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!


Reviews by Declan Culliton

Malojian Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home Rollercoaster

Malojian's Stevie Scullion turned quite a number of heads with his 2016 release This Is Nowhere, a blend of alt-folk with sufficient radio friendly pop sounds to earn it daytime playing on our national broadcasting station, not a mean achievement in its own right. A little over twelve months later and what kicked off as an experimental project for Scullion resulted in this full-blown album after he was offered the opportunity by The British Film Institute and Northern Ireland Screen to compose material and deliver it at a coastal location using visuals from their archives as a backdrop. 

The style is more relaxed than This Is Nowhere with the songs taken at a less frenetic pace and it’s a mirror image of the creators’ personality - understated, thoughtful, reflective, and experimental yet always structured. It also benefits from the material been written and created over quite a short period of time, resulting in a collection of songs that work well as a unit, more cohesive and consistent than his previous work. Scullion sought out Steve Albini to produce This Is Nowhere and rather than being overawed by the legendary producer, he ensured that he had a strong input into the final mix on the album. Anyone in doubt should view Colm Laverty’s excellent feature length documentary entitle Document: a film about Malojian.  This time around Scullion has taken the production reins himself and the choice of instrumentation (violins, cello, lap steel, trumpet and flugelhorn all feature) and the positioning of his gentle vocal in the mix is a triumph. Not surprisingly, given Scullions love of all things Lennon & McCartney, the mastering of the album was carried out by Sean Magee at Abbey Studios.

So, what about the songs themselves. Some New Bones opens the album, written for Rollercoaster Records owner Willie Meighan, bravely fighting an illness at this time. Battery kicks in with a pacey hypnotic drum beat, soon joined by Scullions muffled vocals harmonising with Fiona O’Neill. 

Adding some humour, or possibly deadly serious, Beard Song questions the coolness of excessive facial hair – at last someone has written a song about it! Vocals and piano on the track are enriched by a wonderful flugelhorn solo by jazzman Linley Hamilton, an indication of the discreet things that can elevate a great song to another level entirely.  Chet Baker’s trumpet solo on Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding comes to mind by way of comparison. Ambulance Song is dark, devious and instantly catchy, with Scullion’s vocal hoovering alongside muzzy cello, percussion and synths. The Purity Of Your Smile, at six minutes the longest track on the album by some way, is a simple love ballad pointed in the direction of his daughter, imploring that she follows in the direction of her mother rather than him. The title track and closing song’s entrance recalls ELO before morphing beautifully mid track into an orchestral chorus that brings to mind the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. 

Alt-Folk, Psych, experimental pop - label it as you will. The album certainly tips its hat in the direction of the Beatles more experimental journeys and also those of early career Syd Barrett. The bottom line is that Scullion has produced a body of work that will stand the test of time and more. A fantastic album and a further reminder of the exceptional musical talent on this island.

Dovecote Self-Titled Self Release

Niall Colfer’s previous musical output includes two albums and an EP with Wexford indie band Salthouse and a solo album entitled Finds, recorded in 2009. A career as an archaeologist together with domestic responsibility has kept him more than fully occupied in the intervening years but fortunately his song writing vocation never quite deserted him and to quote Colfer himself ‘the itch came back’.

Enter Dovecote the band and Dovecote the album. The band consists of Colfer, who is credited with all the song writing together with vocals and a range of instruments, jack of all trades Sean Coleman (Eels, Mark Eitzel) who produced the album together with playing guitars, piano, Fender Rhodes, synths and lap steel guitar, Mark Kelly on bass and Barry Smullen on drums. With such a formidable collection of musicians it’s not surprising that the arrangements on the album enrich and enhance Colfer’s selection of song themes and topics, many of which are strikingly personal, honest and questioning.

Recorded at Gavin Glass’s Orphan Recording Studios in Dublin, it’s an album that has an unhurried, relaxed feel to it, no doubt aided by the absence of deadlines, time limits and associated pressures. It’s also quite experimental instrumentally with the opening track For The Best awash with a glorious mix of horns, synths and woozy backing vocals. Easy Mind, the rockiest track on the album, lands somewhere between Tom Petty and Tom Walsh (Pugwash) and includes an addictive riff from start to finish that will remain with you for some time. Before The Night Goes closes the album stylishly, a simple yet contemplative and searching ballad. Wheres and Whys ambles gently along but instead of winding up at the four-minute mark drifts impressively into Neil Young territory with a further two minutes of guitar, strings and drum heaven, all stylishly distorted. Mean Time (Lisa says) is a tale of love, understanding, endurance and continuance and Indrifting follows a similarly personal and contemplative theme, inspired and written in the memory of Colfer’s father, who passed away four years ago.

An album full of delightful songs, stellar playing with a particularly impressive mix. What more could you ask for?

Levi Parham An Okie Opera CRS

This is a re-issue of the debut album by Oklahoma born and bred Levi Parham. Originally recorded in 2013, Parham similar to his fellow Okie musicians John Mooreland, Samantha Crain, Carter Sampson and John Fulbright, has been making inroads into the European market and An Okie Opera gives listeners the opportunity to check out his back catalogue.

Introduced by his father at an early age to bluesman Muddy Waters obviously made its mark but Parham cites Van Morrison as the artist whose output encouraged him mostly to pursue a musical career. Not surprisingly therefore that the self-produced and recorded album has both blues and soul leanings, all dispatched with Parham’s gravely, raw, raspy vocals.

Recorded and produced by Parham, its ten tracks are primarily acoustic with leanings more in the direction of blues than country soul. Hand claps and mouth organ introduce Two Cookies, a no nonsense bluesy opener. Staring At The End Of The World is more laid back with hints of JJ Cale.  I Want To Be With You is a simple love ballad and Devil’s Got A Sweet Tooth ramps up the tempo a few notches.

An Okie Opera is a welcomed introduction to an artist exploring his musical roots and will most likely point the listener in the direction of his more recent releases Avalon Drive (EP) and American Blues recorded in 2016. Like his fellow aforementioned Okies Parham is an artist that I expect we will be hearing a lot more about this side of the pond.

Birds of Chicago Real Midnight Five Head 

Apologies for arriving a bit late to the party with this review but such is the quality of the album that I felt duty bound to post a review, notwithstanding that it was released in 2016. Produced by Joe Henry and recorded at his Garfield House Studio in Los Angeles, Real Midnight is the second studio recording by the group who are essentially Allison Russell, formally of Canadian band Po’Girl and her husband JT Nero, of JT and The Clouds fame. The selection of Henry as producer, given his previous work with Carolina Chocolate Drops, was inspired, there are so many admiral similarities between both acts and Henry succeeds hands down in combining heavenly layered vocals with instrumentation that compliments without dominating. Aside from her striking vocals Russell plays banjo, clarinet and ukulele on the album with JT Nero contributing equally impressive vocals and guitars. Chris Merrill plays bass, Drew Lindsay plays piano and Dan Abu-Absi also plays guitars.

Setting aside the wonderful playing on the album, the listeners attention is swiftly drawn to the beautiful vocals from start to finish, be that Russell’s solo deliveries, her harmonies with Nero or indeed the esteemed guests that also add vocals which include Rhiannon Giddens who contributes to a couple of the tracks and Michelle Mc Grath whose vocal appear on all but one of the eleven tracks.

Nine of the songs are written by Nero and consider themes such as nostalgia in Remember Wild Horses, raw passion in the title track and impermanence in Sparrow, one of two songs written by Russell.  Particularly impressive is the upbeat Estrella Goodbye with Nero taking the opening lead vocals before being joined by Russell’s soaring voice on a song that sounds like it’s been knocking around forever.  Barley, also written by Russell, is acapella gospel at its finest, only aided by minimal percussion. Pelicans is a beautifully simple ballad, sung in duet by Nero and Russell and considering love and the afterlife.  It’s the perfect closer to an album that really does impress from start to finish.

Caroline Spence Spades & Roses Tone Tree

Originally from Charlottesville Virginia but currently part of the burgeoning underground Nashville scene, Caroline Spence is an artist that had been making quite an impression among her peers even before the recording of Spades & Roses. Her song writing has been acknowledged by awards in American Songwriter Magazine and the Kerryville Folk Festival and being name checked by an established household name like Miranda Lambert has to point towards something quite special. That promise was confirmed within the body of her 2015 album Somehow but Spades and Roses finds Spence raising the bar to altogether different heights.

The album contains eleven songs, visiting personal issues such as her parents’ divorce in Southern Accent (It’s not that there was yelling, but the silence was thick, That’s why when I get angry, you’d never know it), the loneliness and hardship of the touring artist in Hotel Amarillo (I’ve been playing shows out west with no guarantee, That anybody’s ever gonna give a damn about me), drug abuse in You Don’t Look So Good, On Cocaine (You get so high, you can’t come down, Can’t see what you lose except a couple of pounds) and relationship commitment in Slow Dancer (Found that part of my heart won’t take no for an answer, You turned me into a slow dancer). So many highlights other than the tracks previously mentioned but the closing track Goodbye Bygones deserves particular mention. Featuring only piano, cello and Spence’s exquisite vocal, it’s magical.

Comparison can most certainly be made with Patty Griffin at her best, so many similarities both in the quality of the song writing and her gorgeous vocal. Production duties were carried out by Neilson Hubbard, an accomplished artists in his own right, at Mr. Lemon’s Studio in East Nashville.

It’s an album that has you reaching for the lyric sheets on first listen, snippets of lines connect with the listener instantly, drawing you inquisitively to investigate the story lines more closely.  It also that demands that you stop whatever you’re doing, take a seat, get that lyric sheet out, read, listen and enjoy. Dreamy stuff. 

Michaela Anne Bright Lights & The Fame Kingswood

Michaela Anne’s last album release Ease My Mind (2014), was mellow in style with the songs taken at a leisurely pace. This time around she’s gone for broke with the foot firmly on the accelerator, delivering a body of work that offers thoughtful ballads and plenty of full on honky tonk, showcasing her fine country voice with songs to match.  The eleven songs on the album visit themes not unfamiliar to traditional country music with self-doubt, anxiety, regret and grieving abundant in cleverly written tales, brought to life by Anne’s exquisite vocals and the killer band of musicians that she assembled to perform on the album. Those musicians include Rodney Crowell who adds backing vocals on the track Luisa, producer Dan Knobler (Rosanne Cash, Tift Merritt, Rodney Crowell, Cory Chisel) on guitars, banjo, organ and vibes, Philip Sterk on pedal steel and dobro, Aaron Shafer-Haiss on drums and mandolin, and Michael Rinne on bass. Lonesome Highway favourite Erin Rae’s harmony vocals also adorn many of the tracks.

Relocating from Brooklyn to Nashville offered Anne the opportunity for co-writes with compatible peers, together with the inspiration to complete a number of previously written but unfinished songs and the change of address most certainly paid dividends. Dave Brainard, who worked with Brandy Clark on the universally lauded album Twelve Stories, was an inspired choice and both Everything I Couldn’t Be and Won’t Go Down co-written with him, are stand out tracks, each thankfully avoiding crossing over the fence into pop country land. Easier Than Leaving, written with Mary Bragg, laments the strain and trappings of a one-sided marriage and the unfortunate choices it offers. The previously mentioned Everything I Couldn’t Be reminds me of Ashley Munroe at the top of her game and Liquor Up recalls Elizabeth Cook at her sauciest.

Michaela Anne, who previously studied jazz at Manhattans New School before a musically career diversion towards country, is a young lady with the ability to bring every day run of the mill situations to life in a similar manner to Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. She’s on record noting how she’d love to record a collection of her favourite country songs by way of a covers album, my advice would be to concentrate on her most considerable writing ability and allow others to consider recording her material. If you haven’t yet come across Michaela Anne I recommend you correct that without delay. 


Reviews by Paul McGee

Janie Barnett & Blue Room You See This River Minor Regrets

This is the second release from a singer-songwriter who has gathered together an impressive line-up of musicians across the 14 tracks included. There is a hint of Rickie Lee Jones in the vocal delivery and it is no surprise, given that Janie developed her career, partly singing backup, for iconic stars like Linda Ronstadt, Celine Dion, and ... Rickie Lee Jones.

Produced by Janie and mixed by Michael Golub, who also provides ‘programming’ on several tracks; the gentle arrangements are full of restrained playing that serve the songs so well and the excellent musicianship is a joy throughout. Witness the trio of love songs, Wrap Me Up; Good Crazy Thing and Sweet Thursday and the lyrical timelessness of the melodies.

The subject of gun purchase is part of Buy That Thing and the fractured state of love gone wrong is touchingly illustrated in Walk It Out To You; with poignant and wistful vocal delivery and minimal guitar/piano accompaniment. Face The Voodoo is wonderfully quirky and reminds me of a Jane Siberry song.

This Small World and Another Round Before It’s Time both question the true meaning of love and the communication that should be an essential part of it. You See This River speaks of taking the jump and experiencing life, with all its risks and rewards. Beginner explores opening up to new love and being vulnerable, as does the sweetly supportive How You Are, in reaching out to a sensitive soul.

A very impressive body of songs that just get better with repeated listening. Recommended for all who like to dwell in the magical universe of the ethereal. 

Peter Gallway Feels Like Religion Self Release

Yes, he is most definitely at it again. Eleven new songs with the same high quality, as always, in both the musicianship and the writing. Over 36 minutes this prolific song-writer, musician and producer paints a vista that shows just how versatile an artist he truly is. Dedicated to, and inspired by, the work of Laura Nyro and her unique vision and whether or not you have listened to this now legendary female artist who died in 1997, you can feel her come alive again in the writing of Peter Gallway.

He has released more than twenty albums across a varied career and last year’s critically acclaimed solo release, Muscle And Bone, was his most politically impassioned work to date. In addition to his solo and band recordings, Peter Gallway has produced over fifty albums and special projects, so you can trust yourself to the tools of the master.

Playing guitars, fretted and fretless bass & keyboards, it is the world-weary quality and the wistfulness in the vocal delivery that captures the imagination as he spins tales of scenarios, both imagined and remembered, around New York City and memories of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

R&B influences are never far away as the jazz tinged sound of Shorty Moves On conjures thoughts of a Steely Dan arrangement, following so seamlessly after the smooth sentiment of Just Lucky. Longing Lasts Longer is inspired by the work of performance artist Penny Arcade, an actress and playwright based in NYC and his ode to the City is further brought to life with songs like Tonight At The Fair and Roller Coaster.

Joined by Jerry Marotta on drums and percussion and long-time collaborator Annie Gallup, who appears on two songs, Peter Gallway is always worth a place in any music collection and this new release is highly recommended.

Tokyo Rosenthal This Minstrel Life Rock and Sock

Ten years of recorded output that has seen six previous releases and a growing reputation as an artist of some depth and quality. This release is broken into six studio recorded songs and four live songs, recorded at different venues across a 4-year period. The ten tracks hint at old spontaneous sessions that the best of Country/Folk music used to conjure up. Tokyo co-produced with Chris Stamey (Alex Chilton, The dB’s) and the mix of accordion, mandolin, flute, dobro and fiddle across the songs adds to a very open and warm production style that allows plenty of room for the fine musicianship to emerge.

There is a Tex-Mex groove on The Immigrant Revisited where the cantina sounds of mandolin and accordion transport you off to another world. Now I Believe There’s A Devil is a song that takes aim at the current President of the U.S.A. with a bi-lingual verse to add to the dynamic. Wiregrass highlights the fine talents of John Teer on fiddle while live tracks, Mama Tried (a Merle Haggard cover) and Love Won Out, show the ability to turn out performances that lift the spirit and deliver real quality. Impressive.

Daisy Chapman Good Luck Songs Songs & Whispers

Good Luck Songs is Daisy's third full length studio album. If you include a number of EP’s and a career that has been steadily growing since 2006, then you can understand the interest and respect that her beautiful melodies and voice have been gathering. This release is quite hypnotic and the nine songs that span 45 minutes just sail by in a warm reverie. Her vocal range and tone is really impressive and the song arrangements use piano, violin, cello and viola to dramatic effect. Add in the impact of oboe on a few tracks and even baritone sax and trombone; the results are highly arresting.

Daisy's unique voice soars and her wistful delivery on certain tracks is beautifully heart-wrenching. Throw in a gentle version of the Tom Waits song Tom Traubert’s Blues and the sassy groove of There’s A Storm Coming and you get a broad palette on which she paints.

However, it is the great emotion of songs like The Decalogue, Good Luck Song and Home Fires that really cast their spell and enchant the listener. How to define this music?  Perhaps it is Chamber Folk; maybe Pastoral Country? Does it need a box? No, because it is quite simply a joy to discover and that should be enough!

Her albums have all been recorded by renowned producer Ali Chant at Toybox Studios (PJ Harvey, Gruff Rhys, Giant Sand, Seasick Steve) and The Green Eyed (2009) won an Independent Music Award. Just check out this great talent.

Richard Schroder Drive Self Release

This is a slice of country-pop in all the best traditions of modern radio-friendly tunes. In an industry that has expanded the definition of what exactly qualifies as country these days, the message has become so diluted and confused that artists such as Richard Schroder don’t quite know what focus they need to bring to a rebooted career in the music business. So, why not tick ALL the boxes and hope for the best?

The production is perfectly fine with well-arranged melodies to underpin the eleven songs included here. Nothing wrong with any of it and the stories of trying to make it in the business (Drivin’) are coupled with chasing down desires (Nashville Girl), memories of youthful passion (Backseat Love) sit with advice to live life bigger (Wildest Dreams).

The standout song here is Someone Else, with its simple acoustic arrangement, a nice cello part and an authenticity that points towards the direction that Schroder should look to for any future projects.

Ryne Doughty Date Night Self Release

This musician lives in Des Moines, Iowa and on his fourth release he has written all nine songs and also produced with Jon Locker, who plays bass guitar on the tracks. They are joined by a fine group of musicians in the studio, including Justin Appel (piano), James Biehn (electric guitar), Nathan Emerson (pedal steel), Will Locker (drums, percussion), Alex Ramsey (accordion), Neil Stoffregen (keyboards) and Matt Woods (electric guitar).

Jordi Doughty adds harmony vocals, as well as providing album art, so you could truly define this as a DIY project. The music is very organic and rootsy with Ryne singing and playing acoustic guitar & banjo in a style that has real grit and stripped- down honesty. His finger-style guitar picking is impressive and the songs tell simple tales of everyday scenarios; like the title track and the rural feel of Pickled Peaches; living the simple life.

Crossing The River has a folksy blues groove and echoes the old blues players of past generations; "the Devil close behind me and Jesus up ahead on the bank’ – a metaphor for hard drinkin’ and hard livin"… Sway is a highlight with its laid-back tempo and fine guitar playing and Some Good, Some Bad has a slow groove that is both taut and razor sharp in delivery. Leaf ends the album in a gentle strum that leaves you with a smile.

A fine example of the quality music that is out there waiting to be discovered, just around the bend and down by the ’Please Stop Here’ sign.    

Humphrey-McKeown Tapestry Of Shadows HM

Songwriters Tom McKeown (vocals, banjo, guitar, harmonica, mandola and mandolin) and Heather Humphrey (vocals, flute, piano) release their fifth album and are joined by Jim Livas (drums), Tony Meadors (4 and 5 string upright and electric bass) and Gary Jacklin (violin). They produce a blend of folk/roots music that is highlighted by the harmony vocals and an organic sound that showcases the inventive musicianship.

All songs are written by Humphrey and McKeown and they also engineered, produced and mixed the entire project. You Don’t Know Me unfolds with a slow tempo and the arrangement highlights some fine piano, violin and flute interplay with the upright bass of Tony Meadows anchoring everything so well.

The co-vocal on Better Day is underlined by a gentle beat and some nice guitar and violin lines while You & I is a very atmospheric song with impassioned lead vocals.  Someday is a plea to keep going even when the waves of life seem to be crashing around you and Our Beautiful Sad Dance is a song of regret and an unwanted goodbye. It all comes together on Madness with the five musicians really coming together in unison as the song builds to a climax; stirring stuff. A very enjoyable 50 minutes spent in the company of superb musicians and an urge to enjoy more of their back catalogue.

Sands & Hearne Time Is A Line Self Release

Quinn Sands and Richard Hearn are a recently married couple and are planning their summer road tour to serve as their honeymoon. Talk about taking your love for a road trip! They actually grew up a few miles from each other but never met until many years later at a local venue called the Barking Spider Tavern. Well, what can you do but make beautiful music together?

The couple began performing and writing together in 2015 and their style is a blend of traditional folk and country blues. The two combine perfectly on the wonderfully dark tale of Crazy Carl, with harmonica atmospherics from Colin Dussault and some mean resonator guitar painting atmospheric colours. Bouncing Ball of Jesus councils on the twists and turns of cruel fate and on the title track they sing that "time is a line, but it's not always straight; it curves and it bends, by choice and by fate."

Well, fate threw this couple together and they certainly make some excellent music as they take lead- vocal turns across the eleven songs that are enriched by the superb players assembled for the studio recording in Cleveland, Ohio - Joey Hanna on drums & percussion; Kevin Johnson on electric & upright bass; Chris Hanna on organ & piano; Al Moss on lap steel, pedal steel and dobro; Nick Stipanovich on accordion; Sam Kristoff on cello and Colin Dussault on harmonica.

Sands plays acoustic guitars, glockenspiel and sings with a lovely warm tone to her voice. Hearn plays acoustic guitars, resonator/bottleneck slide guitar and sings equally well, sharing harmonies to great effect on many of the tracks.

Matt Troja produced, recorded and mixed the project in addition to playing various guitars, keyboards, percussion and singing duties. There are no fillers here and the tracks Angel With Dusty Boots, American Mind and Sugar In The Morning hold an instant appeal. However, all the songs blend seamlessly together and this duo have made a very impressive debut that comes highly recommended and points towards a bright future, both professionally and romantically speaking!!

Delta Wires Born In Oakland Mud Slide

The Delta Wires is a high-energy, harmonica and horns, 7-piece blues band from the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area and this is their 7th album. Their sound is big and funky with Ernie Pinata in the role of bandleader, harmonica player and vocalist. He is credited with forming the band almost 30 years ago, so you know that these musicians form part of an enduring legacy in playing a combination of Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues, in addition to their own modern take on the genre.

Of the ten tracks included here, 7 are originals, penned by the collective which includes a wonderful horn section of Gerry Jonutz on tenor, alto and baritone sax; David Bowman on Trombone and John Christensen on trumpet. Tony Huszar also contributes on drums, congas and tambourine with Tom Gerrits on bass and vocals and the exciting Richard Healy who really makes his guitar sing throughout. The arrangements are bright and sassy with plenty to enjoy across the seven players.

Your Eyes slows the pace down and allows the musicianship to stretch out as does Devil’s In My Headset with some lovely lead lines played by Healy. In The Middle is the chance for an extended workout with individual solos highlighting the great quality on offer. Pinata Ieads a very tight unit and the groove of Fun Time, I Don’t Care and the final track, All I Have To Give, makes this an essential purchase for any lover of all that is great about a big band blues sound.


Reviews by Eilis Boland

Janet Martin Eve Sessions Self Release 

Janet Martin has been working away building a steady fanbase in her native US and raising her profile in Europe over the course of seven studio albums. After going through a life crisis, the Virginian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter decided she need to take back control in the studio. Crowdfunded by her fans, she wrote, performed and produced this album alone, and what an impressive musical document it is!

Recognised as a particularly accomplished guitarist, here she plays acoustic, electric, bass and slide. Thrown into the mix are drums, other forms of percussion, mandolin, accordion and I could swear I hear trumpet on one track. Her rich voice reminds me of that of Anne McCue, although Janet’s overall sound leans more towards blues and rock than Anne’s.

Yesterday I Dreamt a Journey Wide opens the album with unusually a sample of a Bulgarian folk choir, and this motif is cleverly woven throughout this song of searching. In Without Your Love her ferocious bluesy slide guitar expresses so well the visceral pain of heartache. First Bite is another standout song, with its insistent bass line, acoustic guitar and another powerful slide guitar hook. But it’s not just the instrumentation that stands out here - the lyrics are heartfelt and real. Would you do things differently if you could go back and relive your life again? This universal theme is explored in Turn Back Time. Deceit and learning to trust again are the catalysts for another standout track Smoke and Mirrors, which has a distinctly klezmer feel with its accordion and mandolin. The closing track I’ll Still Wait celebrates contentment in love - an appropriate way to sign off.

This album is a real grower - it’s definitely worth seeking it out and here’s hoping that Janet comes to play in Ireland soon.

Pierce Edens Stripped Down Gussied Up Self Release 

Here’s another artist from the vibrant music scene in Asheville, NC - but this time we’re talking more grungy rock and roll than folky stringband. Based on the evidence of this his fifth independent release, the small town North Carolina that Pierce Edens inhabits is one of devils and fires and murder and gothic horror … you get the picture. 

Throughout the ten original songs (and one Tom Waits cover - Mr. Seigal) Pierce snarls and growls and howls and hollers his way through the depressing mire of psychedelic horror. His passion is admirable.

The dark tales are accompanied by a relentless soundtrack of driving acoustic guitars, punctuated by searing and soaring electric guitars. Most of the guitar work is performed by Eden himself, accompanied by his long time side man Kevin Reese, who also contributes mandolin and banjo. Matthew Neilson adds percussion, vocals and piano.

Body, a murder ballad of sorts, tells the story of a body found floating in a flooded river. Clocking in at a full six minutes, The Bonfire is a celebration of pyromania and Eden really lets rip as this one builds up intensity to its climax. Further Down gives a brief respite from the intensity of most of the album, but even here, the theme is one of despair at lost love. We return to the hammering acoustic guitars with I Can’t Sleep and the closer It’s Alright, It’s All Wrong.

Hillfolk Noir Junkerpunch Self Release

 Another delicious slice of acoustic hillbilly blues has been released on the world from the Boise, Idaho home of this singularly unique trio. Travis Ward, the main songwriter, along with his wife Alison and their compadre Mike Waite are regular visitors to Ireland and Europe, where their blend of old time, punk, rock and roll, folk and country continues to go down a bomb.

They describe their music as ‘junkerdash’, hence the name of this latest collection. And punch you in the head and the heart this music sure does- in a good way. Sparse though the instrumentation is, the album never bores, even though there are seventeen songs here - seventeen vignettes of life. They sing of the outlaws, the inlaws, the pirates and the hobos. They celebrate murder in Billy Got Popped and Crow Jane. Seafarers and pirates also get a look in, in Shanty Blues and Pirate Song.

Travis Ward’s rich baritone voice is mirrored to great effect on most of the songs by Alison’s harmony vocals, while the rhythm is held down by Mike Waite’s steady upright bass playing. Alison also augments the percussion of the bass with her washboard playing. Travis plays a mean resonator guitar on most of the songs. Alison also gets to shine with her clawhammer banjo playing on Might As Well Live Like A Hobo and the instrumental Brushy Fork Of John’s Creek. The most effective instrument of all, however, is Alison’s saw playing - it lends an appropriately eerie quality to Dead Maud (with its ghost called Sally O’Malley!) and to the bluesy Forgive Me Please.

Notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheek and whimsical celebration of noir throughout most of the album, the closing song brings you up short. Leave A Light On is a touching and hauntingly beautiful plea to its mama from a little child who is afraid of the dark.

Buy this and go see them when they get back to Europe in 2018.

Scroggins & Rose Grana Self Release

If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing Justin Scroggins play mandolin live, you will not be surprised that he has just been awarded the IBMA 2017 Instrumental Momentum Award. At 22 he has already reached heights with his playing that most players can only dream of. He tours regularly with his equally talented and legendary banjo playing father, Jeff. They thrilled Irish audiences recently with a short duo tour, before their full bluegrass band toured Europe. 

Alisa Rose is another prodigy, this time on violin and baritone violin. As well as being classically trained, Alisa is equally at home playing American traditional music. She has played and taught all over the world in various combinations and in many styles including classical, folk, bluegrass and pop. This is a musical match made in heaven.

On this collection of six original tunes and seven improvisations the duo push the boundaries of instrumental ‘new acoustic’ music further than anyone has before. From the first track to the last, they attack the tunes like their lives depend on it. The passion and the pace of the playing is truly exhilarating. Each time I listen, I hear something new. 

Justin’s Eagle’s Nest and its companion piece Argonaut’s Armada are a case in point - he and Alisa trade musical phrases at breakneck speed and it’s hard to comprehend that there are only two of them playing here. Alisa’a compositions are equally memorable and accomplished. The improvisations are mainly on well-known bluegrass instrumentals like Bill Monroe’s Wheel Hoss - but the purists needn’t fear - they pay homage to these standards rather than destroy them.

Get this album - and play it LOUD.

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