Saturday
Dec232017

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Alice Dimicele One With The Tide Alice Otter

"Folks, I am a Woman not a large corporation. Thanks for supporting independent music." These words appear on the back cover of Alice Dimicele’s latest and fourteenth album One With The Tide, all released on her own Alice Otter Music label, dating back to her debut album recorded in 1988. A quite unique achievement given that few artists can boast having self-released their entire back catalogue over a three decade period.

An early starter, she fronted a rock/fusion band at the tender age of 15 before launching her solo career in the mid-eighties. One With The Tide, consistent with most of her writing, deals in the main with environmental issues, a theme that resulted in her sharing the stage over the years with artists such as Steve Winwood, Janis Iain, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. The album is dedicated to environmental and social justice activists Barry Snitkin who died in February 2015.

Given the foregoing you might be forgiven for assuming that the album content would be low beat acoustic folk. Quite the contrary, as much of the material possesses an upbeat blues groove from the title track opener, the reggae themed Waiting, the ‘letting go’ ballad Seeds, the earthy and funky Voice of the Water and the closer, a cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. Constant throughout is Dimicele’s captivating vocals, soaring and dipping and as crystal clear as much of the subject matter on this most enjoyable recording.

Balsam Range It’s Christmas Time Mountain Home

This little beauty from a band long established as our Bluegrass guru Ronnie Norton’s favourite is a treat from start to finish. From the stunning cover art by Teresa Pennington to the last note of the instrumental Jingle Bells the six track EP is a very welcome departure in style and delivery for Balsam Range. They are a band that somehow manage to surprise and enthral with their watertight harmonies and instrumental excellence in all of their previous outings.

And this one takes us just a tad farther with the addition of the Nashville Recording Orchestra to the mix. The blend of Orchestra and Bluegrass instrumentation makes for a heady brew that is guaranteed a place on any Christmas listening list. 

Four standard oldies like The First Noel, Hark The Herald Angels , Jingle Bells and Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree are paired with the haunting Doc Watson adaptation of The Christmas Lullaby and the Ralph Stanley, Old Timey I’m Going Home It’s Christmas Time should get full rotation honours over the season anywhere they find a home.

This is Balsam Range’s first Christmas project and as it’s only six tracks we can hope that they will pour us another glass of Christmas cheer at some other stage in the future. Team this one with Vince Gills orchestral Breath Of Heaven CD and you have the perfect background music for a mellow lead
in to the festivities for this and many years to come.

Cua Songs of the Hollow Anseoceol

Before even removing the album from the sleeve the striking design work on this album cover immediately caught the eye, the design carried out by John Daly and the equally impressive photography by Joe Conroy.  Cua are a three-piece group made up of John Davidson on fiddle and percussion, Shane Booth on guitars and Ros O’Meara on bouzouki, guitar and percussion with all three contributing vocals often harmonising. Their sound is world music Irish style, their groove actually self-christened as Atlantaen.

The album weighs in with a hefty fifteen tracks in total -  all titles written by the band - and does indeed explore many different styles from traditional (The Somewhere Waltz), jazz fusion (Black Dog), roots (Atlantic Cross, Waco), folk (Kings and Queens), 3 part a capellas (The Other Man) together with some quite distinguished hybrids.

The album is both ambitious and impressive, the musicianship impeccable, though it could possibly suffer in terms of potential airplay given that it covers such a wide range of musical classifications. Well worth investigating. 

Richie Healy The Perilous Tree Self Release

 Richie Healy is a singer songwriter highly regarded in his native ‘music capital of Ireland’ Kilkenny. A regular support act to numerous visiting acts in Kilkenny after his early days playing in local band Enerjive, The Perilous Tree is his latest album having released Last Taxi Home in 2013 on the Swarfbomb Record Label. With a career path that has combined farming, bar tending and quarrying together with song writing and performing, it’s not difficult to imagine a solitary Healy, content making hay or tending to his herd, taking inspiration from the wild outdoors with the outlines of poems and lyrics at formation stage.  In many ways the album is in fact poetry put to song, deeply informed plainspoken lyrics often inspired by the reality of day to day struggles, desperation, conflicted emotions, helplessness and survival. 

Make no mistake it’s no party record, rather a late-night listen in a darkened room, perhaps accompanied by a glass or two of spirits. Its stories are stripped right back to the bare bones with Healy’s weathered vocals and acoustic guitar sympathetically supported by some atmospheric accordion playing by Ger Moloney. Its unlikely that even the most discernible listener will connect fully on first listen but with repeated plays of the album the tales unravel and the atmosphere fully exposes itself. The material never strays too far from what is probably most credibly described as gothic folk blues, with early Leonard Cohen influences noticeable on Cloak Me In Quiet and similarly Van Morrison Astral Weeks period visited on Cold Grey Shine. Death and despondency dominate the most impressive Princess Of The Ditch and opening track Fallen In creates dreamlike images of a mysterious afterworld ever so close yet always out of reach.

Recorded at Crossroad Studios in Kilkenny and co-produced by Healy and Jed Parle The Perilous Tree is a slow burner which offers a cryptic set of songs, challenging, spellbinding but ultimately extremely rewarding.

The ROAMies We Got Love Self Release

Joining forces after promising solo careers, duo Alexa James and Rory Partin’s debut album We Got Love more than showcases their stunning harmony vocals across six tracks, four self-penned, together with a cover of Dave Heywoods Just A Kiss, previously recorded by Lady Antebellum and Tom Higgenson’s 1,2,3,4 which charted in 2009 when released by Plain White T’s. The bands name refers to the intense travelling the pair have enjoyed, visiting over thirty countries since their formation.

The opening track Oh My My is up-tempo country blues, We Got Love is crossover country pop, very listenable and consistent with the sound presently populating much of the commercial country radio stations. Still The One, the strongest track featured, follows a similar path, gorgeous melody, stylish harmony vocals and a clear pointer of their ability to create a sound that with the right breaks could lead to much wider exposure.

The previously mentioned Just A Kiss doesn’t stray too far from Lady Antebellum’s version but I’m left with the opinion that their self-written material is every bit as striking and impressive as the covers featured. In an often over populated market breakthroughs don’t come too easy and I’m left with the impression that The ROAMies ability to write radio friendly material of such a high standard could very well see the duo’s material taken on board by some already established artists with a considerable degree of success. 

Trouble Pilgrims Dark Shadows and Rust Chiswick 

The Rollercoaster Records annual albums of the year poll is the most credible reflection on albums released by both Irish and International acts during the previous twelve months.  Voted by the punters rather than the music press, it covers a wide range of genres from rock to roots, country to metal and further afield. This year’s poll featured votes for 575 albums in total and when the top 50 were announced it came as little surprise to me to find Dark Shadows and Rust by Trouble Pilgrims sitting pretty at No.29. Not bad for a band whose roots go back nearly four decades to the early days of The Radiators From Space, yet still retain the hunger, ingenuity and motivation to release an album that obviously hit the spot with listeners of all ages.

The Radiator’s output was always a step ahead of U.K. punk, combining the energy and rawness of the early punks but with the addition of melody and structure. In many ways they were New Wave in advance of the U.K. Press inventing the genre in the late 70’s and before many artists chopped off their manes and raided their father’s wardrobes for skinny trousers to replace their well-worn bell-bottomed loons.

Forty years on from the release of their debut album TV Tube Heart and two founding members, Pete Holidai and Steve Rapid, are still rolling back the years as frontmen with Trouble Pilgrims. Also on board are one-time Radiators drummer Johnnie Bonnie, former Blue Russia member Tony St. Ledger on guitar and vocals. Bren Lynott, previously of The End and The Cathedral, on bass and vocals. The band name was taken from the album of the same name from The Radiators after Philip Chevron, another founding member and song writer, became seriously ill and was unable to perform live.

Dark Shadows and Rust is released on Chiswick Records, a label can also boast surviving since the mid 70’s and that supported many of the early punk and new wave bands and released the first two Radiators albums. What is immediately striking about the album is the energy and fluency of the material, its delivery recreating that glam rock meets post punk sound to perfection. 

Out of the starting blocks in full throttle is opener Snake Oil Carnival followed by Animal Gang Blues, full of menace and back alley aggression. Queen of Heartache combines the amphetamine intensity of The Ramones with Beach Boy style harmonies and Reach Out ("There’s a madman in the White House, An imposter on TV, He’s got his finger on the button, to bring an end to democracy") recalls early Dr. Feelgood with ripping guitar riffs escorting Holidai’s raucous vocals. Sex In A Cheap Hotel (‘Let’s get together on a Saturday night, Tie me to the bedpost I won’t put up a fight’) is a reminder that sleazy glam rock is not yet quite dead and buried just waiting it’s time for a revival. The dynamic Instant Polaroid, always a highlight of their live sets and released as a single in 2015, loses none of its guts on the studio version. Long Way To The Sun is Undertones (a band both The Radiators and Pilgrims have shared stages with) neighbourhood power pop at its finest and The Velvet Tongue recollects late 60’s New York garage rock. Death Ballad creates a driven sound immortalised by Howard Devoto’s Magazine in the late 70’s and for me the standout track on the album.

Dark Shadows and Dust is an album that unashamedly wears its hat on its sleeve, no nonsense rock and roll and most importantly fun, fun, fun!

Saturday
Dec162017

Reviews by Paul McGee

Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards California Calling Compass Records

Connection is the abiding feeling that runs through the music of this prolific artist. Her creative drive and willingness to collaborate has stood her in good stead across a career that has seen seven previous releases, each one special in its own right. Laura plays a number of instruments on this latest project, including fiddle, synth bass and glass harmonica. She also sings in a seductively sweet voice and adds stomps and claps to proceedings. Valerie Thompson plays cello, marimba, Rhodes, glass harmonica and also adds vocals and claps. Jenna Moynihan contributes on fiddle, voice, banjo, stomps, claps, glass harmonica and toy piano, while Natalie Bohrn plays bass, glass harmonica and sings.

Sam Kassirer, a very creative influence, produces and also contributes on acoustic and electric pianos, organs, synthesizers, percussion, marimba. It’s all a heady mix of eclectic and ethereal sounds that are very rooted in a Country/Folk tradition and seem timeless in every aspect of their creation.  The eleven tracks have much to recommend them and the traditional arrangement of Swing & Turn (Jubilee) is particularly appealing, as is the sweet melody of Three Little Words. Skipping Stone and Pace Myself, while very different in arrangement, also impress but it is the album in its entirety that stands as a true work of great inspiration.

Red Moon Joe Time & Life DBS 

This title is an appropriate summary of this band’s history which saw a first release in 1990, before fate and circumstance stepped in and 20 years later, the original band gets back together again to record their second album, Midnight Trains in 2010.

Americana, bluegrass and country come together on this third release, with Paul Casey (drums, percussion, vocals), Steve Conway (pedal steel, lap steel, guitar, mandolin, dobro, vocals); Dave Fitzpatrick (guitar, mandolin, gob iron, banjo, vocals); David A. Smith (bass, guitar, vocals); Mark Wilkinson (vocals, guitar) making this a very pleasant listening experience.

The band hail from England and the authentic feel of their sound is peppered with great playing that runs through songs like The High Lonesome; Elvis, Townes & Hank; and One Day Behind.

Please Take My Broken Heart is a classic country sound and Hard Road displays some great guitar playing over a driving rhythm that finds the band almost straying into Lynyrd Skynyrd territory.

Shadows calms everything down with a quiet strum and a reflective look at the modern world. One Day Behind is a classic bluegrass workout that energises and inspires and the last track, Nobody’s Fool leaves you with a smile and the urge to keep listening. 

Jim Byrnes Long Hot Summer Days Self Release

With ten previous releases over a career that has seen this artist take turns as a musician, movie actor, TV and voice actor and very fine blues player of some 40 years; Jim Byrnes continues to defy the hands of time and produce work of sterling quality. He works on a regular basis with Steve Dawson, one of Canada’s most influential musicians/producers and the 12 tracks included here are a mixture of old standards and other choices that may surprise. All are carried off with great aplomb and sass as the musicians produce quality playing throughout. The horn section and the keyboards give a swell to the arrangements that are perfectly suited to the guitar breaks of both Jim and Steve Dawson. Covers of Leonard Cohen (Everybody Knows), Robbie Robertson (The Shape I’m In), Willie Dixon (Weak Brain, Narrow Mind) and Eddy Floyd, Wilson Pickett, Steve Cropper (Ninety Nine and a Half Won’t Do) are all delivered with great panache. A great record for the car on a long journey with the windows down and the volume turned right up.

Beki Hemingway Whins & Weather Self Release

What a pleasure to find this artist again after many years out of sight. Beki had a burgeoning career in the late 90’s with the release of a number of excellent albums and growing media interest. However, Life is what happens when making other plans and she found herself pulled in different directions; returning to the industry in the last few years, having spent time working in events media and dealing with some health issues. This 10-track release shows that Beki has lost none of her strong writing skills and her voice sounds really powerful and seasoned by the added years of living that have coloured her perspective on life.

This is a very impressive statement, from the country roll of opening track Two More Hills, which deals with the need to keep enduring no matter what happens; to the blues groove of My World Is Out There, which speaks of grabbing life and living the days that present themselves. The production by Conor Brady at Camden Studios is really bright and the arrangements are clear as a bell to allow the full range of Beki’s singing to come to the fore. Together with husband Randy Kerkman, who plays, writes and also co-produces, this lady knows how to put real conviction and feeling into a song.

Is This All delivers a superb vocal full of wistful yearning along with an understated acoustic guitar & keyboard support. Anyone But You is a more up-tempo number and shows the versatility of this superb artist. Lyrically, she shows that the extended family connection to Ernest Hemingway is not wasted and break-up songs like Not Excused have wry observations such as "you look much better in my rear-view mirror." Because offers the observation that "our scars are just reminders of the places we’ve been healed" in another stand-out song with just gentle voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment. Thank You For The Rain is a song of celebration for the good things we get in our lives and the perspective gained; "the grey skies bring back the green grass" and ‘thank you for the mystery of the darkness and the mercy of the light’.

The coterie of studio musicians are very supportive with subtle playing and the excellent Kenny Hutson delivers on a number of instruments, along with Cian Boylan on keys and Smiley on drums. Duke Special guests on You Sing This Song and Tourist, a song that captures the conflicting emotions of a recent visit to Auschwitz.

Comparisons to Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams are merely signposts along the main road that brings you to the singular talent of this superb singer-songwriter. Beki Hemingway is back and on a mission to capture the hearts and minds of everyone fortunate enough to find this very fine music. Check out her catalogue at bekihemingway.com or CD Baby.

Susan Cattaneo The Hammer & the Heart Jerseygirl 

Two CD’s, each with nine songs; one called The Hammer and the other called The Heart. Forty musicians were involved in the making of the album and some of the guests include The Bottle Rockets, Mark Erelli, Bill Kirchen, Jennifer Kimball and Todd Thibaud.

Anyone who does not know of Susan Cattaneo is missing out on one of Boston’s most respected songwriters. She blends rock, folk and blues with a healthy dose of country. If you are looking for a signpost then it would read Mary Chapin Carpenter meets Shawn Colvin but then you would miss the turn that leads to the unique talents of Susan in her own right. Four covers are included in the tracks and the others are all written by the lady herself or co-written, in the case of five songs. The atmospheric Dry, sung with Dennis Brennan, is a real stand-out moment on a hugely enjoyable listen. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger is another special moment with guitar shredding courtesy of Mark Erelli. Country Blues at its finest on disc one.

Work Hard, Love Harder spans both CD’s as the opening track, on the second it is played with the Boxcar Lilies and the sweet folk/bluegrass arrangement kicks off a set of songs that are more gentle and acoustic after the electric blues of cd one. Country colourings run throughout these nine songs and the playing is more restrained and laid back. Bitter Moon and Smoke are a duo of songs that deal with the frustration of relationships. A very cool version of the Mose Allison song Everybody Cryin’ Mercy is followed by David Bowie’s Space Oddity which is a strange way to end the project but should not take away from what is a terrific release filled with real treasures.

Fallon Cush Morning Lightly Toasted

This is the fourth record from a Sydney band who describe themselves as a collision of rock, alt. country, psychedelic rock and pop. Fallon Cush is the vehicle for songwriter Steve Smith, who plays guitar and is joined by Glen Hannah (guitar), Casey Atkins (guitar), Tim Byron (keyboards), Scott Aplin (keyboards), Peter Marley (bass), Chris Vallejo (bass), Michael Carpenter (bass), Josh Schuberth (drums/ percussion), Suzy Goodwin(vocals) and Stephanie Grace (backing vocals). So, very much a collective that has come together to provide the big, melodic sound on display across the nine songs. There are hints of Crowded House and the playing is excellent with great production and a vibrant sound from the arrangements. Long Shot, Best Laid Plans and No Answers are immediately appealing but the entire project is worthy of your attention if you enjoy the direction that commercial Americana has been going in; radio-friendly tunes that will be very well received. 

Wednesday
Dec062017

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Jace Everett Dust & Dirt Humphead

Can a person’s career be defined by one song?  Does that then categorise them as a one hit wonder? Jace Everett’s song Bad Things seems to have defined him for many who then think that that is all he does (or has done of note). That he’s forever trying to rewrite that one song. There’s no doubt that the use of that song as the theme for True Blood was a helpful step in terms of recognition as well as with some much needed financial rewards. Equally should Jace Everett be regarded as country music when his music could rarely have been said to have easily fit under any traditional country tag? He has long since moved on from his major label debut album and a (sort of) straight country sound (not that, in truth, he could ever really be defined that way). He has always explored a range of musical options that are defined by his voice and more edgy writing.

Dust & Dirt is a solid and varied album that again sees him working alongside his longtime musical partner Dan Cohen. They co-produced the album together and as well as supplying the objective and incisive guitar input, Cohen co-wrote several of the songs. And as the title suggests, this is not an album of happy ever after (or even before) songs. Although love and hope are not that far from the surface in several of the songs. Rather it considers the options that are available to those who have been round the block a time or two. As the man looking to avoid memories warns “I broke my own heart, turns out that’s just what I was born to do” (Someplace). Love, religion and some political pessimism are the themes that Everett returns to here.

The aptly titled Love’s Not What We Do is a (undrained) swampy moded song that reverberates with a healthy dose of realism regarding the country he lives in. A strong antidote to any “love and peace” that existed in decades past. It recognises that love may not always be enough. That even though we are the same essentially, living on the same planet, that “we all face the same fucking fear” we live in a state of division. The song has a suitably terse feel that sets off that sense of disquiet well. Romance though is taken to a more personal level on songs like Rescue Me, Green Or Blue and Golden Ring, which are imbued with a sincere sense of a deeper affection.

Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash joins Everett on Lowlands and counter balances Everett’s deeper voice well. There are hints of a more roots oriented sound here that serve the album well. It closes with a tribute to Guy Clark, a hero who Everett much admired and also toured with. His stripped down, ragged but right, version of Clark’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad serves as a good note to end on; as well as a heartfelt salute. Dust and dirt tends gets everywhere and on this occasion, is most welcome.

Matt Patershuk Same As I Ever Have Been Black Hen

This is the third release from a Canadian singer songwriter. And if this is the same as he’s ever been, then he’s made two previously crackin’ albums. There is a lot here to admire from Steve Dawson’s production through Patershuk’s honest and weary but resonant voice and his experienced songwriting. These songs are carefully hewn from a lifetime of observation, insight and introspection. There are not too many songs titled Memory And The First Law Of Thermodynamics, which deals with a tragic road death. Tragedy also is an underlying factor in the albums’ opening song Sometimes You’ve Got To Do Bad Things To Do Good. - which opens in a rockin’ Bo Diddley style. There are songs that look at the life of the working man (or woman) in Hard Knuckle Blues and Blank Pages And Lost Wages. Patershuk takes these well worn subjects and looks to find a slightly different perspective on how to tell them.

He and Dawson brought together a set of players to do the songs justice and set themselves up in Bryan Adams’ Warehouse Studio in Vancouver to record. The 12 songs, that last nearly an hour are time well spent. Such noted musicians as drummer Jay Bellerose and John Reischman on fiddle, bring their talents to the realisation of these songs with finesse and form. They are joined by multi-instrumentalist Dawson and the whole unit is working under the modest and understated banner of The Pretty Darn Good Music Band. Vocalist Ana Egge joins Patershuk on a couple of songs, adding feminine balance to those tracks. Gypsy has a nice feel on the story of a wandering man, nice mandolin too. She joins him again on the closing song Swans, which has a slow ebb and flow with a folkish delivery with just the two voices and acoustic guitar. It clocks in at over 6 minutes and has the feel of a traditional ballad.

Patershuk has made an album that should gather a set of new fans for this engaging and varied collection of original songs that place him among the best of contemporary roots/Canadian artists. Kudos to all involved who bring much to make these songs sound like classic performances.

Laura Benitez and The Heartache With All Its Thorns Copperhead

This is an album that hooks you from the opening bars. From Benitez’s engaging vocal to her band’s borderlands beat. Something Better Than A Broken Heart is infused with Billy Wilson’s accordion sound which helps give it a strong uplifting presence. From then on it continues to hit the spot. And while Benitez, in essence, offers no genre pushing attitude they deliver some deeply rooted songs that are unmistakably classic country in mood and manner.

Benitez fronts a seven-piece band that includes Ian Sutton on pedal steel, Bob Spector on guitar, a rhythm section of Steve Pearson and Mike Anderson with Steve Kallas on fiddle. Benitez adds harmony vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar. All are present and correct here, doing a fine job of delivering Benitez’s songs, all written by her with one co-write. That Benitez also produced the album means that it delivers her music exactly as she wants it. Which is the way it should be. The songs cover the inevitable topic of people and their relationships (Whiskey Makes Me Love You, In Red) and possible motivations (Nora Went Down The Mountain, Secrets). There is the introspection of Ghostship and the dual language border sound of Almost The Right One/Casi mi Cielo which has a particularly standout vocal from Benitez.

While there are more lauded performers making waves right now, few offer such a complete and considered package as Benitez does here. The different aspects of her music are highlighted across the eleven tracks in a variety of tempos and moods that make it an album that you want to hear from first to last. Benitez’s third album shows artistic growth and consolidation of what is a stand-out talent that deserves a wider recognition that in her San Francisco, California home base. There is definitely a rose here that blooms and recognises that life is good, even with all its thorns.   

Wes Youssi & The County Champs Down Low Never Lucky

This fine Portland, Oregon singer/songwriter and band-leader has just released a new album. It is a cracker. Sounding somewhere (to these ears) between BR549s Gary Bennett and David Serby both vocally and sound wise.  He is a lover of, by his own admission, honky-tonk, traditionally country and hillbilly. This is borne out by the music featured here. 12 fresh, original slices of the aforementioned musical roots. He has a classic nasal toned twangy voice that has many precedents in country music of yore. The musicians also take the sound seriously and the album lists a range of vintage instruments used in the recording. However even though this album takes it lead from the traditional country sounds of the past it has an energy and vision that is aimed just as much at a future as it is at any particular past.

The songs have themes that suit the genre such as the flirting, lothario of Cadillac Man. The escape from reality by going Into A Bottle, in a way, could easily have been written some decades ago. There’s a sense of uncertainty and moving out, or moving in, in the titles Crazy Train and Southbound Train. The latter has some well-placed banjo to give it a sense of urgency. I Ain’t A Quitter is a testament of a “good-for-nothing” who refused to give up on his aims and will be “back for another round.” The title song seems to take the notion of Down Low as refering to downing drink, going downtown as well as feeling down. High Time, as the title might suggest, is all about looking for that particular mindset while the boss is away. While not entirely unrelated to that title is the updated moonshine tale of growing weed and making some money for the man with green fingers who has taken to caring for and growing that illicit substance as outlined in Green Dream. The closing song Champ Boogie kicks it up with a turn on the dance floor.

The overall impression is of a band and singer very much in tune with the music that motivates them. They play with a style and skill that is apparent on every track and only comes when the individual players are all working to a similar vision. That vision is the take their music into a place where in may not be welcome on radio or on any major label. It is not exactly “outlaw” territory but rather relies on its ability to be more good time in outlook. It aims to please and it does that for lovers of good honky-tonk, made without pretension or posture. Down Low offers a high time for one and all.

Porter & The Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes Don’t Go Baby, It’s Gonna Get Weird Without You Cornelius Chapel

Chris Porter was the main man here and this is his current and last album - a posthumous release. He was previously singer in Some Dark Holler and The Back Row Baptists among other projects but was killed in an interstate highway accident while travelling with his band. Band member Mitchell Vanderburg was also killed and another member of the band hospitalized. In the wake of such tragic circumstances it is understandable that artists and bands who regularly travel to perform are going to me more vulnerable to such accidents than most.

The album was recorded in Austin in February 2016 some 8 months prior to his death. It was produced by the album's drummer Will Johnson (a member of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel as well as contributor to other projects). It is a full on rockin’ roots album, perhaps what was once referred to as alt-country. This is his first release co-credited to Porter and the band. His previous release This Red Mountain was credited simply as Porter. That album featured contributions from The Mastersons (who play in Steve Earle’s Dukes). The duo appears here on one track When We Were Young. Other players involved were multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney and former Drive By Trucker Shonna Tucker on bass and vocals.

Although it doesn’t directly state so on the album sleeve, I presume these are all songs written by Porter and the range from the country leaning Edith, to the effects-laden slow paced condemnation of Go On And Leave Me and the wishful Don’t Hang Up Virginia. Shit Got Dark deals with how a small town life that can become something very changeable very quickly and also get hard. Stoned In Traffic is, well, Stones-ish and rockin’. Many of the songs, as much as one can ascertain with lyrics, seem to deal with people and place and how the two relate together.

Bittersweet Creek and Your Hometown are two such instances. The latter looking at the fact that in some places a lot of people are related and have the same last name. When We Were Young is a slow atmospheric whirl with Porter giving a vocal that seems both wistful and full of doubt. Throughout he has a commanding voice that is the core to these songs and their overall feel. November Down and East December close the album that overall might remind of a band like the Bottle Rockets who brought a sturdy attitude to those cross pollination of rock, roots and country storytelling. Elements of Porter and his lifestyle feature in the compelling album cover illustration.

As a final statement, Chris Porter can be assured that this release is a strong one. It shows a developing artist and the many possibilities opening to him. For many of his family friends and fans it will have indeed got weird without him around. One can hope that this album is heard and that Chris Porter will be remembered for his musical contribution.

Various Artists Won’t Be Home For Christmas Hemifran

This label is headed by music fan and publicist Peter Holmstedt and is a collection of songs recorded for the season. Not all, as suggested by the title, are full of the joys of Christmas. The album opens with a great song from Elliott Murphy - a favourite artist of mine - who tells the tale of a visit from his cousin Linear that goes increasingly array. Five Days Of Christmas is just a voice and guitar rendition but Murphy instils just the right amount of humour and reason into the song to make it special. It’s an album highlight for me. After that there is a wide variety of moods and tempos and delivery from the 18 different artist involved.

Other songs that resonate with this listener (and each person will doubtless have their own favourites) include Kenny White with Christmas Day, Jude Johnson’s I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way - a simple piano, dobro and upright bass rendition. Kauna Cronin’s Where Are You Tonight? offers a perspective from an Australian artist and considers the plight of those who don’t have a home to return to at Christmas. Where Are You Going Tonight? is a poignant reminder of the fact that not everyone views Christmas as a safe and special time. It’s by Paul Kamm with strong female vocal harmony. My Darling Clementine’s Lou Dalgleish wrote the song Miracle Mable  about her and husband Michael Weston King’s daughter. While it is not essentially a Christmas song but fits the theme well. The Spirit Of Christmas by Bob Cheevers is another recollection of the hard aspects of the time. Cheever sounds like Willie Nelson, as has been noted, but it works. An up-tempo take on her song Christmas Ain’t Christmas makes Fayssoux’s recording of this song with Joe Bennett & The Sparkletones a rockabilly roots (snow) ride. This Christmas is a more positive outlook and a groove with the three main members of The Refugees delivering a harmony laden vocal. Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland and Wendy Waldman are the aforementioned vocalists. There’s a nifty riff from Phil Hurley to help move things along too. Jack Tempchin offers a more conventional ballad with Christmas All Year Round. The title track is the closing songs from Citizen K. It starts out slow but gathers pace and ends the album on a positive message.

As with any compilation based on a particular theme there are 18 artists that offer their individual take on the mixed feelings on this festive, fulsome time of the year; so there’s bound to be something here to make you think and for you to enjoy.

Saturday
Dec022017

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.

Thursday
Nov232017

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!

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