Reviews by Paul McGee

The Novel Ideas Self-Titled  Self Release

I love the surprise of playing an unknown CD and from the first moment, you are hooked! This is one such moment and has me returning to hit the repeat-play button more than anything I have heard recently.

The Novel Ideas are a country-folk quartet of friends hailing from Massachusetts and comprise Sarah Grella (vocals), Danny Hoshino (guitar, pedal steel, vocals), James Parkington (bass, vocals) and Daniel Radin (guitar, vocals). Their 4-part harmony vocals are an absolute joy and there is not a weak track on this debut release. 

Produced by Rick Parker (Lord Huron) and mixed by Ryan Freeland (Ray LaMontagne, Bonnie Raitt), the arrangements are full of space and warmth with some superb interplay between the musicians and intricate vocals that colour everything in a bright hue. Sarah Grella has one of those voices that captivates and lifts the spirit and the addition of Elena Bonomo (drums/percussion), Eva Walsh (fiddle) and John Waynelovich (piano/organ) give the arrangements just the right amount of texture.

Broken Glass is a stand-out track, with such restraint in the build-up and such sweet surrender in the coda. Lost On The Road is melancholic sweet-release and The Blue Between Us is a wistful reflection on relationships tested by the distance borne of travelling. 

Dena is a song about forgiveness and features some fine pedal steel playing. The final track, I Was Not Around, ends the journey with the plaintive tone of the words; "You asked me to save you from yourself, but I can’t help you now." Such beautiful heartbreak and not very hard to make this my favourite release by an unknown band this year

Amelia White Rhythm Of The Rain  Self Release

Amelia White recorded this record in the four days between her Mother’s funeral and her own wedding. Her last release (Home Sweet Hotel) brought great praise and I read somewhere that she “illuminates the ordinary” - a fitting description of her creative muse. This is a really strong release with plenty of dramatic playing from the studio musicians that include Sergio Webb (guitars, banjo), Dave Coleman (guitars, organ, vocals), Dave Jacques (bass), Megan Jane (drums/percussion), Eamon McLoughlin (violin), as the core players supporting Amelia, who contributes guitar and lead vocals.

Comparisons with Lucinda Williams are somewhat inevitable given the tired, road-travelled, texture in the vocal delivery but there is also the sweet refrain of Eliza Gilkyson and if you wrap it all up in a pretty bow – guess what; you get the unique talent of Amelia White.

There are co-writes with Lori McKenna, The Worry Dolls, Annie McCue and Ben Glover, among others, and the quality never dips for a moment. There is compassion, understanding of living life on margins, trying to make sense of daily rush to feel relevant; words tumble down like “his friends are coming to drink their unemployment down on Friday night, American small town” (Little Cloud Over Little Rock); “the poor get poor and the rich get richer; war is stirring back home, the rain taps on my window” (Rhythm Of The Rain).

The final track, Let The Wind Blow, sums up the feeling of a love gone cold in the lines; “Fire went out and the bed went cold, and your eyes won’t meet mine anymore; I put good money on this one, I don't like to be wrong….” This artist is the real deal and running through her tough look at life is a steely resolve to always come out fighting and winning at the end of the day.

Hoodoo Operators Burning Churches Wide Mouth

Swamp Rock meets Country-Blues and all bets are off… Hoodoo Operators are a four-piece band from West Yorkshire and you would never guess from the earthy vocals and tunes that create this atmospheric music. Interesting that they perform without a drummer, which doesn’t detract from the overall groove of the band and their rhythmic drive. 

The line-up includes C.P.S Dover (vocals, acoustic guitar, kazoo); Mathew Birch (resonator guitar, lap-steel, backing vocals); Peter Hayward (electric guitar, backing vocals) and Gareth Bates (acoustic bass, backing vocals), with additional musician Kieran O’Malley on fiddle making a key contribution on tracks like Last Orders and I’ll Tell You When I’ve Had Enough

Date With The Dead and Follow Me Down (To The River) kick off proceedings in telling style and with a nod to Creedence, all loose and crackling with energy. Pills & Whisky slows down the pace, as does It Won’t Be Me; but the giddy stomp of End Up On The Dime Bar Floor has a Rockabilly tempo that really sparkles. Excellent arrangements and a band worth checking out.

Hunter/Wiggins/Seamons A Black & Tan Ball  Self Release

This album features a cross section of early jazz, string band tunes, ragtime and blues. The music duo, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, blend these styles together into a real gumbo of musical tastes across thirteen tracks. 

There is real history in these influences and if American roots music ever needed a modern twist then this is a fine example. Ben Hunter plays violin, mandolin and guitar; Joe Seamons plays guitar and banjo with Phil Wiggins on harmonica. It captures a time that has long since passed, classic tunes that remain with us and that are given a brand-new treatment by this talented trio.

Stop & Listen Blues, (Mississippi Sheiks, 1930), Hard Time Blues (Lane Hardin, 1935), Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me (Duke Ellington Orchestra}, Struttin’ With Some BBQ (Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five), Po’ Howard (Leadbelly) and Do You Call That A Buddy (Louis Jordan) are just a sample of the tunes included and the playing is excellent, with a very organic and rhythmic sound. 

Bruce Cockburn Bone On Bone  True North

An iconic singer-songwriter with 33 albums to his name since a debut release in 1970, Bruce Cockburn stands as a giant of Canadian music with a reach that spans not only different nations but has influenced political change through his brave stance in speaking out against global abuse of power, atrocities and the injustice of political regimes across his long career.

His 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, is a great read for anyone who is interested in bearing witness to a life that has tried to make a difference through his music but also as a humanist motivated by an unerring sense of equality in the World. Bone On Bone addresses spiritual concerns in the way we shape our World today.

Forty Years in the Wilderness is one of several songs that feature a number of singers from the church Cockburn frequents, the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus. Among other songs, they contribute call-and-response vocals to Stab At Matter, Looking And Waiting, Jesus Train and Twelve Gates To The City.

Produced by Colin Linden, Cockburn’s long-time collaborator, the album is built around the musicianship of Cockburn on guitar and the core accompaniment of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig. Also, very much part of the sound is the accordion playing of Cockburn’s nephew John Aaron Cockburn and the superb fluegelhorn player Ron Miles 

Cockburn remains very driven by the inequalities in the World and is focused on change. A consummate musician and a special talent when it comes to words on the page, this new album is compelling and relevant.  

Levi Cuss Just Below Radio  Self Release

Two EP’s that contain 4 tracks each and both produced, recorded and mixed by Steve Dawson. He has been releasing his own music for many years now and also producing such acts as The Deep Dark Woods, Kelly Joe Phelps, Christa Couture, Jim Byrnes and many others. Levi Cuss has also benefitted from previous collaborations and on this project Steve also contributes on acoustic and electric guitars, plus pedal steel. Levi has written all the songs and is joined by William Moore on bass, Chris Gestrin on organ & piano, with different drummers Justin Amaral and Geoff Hicks appearing.

The warm sound of the keys gets EP One off to a strong start on White Lies, while the rootsy guitar sound of One Night Stand carries a reminder of early Little Feat. Hardwood is a good Country sound and The Hunt slows everything down with a Bluesy groove.

With two previous albums under his belt, I’m not sure of the logic behind the release of separate EP’s as the second carries on very much from where the first left off; solid song arrangements and fine ensemble playing, with the slow Country vibe of Blew It All Away and the closing track, Alena, perhaps the highlights. Think of Steve Earle as a touchstone and you get the general idea.  

The Penny Black Remedy Maintaining Dignity In Awkward Situations  Mono Del Mundo

This band formed in 2004 and is based in London. Keith M Thomson is the main songwriter and fronts the band with singer/percussionist, Marijana Hajdarhodzic. The other band members include Paul Slack on bass; Jeremy Mendonca on acoustic guitar/vocals; Barbara Bartz on violin and Jamie Shaw on drums. They have a diverse history and all play in side projects, in addition to building a formidable reputation as a live act around the local venues of London. This is the third release and their sound is a heady mix of Americana, Folk and Ska. Production is shared by Thomson with Boz Boorer (Morrissey/The Polecats/Adam Ant), who together with a small group of additional studio musicians, deliver what is a very enjoyable listen.

Thomson is a very clever lyricist and songs like Trying To Be A Slightly Better Person and You Should Have Left Your Money At Home are perfect examples of the wickedly teasing wit in his writing. The irony of I’d Murder To Have You Back is another example of what Thomson says are songs “about death, lost love, living in a constant state of crippling paranoid fear and/or coping with the daily grind of everyday life”. Enough said! The playing is really excellent across these nine tracks and the overall impression is of a band that, above all else, are having great fun. 

Keegan McInroe A Good Old Fashioned Protest  Self Release

This is the fifth solo album from Keegan McInroe, a Texas singer-songwriter who delivers a mix of old country, blues and folk that pays tribute to the origins of American roots music. He has written and performed all nine songs here, in the company of Taylor Tatsch who also co-produced with Keegan. 

If Woody Guthrie was looking down from above then he has nothing but encouragement for the words and the righteous anger that is such a vital element of this artist’s creative muse. He is not afraid to tackle the key issues of these troubled times and political hypocrisy is exposed along with the disease of big money greed and the senseless waste of life to fuel war games. 

Songs like Talking Talking Head Blues, Bombing For Peace, The Ballad Of Tommy Johnsons Living Brother, Bastards & Bitches are all excellent and delivered with great perspective and conviction.

A poem, Nietzsche Wore Boots, speaks of the moral blindness within society, fuelled by religious dogma and the reflection that God could well be dead. A very insightful and rewarding work from an experienced and mature songwriter. Worthy of further investigation.


Reviews by Eilís Boland

Underhill Rose Live Self Release 

Melding their influences of folk, jazz, blues, pop and country into one glorious whole, founding members Eleanor Underhill and Molly Rose Reed, along with Salley Williamson, have been travelling far from their North Carolina base for several years, bringing their music across the USA and to Europe. This album, recorded over a couple of nights in front of appreciative hometown crowds in Asheville and Lexington last year, is a testament to the joy of their live performances. The fifteen songs here cover the gamut of their original material and their judicious choice of contemporary covers.

While they are essentially a string band playing traditional instruments, there’s a contemporary sensibility to their music. Most striking of all, however, are their soulful three part harmonies - so sweetly blended they are that one could be forgiven for thinking that they are sisters.

Eleanor’s clawhammer style banjo playing is a dominant force throughout these recordings, so it’s not a surprise that she’s a Deering Banjo endorsed artist. Her sweet playing might even be enough to win over those odd few who think they don’t actually like the much maligned banjo! She sings lead on her own song, the country bluesy Whispering Pines Hotel, and you’re immediately transported to another place - think swampy southern badlands.

Her harmonica playing is also striking and used to good effect on several songs. Salley Williamson’s bass playing ably anchors down the trio throughout. They Got my Back is her lovely tribute to the power of friendships from childhood - her vocals are perfectly complemented here by Eleanor’s harmonica playing.

Molly is the writer of most of the original songs on here, as well as being the guitarist. Her powerful voice has a great range and her songs are memorable and mostly upbeat, with contemporary themes - no murder ballads here.

The five cover versions include a gorgeous rendition of the Jamey Johnson co-write In Colour; an unusual version of Bette Davis Eyes that really works, and the album wraps up with John Prine’s Long Monday 

On top of all this, the CD is lovingly presented in an ethically-sourced cardboard digipak, featuring linocuts and woodcuts by the multitalented Molly Rose Reed. Highly recommended.

Big Sadie Keep Me Waiting Spindle Tree 

Husband and wife Elise Bergman (bass, vocals) and Collin Moore (guitar, vocals) have been musical collaborators for over ten years. Two years ago they formed Big Sadie with two other musicians (Andy Malloy on banjo, Matt Brown on fiddle) and this self produced debut recording has resulted. All are now based in Elise’s native Chicago, also home of the legendary Old Time School of Music. 

Old Time meets Bluegrass here on the eleven original songs and one instrumental, all co-writes by Collin and Elise. The songs are well crafted, with memorable melodies, all performed at a gentle pace, in keeping with their universal themes of love and loss. 

Elise sings the lead mostly, accompanied by Collin on harmonies - they have the sweet harmonies down to a fine art, after years of performing together. The musicianship is certainly competent throughout but the secret weapon here is Matt Brown’s fiddle playing. He lifts every track up a notch with his truly superb and inventive playing. His day job finds him teaching fiddle, banjo and guitar at the aforementioned Old Time School of Music.

Need Your Love (Collin taking lead vocal duties) is an example of Matt’s fiddle genius - his riffs and breaks dominate throughout the song, taking it up several notches. This is the closest to a traditional bluegrass song on the album.

At times Elise’s voice is reminiscent of Gillian Welch, especially on Corn Liquor. Here again Matt Brown impresses. Good Woman is a plaintive plea from a frustrated woman who feels hopelessly stuck in a rut and unappreciated - again Elise’s vocals are complemented by sensitive fiddle playing by Matt. 

Overall, though, I kept hoping for a stand out vocalist who could really do these songs justice.

Elise’s talents also extend to design - she is responsible for the attractive digipak, utilising black and white photographs to good effect.

Steep Ravine  Turning Of The Fall Stormy Deep 

‘You can turn away from changes, but after a while you’ll turn up awfully strange’ - Out My Window

Songwriter Simon Linsteadt may not have been feeling quite like that when writing these songs, but the evidence from most of the songs on this, the band’s third release, is that he at least was suffering from a badly broken heart.

The band all hail from the San Fransisco Bay area, and have been playing around there for several years.Describing their own sound as folk rock and new grass, I would also throw some jazz, pop and Laurel Canyon into the descriptor. Simon Linsteadt, who is a multi instrumentalist met Jan Purat (fiddle, mandolin) at high school and they both went on to study music at university. They were later joined by Jeff Wilson (percussion and keys) and Alex Bice (bass).

There’s a peaceful easy feeling sound to this album. It’s not going to cause any earthquakes or shock you into action. The lyrics are fairly straightforward - mostly dealing with the aforementioned broken heart.

And mostly you are lulled into a false sense of calm, drifting along in the pleasant wave of complacency and perhaps mild depression - until suddenly you are awoken by the killer fiddle playing of Jan Purat. This is where the new grass influence really shines through.

Jan single handedly lifts the production with his dramatic fiddle breaks and harmonising with guitar on most of the songs.

Sugar Sand really stands out above the rest of the pleasant enough songs here - it’s a classic example of the familiar Californian country rock sound.

Viper Central  The Spirit Of God and Madness Self Release 

Although they’ve been together for over ten years, surprisingly this is only the third release from the Vancouver string band Viper Central. No strangers to these shores, you very well may have seen them playing enthusiastically at a venue or festival somewhere in Ireland or Britain in the past few years.

Having started off as a bluegrass ensemble, the five original members are reassuring still together, but this album moves into new territory.

Actually, it’s a record of two halves: the second half is made up of mainly bluegrass and old timey tunes and songs, mostly original, whereas the first half strays into all new territory. This truly is roots music at it’s finest.

Texas Swing is to the fore in the opening song Gold Mine, with its pedal steel, electric guitar and piano and it allows principal songwriter and band leader Kathleen Nisbet to show her vocal chops. As well as being a very impressive fiddle player, Kathleen’s smoky, sultry, bluesy voice is perfect for these songs.

Next thing we’re into Mariachi territory with the uptempo horn laden Losing My Mind - it’s fun and it works.

Again on 99 Cents Short, rockabilly and 50s swing dances are recalled, with Tim Tweedale’s pedal steel and the new addition of drums to the band’s sound.

Being proud Canadians and very aware of their country’s mixed heritage, many of the songs tell vivid stories of historical characters, real or imagined. Guest CR Avery plays smokin’ hot harmonica on the bluesy swing of Ned Kelly, where the wonderful Steve Charles gets to sing lead and duel the harmonica with his equally smokin’ banjo playing.

History creeps in again, on Prophet of The New World, when Kathleen sings of her ancestor, Louis Riel. Against an insistent bass drum, electric guitars and thumping bass, Kathleen’s fiddle playing is just superb on this, one of the standout tracks.

Say Say is a slower rolling bluesy song, where Mark Vaughan’s mandolin interplays with Steve’s banjo. Cherry Red finds Kathleen singing of being abandoned by her lover, over a backdrop of electric slide guitar.

The second half opens with a bluegrass tribute to a young woman from Rathfriland in Co Down, who is little known outside of her native Ireland. Catherine O’Hare has entered the folklore of British Columbia, because after she emigrated in the 19th century to the US, she became the first woman to cross the Canadian Rockies on foot (and with three children in tow!) - in I Won’t Be Left Behind Kathleen tells her story.

One of the few covers, an uptime bluegrass version of Gram Parson’s Luxury Liner is the closer.

Having initially been sceptical of the new direction, and particularly of the drums throughout the first half of the album, I have to admit that repeated playing has won me over completely. This has become one of my favourite releases of the year.

Mark Lavengood We’ve Come Along Earthwork 

‘Who’s Mark Lavengood? I never heard of him …’ or so I thought until I realised that he’s the smiley bearded genius dobro player with Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys.

This is Mark’s third solo release and here he’s able to shine in his own right, accompanied by his 4-piece Bluegrass Bonanza band, all based in Michigan.

Mark is one of the best dobro players on the US circuit and on this record he showcases his own compositions, both instrumentals and songs. There’s also a selection of covers, some old, some new.

The album opens with the self-written title track - an uplifting song about triumphing over adversity. Clocking in at seven minutes, it allows the band members lots of opportunities to show off their individual instruments, all held together by Mark’s incredible playing on dobro and guitar. The cascading melodic rolls of the dobro, guitars, mandolin, banjo and bass are layered together into a joyous whole. 

Another memorable song, written by friend Russ Brakefield, is the haunting Vulpes vulpes (the red fox, to you and me). Mark takes lead vocals but it’s the arrangements and playing that really impress here, as they do throughout the album. Mark’s lead vocal here is reminiscent of early Neil Young - although Mark’s fragile falsetto is probably an acquired taste.

While singing may not be Mark’s forté, his songwriting, playing and arranging more than make up for it. There are several instrumental compositions - mostly short vignettes - that are truly superb, and that leave you wanting more. 

Mark’s influences are obviously wide and the predominant feel is is of newgrass fused with world music, blues and country rock, with more than a smidgen of psychedelia. The warmth and enthusiasm of Mark Lavengood shine through alright - leaving you with a smile on your face, just like the man himself!


Reviews by Declan Culliton

SUSTO & I’m Fine Today Acid Boys/Missing Piece 

The most satisfying aspect of reviewing albums is coming across a particular gem that otherwise would have remained unknown to the reviewer. This is very much the case with SUSTO, whose album & I’m Fine Today sounded interesting on first play, very impressive on second spin and one of my albums of the year on further listens.

Translated from Spanish as ‘when your soul is separated from your body’, SUSTO is the brainchild of South Carolina’s Justin Osborne who, together with guitarist Johnny Delaware, have created a stunning body of work that compares favourably with the early work of John Mc Cauley’s Deertick and more recent recordings by War on Drugs.

From small town America and a particularly strict religious childhood (Methodist father and Pentecostal mother), Osbourne’s conservative upbringing turned upside down when he began experimenting with narcotics while attending military college leaving him confused, questioning his identity and vulnerable. 

Osborne closed the door on his previous band Sequoyah Prep School and relocated from South Carolina to Cuba putting his musical career on hiatus or possibly putting it to bed entirely. Rather than dampen his creative output the move had the opposite effect and ignited a purple patch of inspiration that rekindled his passion for song writing. The move to Cuba therefore became short lived with Osbourne returning home to record the bands self-titled debut album. 

& I’m Fine Today is far from easy listening, much of the song writing is searchingly painful, bordering on disturbing, yet in a perverse way the end result is both uplifting and satisfying. The songs unfold intimate tales of battles with alcohol, drugs and sexuality with Osborne’s lyrics drenched in a downpour of spacey guitars, keyboards, orchestras, harmonicas and layer upon layer of additional vocals. His vocals are nicotine raspy and leathery as he confronts personal issues such as substance abuse (Far Out Feeling, Wasted Mind), sexuality (Gay In The South) and relationships (Hard Drugs) in a confessional and truthful manner.  

Kicking off with self-deprecating lyrics ‘I could be comatose in a parking lot, I could be sleeping on your floor, You might check yourself into rehab in California, while I’m pulling into New Mexico’, the opening track Far Out Feeling is simply spectacular, blanket upon blanket of vocals, strings, synths. Hard Drugs and Wasted Mind could take pride of place on late 90’s Wilco albums. Cosmic Cowboy is autobiographical, questioning the authenticity of the Southern religious ethos (‘My great granddaddy Cook was an itinerant preacher, always preaching about the liquor he’d been drinking the night before’). 

Equally impressive, and consistent with the whole psychedelic feel to the project, is the stunning artwork on the album cover, a multicoloured depiction by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo renowned for his work while under the influence of the psychoactive substance entheogen. 

Classic albums are more than often conceived from deep dark places and this album most certainly ticks that box. It’s also a magical psychedelic treasure that should appear on your best of 2017 listings, I know it will be on mine.

The Remedy Club Lovers, Legends & Lost Causes Self Release 

With two albums recorded in a previous life as B and The Honeyboy, Wexford husband and wife duo Aileen Mythen and Kj Mc Evoy have rebranded, reformed and recorded a most impressive eleven track album of country and roots styled music, further evidence that Americana is very much alive and kicking locally and not confined to artists across the pond. 

Taking the album as a whole, you get the impression that they have certainly pulled out all the stops in all areas. The production and mixing are excellent, as is the selection of instrumentation featured on the album, with the inclusion of strings (courtesy of Eleanor Mc Evoy), trumpet (Aidan Kelly) and pedal steel guitar (David Murphy), all combining to enhance Mythen’s gorgeous vocal range and Mc Evoy’s equally notable guitar work. Naturally all of the foregoing would be fruitless if they did not have the material to match and again they have come up trumps in this department. Of the eleven tracks featured five are written by Mc Evoy with the remaining six co-writes with Mythen. The Lovers (I Miss You, Last Song, This Is Love), the Legends (When Tom Waits Up, Listening To Hank Williams, Django) and the Losers (Bottom Of The Hill, Sweet White Lies) all get their day in the sun with the Legends possibly winning by a short head courtesy of Mythen’s jazzy blues vocals on Django and Mc Evoy’s twangy guitar work and woozy vocals on Listening to Hank Williams.

Gorgeous harmonies and aching pedal steel combine on the weepy opener I Miss You, Big Ol’ Fancy enters Hayes Caryll territory with Mc Evoy taking lead vocal.  When Tom Waits Up (complete with daughter Layla Kay McEvoy’s heartbeat ‘from another world’) is a pointer towards how The Handsome Family might sound if they attempted to lighten up, lots of twangy guitar strings and tingling piano keys. This Is Love closes the album in style, a slow dreamy ballad beautifully vocally delivered with Murphy’s dreamy pedal steel again taking pride of place.

Recorded at Asta Kalapa Studios in Gorey Co. Wexford and co-produced by the duo, the album was mixed in Nashville by Engineer Mark Petaccia who has worked previously with Kacy Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega and Nora Jane Struthers.  The album was also mastered in Nashville at Room and Board Studio by Five Time Grammy Award Winner Ray Kennedy whose clients include Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. 

Most impressive album that ticks so many boxes and the ideal Christmas stocking filler for your loved one!

John Blek Catharsis Vol.1 Self Release

Inspiration for John Blek's latest solo album came from a most unusual source. Struck down and hospitalised with a mysterious illness that totally drained him of energy and led to considerable weight loss, he dealt with the condition and uncertainty by articulating his fears, pain and hopes through words and music that resulted in the demos for the album being recorded in his hospital bed. 

Similar to his 2016 release Cut The Light the emphasis again is always on the lyric with Blek's rich yet gentle and controlled vocal presenting tales of reflection, defiance, confusion and concern that visit the past, accept the present and question the future. The personal and often stark material blends folk with nods in the direction of traditional, leaving his more bombastic writing for his other project as lead man with John Blek & The Rats. 

Freedom and the nomadic existence are beautifully depicted in Salt In The Water, lived through the eyes of the sailor, the consummate traveller.’ I'd rather die a sailor than in the infirmary, on crisp white sheets of cotton no stars above me’. Needle and Thread is old worldly folk, stripped to the bare bone and featuring only echoing vocal and mellotron.

No Surrender is a candid, in the moment reflection on his illness, a limbo like existence but a spirited resolution to continue and is followed by the equally stark Hospital Bed, dealing with the anguish of loved ones as they helplessly observe the sufferer.

Thankfully John Blek has returned to full health and remains one of our outstanding young song writers of recent years, be it his solo work or with his band John Blek & The Rats. This album may have been conceived unwittingly but it’s a victory of mind over matter and a delightful body of work that he can be justifiably proud of. 

Jim White Waffles, Triangles & Jesus Loose Music

For two decades since the release of his debut album Wrong Eyed Jesus, Jim White has continued to record dark gothic, tortured and personal soul-searching music. At 60 years of age and seven albums later his exploration continues, coming to terms with childhood oppression and rejection, bouts of mental illness and a change of identity from the child born in to the world as Michael Davis Pratt to who we now know as Jim White. It’s been a fascinating journey for the listener, songs and tales that often demand repeated listens but reward the time invested handsomely. Waffles, Triangles & Jesus recommences the quest last visited in 2012’s Where It Hits You Hit and in some ways suggests a degree of personal acceptance and contentment with his predicament, a sentiment not often recognisable in White’s previous work.   

The familiar territories of religious hypocrisy, contradiction and confusion are called on in Reason To Cry and Prisoners Dilemma. Wash Away A World revisits his troubled and confused childhood days, recalling family dysfunctionality in a similar manner that Warren Zevon sang about in Play It All Night Long, though you don’t detect the same degree of playfulness in White’s recollections.

 However, it’s not all brimstone and fire and as usual White’s album contains its fair share of comicality, in particular the throw away ditty Playing Guitars and even more so on E.T.Bass At Last Finds The Woman Of His Dreams. The latter recalls the sheriff dodging T.V. sitcom character Ernest T. Bass who starred in The Andy Griffiths Show in the 60’s. Obviously a personal throwback to White’s growing up years, the track is a duet with U.K. singer songwriter Holly Golightly and it’s delivered in whimsical hillbilly fashion complete with guitar pickin’ and exaggerated country accents.

Not renowned for recording material that might be considered remotely commercial, Silver Treads breaks that mould and is possibly the most ‘radio friendly’ song in White’s wide catalogue. It’s an entrancing seven-minute-long song which brings to mind Gene Clark in his mid-70’s post Byrds days.  Gorgeously overlaid with backing vocals, strings and horns and complete with trumpet solo, it’s an unforgettable track and one of my favourite of this year. Here I Am dreams of freedom and release from the past but eventually gives up pursuing that lost chord and settles for recognition and possibly acceptance of the present. Sweet Bird Of Mystery, the closing track, is a beautiful father/ daughter love song, stripped back and clutter free, the final chapter in another Jim White classic.  

One of the most fascinating musical minds of his time with an extraordinary talent with the written  word, I’ve often considered Jim White and Howe Gelb’s back catalogues as my desert island listening and Waffles, Triangles and Jesus is a welcomed addition.

Chris Blevins Better Than Alone Horton 

There must be something in the Oklahoma air in recent years. Chris Blevins is yet another Okie in a stream of impressive roots break out artists to emerge from that musical hotbed. Following in the footsteps of John Mooreland, John Fullbright (who plays Wurlitzer on the album), Carter Sampson, Samantha Crain and Levi Parham, the ten track album is the debut recording by a young man mature way beyond his years with a gravely unadulterated vocal and a bunch of tales to tell. The mono chrome album front cover in no way prepares the listener for the onslaught of stellar music contained within. Mixing country with full on blues, Blevins vocals together with the stunning guitar work of Chris Combs (who also produced the album), combine to deliver ten tracks that has the foot firmly on the pedal from the word go. 

Out of the blocks in full tilt, Big Man opens the album, the rockiest track of the ten before Blevins changes direction with the bluesy soul number Clean. Abilene heads south to Texas recalling Hayes Caryll’s Drunken Poets Dream, Jezebel has a more Bob Segar feel to it. Wildfire and Way Down are slow burning ballads with Bevin’s bluesy drawl centre stage, bass player Aaron Boehler adding backing vocals and Combs contributing sleepy pedal steel on the former and a slick guitar break on the latter. The title track bookends the album, stripped to the bone, a reflection on ageing, mortality and acceptance.

A very impressive first offering indeed and hopefully the launching pad for further albums from this talented young man.

Darius Rucker When Was The Last Time Capital

Since signing for Capital Records in 2008 and launching his career as a country artist Darius Rucker has had no fewer than eight Billboard Country No.1 singles and four hugely successful album releases. This, from his second album Learn To Live, was the first No.1 single in the country charts by an African America since Night Games by Charley Pride in 1983. Lead singer and guitarist in Hootie and The Blowfish in his earlier career, Rucker was invited to sing at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday party and has sung the national anthem at the World Series and is currently a partner in MGM Sports an agency that represents professional golfers. 

You say you never danced to a dashboard, singing R.E.M. under summer stars’ is the opening lyrics of For The First Time, the first track on When Was The Last Time. Nonetheless, I doubt if many R.E.M. lovers are the target market for the album given it follows the tried and trusted Nashville winning formula, with twelve tracks that qualify for what is marketed today as country music.

The album contains only four tracks that Rucker is credited as a co-writer, the remainder include no fewer than twenty one other writers, big hitters such as Ross Copperman (who also produced the album), Shane Mc Anally, Jon Nite and Josh Thompson featuring. Even more musicians than writers are credited as contributing to the album, twenty six to be exact.  Undoubtedly Rucker possesses an incredible vocal and the album will sell by the cart load but personally I found the material to be soulless, repetitive and over produced. The inclusion of a cover version of Drivn’N’Cryin’s Straight To Hell will no doubt have the smartphone torches waving in the air and lighting up packed out arenas on his next tour, it’s a powerhouse version and tailor made for the live setting.

 For The First Time and If I Told You So were already released earlier in 2017 to huge exposure on country music radio and there is no doubt that the album will also generate equally impressive airplay and sales. Bring It On and Don’t are typical Rucker anthem ( both worryingly similar it has to be said), Twenty Something is a catchy pop sound reflecting on the passing years and the soft rocker Story To Tell closes the album out in a similar style to opening track For The First Time.

With Music Row’s marketing machine firmly behind them, Darius Rucker together with artists such as Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and others will continue to dominate country music radio and sell albums and tours in exceptional numbers. However, I’m reminded of a recent interview with John Prine where he described what is been marketed as country music today as basically ‘poor pop music’. Unfortunately, When Was The Last Time ticks that box for me.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Sweet Sorrows Celticana Self Release

The opening song of this album (The Angel’s Share) immediately reminded me of the late great Greg Trooper who co-incidentally was also produced by Phil Maderia. This album was recorded in Ireland at Big Feet Studio in Wexford and also in Nashville. The Sweet Sorrows are essentially a husband/wife duo of Sammy and Kylie Horner. They are joined by multi-instrumentalist Maderia, percussionist Dennis Holt, bassist Chris Donohue and fiddle and mandolin player Tim Cottrell. The songs written largely by Horner solo (with three co-writes - two with Kylie) show that the duo and have a strong Celtic influence mixed with roots/Americana - hence the title of this their fourth Sweet Sorrows album. Their website lists over 30 other releases; some solo outings, others are from Sammy Horner’s band The Electrics. So these guys are no stranger to the studio or writing process. 

The songs are largely delivered with both vocalists working together either as lead and harmony singers or as duets together. Madeira’s production is perfectly suited to the sound which is both full and satisfying. The music rocks with the rhythm section solidly there and the contribution from Madeira providing much of the texture and trajectory to the sound. The songs are also themed with a certain Irishness with titles like An Gorta Mor, Wexford In The Morning as well as in a certain musical ambience. All of which means that Celticana is an enjoyable listen and The Sweet Sorrows are continuing down their chosen path. A path which stems from a base in Ireland from where they tour throughout the world. The only thing that I wasn’t too sure about was the actual cover artwork which would have suggested something more in the Irish traditional vein that it actually is. Aside from that The Sweet Sorrows Celticana offers a perspective, while it may not be unique is potentially universal.

Paul Dougherty Spankin’ Hankin’ Bake It Black

The songs of Hank Williams Snr have received many and varied interpretations that range from those who stay firmly within the traditional parameters of his music to more left-field excursions such as The The’s Hanky Panky. This album is far closer to the latter than to the former. Paul Dougherty an American musician who grew up playing in Nashville and now lives in Berlin. although he has played both Americana and punk in the past this album is an electric and eclectic take on the blues.

Dougherty has chosen a mix of some lesser know songs from Williams’ repertoire such as My Sweet Love Ain’t Around, Rockin’ Chair Money and Low And Lonely alongside such classics as Move It On Over, Weary Blues From Waiting and I Saw The Light. The songs are all fronted by Dougherty’s life hardened vocal and backed by his playing. All the instruments here are played by Dougherty who also produced. So you get a lot of organ and piano over the often somewhat discordant rhythm base with jagged guitar and often loose structures that all highlight the bluster aspects of William’s lyrics which undoubtably are imbedded with the darker side of relationships that easily fit the blues as a format.

This is very much an album that will divide opinion and can offend some of Hank’s more literally-minded fans. That it is entirely produced, recorded and played by Dougherty could be cited as a somewhat indulgent process, especially at a near hour running time. Equally there are those who will find within these songs a sound that reflects the undoubted pain that lurked within their underlying heartbreak and (often self-induced) misery. 

Tom Russell Folk Hotel Frontera/Proper

This will immediately be familiar to anyone acquainted with the voice and songs of Tom Russell. His latest album takes as its title from some memories of the inhabitants of NewYork’s famed Chelsea Hotel such as the song about Dylan Thomas, one of its one time occupants, The Sparrow Of Swansea as well as the opening track Up In The Old Hotel. Otherwise there are songs about people (Rise Again Handsome Johnny - about meeting JFK, Harlan Cancy or Scars On His Ankles) and place (The Dram House Down in Gutter Lane, Leaving El Paso, The Rooftops Of Copenhagen). All are delivered in the eminently listenable grade, life roughened voice. Shown most prominently on the songs The Day The Drained The Liffey/The Banks of Montauk/ The Road To Santa Fe-O. It is one of those voices that has left an indelible mark on those who have encountered over his many and varied albums. There is also a cover that fits with the overall format in Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Here with guest vocalist Joe Ely - another great storyteller. Elsewhere Eliza Gilkyson also adds her vocals and reknowed guitarist Redd Volkert adds his individual skills number of the tracks too.

Not that Russell needs guests as his live shows attest, however they are there to give some additional depth to the success of the songs. I have listened to Tom Russell’s music through the years and this counts among his best and is delivered with a simple clarity and a focus that is centred around this distinctive voice and guitar. Add to that some occasional harmonica and additional instrumentation from other guests like renowned players Augie Myers piano and voice and Joel Guzman’s subtle and atmospheric accordion. Russell produced the album with Mark Hallman and it shows that as a storyteller he still has many a tale left to spin. The album clocks in at a very generous 70 minuets plus of his troubadour tales that encompass his heroes, inspirations and hotel inhabitants.

Jeffrey Martin One Go Around Fluff & Gravy

It would be frivolous to suggest that Jeffrey Martin has made a party album. Akin to saying that a book like Donald Ray Pollock’s debut collection of short stories Knockemstiff was a feel good read. It may be in that against the dead-end lives of those people who populate his short stories you should feel good that you’re not in their place. It is however compelling reading. One Go Around offers a similar experience with its tales of hard-worn, deflated and sometimes desperate living. However for all that this is an album that draws you in and offers hope in its consideration of the strength of the human spirit in dealing with adversity. Titles like Poor Man (“I’m not a bad man I’m a poor man”), Sad Blue Eyes, Lone Gone Now and Thrift Store Dress address lifestyles and hard times, longings and lost dreams.

The words evoke these emotions with clarity and understanding. The music similarly underlines these tales in a direct and subtle way that seems almost like it is just voice and guitar. Those two are central to the sound but around that are some telling textures of guitar, bass, drums, violin, banjo, pedal steel and keyboards. All give these musical tales an added depth that never overwhelms the central theme and delivery. All of which marks Martin as a man for these times. A songwriter not chasing a career that relies purely on sales but rather one based on doing something that has meaning for both Martin and for his listenership. Tyler Fortier’s production is open and full of subtle textures that reveal themselves on repeated plays. 

All of the songs bar one are written by Martin, that song Surprise AZ, was written by Richard Buckner - an fellow artist who could be considered something of a soul mate. They are striking low key songs that allow individual interpretation and introspection. In Thrift Store Dress Martin express a wish to settle down in a house “that can’t be moved”, to open oneself to another to allow someone else to see the “faraway sadness” in one’s eyes. That kind of rootlessness is a part of the make-up of the troubadour and their travels. There is a need to hear these songs to gain an insight into people and places that exist everywhere. In life you only get one go around, make the most of it and include albums like this in your life.

Petunia And The Vipers Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome Self Release

Songwriter and singer Petunia is back, after his last album, with his band the Vipers to further explore his personal take on roots music that takes into account today’s requirements  as much as having an earlier era of inspiration at its heart. petunia produced this varied set of songs with Steve Loree. The songs are a tribute to an earlier time when there were less attempts to pigeonhole genres. A song like Lonesome swings in a way that not to many do these days. It uses his crack band to good effect especially long time members Stephen Nikleva and Jimmy Roy on guitar and lap steel respectively. Jack Carton adds trumpet keyboards and accordion as required. While the rhythm section hold it all together for their take on old-time, swing, jazz and country.

Petunia has a distinctive nasal voice that recalls the like of Hank Williams Snr amongst others. A voice that may not suit everyone’s tastes but is a perfect vehicle for his music. He can yodel, croon and rock. The songs range from the uptempo undulations of the dark Urban Landscape through to the slow heart-searching of Heavy & Lonesome, the title gives you the sense of the overall mood of the song. Blindly Wander again has a sound that is deep and slowly dramatic. Blues In My Heart, while it covers similar territory has a casual uplifting mood with the trumpet giving it a late night sense of introspection. 

Alongside the original songs there a 3 public domain songs in the aforementioned Blues In My Heart, Too Long and the intriguing The Dying Crapshooter Blues which shows that Petunia understands the music roots and knows where to find the songs to cover. You might think of this as akin to Damon Runyon set to music. There is a timelessness to the music and its appropriation of earlier musical forms to create something new. There are a handful of artist around who cover such ground. There may be a number of bands covering something similar , especially those more attuned to old time string band mores, but the range of sound here makes Petunia and The Vipers something more diverse and delighting. All of which makes Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome an album that will never be mainstream but will be mandatory for those who appreciate something a little more individual.

Marty Stuart Now That’s Country -The Definite Collection Vol. 1 Humphead

This collection fairly lives ups to it’s title. While not his first greatest hits collection it is the best to date (with maybe more to come with the Volume 1 suffix in the title). It opens with a duet with his friend, former band leader and onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash on Doin’ My Time. Over the 44 tracks there are number of other much-missed icons who share the microphone with him in George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and Merle Haggard. Other duet partner include Steve Earle, Travis Tritt and (his wife) Connie Smith. Not that Stuart needs a lot help in the vocal department. His distinctive vocal ability has maintained it’s vibrance through his career as evidenced here.

The set has been paced nicely to allow material from all parts of his career to sit together sonically rather than chronologically. There’s not credit for whoever compiled the tracks but I suspect that Stuart would have had to approve the running order and it works so well balancing the better know tracks and singles against some deserving choice of album tracks. The result is over two hours of music that is full of variety, pace and mood without ever straying too far from the country music corral. This reviewer has a particular fondness for the songs he wrote with Paul Kennerley  - a series of songs that seems to combine the spirit of Buck Owens and Buddy Holly. Hey Baby, Tempted and Little Things all have that feel. Indeed Holly’s own Crying, Waiting, Hoping is included here too. The duet with Steve Earle features a stylistic sound that is rarely heard today as it was back in the 90s. But with tracks that run from his late 80s album Hillbilly Rock to his most recent Way Out West album it is worth noting that there is no filler here. Obviously some track will appeal more than others but as a body of work this is outstanding. 

While Stuart the Fabulous Superlatives are a band that more than live up to their name there is never a moment when you don’t appreciate the ensemble playing of the various bands featured throughout the collection. Players who have included such talents as guitarist Ray Flacke and bassist Larry Marrs. However, in the end, it is Stuart who is front and centre as the country music renaissance man. A man who has kept many of the traditions of the music alive both sonically and in appearance. He understands its history and future as these songs attest. Now’s that country - long may it and (Stuart) remain so.


Reviews by Paul McGee

JD & The Straight Shot Good Luck & Good Night Self Release

This is the sixth release from a band that has been active since 2005 and they play a mix of Americana and Country Roots music. Fronted by James (Jim) Dolan, a wealthy business executive, this could be seen as nothing more than a guilty pleasure for someone who can afford the indulgence. However, despite his obvious connections in the world of corporate conglomerates and the music industry, the abiding sense is that Jim Dolan is in this project for the pure love of playing music and performing it in a live setting.

JD & The Straight Shot are comprised of a troupe of excellent players with the beautiful violin and background vocals of Erin Slaver a real highlight throughout the ten songs featured here. Chris Carmack, of TV show Nashville, co-writes two songs and is a partner of Erin Slaver. The rest of the band is Michael Rojas on Accordion, Shawn Pelton on percussion, Byron House on upright bass, banjo & vocals with Jim Dolan on vocals and co-writes on seven of the songs.

The production is by Marc Copely who also plays guitar, mandolin and sings background vocals. The arrangements and melodies are very pleasant with a cover of the Glen Frey/Jack Tempchin song, It’s Your World Now, and the closing Never Alone; based on the poem Alone by Maya Angelou.

Romantica Shadowlands At The Helm

It has been a number of years since this Minnesota band last released an album. Over this period, family commitments, personal illness and record label disputes have conspired to keep their creative muse from finding an outlet.

Irish-born, Ben Kyle is both singer-songwriter and frontman for the band that also includes Tony Zaccardi (bass), Danger Dave Strahan (guitar), Ryan Lovan (drums), Aaron Fabbrini (pedal steel guitar, dobro), Jayanthi Kyle (backing vocals), and Peter Schimke-McCabe (piano).

There are many excellent songs on this 14-track release that spans an hour of listening time. The intimate feel of the project and the plaintive quality and reflective singing remind me of early Lambchop at times and there are also echoes of The Band.

As reviewers, we sometimes run the risk of either being too gushing in our praise or too critical of honest effort; however, in this case I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised and very taken with the sheer quality of the talent on display.

Songs like Get Back In Love, After The War, Buffalo Bill and Harder To Hear contain a yearning tone that is more than balanced by the easy groove of tracks like Shandy Bass, Cecil Ingram Conor, Lonely Star and St Paul City Lights.

Full marks to all involved and a real contender for undiscovered artist of the year.

Mark Ripp & The Confessors Under The Circumstances Hanbury Park

Releasing music since the early 1990’s this talented musician has been a front man and writer for Canadian roots rockers The Bel-Vistas.  The last couple of decades have been spent raising a family and pursuing music as a solo artist. Think John Hiatt and then JJ Cale and Tom Petty; meeting on a ledge where the Rolling Stones hang loose. You get the idea … organic and rootsy.

Mark plays acoustic and electric 6 & 12 string guitars, bass and harmonica. John Toffoli plays drums and percussion and co-produces the project with Mark. Bob Hamlyn is the other core member and plays electric 6 & 12 string guitars – the trio being joined by guest Confessors Bruce Hemmings on keyboards, Tim Rutledge on saxes, David Stokaluk on bass and Madalen Tojicic on background vocals.

I’m 99 is a very strong opening track and leads into the gospel/blues groove of Lose My Way; a really strong track that adds to the momentum of the album.

Everything Is Made In China is such a clever commentary on Globalisation and corporate hegemony. The message in Hey Little Guy walks a similar path with a paean to the ‘common man’ and the aspiration to throw off the yolk imposed by authority … "where the hell is Woody Guthrie to sing a song and make them realise that this land is our land." What can you do but agree…

Wishin’ is Hiatt meets Jagger in a fast food restaurant, as is Shitty Little Cavalier, while Twilight is pure JJ Cale. Stay The Night sums it all up with the lines "nothing’s black and white, I just need you to stay the night." Great stuff and a recommended purchase for any self-respecting music collector. 

TG Swampbusters Swamp Rock Country Blues Booze 

The blues has come to town. Tim Gibbons, after years of playing the banjo, has moved to the guitar and delivers a down n’ dirty country blues record. Opening up with Honky Tonk Song and supported by Patch on drums and Swampy Jo Klienfiltr on bass; Tim Gibbons (TG) drums up quite a groove with his guitar and harp playing very much to the fore. Five Minutes Past Midnight is Stevie Ray Vaughan territory and the slow tempo of the song allows for some sweet soloing around the beat.

A follow-up to his debut 2015 release, Swamp Tooth Comb, this album is a real treat for those who like their blues stripped down and raw… All songs are written by Gibbons and were recorded at Blue Tilt Studio in Hamilton, Ontario. There is a touch of early ZZ Top in the slow burn arrangements and distorted guitar on the track Pitching A Tent, while Cranberry Corners and She Gave Me The Blues finish off the project in fine style.

Thunder and Rain Start Believing Self Release

Thunder and Rain is a country/roots band from Golden, Colorado. They released their debut album, Holler Out, in 2015 and a follow-up EP in 2016, Run With You. They are a 4-piece, with Erinn Peet-Lukes (vocals/guitar), Pete Weber (mandolin), Ian Haegele (bass) and Chris Herbst (Dobro/lap steel) being joined for this project by a further four musicians and three back-up vocalists to deliver a full studio sound.

The melodies are very strong throughout and all songs are written by Erinn Peet-Lukes and RP Oates. Production is by John Mcvey and the thirteen tracks here are bright and breezy. Peet-Lukes is a fine singer and her vocals carry the arrangements along with a swing and a tempo that highlights the excellent playing on tracks like Tennessee Is Burning, Start Believing, Cut The Wire and Wyoming is For Miles. I am reminded of I Draw Slow on repeated listens and that is no bad thing. For all lovers of country music that borders on bluegrass but with a modern twist. 

June Star Sleeping With The Lights On Self Release

June Star started up in 1998 and this is their seventh studio release. Andrew Grimm is the frontman, songwriter, and plays guitars, banjo, harmonica in addition to providing lead vocals. He is joined by Andy Bopp on guitars, bass and backing vocals with Kurt Celtnieks on drums and backing vocals.

The songs attack with real attitude and are somewhat reminiscent of Son Volt with jangling guitars and a loose feel to the song arrangements. Backing vocals are supplied by Ellen Cherry and J Robbins plays organ to provide a full sound to the twelve tracks. Grimm co-produced with Andy Bopp and J Robbins and the results are very upbeat and engaging.

Telegraph, Hum & Buzz and Cinnamon are fine band workouts with Smoke & Diesel, Faithless and You’re Still Here showing a different side to the band dynamic.  Closing tracks My Sugar and Already Saved show a possible shift in direction towards traditional Country but the band are perfectly capable of delivering on whatever stage they want to. The title track is certainly worthy of commercial air play, but here’s wishing.

If you like a guitar driven; let’s get dressed for Friday night feel; then this is going to really light you up!

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