeo Self Release

This alt-country band from Atlanta, Georgia capture the spirit of what they do on their second release which follows their debut ep The Secret Is Out from 2016. This band is made up of veteran players from the local music scene. Their lead guitarist also has studio experience and he engineered and produced the album, which features a selection of 9 band compositions and shows that they have a knack for taking traditional country influences and giving them a little spit and polish. The band also includes Steven Hicks on vocals and guitar, Linda Dixon on keyboards and the solid rhythm section of Cris McAvoy and Brooks Robinson. For the album they are ably augmented by Kurt Baumer on fiddle, the slide guitar of John Ferguson and pedal steel player Steve Stone. 

Everything is in place for a good night out (or in) without ever feeling that band are about to change your perception of country music. This is down-to-earth roots music that is a group effort and displays the members individual talents. The songs are not without a cheeky sense of humour. The opening Binge Watching takes the action of spending hours focused on one subject - in this case a girl! The title track has a good chorus that makes it one of the catchier songs on the album, a song about movin’ on and burning bridges. The ballad Angels Appear uses the pedal steel to enhance the overall slightly downbeat mood. Big Time is built around a slide guitar and an expression of right place, right time. Camille has a classic feel that reminded me of a song I can’t quite place right now but was none-the-less enjoyable. More alt in approach is Something About A Train which has a requisite sense of movement in both lyric and structure. The album ends with an up-tempo call out that kicks up the dust and has some fine twanging lead guitar and piano to drive the album and song to its conclusion.

Truckstop Confidential are likely to be prominent in the live roots scene in Atlanta and their home State. They have the chops to deliver their songs with confidence and clarity. They are one of many regional bands who have deservedly gained a reputation without ever really gaining notice beyond their home turf. However this album seems to be on all the streaming platforms and is worth checking out at the very least. 

John Lilly State Songs Self Release

A thoroughly enjoyable release from the talented Mr. Lilly. His albums have always been made with heart and soul and this album is no exception. Lilly has written 12 songs, each about a different State and given an individual musical flavour to each track that relates to the musical heritage of the State in question. This makes for an album full of variety and texture that is given focus by Lilly’s engaging voice and the sheer enjoyability of the contributions of his accompanying players who are excellent throughout. 

Lilly wrote all the songs (bar an arrangement of one and a musical quote in another) as well as acting as executive producer with fellow producers Tommy Detamore, Charlie Barnett and Joel Savoy. They have gathered a section of some of the finest players around them including all three producers, alongside names like Floyd Domino, Tom Lewis, Bobby Flores, Ric Ramirez, Sonny Landreth and Brennen Leigh, among others. Pedal steel guitar, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, tuba and euphonium are among the instruments that add sonic texture to his odes to the individual States featured. Which in the spirit of Johnny Cash are: Maine, Texas, Oregon, Mississippi, Arizona, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Wyoming, Louisiana, Idaho and West Virginia.

As with any such album, some tracks stand out initially more than others - though the album as a whole works as a musical journey - so Nothing Short Of Texas captures the mood of 40’s Western Swing, In My Dreams Of Oregan has great harmony vocals from Lilly and Leigh, as does the waltz New Arizona Waltz. Gotta Go To North Dakota benefits from some sterling slide guitar work from Landreth and West Virginia Hills as a great period mood with a strong layered vocal chorus. Goodbye To Idaho also works in its stripped back setting of just Lilly's voice and his guitar.

This is an album that should be loved by anyone who likes well-played, well-crafted songs that are rooted in traditional modes and are as relevant to a listener today as back some 70 years ago. In other words, timeless.

Blue Yonder Rough And Ready Heart New Song

As well as releasing albums under his own name John Lilly is also a member of Blue Yonder, a band that plays on Tuesday nights in a venue, Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia. The band are Lilly, electric guitarist Robert Shafer and bassist Will Carter. On this recording, to fill the sound out in the studio, they are joined by Tony Creasman on drums, Russ Hicks on pedal steel and John Cloyd Miller and Gar Ragland on harmony vocals. The latter also produced and mixed the album which was recorded in Asheville, North Carolina.

Again this is another set of Lilly’s original songs which deal in the complexities and simplicities of human relationships. With life, love, losing, loneliness and long roads ahead. These are all songs that are fixed on a dial that shifts between classic country, swing, folk with touches of rockabilly and blues. The songs are testament to the themes that are reflected in the titles like Standing By The Side Of The Road, Green Light, You Can’t Get There From Here, Tombstone Charlie, Rough and Ready Heart, Lonely Hour and Well Acquainted With The Blues.

As with all Lilly’s song writing there are some memorable songs in this set that again makes it an enjoyable and lasting listening experience. Nothing here is going to change your attitude to classic country overtones of the Americana music that is the Blue Yonder remit. Rather, this is a solid, simple realisation of the music that inspired and continues to enthuse Blue Yonder and their weekly audience, as well as those who have encountered their music in recorded form. One listen to a song like Lonely Hour will tell you all you need to know about the quality that these guys deliver. It is heartfelt and human with an eye on a heritage where music was an important part of a lot of peoples lives. It is just that for these musicians and those who hearts are in the right place to enjoy it. 

Luke Tuchscherer Pieces Clubhouse 

The  new album from the English, New York based singer/songwriter has by all accounts taken a turn towards the harder, rocker end of the Americana spectrum - that may well appeal to those who favour the rockier moments of Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Springsteen. Not that Tuchscherer sounds directly like any of these it is rather the attitude he exhibits here. Perhaps best exemplified by The MF Blues - no prizes for guessing what the MF stands for! - a hard driving guitar laden rock-out that suits the title. More in keeping with his previous albums and roots oriented direction is Ain’t That What they Say? a song that benefits from a startling vocal, a memorable chorus and a dynamic that builds with the song. Tuchscherer can also deliver a slow song that is appropriately regretful in mood with harmonica and keyboards adding to the melancholy.

A former member of rock band The Whybirds he took a turn towards Americana on previous albums but here returns to an angrier, robust rock sound. In order to capture the intensity Tuchscherer and his band recorded the rockier songs live in the studio in the UK. It works by capturing that energy. Something that bands can often loose when entering a studio. Tuchscherer produced the album and knew what he was aiming to capture here. But it is balanced with the slower more melodic based songs working alongside the rockier material. In that light, Ghosts, a song that recognises mistakes and metamorphosis as one achieves some sense of understanding of one’s past and hopeful future. Requiem has a similar thoughtful quality but this time it turns its anger on those who would mistakenly see greed and power as the ultimate selfish goals … the rich get richer, while the poor put in the hours … it builds up to a burning guitar shredding climax.

The title track is one that again manages to sound positive though the words suggest something more adrift from that outlook. The final track See You When I See You is dedicated to his former band and is something of an invitation to do it one more time together “let’s hit the road together, while the world goes up in flames”. It is an overview of a career filled with promise. A promise that was not fulfilled though Tuchscherer continues to make music and to hold that belief that music has the ability to allow change to happen, at least in a personal capacity, if not for everyone. Pieces may not be for everyone but if you like your music to have a rockier edge then these pieces will fall into place.

Lachlan Bryan And The Wildes Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music Self Release

Described as a country album thatb is influenced by Billy Bragg and Leonard Cohen as much as it is by Willie Nelson and Townes van Zandt. It is the Australian band’s fourth album. It opens with the song I Hope That I’m Wrong which was inspired by a newspaper headline about the the surge of stories of abuse that women faced in various industries. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Middle Aged Man in some ways continues the theme by relating how the older guy chasing the younger girl is something of an (middle) age-old pursuit. But one that is far less tolerable in these times. 

The band add guest vocals on The Basics Of Love, which seems like a song you have heard before (and not the Waylon Jennings related title) but is an original. Though it is difficult to say with no (writer) credits available. It is the first of two duets were the added female voice gives greater depth to the song. In this case it is fellow Australian Shanley Del. The other duet is with Lindi Ortega and fairly untypical of her usual type of song. A gentle piano led ballad that uses both voices to good effect. Bryan is singer and piano player and could be thought of as someone who took Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album as a template and followed it to a logical, more country route. However throughout the album there are songs that also feature backing vocals from Imogen Clark. She wrote In New York with Wilde member Shaun Ryan. Perhaps one track to highlight for it’s emotional, quiet strength is Peace In The Valley. A song that displays a van Zandt influence more obviously than others.

The album was produced in Melbourne by Damian Carfarella, a new addition to the band. The result is an easy, relaxed listen with thoughtful lyrics and a solid, purposeful playing that doesn’t sacrifice capturing the right take for something more polished and perfect. I have a feeling that some girls might quite like this country music. Men however are not excluded.

I See Hawks In LA Live And Never Learn Western Seeds

While I have listened to this band in the past I paid more attention to the lyrics on this album as they just seem to stand out from the music a little more. The concept and humour of My Parka Saved Me was an immediate attention grabber with the spoken female lyric being followed closely by that of singer Rob Waller. It is both effective as a story and as an example of the bands oeuvre. The opening song is an ode to environmentalism and Ballad For The Trees not only mentions a selection of trees but also the under threat honey bees. Known as purveyors of  “psychedelic country” in California you can hear where that tag has come from but they are also an accomplished group of players who are musically adept and aware.

Guitarist and producer (and band leader) Paul Lacques knows what he wants this album to sound like and over the 14 original songs manages to create a range of musical sketches that gives the listener the space to enjoy what I See Hawks In LA have to offer. Waller has a baritone voice that has enough resonance to give each song its focus. He is ably supported vocally by the remainder of the band whose harmonies are a reminder of many a Californian band and singer of yore. This and their individual musical talents, which are enhanced by some additional musicians on keyboards, pedal steel and fiddle, all helps to make these songs shine and this is perhaps the best album that this combo has yet produced. 

The songs that stand out for a number of reasons aside for the afore mentioned My Parka Saved Me where drummer Victoria Jacobs provides the female vocal are Stoned With Melissa (a simple tale of daily imbibing), Poour Me a word play on “poor me” and “pour me”, as in, another glass of wine!  Aside from the intentional humour these songs often have something of the element of truth to them. They can also rock out as they do on The Last Man In Tujunga with its odd yet intriguing chorus of “I’m almost out of minuets and I”m almost out of bullets” and on the boogiefied workout King Of Rosemead Boogie.

This is the eight album from I See Hawks In LA in a career heading for 20 years together and they are continuing to perfect their individual take on Californian country music. There is little here that sounds like filler and much to enjoy. Long may they live and never learn.

Tuesday
Jul242018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Mean Mary Blazing Woodstock

This lady is a real talent and her back story is the stuff that makes a movie script seem far-fetched. Raised by a nomadic family, at times in the wilds and the woods, building their own log cabin and embracing a life of home schooling.

Mary James learned to play music at a very young age and is a novelist and a music producer, who has regularly appearared on Nashville TV shows, as well as running her own You Tube channel (35,000 subscribers). Her endorsing of Deering Banjos, an instrument on which she absolutely excels, is proof of her talents as a musician and her dexterity on fiddle and guitars is also most impressive.

Mean Mary is a performing name and whether touring solo or with her sometimes band, Mean Mary & the Contrarys, her musical strengths are always to the fore. While the banjo displays traditional bluegrass sounds, Mary plays the instrument in a way that makes it very melodic & tuneful.

Her brother Frank plays some excellent guitar and this project is a soundtrack to her latest book, Hell Is Naked, about a SWAT agent working undercover as a movie extra. The good thing is that the music stands up as a separate entity and it is not necessary to reference the book to enjoy the music that has been created as an accompaniment piece. 

Ten tracks and plenty of virtuoso playing from Mary & Frank James on banjo, 6 and 12-string guitars violin & percussion. Tracks like Rainy, Rock Of Ages, Lights, Gun, Action and the title track are all instrumentals and played with an elán and verve that is quite infectious. I Face Somewhere, Gone and Sugar Creek Mountain Rushare also expertly delivered. 

Her constant companion through much of this career activity is her Mother/author, Jean James. Some of their videos are a real joy to catch online and I would recommend a visit for a few giggles and to witness some fine musicianship into the bargain.

Mean Mary also peddles a sweet pickin’ balm as a sideline, aimed at all banjo players and beyond - a unique blend of natural plant oils infused with eight essential oils. These plant oils deeply moisturize sooth and protect your skin, keeping it supple for fast pickin’. 

Need I say any more…? Big smiles all round!

Spencer MacKenzie Cold November Self Release

Still in his teenage years, this young Canadian musician certainly knows his way around a fretboard. This is a second release and the quality of playing is very impressive indeed. There are hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the style with some excellent solo breaks and passionate Blues riffs. The future is certainly bright for this young player and already he is punching well above his tender years in terms of the quality of his sound and natural ability. 

The title track, Cold November, is a tribute to the families of the Paris attacks in 2015 and the studio musicians deliver consistently high standards across all ten songs (written by MacKenzie). Move On Down The Track; Haunt Me; Next Door Neighbour Blues and She Don’t Care are strong examples of the fine musicianship on display, with a horn section that impresses while the core band deliver a tight sound that allows MacKenzie to solo around the rhythm with an unrestrained joy. One to watch.

Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen 

This is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since Rattlesnake Cage appeared in 2014. A multiple Juno Award-winning producer, for this project he turned to long-time collaborator and friend, Jesse Zubot to assist in scoring and arranging the strings for five of the ten tracks included. 

With the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver providing the space required, Dawson recorded live with up to twelve microphones in various positions to capture the guitar and orchestration. Contributions from Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse Zubot and his brother Josh (violins) and John Kastelic (viola) create a rich tapestry of sound and the perfect back-drop for quiet days spent in contemplation or lazy evenings by the fireside with a favourite glass of wine, perhaps. Tracks such as The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Forge; Bone Cave; Old Hickory Breakdown; Little Harpeth and Bugscuffle are worthy mentions across the project but really, there is not a weak track on display.

Playing a range of guitars – acoustic, 12-string, national tricone, weissenborn, ukulele – the depth of Dawson’s talent lies in the fact that the melodic progressions are seamless and give the impression of total fluidity and graceful ease. Joined also by Jeremy Berkman (trombone), Nick Anderson (french horn), Sam Davidson (clarinet), John Reischman (mandolin) and Charlie McCoy (harmonicas) on selected tracks, it all works as a composite whole & the fact that he has produced and/or played on more than 80 albums since the turn of the millennium says it all really and speaks volumes for the national treasure that he has become in his native Canada.

The Vagabond Something Wicked This Way Comes Eggsong

Based in Norfork, England this ensemble releases their third album of songs and their sound is very much based in the area of Folk/Roots with traces of a harder Rock edge sprinkled through a number of the ten tracks included here. The band is comprised of nine members, which I am sure makes touring something of a logistical challenge; all those hotel rooms & meals to cover and the practicalities of transportation and instrument space - glad I’m not the tour manager!

In any event, their excellent music is well worth investing in and the organic sound is a heady mixture of fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, guitars, keyboards and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure! This raggle, taggle band of gypsies resemble a Fisherman’s Blues era of the Waterboys with elements of Dylan (title track), Randy Newman (Spiritual Man) and Three Dog Night (One For The Road). 

Tracks like Bright Are The Stars, Not My Day To Die and Zoetrope, are very melodic and overall, the celebratory sound is very appealing. The quality of musicianship and production from José McGill and Gregory Cook, both band members, is very clear and balanced to include all members in the mixing & mastering, so that none of the (many) instruments get drowned out. 

The Fretless Live from the Art Farm Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian four piece from Toronto & Vancouver who play fiddle tunes and folk melodies that are intricate, sprinkled with high-energy performance and a vibrancy borne from years of playing together. The goal is to continually push traditional music as far as possible and to expand the rhythmic, harmonic and structured arrangement style of the many folk genres. 

They have won multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle, viola), Eric Wright (cello), Ben Plotnick (fiddle, viola). This Live project was recorded at the Artfarm recording studio in front of an audience to try and capture the dynamism of their live performances. The tracks are all traditional Irish tunes and they are a vibrant and tracks such as Jenny Welcome To Charlie/ Bear Island; Johnny O’Leary’s/The Miller’s Maggot/ The Sally Gardens; The Pipe On The Hob/Bixie’s Jig and the closer, The Star Of Munster are all fine examples of this fine band in full flight. 

Dana Cooper Incendiary Kid Travianna

Working with co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz, this is the 28th recording in a career that has seen this artist work through the vagaries of the music industry since the 1970’s when he first recorded with Shake Russell and with his own rock band, Dana Cooper's DC3.

Incendiary Kid is a cohesive album of ten songs that cover a whole gambut of emotions, from wanting an idyllic World where love gets its own reward (Flat Made Round), sharing the daily load by reaching out to another (Traveller Too), isolation (Bird Or a Fish, Maybe Tomorrow), disillusionment (My America), relationships (Summertime Woman, Song of the West) and corporate greed (Making a Killing). With a sound that is based in acoustic folk/rock, Cooper’s finger-picking guitar style is complimented by his rich vocals. 

He regularly visits Ireland and travels around the countryside with a bus of tourists in tow; acting as both guide and performer at various stop overs. This is an activity that other artists have been turning to in recent times as an idea to open additional income streams and to keep their core fan base interested in ongoing activities and projects.

Sunday
Jul152018

Reviews by Eilís Boland

Ben Hunter/Phil Wiggins/Joe Seamons A Black & Tan Ball Self Release

Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter are a fascinating duo who are at the forefront of the recent emergence of a musical subgenre that they themselves have dubbed Black Americana. Other exponents are artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Cedric Watson. What they all have in common is a deep regard for, and knowledge of, the musical traditions of the Appalachians, the Ozarks and the American South, the African-American stringband traditions, folk-blues and country-jazz. 

Hunter and Seamons have a particular interest in the pre-war era song tradition ie the ballads, blues and folk songs of 19th century America. Their mission is to “revive obscure stuff” and this they have done in spades in this fantastic collection of thirteen classics from the Great American Songbook. Here they are joined by the truly legendary blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, who continues the Piedmont blues tradition. 

In an album of superb tracks, it’s difficult to single out any particular highlight. The opener Do You Call That A Buddy is a blackly humourous (no pun intended!) tale of treachery sung in Phil’s rich baritone, with lots of call and response hollering from the boys. Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me is given a lovely languorous treatment again by Phil, and it interestingly features Bens’ mandolin playing. It’s quite unusual to hear a mandolin used in the blues tradition but it works really well here. Both Ben or Joe take lead vocals on many of the songs. 

Ben, who is particularly known for his fiddle playing (in fact he’s classically trained) has revived the fiddle in the blues genre - apparently it played a significant role in early blues but then fell out of favour. Joe switches easily between guitar and clawhammer banjo, his banjo featuring on a stunning extended version of John Henry. Rory Gallagher fans will be surprised by the almost unrecognisable rendition of Bullfrog Blues, which is closer to the original version written and released by William Harris in 1928.

The three instrumentals are as impressive as the songs, especially the breakneck Shanghai Rooster. In addition to playing gigs, Seamons and Hunter have dedicated themselves to educating communities and especially the younger generations by conducting workshops and community events across the US, not just in their Seattle base.

Edwyn & The Borrowed Band High Fences Dead Records Collective

Glasgow based but heavily influenced by Americana, James and his band release their second album of original material, ably self produced and recorded in their hometown. The result is an impressive collection of strong songs, catchy melodies and superb playing with a country rock flavour. The opener San Ysidro sounds like it has come straight out of California, with its jangly guitar riffs, and pounding rhythms. James, who takes lead vocals throughout and writes or cowrites everything, has a strong voice, reminiscent of Ryan Adams at times. Emma Joyce’s harmony vocals are particularly impressive, being superbly complementary to James’s. Scott Keenan completes the trio of harmony vocalists, which contributes to the band’s lush full sound.  

The bluesy/funky Get Back Up has a real Southern Rock feel, with it’s fabulous electric guitar breaks and Emma’s soaring vocals. Pushing Statues uses a quartet of brass players who add a subtle backdrop to the full sound, also boosted by guest pedal steel player Tim Davidson and the ever present rocking and rolling keyboards of the aforementioned Scott Keenan. 

Other highlights are: Quoting Sagan, a catchy ballad that builds slowly from a quiet acoustic guitar intro into a luscious dramatic electric guitar driven climax; Taking Liberties co-written by Ronnie Gilmour and featuring his inventive electric guitar work; and the closing song Doubts, another slow burner which builds on layered electric guitar and piano interludes, ending in a gorgeous finale of soaring lush instrumentation and echoing vocal harmonies. 

The CD package is well designed and the album is also available on vinyl. My one gripe is that I’d like to hear some of the band’s Scottish origins peeking through the project - perhaps this will happen on the next album, one which I very much look forward to.

Foghorn Leghorn All At Sea Self Release

Probably one of longest running bluegrass band in England, Foghorn Leghorn release only their third album in over 25 years of existence. Best known on the London scene, where they have a regular residency in the Betsey Trotwood, the band are known for their lively irreverence and tongue-in-cheek attitude to their music. They readily delve into their wide musical influences to broaden their bluegrass sound with large dollops of folk and country. While they may not be the tightest band you’ll ever hear, they make up for it with enthusiastic abandon!

It’s refreshing to review an album in this genre that is packed with all original material. The majority of the songs are written by mandolinist Eamonn Flynn. His songs range from  uptempo love songs like Spanish Champagne to my personal favourite, Beginning to Hurt - a tender ballad of unrequited love. But he’s also adept at writing insightful commentaries on current social ills. No prizes for guessing the subject of He’s Got The Whole World (in his tiny little hands). 

Fundamental Breakdown is a welcome instrumental interlude written by banjoist Tim Kent. Whale Bone is a truly chilling exploration of the well known scandal of corporal punishment in certain religious institutions in these islands, and demonstrates Eamonn Flynn’s songwriting acumen again. 

Danny George Wilson joins in on the closer Moving Along - ending on a positive note despite the personal and sociopolitical strife explored in earlier songs. The excellent cover art is a cartoonish depiction of the band and various political world figures who are on a boat washed up onshore during a storm - survivors despite the chaos around them - very fitting!

Sarah Morris Hearts In Need Of Repair Self Release

Having spent some years in Nashville pursuing her songwriting career, Sarah Morris is now back in her native Minnesota, where she performs regularly with her longtime band. She also uses these excellent musicians on this her third album, which she coproduced with Eric Blomquist. Sarah has been blessed with a pure and sweet voice and the sparse tasteful production allows her voice to shine on the eleven self penned songs. Packaged in pink, the album art gives a hint as to what lies beneath.

The Nashville songwriting machine experience is to the fore in most of the songs on the collection, so if you like pop country, music that won’t rock the boat, then this might just be your thang. Songs like Good at Goodbye, Course Correction and Helium detail heartbreak and heartache but you might just feel like you’ve heard it all before. Confetti is a well overdue plea to all to get our heads out of our phones and ‘spread love like confetti’ - a worthy sentiment indeed, but one likely to fall on deaf ears!

Nothing Compares is a whole other deal. This is a touching love song written from the heart, to her husband of 15 years. Backed just by an acoustic and an electric guitar accompaniment, Sarah convincingly conveys the vulnerability and the trust implicit in such a longterm relationship. It’s an exquisite track. The two other standout songs are Falling Over and Shelter or The Storm - the soulful bluesy production on these catchy songs allows Sarah to let go and indulge a gutsier side to her voice, one I’d really have liked to have heard more of. On A Stone, an exploration of steadfastness, is another strong song on which Sarah’s voice soars, beautifully backed by guest musician Jillian Rae’s violin.

SIDELINE Front and Center Mountain Home

This is a solid fourth album from a much awarded and admired group of ‘sidemen’, who, along with a few younger additions, have now become a permanent band. They excel at the hard driving Carolina-Grass style of bluegrass, and all six band members are comfortable taking lead vocals.

From the pen of Milan Miller comes Lysander Hayes, the dark tale of the classic ‘bad boy’, driven by the pulsating claw hammer banjo of Skip Cherryholmes (Cherryholmes, Lou Reid and Carolina). Another founding member Jason Moore contributes exciting bass lines here and he ably anchors the whole album with his playing - something he has done for years touring with James King and then with Mountain Heart.

Another strong song and radio hit is the opening Thunder Dan, featuring the lead vocals of mandolinist Troy Boone, a recent addition to the band and a graduate of ETSU’s Bluegrass programme. Steve Dilling’s classic driving banjo style is one of the delights of this recording, but he also takes lead vocals and contributes outstanding harmonies on many of the songs.

Generally the songs here are chosen for their traditional style, for example the sentimental ballad Frozen in Time, Bluefield WV Mtn Girl and Something Out of Nothing. However, there are also welcome contrasts, for example Gordon Lightfoot’s Song For A Winter’s Night (covered by Tony Rice) which here is given a quiet laid back feel, thanks to Skip’s outstanding guitar work and his rich vocals. Or the lovely slow version of Dudley Connell’s Memories That We Shared, with guitarist Bailey Coe on lead vocal duties. Don’t worry, there are the inevitable gospel songs - I Long To See His Face and Satan’s Charms give free rein to these guys to show off their sweet four part harmonies. An exhilarating version of the traditional Cotton Eyed Joe instrumental closes out the collection. 

One reservation is that there are no original songs here, which is a bit surprising considering the wealth of talent in the band. The second is the uninspiring design of the packaging - a far too busy mosaic of photos and some poor graphics could so easily have been improved upon.

EJ Ouellette Conjure Man, Conjure Man Self Release

Boston based Renaissance man EJ Ouellette has released his first solo album, on which he played most of the instruments, wrote most of the songs and also produced, engineered and mixed it. Phew! It’s essentially an album of three halves. Ouellette excels at creating brooding atmospheric story songs, as he does on the title track. His ‘Conjure Man’ character is a sort of hoodoo man - suggesting danger, black magic and witchcraft. In fact, his creator hopes to turn this character into the subject of a film and has already made a pilot video to expand on the idea. Ouellette’s experience as a film maker is also evident in Charming The Snake and Hey Jonah. In the former he continues to effectively evoke the dark theme of the opening track with his moody banjo, menacing bass line and the inspired choice of Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on percussion. 

There are three instrumental tracks. Jenny’s Jam is a traditional Irish reel, given a Celtic rock feel here with drum and bass and EJ’s manic fiddle playing. Campbells’ Farewell To Red Gap is a Scottish traditional tune, again given the rock treatment. Much more successful is the hauntingly beautiful self penned slow air Gideon’s Lament, where EJ shows his fine playing by laying down harmonising twin fiddles.

The remaining seven songs are essentially power ballads in a distinctly Springsteenesque style. This is probably due in part to the prominence of the saxophone as one of the lead instruments. Heck  - he even manages to make Steve Earle’s I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet sound like it was written by Bruce!

Friday
Jul062018

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Kacy & Clayton The Siren’s Song New West

Second cousins Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum’s third recording The Siren’s Song finds the duo exploring a fuller sound from their previous recordings with the addition of bass guitar and drums. Having been invited by Jeff Tweedy to open for Wilco at The Fillmore in San Francisco last year, the duo impressed Tweedy to the extent that he offered to produce the album at Wilco’s famous Loft Studios in Chicago. The end product is quite staggering and an album that has hardly left my CD player since it’s arrival. 

There has always been a primal innocence to their writing, inspired no doubt by the rural upbringing they enjoyed but this time around they create and perform songs like veterans. Quite extraordinary considering they are both marginally above the legal age to purchase alcohol in the States!

Everything about the album transports the listener back to the late 60’s/early 70’s, from the impressive graphics on both the front and back of the sleeve (the artwork and layout were directed by label mate Daniel Romano), but most particularly to the material itself, folk music soaked in country with nods in the direction the very best of UK folk when Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch and a young Richard Thompson held court.

Despite approaching deeper topics such as disillusionment (The Light Of Day), abandonment (Go And Leave Me), exploitation (A Certain Kind Of Memory) and betrayal (Cannery Yard), the album also possesses some lighter moments, particularly on the sardonic White Butte County, where Linthicum takes the lead vocal on a familiar tale of small village hopelessness ("The hills of White Butte County are a pleasant sight to see. But the girls of White Butte County have the same Grandpa as me"). Lifeboat would not have been out of place on the Richard and Linda Thompson classic breakup album Shoot Out The Lights ("If envy was tequila and jealousy strong beer, we could throw a party that would last throughout the year") and the simplicity of the aforementioned Cannery Yard is spine tingling, with Anderson’s sweet vocals accompanied only by acoustic guitar and gentle fiddle playing.

Far from being revivalists and given that they grew up in the remote Wood Mountain Uplands, the impression generated is that the material is first hand and based on personal experience rather than delving into The Harry Smith Songbook. Songwriting aside, what elevates the material to an altogether different level is Anderson’s intoxicating and crystal-clear vocals, perfectly in tune with Linthicum’s equally impressive fingerpicking guitar style.

The Siren’s Song is an album created with totally sincerity, innocence and love, steeped in all that’s so vital in classic country folk music. The genre is in safe hands with Kacy and Clayton as custodians and I’m already eagerly awaiting their next album. A contender for album of the year for me on it's European release this year or last year when it was released in the U.S.

Lera Lynn Plays Well With Others Single Lock

Lera Lynn’s 2016 release Resistor found the young Nashville based artist abandoning her more familiar country roots sound and experimenting with an album that crossed into indie territory, possibly targeting a wider audience given her far reaching exposure having appeared and performed in the second series of HBO’s True Detective.

Plays Well With Others finds her returning to more familiar territory. The album features seven co-writes with some of her Nashville neighbours, who each also duet on the various tracks they contributed to. What is particularly impressive about the album, given the formula, is how well the tracks gel as a unit and critical to this is Lynn’s selection of collaborators. All the more notable given that Lynn deliberately did not point any of her allies in any particular direction during the writing process. 

The performers on the album are a reflection of the burgeoning and emerging musical talent in Nashville with contributions by John Paul White – who also co-produced the album alongside Lynn and Ben Tanner - Andrew Combs, Dylan LeBlanc, JD Mc Pherson and Nicole Adams. The old guard also features courtesy of Rodney Crowell whose delicate semi spoken vocals combine beautifully with Lynn’s honeyed purring on Crimson Underground.

The overriding theme throughout is love imagined, gained and lost with titles such as Lose Myself, What Is Love, Breakdown and Nothin To Do With Love exploring relationships at their various junctures. 

Recorded in a week and a half at John Paul White’s Sun Drop Sound Studio in Florence, unlike its predecessor Resistor it features acoustic instrumentation throughout as a backdrop to some stunning vocal deliveries. Particularly impressive are What Is Love featuring Lynn and Dylan LeBlanc’s perfectly matched hushed vocals, accompanied only by acoustic guitars. A stripped back version of the Sutton/Sherrill classic Almost Persuaded is given the George and Tammy treatment by Lynn and John Paul White. Shovels & Rope contribute to the other cover on the album, the dark and sleazy Wolf Like Me written by TV On The Radio and both Lynn and Andrew Combs explore their edgy sides on Breakdown. The only all-female duet finds Nicole Atkins sharing vocals on the upbeat 60’s sounding In Another Life.

Duet and tribute albums can often go horribly wrong but Plays Well With Others does exactly what the title advocates by combining well-chosen conspirators, great songs, exceptional vocal deliveries and most of all simplicity, acknowledging that sometimes less is more. At thirty-two minutes it’s not the longest album, having said that one listen is never enough so get ready to hit the play button once more, I certainly did.

Carter Sampson Lucky CRS

Carter Sampson’s profile has been heading skyward in Europe ever since the release of Wilder Side in 2016, an album that hit the No.3 spot in Euro Americana Chart’s Best Albums of that year.

An artist that seems to be continually on the road, Sampson managed eight visits to Europe in a twelve-month period touring that recording which included two sold out shows at Kilkenny Roots in 2017 and appearances at both The Maverick and Glastonbury Festivals. Her latest album’s title may suggest an element of fortune in her rising star but it’s the quality of her song writing and her distinctive sweet vocals, together with a relentless work ethic that has found the Oklahoma born Sampson fostering a growing fan base and getting the recognition she richly deserves.

Recorded at On Studios in Moore Oklahoma, the production duties are shared by Sampson and Jason Scott, who also adds drums, guitars, mandolin and backing vocals. Fellow Okies joining Sampson in the studio were Jason Tyler (dobro, banjo and mandolin), James Purdy & Jack Waters (drums), John Calvin Abney (keys and electric guitar), Kyle Reid (keys, guitar and pedal steel), Luke Mullenix (bass). With no intention of straying from what she does best the album follows a similar path to Wilder Side, route one country folk held together spectacularly by her tight rhythm section. 

The cracking title track opens the album with Sampson and her host of backing musicians giving the number the Emmylou/Hot Band treatment. Coincidently the album culminates with the Shel Silverstein classic Queen Of The Silver Dollar, Sampson version displays a looser laid-back delivery than Emmylou’s version on the Pieces of The Sky album.

Other inclusions that reveal Sampson as an artist growing in confidence and maturity are Hello Darlin, complete with some dreamy steel guitar by Kyle Reid complementing Sampson’s gorgeous unhurried vocals and All I Got which follows a similar path. Tulsa, written by fellow Okie Zac Copeland, is not the first time an Oklahoma artist has written with glowing pride about their home State and Sampson’s effort certainly does the song justice.

The up-tempo Rattlesnake Kate is classic dirt road country, a tale of a determined freewheeling independent woman – perhaps an analogy to the demands on a female musician’s trials attempting to survive in today’s market – raising her son alone and single handily bumping off one hundred and forty rattlesnakes and skinning them to make a matching dress and shoes. 

There’s so much to savour and admire on Lucky. Like its predecessors Wilder Side and Mockingbird Sing, it’s uncomplicated, joyous and delivered by an artist in possession of a voice that always seems to love what she is singing about. Thumbs up also to Stuart Sampson for the most impressive cover painting featuring Ms Sampson in trademark red cowboy boots!

Levi Parham It’s All Good CRS

It’s All Good is the fourth release from Okie Levi Parham whose signature blend of blues, soul, rock and country lands somewhere between The Allman Brothers and early 70’s Rolling Stones.

Parham’s 2016 release All American Blues made the No.1 spot on the Euro Americana Charts and it’s reasonable to expect the gritty blues soaked It’s All Good will hit similar highs. 

‘I ain’t scared, I ain’t worried, I’ve got friends and they’d be here in a hurry’, Parham tells us on the album’s title track and true to his word Parham and his entourage took the ten-hour drive from Tulsa Oklahoma to Muscle Shoals Alabama to record at the famed Portside Sound Studio. The journey most certainly was a fruitful one resulting in a ten-track album that sets its stall from the primal bar room bluesy opener Badass Bob and continues on a similar high-octane path before drawing breath with the closer, a John Prine sounding ballad All The Ways I Feel For You.

The stellar line-up includes guitarists Paul Benjaman, Jesse Aycock, Dustin Pittsley and Parham, pooling their talents with John Fullbright on keys, Aaron Boehler on bass, Dylan Aycock on drums, snippets of sax courtesy of Michael Staub and backing vocalists Lauren Farrah, John Carter Abney and Lauren Barth. The individual talent in that bunch alone was a signal of Parham’s intent of going for broke and its fair to say he pushed the band all the way to get his just rewards.

"Ring that bell I’ll come running out like a heavyweight", Parham sings on Heavyweight, an inclusion that, intentional or not given the title, recalls The Band at the top of their game. Boxmeer Blues could have been plucked from The Stones Exile On Main Street sessions, slick layered vocals and bluesy piano breaks on a tale of temptations and distractions on the road. In LP jargon the sixth track Shade would be the Side 2 opener and its addictive and beautifully paced rhythm recalls Derek & The Dominoes. The brooding Turn Your Love Around offers five minutes plus of raw hypnotic blues.

It’s All Good is more than a recording paying homage to music and bands of previous decades but more accurately a collection of  top drawer material delivered vocally and musically by an artist who is very much a caretaker of the soulful bluesy country sound that we love so much. Hats off young man, it’s a gem!

Suburban Dirts I Want Blood Old Jank

Suburban Dirt are a six-piece band made up of John Wheatly (lead vocal, guitar, harmonica), Chris Varley (bass), David Austin (drums, vocals), David Moyes (guitar), Jay Seymour(keyboards) and Joolz Addison (violin).  Residing in the London commuter belt town of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire rather than any dust bowl State in the country they write about has not deterred them from creating an absorbing and exceptionally well researched project.  With gothic and blood thirsty tales of pre-cowboy America, the band’s third album plays like a soundtrack to a violent and gruesome movie populated by mercenaries, bandits, smugglers, rapists and highwaymen, in a free for all continent immediately post American Revolution. The album is based on the lives of the infamous Harpe Brothers, who are credited with being the first serial killers and mass murderers in America and whose barbaric treatment of their victims included gutting them, filling their bodies with stones and dumping them in the nearest waterway. Ruthless horse thieves and highwaymen, the two brothers were also employed as plantation foremen – think the Brittle Brothers in Tarantino’s Django Unchained -  they adopted the outlaw lifestyle having been loyal to The British Crown during American Revolution. The album consists of fifteen sections which need to be played in one sitting for maximum effect. 

The Harpe Brothers Theme opens the album in frenzied fashion getting straight to the point ("We cut them open, carve out their guts, fill their innards up with stones").  What follows are the gentle instrumental Home and then Eli, a tale of hope for a character who will later become one of the brothers’ targets. We hear of the brother’s wives and their casual acceptance of their partners brutality on Harpe Women ("He’ll be home soon, making plans. We will wash their feet and cook their meals, we will make their beds and watch them sleep"). The revenge and final and slaying of Micajah Harpe - Wiley Harpe died five years later -  by a victim left for dead features in The Hunt ("I know I’m not evil but I have done evil deeds, I took the head of that evil son of a bitch and stuck it in a tree").

Playing out every bit as dark as the Bob Frank and John Murry murder ballad classic World Without End - another comparison might be Richmond Fontaine’s cinematic The High Country -   I Want Blood is essentially a soundtrack without a supporting movie. Well worth checking out.

Fox & Coyote Scattered Shadows On A Double Bed Self Release

Ryan Evans and Jonathan Harms, the founder members of Cox & Coyote, originally performed as a duo, two voices, a banjo and a guitar. That particular line up somewhat restricted their musical direction and led to the recruitment of Catherine Canon (cello and vocals), Grant Gordon (bass) and Kenny Befus (drums), who collectively contribute to the current line-up. Scattered Shadows On A Double Bed most certainly benefits from the addition of the more recent recruits, offering a unique, experimental and wonderfully layered musical landscape, quite difficult to categorise. Described as alt-folk the album’s material ranges from the Sufjan Steven’s sounding White Spider to A Million Filaments which would not have been out of place on a (very) early Genesis album. What is consistent throughout is outstanding musicianship, with the cello contribution by Canon a particular delight. 

The opening track (Don’t Tell Me) There’s Nothing In My Head dips, soars and eventually explodes musically and the closer Bed ("You can forget about tomorrow, I’m going back to bed again") deals with escapism and depression, a topic also suggested both in the album’s title and cover shot. 

All in all a most interesting and challenging listen which requires a number of visits to fully appreciate and best described on their website as "sonic panorama, juxtaposing hushed confessions wit raging guitar solos, thick cello crescendo with existential howls."

Saturday
Jun162018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

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

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

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

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

Charlie Smyth The Way I Feel Self Release

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

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

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

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

Ford Maddox Ford This American Blues Porterhouse

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

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

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

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

Stevie Tombstone On The Line Self Release

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

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

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

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

Gerry Spehar Anger Management Self Release

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

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

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

Mike Aiken Wayward Troubadour Northwind 

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

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

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