Tuesday
May222018

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers Years Bloodshot

The second album from this tight and tenacious combo follows time spent touring and playing in front of audiences across the US. There is some real meat here with all parts of the equation adding up to something that counts. The band serve the songs and it all feels right. The guitar and steel give that roots edge but the overall sound is capable of a number of twists and turns that fail to pigeon-hole them into a single category. However, there is no doubting that this fits the overall loose Americana tag. 

Shook is the author of the 10 songs and she has a voice that is central to their truth. Songs that deal with a variety of emotions and moods that are signalled, to a degree, by their titles. New Ways To Fail, The Bottle Never Lets Me Down, Damned If I Do, Dammed If I Don’t and Heartaches In Hell are all songs that have at their heart an emotional and intentional reaction to situations that feel like her take on the reality of living and coping in these straightened times. Hard times, heart breaks and hard drinking are all explored with a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She can also take and understand an opposite viewpoint, like in The Bottle Never Lets Me Down where she sings the song from the male perspective.

With some of her more high profile major label contemporaries, like Kacey Musgraves for instance, making moves to a broader pop platform it is refreshing to hear Shook and her band explore the possibilities of their music without abandoning the underlying sense of country, alternative or otherwise, that is the bedrock of her two albums to date. Whether she expands on that in any way is up to Shook but for now she and her core band which features exhilarating exchanges between guitarist Eric Peterson and steel guitarist Phil Sullivan and bassist Aaron Oliva make music that is for these times. 

Karen Jonas Butter Self Release 

There is a sense of maturity about this new album from Karen Jonas. She is a mother as well as a working musician and so that has to mean that she doesn’t have a great deal of time to mess around and on her latest album she looks at her life and delivers a set of songs that reflect her life and loves. This means a smooth mix of twang and torch. A subtle blend of country, folk as well as a touch of soul and jazz tinged moments. 

The title song relates to a love of baking in her kitchen and the associations that butter has with her family, her upbringing and also the family she is raising currently.It’s about being at home with family as much as being at home with her music. There are also references to the circus of life in songs like the directly titled   as well as in Mr Wonka. Elsewhere she walks, reluctantly, down Yellow Brick Road (“paved with fool’s gold”), Butter is an allegory for the good things and Jonas alludes to that with the track’s big band feel. Then thereare the tales of heartbreak and woe that often are the subject of country aligned albums.

The album was co-produced by long term associates who worked on the last two albums, guitarists Tim Bray and Jeff Covert, in a studio in hometown Fredericksburg in Virginia. It features a full, warm sound that includes pedal steel, fiddle, keyboards and brass, alongside a strong rhythm section and some versatile guitar contributions. Often, they recorded in late night sessions after the kids were tucked up which gives the album a sense of comfort and ease with unforced late night attributions. There is a timeless feel throughout that has both class and sass. All three of Jonas’ albums are worthy of attention and the combined talents of all those involved have produced a set of recordings that are as real and tasty as butter on a good bread.

Sean Burns and Lost Country Music For Taverns, Bars and Honky Tonks Self Release

This Winnipeg artist has released a number of albums under his own name alone. This one has the appendage of Lost Country - a set of musicians who have joined in the recording to deliver a set of songs that live up to the album title. Music that indeed would fit any of the venues mentioned. Small, intimate, loud and looking to be entertained. And entertain they do from the train whistle sound of the cut-a-rug opener, Have You seen That Train. The band - Joanna Miller on drums, bassist Bernie Thiessen and guitarist Grant Siemens - are joined by a couple of superlative players in the fabulous Chris Scruggs on steel guitar and Harry Stinson on harmony vocals as well as (for one track) harmonica player Big Dave McLean.

What makes the album work especially well is the diverse nature of the songs. The second track Farewell Parties (which might be located more in atavern than arowdy bar) is a sad, slow tale of a break-up when his woman is setting up the event before he has actually gone. Then there’s the mid-tempo My Old Self, a quavering vocal that tells of a man who doesn’t really want to get back to his bar-fly self anymore. Throughout, Burns vocal delivery is spot on and able to take the rough with the smooth, the lost with the found. Burns penned a half dozen of the songs but choose some good songs that fit the bill from other writers such as Wade Mosher’s Don’t Let The Highway Get You Lost, a song about keeping focus and avoiding distractions. Big Freightliner is a song written by fellow honky-tonker Andrew Neville. Dan Russell’s Sturdy Woman should also please Band fans too. Another stand out is Don’t Play With Fire a cautionary tale co-written by Burns and Sara Bleackley with some great Harry Stinson harmonies. The final song here, I Wish Things Were Different, is another ballad that is full of regret and remorse.

As with all the songs, the band and guests have a ball and the playing is perfect for the music with Scruggs steel adding a welcome diversity that takes the music upwards and onwards. Though the core band are well capable of delivering in a live setting I would imagine (and with the YouTube live clips to back it up). Sean Burns joins the growing number of under the radar independent artists who clearly love to listen to and play classic country; albeit from their own point of view with original songs and well chosen covers. Top notch music for all occasions - if those occasions demand a cool band building a head of steam on some hot songs.

Ashley McBryde Girl Going Nowhere Atlantic

This girl from Arkansas plays guitar and writes songs. Ashley McBryde rhastwo previous self released albums and won the Country Showdown talent show before signing with Atlantic records and releasing her major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere. That this album was produced by Jay Joyce made me fear for something more bombastic with strong crossover leanings so it’s good to report that this is a more subtle and restrained production and very much in sync with the songs. McBryde is a part of the trend towards female songwriters who write for their times and contemporaries. The end results though are good storytelling songs that should always be at the heart of what is labelled country music.

A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega, the first single from the album is an example of her craft and was named one of the best songs of 2017. There are many other here that show her skill at taking the elements of her upbringing, as well as observations of those she sees around her, as the focus and subjects of her writing. The title track and opening song is a realisation that while a person can be dubbed going nowhere, this can in fact be doing pretty good. Radioland tells of the influence that that medium had on her and her family. American Scandal is a passionate declaration of the need for love. As is often the case these days McBryde has co-written these songs for the most part with a selection of different co-writersbut whatever the source, they are well written and engaging. The one solo write is a straight and honest consideration of the things that are good and bad about a close relationship. That song, Andy (I Can’t Live Without You), will resonate with many as being based in a no-bullshit reality (as is much of the material here). Material that is memorable and full of a definite female power.

The lyrics are all worth listening to and it’s a shame that the label didn’t see fit to include them in the package to make that easier. Another factor in the success of the album is McBryde using her band on the album; a group of players who have lived with these songs and understand them. Joyce’s production, as mentioned, helps to achieve a balanced and dynamic sound that moves from slower ballads to out and out rockers like El Dorado. Out in front of all this is McBryde’s striking vocal delivery that is full of heart and soul. Ashley McBryde’s major label debut is one of an artist who is going places and one well worth joining her on

Ashley Monroe Sparrow Warner Brothers 

For this new album Monroe has taken a step in a different direction than I had expected. Her performance at Dublin C2C in 2016was a stand-out of more traditionally minded country music (closer to the real thing than much of what has performed under that banner). For this album Monroe has worked with the very much in demand Dave Cobb. They recorded the album in the Historic Studio A in Nashville and have used the environment to create what they may have considered to be a contemporary take on the string-laden countrypolitan made famous by Chet Atkins (often in that very studio). It is an interesting if not quite fulfilling venture. One that artist and producer are no doubt happy with but one that somehow fails to ignite despite some quality song writing.

Monroe is still a distinctive and twang-inflected singer who is commanding on these co-written songs. It has highlights like She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me) and the opening Orphan, the heartbreak of Paying Attention or the affection of Daddy Told You. But the overall sound seems to fall between different stools; neither pop nor traditional country, without really firmly establishing itself in its own right. There is no steel guitar for instance which might’ve helped to somehow make a link to her previous work. Rather, it is strings with an accompanying rhythm section, keyboards and Cobb’s own guitar contributions.Individually the songs are good enough but overall the similar mood and arrangements tends to negate the strength of the intention.

As part of the Pistol Annie’s Monroe achieved some recognition but her solo career seems not to have taken off as expected and for a writer and singer of her undoubted talent that is a shame. There are circumstances for that to a degree, especially in the way country radio underplays the role of female artists. So, in the end, Sparrow tries hard but doesn’t quite succeed on its own terms but that doesn’t mean writing off Ashely Monroe. What will be interesting, outside of this release, will be how she performthese songs in a live setting alongside the music of the previous albums. For now, it is worth listening to Sparrow yourselves and making your own minds up as to how it flies.

Ross Cooper I Rode The Wild Horses Self Release

Perhaps the best known of the real cowboy singer/songwriters is Chris Ledoux. Others include Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson and you can add to that list, Ross Cooper, a former professional bareback rider who had to quit the rodeo circuit when he sustained a knee injury. Now he concentrates on music and has just released this brand new album. The title track makes reference to that career though many of the other songs are more about the trialsand tribulations of everyday life. Me Only, Damn Love, Living’s Hard, Loving’s Easy and Heart Attacks are all explorations of day to day existence. Equally the album has a hard-edge sound that is hardly traditional honky-tonk. Often it hits the edge of hard riff-laden rock. But then some of Ledoux’s music did as well.

The album was produced and mixed by Eric Masse in Nashville. He and Copper assembled a sturdy set of players including Steelism’s Jeremy Fetzer and Eddy Dunlap on pedal steel. Another name that may be familiar to many is Erin Rae on backing vocals. These join the 11 named musicians who contribute their talents to the recordings on what is an enjoyable album that has enough roots Americana to make it of interest to all those who enjoy the more adventurous side of things.

Fellow artist Paul Cauthen co-wrote Old Crow Whiskey & A Cornbread Moon with Cooper and it is one of the more traditionally orientated songs here. Andrew Combs, another artist who may be known to our readers, is a co-writer of Lady Of The Highway along with Jordan Leaning. It celebrates those ladies who add some comfort for those travelling the well worn highways. Cooper has a versatile voice that can handle the slower material along with the up-tempo rockers. It is the kind of album that may well appeal to Ryan Bingham fans and those who like their roots music to have a less traditional bias.

Cooper had a hand in writing all the 12 tracks here and he is following his muse in music and looking for the same thrill that bareback horse riding undoubtably gave him. I imagine that in a live setting with a receptive audience that he might get close. On record he has made an album that grows with listening and signals a singer/songwriter who has the experience of a lifestyle first hand that others only imagine (his song Cowboys & Indians touches on that very subject). An experience that should translate into a portfolio of believable songs as he gets further into his music career. As his song says he is Another Mile on that path.

Romantica Outlaws Self Release

A couple of years agoBen Kyle released a self-titled album that was one of my albums of the year. He also released a fine duets album with Carrie Rodriquez. Since then he has been putting out albums under his previous band name, Romantica. This new album is a mixture of all these elements. The opening track features Rodriquez on backing vocals and the final track is a version of one of the standout tracks from his solo album. This live rendition of The Dark features Ryan Adams. 

Key to Romantica’s gentle, reflective sound is pedal steel guitar. On one of the tracks he features two different steel players. The songs are originals with the exception of two covers - Something from George Harrison and the other is his take on Hallelujah. Now I have to admit, though I love the song, I’m a bit hallelujahed out at this stage having heard so many versions - some good, some bad -  this one however has meaning for Kyle and fits the mood of the album fine. But given the standard of his songs like Do Go Gently, Love In Winter or Listen To Your Soul he may not need to add outside material other than that the songs has a special meaning for him in context of the overall album.

Kyle has recently been through a serious and debilitating illness (Lyme Disease) and couldn’t function in the way he wanted and was unable to communicate or make music. A distressing situation for anyone to face and doubly so for someone who often communicated through words and music. This release then is very welcome. Kyle is still dealing with the illness and its ramifications but has found a way and the words to deal with that.

Without knowing this, these tracks still offer and deliver much. They are called forgotten songs. Songs from an earlier time that have been outsiders, outlaws. Now they may offer some insight. I haven’t heard all the previous Romantica albums but would recommend them (as would my colleague Paul who reviewed the last album). The band name may be slightly incongruous given what he has been going through but is perfectly suited to this music. Wishing you well Ben.

Lloyd Green & Jee Dee Maness Journey To The Beginning Coastal Bend

This album is (largely) instrumental revisit to the Byrds seminal Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album by the two steel guitarists who played on different parts of the album; Green in Nashville and Maness in LA. Anyone who loves the sound of steel guitar will enjoy the joint playing of these two masters of the instrument. There is a rhythm section of Dennis Crouch and John Gardner and they are joined by Russ Pahl (guitars), Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle) and others including Al Perkins, Sally Van Meter, Earl Poole Ball and Skip Edwards. An array of talent in other words. John Macy was in the producer’s chair.

The songs will be well known to anyone who knows the original album and include I Am A Pilgrim, Hickory Wind, The Christian Life as well as a song that was recorded at the time but not included. One Hundred Years From Now gets an outing here. It is a niche album perhaps but also a tribute to an instrument that was once fundamental to country music and to an album that many regard as one of the foundation stones of country-rock.

The final track is a reprise of You Ain’t Going Nowhere which features the vocals of Jim Lauderdale, Herb Peterson, Richie Furay and Jeff Hanna all trading verses. it makes a fitting end to the otherwise vocal-less album. Steel guitar lovers worldwide should take notice as well as those who appreciate the many talents involved in putting this tribute together.

 

Tuesday
May152018

Reviews by Paul McGee

 

Patrick Darrah Northern Truth Double Darrah

This artist is from Bloomingdale, New York where he worked in his father’s auto business. These days he lives in Nashville and delivers his debut recording, on his own independent label, Double Darrah Entertainment. He writes two of the ten songs included here and the production is by Drew Smith and Kevin “Swine” Grantt, both of whom play in the studio band. 

There are songs of lost towns and lost lives (Colorado), old flames, old memories (Who You Used To Be), old love (I Never Got Over You), memories of youth (Mama Left The Radio On; Dry County). Being left behind is a common theme in Country music but three songs are perhaps a few too many on the same record (You Make It Look Easy; After You and Love Oughta Be Perfect). 

There is a real contemporary country groove to the songs and both Smooth As Whiskey and the rap groove of Make You Mine are the stand-out radio hits.The playing and production are very bright and clear in what makes for an enjoyable listen overall.  

Korby Lenker Thousand Springs Soundly

Seven releases into a career that has seen him mature into a song-writer of some substance, in addition to a published writer, for this project Lenker recorded the basic tracks in different places that held an importance for him. These are songs that are written with personal meaning rather than commercial appeal but the strong sense of melody ensures that his craft shines through. Having recorded across seven states and featuring approx. 30 different artists, including Amy Speace and Molly Tuttle, the songs have an immediate appeal.

There is a lonely quality to the opening tracks, Northern Lights and Friend And A Friend, both focusing on leaving and travelling on with reflections of life on the road and an unknown future. Uh Oh is a song about infatuation and the hope in wishing, it is gentle and sweet, as is the fine ballad, Love Is The Only Song, with cello and piano complimenting the whispered vocals. 

There is a look back through the rear window to younger days and lessons learned in Father To The Man, co-written with Amy Speace, while the dark tale of Stormy Seas is somewhat stark by contrast. The rock vibe of Last Man Standing tells the tale of Custer and Crazy Horse in the Sioux Nation fight for survival. The happily inane girlfriend in Book Nerd bears little resemblance with the free-spirit busker of Nothing Really Matters and her old man admirer who watches from afar. There is a sense of Paul Simon in the vocal delivery here and also on the excellent Late Bloomers; a song that speaks of the need to keep believing, even if dreams have been lost along the way. The final song, Wherever You Are is a real stand-out and an ode to the memory of a lost friend, both gentle and sad while keeping the feeling alive.

The project was produced by Korby Lenker, mixed by Paul Mitch, and mastered by Alex McCullough. It is a very engaging album and one which comes with a warm recommendation. 

S Carey Hundred Acres Jagjaguwar

This is a meditation of sorts, a soft whisper across a field in the early morning dew. The ten tracks blend into a seamless listening experience that never lifts beyond the gently laid-back atmosphere created by producer, song-writer, multi-instrumentalist S Carey – also known for his role as the drummer and supporting vocalist of indie folk band Bon Iver. 

He is joined here by a small group of musicians who play beautifully and sensitively in support of these mood pieces, including Justin Vernon, original founder of Bon Iver. This is the third solo release from Sean Carey and the whispered vocals and lush, yet understated, sonic vibe to the project is beautifully realised.  

Pedal steel mixes with synthesizer while programmed sounds blend with violin and viola. Titles such as Meadow Song, (with clarinet & french horn), Hundred Acres, True North, Rose Petals and Hideout give a flavour of the sense of quiet place and space that permeates this record.

A contemporary sound that hints at days gone by yet points to a bright future for this excellent musician.

True North Open Road, Broken Heart Self Release

True North is an acoustic Folk/Roots band that has released three previous albums prior to this new offering which surfaced in 2017. The band comprises Kristen Grainger (ukulele, vocals), Dan Wetzel (guitar, resonator guitar, octave mandolin, ukulele, vocals), Martin Stevens (mandolin, fiddle, octave mandolin, vocals) and Josh Adkins (upright bass, vocals). The album features eight songs written by Kristen Grainger and four covers; Mighty Bourbon (Justin Evan Thompson), The Eye (Brandi Carlile, Philip and Timothy Hanseroth), Wilder Than Her (Fred Eaglesmith) and Without You (Eddie Vedder).

Guest musicians Eric Alterman (cello) and Todd Sickafoose (bass) join the band who self-produced the collection at Big Owl Studios in Salem, Oregon. The playing is subtle and understated, giving the songs a cohesion and fluidity that makes the listening experience a very positive one. The vocals of Grainger are very engaging and the sweet melodies are quite hypnotic when listening on headphones; intimate and charged with a gentle longing.  The harmony vocals with Dan Wetsel are very complimentary to Grainger’s voice and lend an added layer to the arrangements.

One-Way Ticket contains the lines that appear as the title of the album and the song is one of striking out for the future, changing circumstances and having the will to keep believing. Dark Horse Bar & Grill celebrates the solace of a local hostelry where there is ‘lots of free philosophy’. Ratio of Angels to Demons deals with the passing of a friend and does so in a very creative and poignant manner. The subject matter of some songs is somewhat bleak with titles like I’m Gone, You Come Round, Sunday Night Blues and Without You handling the pain of separation and the feeling of being alone in the World. 

However, these are balanced by the upbeat melodies of Seed, Leaf, Flower, Seed – a celebration of the Seasons and the inherent magic of Mother Nature, plus the ability to take the extraordinary from the everyday ordinary things as explored on Small Wonders. A very impressive release and one that is well worth exploring further.

Will Paynter Truth & Beauty Self Release

Fender Rhodes and tenor sax join with the tenor bass of Will Paynter on opening track, One Better Man and we are given a soulful feel for the talents of this artist who performs and records with the Sonoma Sound Band. They play roots music with rhythms that incorporate blues, country and folk influences. 

Paynter served in the army with the Green Berets and has lived in both in Central and South America. His wandering has also seen him travel in the Far East and the South Pacific, North Africa and the Middle East. He has released a few previous albums and this current project includes 13 tracks and a list of studio musicians that is both very long and impressive with Greg Brady and Paynter co-producing. 

There are four cover versions of songs by Tom Waits (Down There By The Train), Johnny Cash (Let The Train Blow The Whistle), Bruce Springsteen (Further On Up The Road) and Dock Boggs (Wild Bill Jones) and all other songs are written by Will Paynter. The acoustic stripped-down feel to the whole recording and the less-is-more playing adds to the character of the songs like Loving You, Truth & Beauty, Brand New Day, All I Own and Clearer To Me Now

The most arresting song is What People Are Talking About, which highlights all of the injustice in the World today and a commentary on the lack of humanity in all of it – a grim overview of our times.

Six vocalists, five guitar players, three drummers, two bass players, accordion, violin, pedal-steel, banjo, saxophone, piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, and some fine harmonica playing from Paynter himself – plenty to enjoy here.

Jordan Davis Home State HumpHead.

A debut album from new artist Jordan Davis who comes from Louisiana, USA. The twelve songs are typical of the crossover country releases that are proving so popular among the current listeners of commercial radio stations. There is a slick production sound, courtesy of Paul DiGiovanni, who also contributes acoustic & electric guitars, banjo, vocals and programming. 

It is that last credit that old purists of the Country genre hate to see – programming. In modern recording techniques the use of loops, syncopated beats and programming can lead to something more akin to Pop music and can sound sterile, lacking real character or colour. 

This release falls into that territory. Sure, there are lots of bright choruses and hooks that will sound great while driving along with the windows down and the stereo turned up. Songs that celebrate woman-kind and songs that celebrate the chase involved in impressing a sought-after beauty – Tough To Tie Down; Singles You Up; Made That Way; So Do I; Dreamed You Did – all come and go with the hopes of success in the high stakes of romantic conquest. 

Country music is not something that exists in a vacuum and it must move forward, but the modern sound of albums like this do not fit any definition of the original roots of Country. Davis has a strong vocal and the tracks all bounce with a bright and breezy quality but I find myself wishing for Willie Nelson or Emmylou to appear and save the day. Hmmm.

Thursday
May032018

Reviews by Paul McGee

 

 

Mare Wakefield & Nomad Time To Fly Maresie

This husband and wife duo met at Berklee College of Music in 2004. These days they are based in Nashville and multi-instrumentalist Nomad Ovunc produced and engineered this collection of 12 songs for their second release as a duo. Mare (Mary) Wakefield has been releasing solo records since 1997, with a total of 5 albums to her name. She plays acoustic guitar and sings with great clarity and conviction across these self-penned songs and very impressive they are too. 

Nomad contributes on piano and accordion plus melodica, percussion and backing vocals. The superb Will Kimbrough plays electric guitar and is joined by Brian Allen on upright and electric bass and Wes Little plays drums. They contribute in no small sense to what is a very accomplished collection. Special guests include Greg Foresman (electric guitar), Eamon McLoughin (fiddle), Bobby Holland (backing vocals) and Mike Waldron (guitar). 

The songs touch on a number of current topics as Land Of The Free demonstrates; a biting condemnation of bigotry in modern America and the lie of it being the land of the free. Lyrically this lady really nails it. The songs Breathe and Falling deal with lessons learned from heartbreak and failed relationships, while the title track looks at losing a loved one and the growth that can arise from bereavement.

Real Big Love is a playful opener with an up-tempo beat and a celebration of being alive in a World of free will and endless choice. Henry is a similar giddy, tongue-in-cheek, look at a flirtatious restaurant employee and a customer she fancies… The Day We Buried Mama is a real hoot with the sub-title (& Cousin Bobby Joe Got Wed). Old country jive and great playing by Nomad on piano.

Bernice & Bernadette is a song of unrequited love at a time when such liaisons were forbidden to dwell upon, much less put into action. It is both poignant and beautifully observed.

These are folk songs in the best tradition and the talents of Nomad blend perfectly with the warm vocals and song-writing talents of Mare in creating a highly recommended release. 

I’m Kingfisher Transit Fading Trails

This is the creation of Thomas Jonsson who writes all eleven songs here and adds guitars and vocals to the project. He is joined by a coterie of musicians who support the melodies on a variety of instruments. Jonsson has been releasing music since 2003 and this represents his third album as musical alias, I’m Kingfisher. Produced by Carl Edlom, who also contributes on guitars, bass, piano, synthesizers, percussion, field recordings and vocals, the stripped-down sound of these acoustic driven songs is a soft seduction that eases itself up to you and settles down for the evening by the fire. There is a hypnotic quality to the strumming and voice which lulls the listener in and gently seduces. Think Nick Drake meets Jeff Buckley if you want a sign-post along the way.

Luck Underwhelms Me is a powerful arrangement with subtle string accompaniment and Sarajevo is a song that checks Vedran Smailović, known as the "Cellist of Sarajevo".  Can’t Wait For The Future is a song of hope and for growing through new experience. Silent Spring shows off some fine guitar work but the subject matter of the song escapes me.

Although no lyric sheet came with this music and the actual words are hard to follow, it does not seem to matter, as the whole stream-of-consciousness vibe on the project allows the arrangements and voice to meld together. Despite the fact that song titles like Superman In A Wake and Topography Of Gabon don’t lend themselves to easy explanation and the abstract art work of the CD cover is in no way representative of the music contained within; I find myself increasingly impressed on repeated listening with this entire project. You will not be disappointed upon purchase.

The Equitorial Group Apricity Self Release.

This band hail from Eastbourne, England and are comprised of Teresa Fox (keys and vocals), Andy Tourle (bass and vocals), Dave Davies (guitar and vocals), Mike Tourle (drums) and Helen Weeks (vocals and pedal steel/guitar). They issued a compilation last year of previous songs, plus a few new titles, three of which appear on this new album. Apart from a Live at Summer Trifle Festival release, again in 2017, I know little about the band as there is no information with the CD that arrived for review – quite frustrating and not helpful.

The title of the album refers to the warmth of the sun in winter and their sound is akin to a gentle stroll in the early morning with the minimal strum of guitar and simple drum brushes delivered on the first two songs, Lights Shine and Juggernauts, setting the mood for the rest of the album. Surrogate Funeral dials everything up a notch with a good beat and rhythm that allows the musicians to stretch out a little and the noir feel of Burning is interesting. Electric Night and Motorbikes build into extended guitar explorations and the arrangements overall hint at mood scapes that carry a wistful sense of surrender. Farewell My Lovely and Those Dudes are a slice of Americana that points to wider influences and this is Folk-Rock with fine playing and confident vocal delivery. A release that bodes well for the future.

Paul Thorn Don’t Let The Devil Ride Perpetual Obscurity

This is a collection of Gospel/Soul/Blues songs, mainly plucked from obscurity and originally recorded by black southern gospel groups. There is also a cover of Love Train, the classic O’Jays hit and Paul Thorn has really delivered a collection of 14 tracks that impress on all levels. A veteran of the Roots-Rock circuit with a dozen releases to his name, Thorn is a well-respected artist who was born and raised in Mississippi and the son of a preacher. The influences of his childhood in Church revivals are clearly evident here and he honours the old traditions with real spirit and plenty of loving attention to detail.  

Featuring guest artists such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, The McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns and Bonnie Bishop, the themes of redemption, reflection and resilience in the face of troubled times are highlighted in songs like Keep Holdin’ On; One More River; You Got To Move; Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed and Soon I Will Be Done. The title track, Something On My Mind and What Should I Do all have a slow blues groove and the co-production of Billy Maddox and Colin Linden is a joy throughout. Little Feat meets BB King and the result is pure gold.  A must have purchase. 

Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints Texas, etc… Dolly Rocker

Jeb Barry has three previous releases and his reputation as an artist in the Americana space is well earned. His Pawn Shop Saints are Michael O’Neill (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Chris Sampson (bass) with Josh Pisano (drums) and they support the songs with easy restraint and understated skill. Jeb takes lead vocal and plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, mandolin, bass and dobro. If you enjoy Steve Earle then this music will please you greatly.

This is a double CD with 19 tracks in total and the band are joined by Dan Tremblay (acoustic guitar), Ray Gargan (fiddle), Bernadette McMahon (ukulele), Heather Austin (lead/backing vocals) and Thomas Corrigan (vocals) to add some extra weight to the recording process. Disc One (The Sainted) is with the band, while Disc Two (The Saintless) is more sparse, stripped-down and solo. 

His songs address issues of the heart with the conundrum of love and the lack of it. Songs like You Don’t Ever Miss Me, The Girl Never Loved Me, Galveston 92, Evidence, A Little Mercy and Everybody Knows leave no doubt that finding love and then keeping it nurtured are the most difficult challenges that this songwriter grapples with. Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time is a more light-hearted look at relationships and is a duet with Heather Austin. Refugees is a fine song and looks at the difficulties in modern America where bigotry runs rife; the message of ‘aren’t we all refugees?’ is well delivered and a timely reminder of the original aspirations upon which the USA was founded.

Robert Lane Only A Flight Away Self Release

This is the third release from Robert Lane, a singer songwriter based in Birmingham. He has played mainly in a solo capacity in building a career that has seen him tour extensively throughout England and Germany. With upcoming tours in both Holland and Scandinavia, his momentum is building and his playing skills are very strong.

Lane has a clear vocal style and plays guitars, bass and piano on this album. He is joined by Matthew Pinfield on drums, bass and piano and Lucy Phillips on violin. The production, by Matthew Pinfield, goes for a much bigger panorama and a range of styles beyond his contemporary Folk leanings. 

The instrumental opener, The Hundred House, is impressive with emotive guitar lines and a swell of keyboards and programmed backing voices. The following track, Man Of The Moment, a swipe at Donald Trump, has a very Rock driven guitar sound that reminds me of Wishbone Ash in the arrangement. There are songs that lean towards radio aspirations with the arrangement on Right By My Side channelling a Beatles/ELO string section.

The acoustic blues of Baby Knows is a song that highlights the great fretwork of Lane and on The Instigator, a finely melodic dissection of a one-sided relationship, his acoustic guitar shines brightly again. These simple Folk arrangements work best.

The message of Far Too Busy is one of frustration at the loneliness in the world and the marginalised in society; prostitution, old age and child abuse are addressed in a plea to slow down and recognise the quiet desperation in the faces of those around us every day. Take As Long As You Need is a message of support for a close friend who is going through a grieving process and is a well thought out song. The final track, Who Do You Think You’re Talking For, with just solo acoustic guitar, speaks to a friend about toning down a brash ego and taking stock. 

The artwork on the album is somewhat odd and unrepresentative of the music. A more fitting image might have been to represent the song that inspired the CD title and Bill Frost’s Flying Machine, a Welsh legend about the first man to attempt to fly, is an excellent tune.

All songs are written by Lane, apart from three co-writes with musician/producer Matthew Pinfield. An interesting release that enhances a growing reputation as Robert Lane continues to hone his signature sound.

Friday
Apr202018

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Western Centuries Songs From The Deluge Free Dirt

If it ain’t broken don’t fix it. Western Centuries template for their debut release Weight Of The World (2016) was simple -  strong songs, killer vocals, sweet harmonies and stellar playing. Anyone fortunate to catch their live shows while touring that album last year would testify to their ability to tick all these boxes and more. Together with featuring much of the material from that album they also included what seemed to be an endless supply of new material, weaving effortlessly between classic, cajun and honky tonk country. Much of that material has ended up on Songs From The Deluge, songs that were written, tested and honed on their gruelling touring schedule in 2017. 

Loosely described as a supergroup, Western Centuries are made up of three accomplished writers and musicians in Ethan Lawton, Cahalen Morrison and Jim Miller. Leo Grasalon on pedal steel and upright bass player Nokosee Fields complete the line-up. In true democratic fashion each of the writers contribute four songs each on the album, taking lead vocals on their own compositions. Three songwriters on an album can be one (or two) too many but Western Centuries – as was the case with their debut album – manage to impressively achieve a consistent flow from start to finish by all sticking to their core value of producing pure country music and avoiding any crossover into pop or modern country.

 Jim Miller, who could be described as the father figure in the band, cut his early career teeth with Donna The Buffalo, who were Jim Lauderdale’s backing band for a spell. Ethan Lawton was formerly a member of Zoe Muth’s band The Lost High Rollers and Cahalen Morrison was previously a member of the duo Eli West. Between them they conjure up George Jones style ballads (Rocks And Flame, Wild Birds), Maverick’s quality Tex-Mex (Far From Home, Warm Guns), no nonsense honky tonk (My Own Private Honky Tonk, soulful blues (Three Swallows) and even find room to let there hair down with the full on rocker Time Does The Rest

Self-produced by the band in Eunice Louisiana with the assistance of Cajun musician and producer Joel Savoy, Songs From The Deluge is a joy to behold, probably best described simply as a fun album from start to finish.

Eva Hillered New Me Hill Songs

Swedish singer songwriter, music therapist, vocal teacher and authoress Eva Hillered has been recording since 1988, when she was nominated for a Grammy as Newcomer of The Year. Since then she has recorded nine albums, the latest titled New Me. The album is made up of both self and co-writes over the ten tracks, with Hillered performing vocals and guitar and multi-instrumentalist Peter Sund contributing guitar, mandolin, drums, rhodes and percussion. Sund also co-produced the album with Hillered.

Highly regarded in her native Sweden, Hillered’s musical style ticks both the folk and country boxes with an easy listening charm, characterised best here on the title track and Rosanne Cash sounding Swede Hollow. The Curtain and Sing Him Back – the latter a co-write with Nels Andrews - are uncluttered and dreamlike with Hillered’s impressive vocals perfectly paced.  Equally arresting is The Hunt, a haunting tune brought to life by well-placed backing vocals and slick guitar playing by Sund.

Nowhere Brothers Down Life Boulevard Self Release 

Lo-fi Americana Italian style from Nowhere Brothers duo Nick Ventolini (vocals, harmonica and penny whistle) and Roberto Fiorelli (vocals, guitars, piano and stomp box). Self-produced and recorded over two days at the Pyramix Studio in Phoenix Arizona, Down Life Boulevard is atmospheric, delicate, spacious and captures the recent nomadic lifestyles of the duo, with much of the album featuring only acoustic guitar and harmonica. On first listen the music creates an impression of demos rather than completed songs, to be fleshed out at another time by the addition of electric guitar, bass and drums. However, on further plays it reveals itself to be an impressive finished article with the sparseness and stripped back instrumentation contributing to the mood of the album.

Standout of the ten tracks are the grief-stricken sense of loss on Soul Mirror and Dust Walker which conjures up images of isolation and dark starry desert skies.

Beautifully packaged with lyrics in both English and Italian, Down Life Boulevard is an impressive late night listen for fans of Bill Callahan and Peter Oren. 

Dugger Band East Tennessee Son Self Release

Brothers Jordan and Seth Dugger began their musical careers singing at their parent’s church in Greenville Tennessee. East Tennessee Son is their debut mini album, offering six tracks that flirt with Southern rock, country and mainstream pop. They possess, without doubt, the capability to create music that is tailor made for what features currently on Country Radio with tracks like For The Girl and One Track Mind particularly market friendly.

Unapologetically Christian, they have created a programme titled A Dream Worth Chasing, a series of schoolhouse concerts to introduce and motivate young children through music. They have performed at numerous High Schools over the past twelve months as part of this venture. 

Opener Warning Label, the strongest track on the album, recalls a rocked up Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth. However, it’s unreflective of what follows which tends to stick to less adventurous material. What can’t be denied is the standard of musicianship across all the tracks and the brother’s vocal expertise. An album that could undoubtedly make an impact in the mainstream crossover country market given the exposure.

Orphan Colours All On Red At The Helm

Ex- members of London band Ahab, Steve Llewellyn, Dave Burn and Graham Knight teamed up with former Noah and The Whale guitarist Fred Abbott and Danny and The Champions Of The World drummer Steve Brooks to form Orphan Colours in 2015. All On Red is their debut album following the release of their EP High Hopes in 2016. The album title suggests a make or break gamble and may possibly be reflective of the ambition of the band to achieve the industry breakthrough that failed both Ahab and Noah & The Whale, somewhat surprisingly given both bands had huge potential.

Start of Something opens the album in style, a big sound a la Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes with slick riffs, big power chords and ripping sax solos. Goodnight California follows a similar path, bursting out of the speakers with an insanely catchy chorus that impacts on first spin. Equally addictive is Renegade kicking off with thumping drums joined by more power riffs.  Not that it’s all blood and thunder, closing track Rambling Rose together with Sarah and Loving Lately both display Llewellyn’s – who wrote all the material on the album - capacity to also pen dreamy radio friendly ballads.

In a market that often demands classification it’s not easy to place Orphan Colours in a particular genre. A few decades ago their sound would simply be described as rock. What is beyond doubt is that with their arena suited anthems they possess the ammunition and the oomph in their arsenal to turn a lot of heads if the roulette wheel is kind to them. 

Tupelo The Heart’s Bloodline Crashed

Alt-folk combo Tupelo’s music has straddled traditional, folk and country since their formation in 2008. Not surprising given their individual musical backgrounds and pedigrees. Voted best folk group in 2013 by Hot Press Magazine The Heart’s Bloodline is their latest offering which finds them continuing to stray further from their trad origins into left wing alt-folk, a genre which continues to grow in popularity.

Hugely celebrated overseas, the band have toured Holland, Belgium, France, Russia, Norway together with performances at Irish Music Festivals in the States. For their third album duo James Cramer (vocals, guitars, mandolin, percussion, banjo) and Kevin Duffy (fiddle, vocals) are joined by Brian Connor on keys, Jerry Fehily on drums, Robbie Malone on bass and Bill Shanley on guitars. Offering ten tracks, all written by Cramer, the album was recorded at Cauldren Studios in Dublin and mastered by David Montuy (The High Kings, Celtic Woman) at Blackbird Studious in Nashville.

Standout tracks include opener Break Loose, released as a single late last year, Nursery Rhyme , with echoes of The Waterboys, Queen of the Vale, which is enriched by delightful harmonies and backing vocals courtesy of Julia Hale and the Van the Man sounding Just Leave It.

Tupelo have earned a reputation as one of the finest live Irish bands peddling the alt-folk brand and a few listens in to The Heart’s Bloodline suggests that they are equally adept in a recording studio.

Sunday
Apr152018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Birds Of Chicago Love In Wartime Signature Sounds

Husband and Wife duo, JT Nero and Alison Russell return with a follow up release to their 2016 Real Midnight album. If that was defined by a reflective, understated direction then this new set of eleven songs walks more along a line between up tempo numbers and gentle, poignant arrangements. 

Starting out with the soulful hum of Alison over a simple accompaniment of banjo, piano and a hint of electric guitar, the reflective mood is quickly broken by the track, Never Look Back, which jumps out at you with a positive energy and a message to leave the past behind with no time to lose. 

This is followed by the title track which is a beautiful melody and message of taking care of each other first. Love always endures in the world of these Birds and why not indeed. Travellers then follows with another up tempo arrangement and the calypso beat of being nomads in this world of constant schedules to meet and busy lives to serve. 

Try is a sweet soulful song that hints at a very personal situation with the illness of a loved one at the heart of it. There are some passionate vocal lines from Alison and JT sings "I don’t see your body broken, I still see the fire there in your eyes."

And so, the listening experience continues, light juxtaposed with shade as the mood swings back and forth. 

The studio musicians are uniformly excellent and the production by JT and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars) is superbly balanced and open, which allows plenty of room for the players to express themselves. They have tried to capture the excellent live performance of the Birds in as much as a studio setting will allow. The entire album was recorded in just a few days and the immediacy of the overall sound gives the impression that much of it was recorded in just a few takes. Spontaneity taken to the next level as the ensemble compliment each other in serving the songs. 

Lodestar is another example of a sweet groove and a message of forgiveness and healing; "You are not what you’ve lost, what remains should not bear the cost." Roll Away and Baton Rouge (impacted by the 2016 Louisiana floods), are both gospel tinged, soulful messages of being alive in the world and moving forward. Roisin Starchild is a look back to school days by Alison and a close friend who had her back while growing up. It hints at a darker underlying message and the escape of Roisin at the age of only 12 in the search for ‘a kinder place’... It left me really wanting to know what ever became of her…

Superlover and Derecho end the project with messages of hope and concern for the gathering storms that will have to be endured in our quest for community, empathy and understanding.

The vocal harmonies are tight and give a strong sense of just how good this band are in a live setting. There are some lovely moments by Drew Lindsay on piano and keys, together with Joel Schwartz on lead guitars. The rhythm section of Nick Chambers on drums and Chris Merrill on bass anchor everything with strong playing, both understated and vibrant as required; while Dan Abu Absi adds rhythm electric and acoustic guitar with Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor providing harmony vocals on four tracks. 

Always interesting and revealing itself more on repeated listens. My album of the year so far and an essential purchase.

Backtrack Blues Band Make My Home In Florida Harpo

This band reside in Tampa Bay, Florida and formed back in 1980. They are one of Florida’s longest running blues acts and have released five studio albums plus a live CD/DVD package to date.

This new release is another live cd/dvd package of a gig in St Petersburg, Florida recorded in January 2017. It all clocks in around 50 minutes of stellar Blues work-outs, including covers of songs by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Your Funeral And My Trial, Checkin’ On My Baby), B.B. King (Woke Up This Morning) and T-Bone Walker (T-Bone Shuffle).

Kid Royal is a really gifted guitar player and his passionate solos are a highlight of this project, elevating the tracks and adding some magic sparkle to the excellent Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums, and Stick Davis on bass. The harmonica playing of lead vocalist Sonny Charles is also a real treat across all nine tracks included here.

Make My Home In Florida is a track where all these elements come together in a real tour de force of playing and the production by George Harris is crystal clear and very bright in the speakers. Essential for all lovers of the blues.

Ashley Campbell The Lonely One Hump Head

This debut solo release from the daughter of Glen Campbell comes within a year of his passing and Ashley is embarking on a career that has seen her learn the ropes as an integral part of her father’s touring band during 2011 and 2012. She played banjo and guitar, wrote a fine song Remembering, while the documentary I’ll Be Me, about Glen Campbell’s farewell tour and battle with Alzheimer’s was very well received upon release to the public.

This album is released on her own label, Whistle Stop Records and produced by both Ashley and Cal Campbell. The thirteen tracks are co-written by Ashley and Cal, who appears throughout on various instruments; as does Shannon Campbell, on selected songs, playing electric guitar. There are strings on quite a number of songs and the title track has a bossa nova swing that has radio hit written all over it. The use of synths and programming on a number of tracks adds a sheen to the sound and the horns on We Can’t Be Friends is another departure into the arena of Country Pop. 

Ashley is an undoubted talent and her skills as a musician cannot be faulted – the instrumental, Carl & Ashley’s Breakdown, highlight her superb banjo playing. This release is a strong statement of intent with plenty of catchy melodies (How Do You Know, Good For You) and tales of broken hearts and living life to the full. It has a number of hits in the grooves (A New Year, Looks Like Time, Better Boyfriend) and I wish her well in her future career that will, no doubt, go from strength to strength.

Lelle Dahlberg These Words Are True Self Release

A native of Bureå, Sweden this singer-songwriter releases his debut album after many years of writing and recording with other artists and bands. All music and lyrics are written by Lennart Dahlberg and he sings in a voice that has a well of experience and a lived-in quality to draw from. The production is uncluttered, from the blues of Come Back Home to the laid-back groove of There’s Only You, that has the fine vocals of Pearl adding to the melody.

Tonight’s The Night and Play That Old Melody have a real honky-tonk swing and the fiddle and piano playing on I Should Have Loved You are very catchy. The swing of Till We Meet Again with pedal steel to the fore and Can’t Stand Losin’ You with its’ slow twang and bittersweet piano are also good songs. A very pleasant listen across all 12 tracks.

Andrew Sheppard Steady Your Aim Self Release

Singer-songwriter Andrew Sheppard is from Idaho this is his second album, following on from Far From Here which was released in 2015. Production is by Sheppard and Eric Loomis, plus Wes Walsworth; both of whom play guitar on the record which was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. 

The other musicians on the album are Nick Archibald on bass and piano; Joe Giotta on drums; David Henry on cello and backing vocals; Smith Curry on pedal steel and lap steel; Chris Tuttle on organ and Wurlitzer; Sarah Elanton and Catherine Anderson on harmony vocals.

The title track is very radio-friendly and Travel Light and Carry On is a slice of country tinged desert music that reminds me of the great western landscapes. Standin’ Tall compares different attitudes to life, from the bum who lives off the system to the quiet heroes who make the best of the cards that are dealt them. Lies As Cheap As Whiskey is another tale of life on the outside and Not My Kind is a look at people who think that living is all about brash, loud and proud behaviour. Further Away ends proceedings with a song to a deceased friend who is a guiding inspiration that endures. Good country roots songs, well performed and a name to watch out for in the years ahead.

Kris Delmhorst The Wild Blueblade

In a career that has seen her release eight studio albums, a few collaborations with Red Bird (husband Jeffrey Foucault & Peter Mulvey) and a couple of live outings, Kris Delmhorst has arrived at an interesting crossroads in what has been a varied path taken.  Her Folk beginnings have been replaced by a sophisticated soundscape of wistful moments, notes in a diary and a souvenir of a life lived in contemplation of the self.

There is a longing and a search for something undefined and unseen in these songs. The playing is sparse and understated with sensitive arrangements and melodies serving the songs so well. Kris plays cello, guitar, organ, piano, Wurlitzer and Jeffrey Foucault adds lovely touches on a variety of guitars, ukulele, and piano. They are joined by Jeremy Moses Curtis on upright and electric bass, Billy Conway on drums and Alex McCullough on pedal steel guitar.

This is her first release in four years and the solitude and realisation of a love that is treasured on the opening, All The Way Around, sets the template for what is a work of real depth and maturity.

The title track is like a meditation on love and nature. Rules To Games dissects a relationship and all the petty squabbles that keep people apart in the daily grind. Magnolia speaks of casting off the old in favour for a new attitude and beginning to look forward with optimism. Kris sings so sweetly and with a soft tone that reminds me sometimes of Norah Jones in these hushed moments of contemplation and reflection. At other times there is a hint of Natalie Merchant in the delivery (Colour Of The Sky) but it is always the unique warmth of Kris and her delivery that shines through.

Production is by Kris and Jeffrey, all songs are written by Kris and her gentle muse has never been more keenly defined. Foolish Blood and Lonely West are relationship musings and the feelings that arise from the realisation that love burns within and without. Hollow deals with the heaviness of a relationship, "Cause music comes from emptiness, When the air is moving through it."

The final song, The Light In The Hall, is a wish to have all our insecurities fall away in the quiet of night when trusting yourself to the vagaries of this mortal coil. A superb record that is everything one would expect from a talent that keeps growing and blossoming.