Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Reckless Kelly Sunset Motel No Big Deal

As a band who loosely defined what was eventually to become labelled as Americana, Reckless Kelly rocked, honky-tonked and country rootsified their chosen musical path since moving from Oregon to Austin and releasing their first album Millican back in 1998. The band is fronted by the Braun brothers Willy and Cody. For their ninth studio album, they are joined here by bassist Joe Miller, guitarist David Abeyta, and drummer Jaz Nazz. The latter two have been reckless for some time and indeed Abeyta has been a co-producer on their recordings with the Braun brothers over the last few albums. Guests on the album include Bukka Allen on keyboards, Marty Muse on pedal steel as well as Eleanor and Chris from the Mastersons.

All contribute to a full and eventful sound that while it may not have altered a great deal since they started, shows how that have matured, honed and clarified their sound. It is a pretty engaging one that has found them many friends and fans through the years. The album opens with the very accessible How Can You Love Him (You Don’t Even Like Him)? A fairly self-explanatory song in terms of subject matter. This leads to the hard rockin’ Radio and example of maybe how not to get on radio while considering what would. Willy Braun takes the lead vocals and has a strong, emotive and engaging voice that can handle the rockier songs as well as the moments of regret like the moody title track with ease. Braun is also the writer of all the songs here and as such sings them with the total conviction required.

There are few bands better at what they do. The kind of scrappy, rough-round-the-edges roots music that still has a tightness that comes from playing together for some time. It is shared experience that knows its own place and isn’t trying to be anything it isn’t. There has been no compromise in how Reckless Kelly have approached their music. There have been no flirtations with the big label and that has enabled them to be true to themselves and their fan base which knows what to expect from a Reckless Kelly album. That includes a clever, well thought-out and designed cover (it comes with a key fob that when used as a viewer reveals further hidden images) something that is easily the equal of any major album release these days. 

This is a set of songs replete with choruses and hooks that are trying to be too-clever but equally share experiences that are readily relatable. Volcano, Give It Up, Moment In The Sun are further examples of how this band delivers on its early promise. While Sad Songs About You is just that, a song of pure heartbreak and sadness. The final track Under Lucky Stars is a slow acoustic based ballad that balances well with the more upfront songs that also permeate the album’s thirteen cuts. There are vacancies in the Sunset Motel - check in and check it out at your leisure. You will be back.

Luke Bell Self-Titled Bill Hill

Bell seems to be picking up press for his third album release. Deservedly so as his new album, released through Thirty Tigers, is a good one. After growing up in Wyoming and playing in a variety of rock bands he moved to Austin where he honed his mix of honky-tonk blues and New Orleans r’n’b. Now he lives in Nashville and this album reflects that move. There are a few tracks from his previous album Don’t Mind If I Do including the opening traditional sounding Sometimes, in which he reveals that he feels being in a relationship is like “sometimes I feel well … but other times I feel like hell”. If these songs have been remixed or recorded is not entirely clear but as the credits list only a Nashville studio I’d suggest the latter. 

From then on it’s one strong song after another. Where Ya Been? about looking at the straggled stranger looking back at him from the mirror. The Bullfighter takes the analogy of taking on the titular role in a honky tonk bar. Working Man’s Dream is a fast and furious fiddle-fuelled song with a yodel that recalls the resurgence of hardcore hillbilly down on Lower Broadway and back in the day. The album closes with the New Orleans sound of a big solid ballad, a self-written song, The Great Pretender. It shows that Bell can take on different sounding songs and sound like he is at ease with them all. He is effectively becoming known with this release which has a greater prominence that his previous releases - and deservedly so.

Producer Andrija Tokic has gotten a good take on mixing traditional modes with some contemporary mores. With players like bassist Dave Roe, drummer Jimmy Lister, steel player Brett Resnick, fiddler Casey Driscoll and Caitlin Rose on backing vocals there is an expectation and all play their part in bringing these songs to life. Fiddle, steel, twanging guitars and feisty harmonica all feature prominently giving the whole album its context and clarity. Proof again that even in Nashville music that bears some relation to the reason the city made its name is still being played there, even if it is not getting past the front door of the established labels at this point in time. All you need to do is listen out for the likes of Luke Bell and you will be, if you’re a honky-tonk fan, a happy listener. 

Bap Kennedy Reckless Heart At The Helm

It was great sadness that I learnt of the death of Bap Kennedy and somewhat ironic that his new album arrived through the letterbox on the same morning. Without the added poignancy of his passing this would still be a great album in keeping with the overall body of his work either as part of his punk band, Energy Orchard, or his solo albums. Through his career he has been recognised as a distinctive and emotive singer and songwriter who first came to wider attention with his Steve Earle & Ray Kennedy produced Domestic Blues album and through such releases as The Sailor’s Revenge, Howl On (which also featured the late Henry McCullough on one track), Lonely Street or The Big Picture, an album that featured Shane McGowan and a song co-written by Van Morrison. Kennedy stood toe to toe with these largely better known artists and leaves a fitting body of recorded work behind him.

Reckless Heart was written and produced by Kennedy and was recorded in Northern Ireland with Rod McVey, featuring  wife Brenda on backing vocals and percussion as well as lead guitarist Gordy McAllister, bassist Nicky Scott and Rod McVey on keyboards. All provide a musical bedrock for these songs that is perfect for the rootsy flavour and relaxed feeling that the tracks purvey. There are obvious standouts like the story telling of the wandering Henry Antrim, the wish to revisit a missed opportunity on I Should Have Said It or Honky Tonk Baby a song dedicated to the object of his affections and the music of their choice. The Universe And Me is a sad consideration of his life and times, his music and his love. A song that is all the more affecting because of his demise. As the songs tells us truthfully that for many “there’s no music in money, there’s no money in love”. 

Once again you’re reminded of how much talent exists on these isles that has long been dismissed or ignored for not emanating from the US or being too closely linked with the jukebox/covers syndrome that has been associated with country cover bands and artists for a long time. His much-praised debut was released in 1998 and Kennedy has been at the forefront of original (what has come to be known as) Americana since then. Bap Kennedy will be missed for his on-going musical and writing skills that marked him as one of the originals - and best.

Ben Glover The Emigrant Proper

Working again with producer Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover has delivered an album that largely reflects the nature and life of the emigrant. To do this Glover has used a set of traditional arranged songs as well as such sterling songs as the fiercely anti-war song of the Australian campaign in Gallipoli in World War 1 and the devastating effects that conflicts brings. The oft recorded And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda never fails to move in its unsentimental impact. Here it is a slow piano-based ballad (played by on this track by Dan Mitchell) that runs over seven and a half minutes and slowly builds up as the story unfolds and the bitterness intensifies. It is largely a singer’s song and Glover gives a heartfelt vocal that underlines his presence in that area. The piano is a central to many of these songs giving them an intimate and understated feel that works well in the context of the album’s timeless themes.

Something that is apparent throughout and where an artist covers non-original and traditional songs is that it is often largely down to their vocal skills to make the song their own. So, while some of these songs have versions that are already ingrained in the memory, Glover adds his own personality to his reading of such songs as The Green Glens Of Antrim, Moonshiner and The Parting Glass. The latter is the opening track and one of the albums standouts. It is given a folky rendering with fiddle and acoustic guitar but has an energy that highlights the essential message of the song.

The new songs are written by Glover solo or with Gretchen Peters (The Emigrant), Mary Gauthier (Heart In My Hand), Tony Kerr Carpe (A Song Of Home). Aside from Eric Bogle’s … Waltzing Matilda, there’s Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here and Brendan Behan’s The Auld Triangle. All the latter are songs that Glover must feel are special enough to want to risk comparison to previous versions and in doing so he has given them context that are is as relevant to many today, as to the time or time frame that they were written. The appreciation of end result may depend on how open a listener may be to previously recorded songs but should also be considered in the way that fits with the new songs. Ben Glover is to be applauded for taking this risk; one that should establish him as an artist who can bring something of himself to all these songs. They have the capacity to make the listener reflect and think anew and that in itself is a pretty good thing all round.

Kaia Kater Nine Pin Self Release

The cover features Kater with back to the camera and a well-played claw hammer banjo cross her shoulder. Maybe signifying that this is an album, while that instrument is key, where she is considering other options than the usual routes. Kater and co-producer Chris Bartos have assembled a group of players who bring a set of tones that are as effective as they are unusual to accompany the banjo. These include flugelhorn, trumpet, electric guitar and moog alongside upright bass and fiddle. There are also several credits for backing vocals which play a subtle part in the proceedings. It is Kater’s banjo and voice however, that are the centrepiece to the recording.

Recorded in Toronto, the album highlights a combination of traditional arrangements and self-written originals. Kater has sleeve notes on the album that are related to the traditional song’s sources. All the material however fits seamlessly together with an experimental discourse that, while it is rooted in her musical heritage and that of the banjo, offers something a little different. Some of the tracks take a more stripped down approach like the song Little Pink.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird has a sense of acapella with some minimal percussive effects behind the voice. In other cases, though the instrumentation is largely voice and banjo, the arrangements feel more contemporary in outlook. The final track Hangman’s Reel is a fiddle and banjo reading that feels very traditional and shows Kater’s understanding of the instrument’s potential past and present.

The songs are strong and her voice compelling which makes her one to watch in the ever-growing list of those playing their individual take on old-time and bluegrass music. She has also got a strong visual presence that helps her to stand out. Something that always helps in what is a difficult time for any artist to gain attention for their music.

Jesse Dayton The Revealer Hardcharger

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad album from this Texas roots/country/rocker since his debut album back in 1995. Raisin’ Cain introduced a prodigious talent as writer, singer, guitarist and later as a producer. Since then there has been some seven albums under his own name between that album and this new set of songs. All but one of the songs are written (or co-written) by Dayton. The one outside song is from the noted artist Mike Stinson, who also plays drums on some of the tracks here. Brennen Leigh also duets with him on Match Made In Heaven (the duo also have released a full duet album Holdin’ Our Own back in 2007). Dayton plays all guitar as well as bass, percussion and keyboards. On the latter three he is also joined on different tracks by Eric Tucker, John Evans, Riley Osbourne and Erich Hughes. Beth Chrisman adds fiddle on several tracks. Evans also is the main producer here (he himself has made a number albums, one which I managed to track down a while ago was Biggest Fool In Town which I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is something of the outlaw outlook about Dayton and his ‘go-your-own-way’ approach he has taken to his music. He also has played with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the past. There’s nobody looking over his shoulder here advising that this or that might be better “received’ if it was polished more. This is rough and ready and infused with the energy of the booze fuelled spirit of the honky-tonk and roadhouse. The opening song also reasons that that such an attitude was an inherited thing when he tells us that his Daddy Was A Badass. The humorous I’m At Home Getting’ Hammered (While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed) is one of those oh so country songs that will always raise a smile, not unlike the Notorious Cherry Bombs It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long did. Dayton previously released a version of this song on the spoof album Banjo & Sullivan in 2005. This was a fictional band that featured in the Rob Zombie directed The Devil’s Rejects. Dayton has worked as an actor himself in subsequent films directed by Rob Zombie. Holy Ghost Rock ’N’ Roller is as you might expect a full-on piano-thumping stomper which is prefaced by a sampled diatribe about the evils of rock ’n’ roll. The Way We Are is another song that considers the life of a “this or nothing” working small-time musician looking towards “the hour on stage … playing for minimal wage … we do it for nothin’ or drinks from the bar.” Never Started Livin’ is a love song that is followed by the acoustic guitar and vocal finale Big State Motel which again deals with the life of the drifter, those who know no other way of life.

But it is his musical output that concerns us here and Jesse Dayton is the real thing and joins the ranks of those unreservedly in thrall to the throne of high octane country and rock ’n’ roll. The Revealer offers the listener some righteous unrighteous uncluttered music that will shake, rattle and country roll.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid


Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms Innocent Road West Sound

A musician based in the thriving Portland, Oregon roots music scene Caleb Klauder plays old-time and bluegrass music with Foghorn Stringband. He also has a deep seated love of traditional country music which he plays with a honky-tonk ensemble of like minded musicians. They include vocalist/guitarist Reeb Willms with whom he has released a previous album Oh, Do You Remember a set of close harmony duets written by the couple. Now some four years later they’re back with a new collection of songs that are a mix of original songs written by Klauder with a selection of covers like Buck Owens’ There Goes My Love, a George Jones co-write I’d Jump In The Mississippi as well as some more recent material like Paul Burch’s C’est Le Moment.

Again their two voices intertwine and weave the harmonic threads into something strong and colourful that blends elements of the front porch and the honky-tonk together. The musicians who accompany them are an important part of the overall picture; some have played with Klauder for some time. Ned Folkerth on drums and Jesse Emerson both also appeared on Klauder’s 2009 country album Western Country. Joining them also are Rusty Blake on pedal steel and guitar, Sam Weiss on fiddle and Jason Norris also on fiddle and harmony vocals for three tracks. Klauder is in the production chair and has delivered a bright and warm sound that is immediately captivating. The album was recorded by Mike Coykendall who along with Klauder and Blake mixed the album in Portland. The is a strong sense of music made for its own ends. There is no feeling that it is aimed at anyone in particular rather a group of musicians making music that they (and we) will enjoy for what it is. 

Klauder’s You’re the One is an a standout sounding like a song that should have come from several decades ago it is a plaintive love song. While rooted in past-times there is a hearty relevance to these songs. The themes are those that will always concern songwriters. Songs that chart the up and downs of relationships in a clear and unequivocal manner. Yet they do so in a way that’s uplifting and light on its feet. Montana Cowboy a song of yearning for home written by Jack Sutton that has Willms on lead vocal and she tells us of longing and loving. On songs like There Goes My Love (which shows clearly the blend of stringband and country influences) and Just A Little they sing together in close harmony that emphasises the idea of togetherness.  

Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms have delivered an album that is top notch in every respect (inclining the eco-friendly cover) and though they may not be a name as familiar as the likes of Wayne Hancock to many they are well deserving of reaching a wider audience with their truthful music. 

Joe Purdy Who Will Be Next? MC 

It’s always slightly alarming when you came across an artist whose music sparks interest and you check their website to find that they previously had 13 other releases without coming onto my radar. Joe Purdy is one such artist. Not being aware of the previous work this album is solidly in the protest song/aware folk singer section of the aisle. And maybe the time is just right for a singer to stand up and make his feelings known in the long tradition of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan up to more recent protagonists like Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Dan Bern or Tim Easton. Of course, many bands have released records that include songs that rally against the many ills that prevail today. But equally there are those who don’t want to know, who want the act to “just shut up and play the hits”. Those who may like the act but not the political viewpoints expressed. Witness the CSN & Y, or Bruce Springsteen as just a couple of examples. 

But back to the music and that is pretty damn good. The album opens with New Year’s Eve and some understated organ playing before Purdy expresses his wishes for his own life, his country and then for a world deep in inequality and self-destruction. A hope for something better and free from “all war”. A wish that is likely never going to be fulfilled but one that needs to be expressed. The title song asks that simple question regarding the ever mounting toll of gun deaths. Not a sentiment that will find favour with an ever growing section of the divided, entrenched polar opinions of many Americans. So it goes on to the point where you can’t really separate Purdy’s opinions and worldview from his music. You will either be agreeing with his stance or you will want to listen to someone who has no obvious opinions or who holds the same viewpoint as yourself. There is a subtle accompaniment to the music which features an understated rhythm section, some B3 organ, pedal steel guitar and fiddle (from Scarlet Rivera). The latter in fact reinforces some of the abundant Dylanesque music references throughout.

In the end though it is Purdy’s lyrics, voice and worldview that are central to the album. Purdy with an acoustic guitar is likely to be as compelling live as he is here on record. There’s no doubt that voices are need to counter balance the corporate propaganda and fear that is prevalent today. Purdy is one of those voices and his songs are heartfelt and necessary - as well as working in a purely musical context too.

Sean McConnell Self-Titled Rounder

A Nashville based songwriter with a neat turn in melodic and emotionally sustained songs. This is his debut release for Rounder after a series of self-released recordings. McConnell grew up wanted to be a songwriter and toured around the States performing and honing his craft which has resulted in this album. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ian Fitchuk and Lason Lehning it has a big, sculpted sound that falls somewhere between the mainstream and something more suitable for the fringes. These are songs that were started in isolation and were developed to where they are now. As their is noe specific title other than the artist’s names these songs take on something of an autobiographical  honesty. Queen Of Saint Mary’s Choir being a case in point.

With a tight studio band behind him that included both Fitchuk and Lehning as well as guitarist and banjo player Danny Radar and bassist Tony Lucido they have together delivered a set of songs that should have a wide appeal. McConnell has previously had success with his songs being recorded by the diverse likes of country singers Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Wade Bowen, pop singer Christina Aguilera and rock singer Meat Loaf. All going to show that McConnell’s songs are broad enough in category to fit any genre.

There is a smoothness to the songs and singing that has none of the outlaw grit that some may seek. Rather there is an immediacy and likability that rewards returning to the songs. That is not to say that there aren’t some more complex ideas to hand like the religious current that runs through Running Under Water. In One Acre Of Land he tells of this piece of property as against the travels of a musician. A ballad that has an honesty and sense of hope that is the central tenet of McConnell’s music. McConnell is a songwriter, that is who he is and who he wants to be; whether writing for other or for himself he does the best he can to make what he does have some sense of belief. Others can share that belief too on this fine album.

John Prine For Better, Or Worse Oh Boy

No real surprises here then. As the follow up to the acclaimed 1999 release In Spite Of Ourselves this is another instalment of John Prine singing with a variety of female duet partners in the style of the classic country duets albums of the past (and present). Some wish for an album of new self-penned Prine songs - something that may be in the pipeline (as a teaser the final song Just Waitin’ is sung by Prine solo) is but for now this is a pleasure to hear. John Prine, even in his prime, would never be consider a vocalist’s vocalist. Not that that matters I’d rather hear Prine’s expressive voice really get to the heart of a song over a faultless but emotionless delivery any time. 

Producers Jim Rooney and Prine have given the album an understated setting and a warmth that serves the songs well and players such as Al Perkins, David Jacques, Lloyd Green, Shad Cobb, Ken Blevins and Susan Tedeschi all bring their individual and group skills together to make the backings work in such an unobtrusive but oh-so-right way. It is however the selection of vocalists that Prine duets with that make it an interesting collection. They are, big breath, Iris Dement, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Holly Williams, Kathy Mattea, Morgane Stapleton, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Susan Tedeschi and Fiona Prine.

Now everyone will pick their own favourite female voice and how well it works with Prine on their chosen song (or songs). Songs that are lessons in classic country storytelling from the pen of such writes as Allen Reynolds, Hank Williams Snr, Buck Owens, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Sammy Lerner, George Jones, Vince Gill and The Dixie Chicks. in some cases such as Mental Cruelty the male/female perspective adds a new  dimension to a song normally sung from the male viewpoint. All the component parts of the album come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable collection. Definitely for the better.

Cody Jinks I’m Not The Devil Thirty Tigers

Another contender for outlaw of the year. Cody Jerks is a country artist who arrived there via a time spent playing heavy metal but who grew up listening to the country music his father loved and so he has returned to that. His songs, voice and approach are undoubtedly much closer to Texas than they are to Nashville. These are songs that speak of hard times, hard work and hardened attitudes and hard country. It is an album shot through with conviction and trying to convince that he is neither the devil or a saint. The majority of the songs are self-written odes to a chosen lifestyle, there are three co-writes and two covers. Both Sonny Throckmorton’s The Way I Am, the Billy Don Burns song Church At Gaylor Creek fit the overall patina of the album. 

Recorded at the Sonic Ranch in Texas it was produced by Joshua Thompson with a set of players who understand the songs and how they should sound. However, it is Jinks voice that is the centrepiece of these largely mid-tempo songs. it has the kind of depth that is important to give the album a feel that is right and ragged. The thirteen songs are chosen to give an idea of who and why Cody Jinks is who is at this time. Like artists like JP Harris or Jamey Johnson you don’t feel he will tire of playing country music in the long term even if he chooses to explore the possibilities of his music and where he could take it. So, it’s not without possibility that one of his songs (or albums) could connect in the way that either Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapelton has you still get the feeling he will be more in the Haggard mode by remaining in the country mode while considers it’s potential.

The fact that so much of the material here is of similar tempo and mood actually gives the overall album a setting that builds on the continuity of its themes. There are many individual songs here that are worthy of special mention from the title track to Grey, Church At Gaylor Creek, The Same or the more up-tempo Chase The Song to the Waylon-ish No Guarantees. On their own any of these songs speak of the concerns that would be real to any hardcore country fan. With enough twang and steel to satisfy I’m Not The Devil is a worthy of passage to a country music heaven’s gate.

The Mavericks All Night Live Mono Mundo

Have departed from the watchful eye of Valory/Big Machine The Mavericks are now in control of their own destiny in terms of the recorded output. The first fruit if that is this 16 track live document that concentrates on their more recent material rather than on the better know “hits” of yore. Though they may surface later as this album is subtitled Volume 1. In the end this is a recording that sounds fully live in the best sense with a band firing on all cylinders. The four main men are all superlative players and it is good to see suited and booted keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden a fully paid up member of the band. He has had a long involvement with The Mavericks in the past as a sideman and has been a major addition to their sound for some time. There are, of course, as usual a number of other players who join the band onstage: Michael Guerra, Max Abrams are both long serving sidemen while Matt Cappy and Ed Friesland are more recent additions to the brass, accordion and percussion section of the touring band.

However, the focus is on founding member Raul Malo whose vocals are the focal point of the show. But you can’t deny the power and drive of Paul Deakin’s drumming or the sonic thrust of Eddie Perez’s lead guitar playing. But as already stated this is a unit, a band playing as one but also having fun with it. They have been called the best party band around (or in some case wedding band) this is to overlook the skill and ease with which the deliver there sets. There may not be a whole lot, in the live set, that can be said to be pushing musical boundaries. That however is not really the point they are  there to entertain and be enjoyed on their own terms. 

The majority of the songs are written by Malo either solo or with other co-writers and as such are perfectly suited to his overall musical muse. The one exception is his comparatively laid back rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest. But aside from the occasional breather this set is an ‘up and at them’  full energy set that has highlights such as the closing song Waiting For The World To End, the reggae tinged What You Do To Me and Summertime, the piano boogie of As Long As There’s Lovin’ Tonight or the thrust of I Said I Love You with some tight guitar from Perez. The Mavericks mix and blend a variety of musical influences that include latin, country and pop. They do it well as this recording is a testament to. They emerged as country act but have now moved beyond any simple genre classification to become band equally at home in the studio as on the stage. Doing it their way they live up to their name. 

The Handsome Family Unseen Loose

The spotlight was briefly turned on The Handsome Family when their song Far From Any Road was used in True Detective. How that has effected the band in the long term may be something that is open to debate. For now they are now back with their latest collection which continues to explore their unique sound. It shows the duo’s contained development as recording artists and the creative input of the husband and wife duo. From the always interesting lyrics of Rennie Sparks to Brett’s more distinctive vocal presence along with his expanding skills as a producer/engineer recording largely in his home studio.

There is a subtlety now with the arrangements that along with Brett’s multi-instrumental skills sees the inclusion of a range of guest players on mandolin, dobro, drums, guitar and pedal steel. Other than that Brett played or simulated all the other instruments. Rennie adds banjo and autoharp as well as supporting vocals. It is this division of labours that gives their recording work its distinctive and memorable sound. One that is often quite different in a live setting which has gone from the duo plus backing tape to a sometimes-full band. 

But it is the music that we are looking at here and that, for long-time fans, continues to reward. They have rarely deviated from a core sound since their inception rather they have honed and crafted it to give the listener a more textured and layers sound that comes from experience and a continuing wish to make music on their own terms. On this set of songs the immediate songs that infiltrate my consciousness are Gentlemen, Back In The Day, Underneath The Falls, The Sea Rose with it’s dueted female vocals. A song that seems charming but has a siren call to death as it’s theme. This again underlines the important input Rennie’s words are in making these songs so ‘handsome’.  

Whether this album will find itself in a wider public consciousness or not is somewhat beside the point (expect in terms of sales or audience attendance). What matters is what’s in the grooves and Unseen is a complete an album as The Handsome Family have recorded so far. It is music that loosely falls under the Americana banner but in truth is influenced and inspired by all the music Brett has heard and all the imagination for storytelling that Rennie conceives. They may remain unseen in a larger context but they should not be unheard. 

Keegan McInroe Uncouth Pilgrims Self Release

This album does not sound the way I expected from it’s cover. It is an album that from the first song seems rooted in country music’s storied past. The opening song Country Music Outlaws talks of those very fellows, whilst declaring that he is not one of those but their influence is none-the-less strong throughout. Roger Ray plays pedal steel (a role he he’d down with Jason Boland for a good few years). This instrument has a lot to do with the traditional leanings of the sound. McInroe is also joined by Ginny Mac on accordion, Derrin Kobetich on mandolin, Austin Smith on fiddle and harmonicaist Gary Grammar among a number of other guests. The latter features prominently on many of the songs. The album was produced by McInroe and engineer and mixer Ben Napier in a studio in Fort Worth. The people and place are the reason it sounds the way it does.  

Uncouth Pilgrim is McInroe’s fourth under his own name. It combines his own song with a couple of outside songs and it further lays out his blend of country, folk, rock and blues in various mixes using his full band to tell his stories. The singer has a gritty and heartfelt voice that is completely suited to the song’s delivery. Begona and Verona are both solid standout tracks of love under difficult circumstances. Again, the supporting players add just the right sense of atmosphere to the songs. Woody & Ruth is folkish tale of traveling down life’s uncharted highways and how the titular persons met. I Got Trouble has some dirty guitar riffing that emphasises the fact that the singer has indeed got that very thing with a capital T. It features effective female backing vocals and soulful organ interludes. Sonically it is more left field but it works a treat. Also, adding variety to the mix is Nikolina with a deeper more gravely vocal that is piano based and from the Wait’s school of rendering. With a distorted jazz brass arrangement that shows that McInroe can turn his hand to a number of different musical modes to best suit a song.

The album clocks in at over an hour but such is the diverse nature of the production and of the writing that there is enough variety throughout to sustain interest. On second thought given all that has gone into the album maybe the cover is exactly right. It would be uncouth to admit otherwise.


Reviews By Declan Culliton

Sarah Morris Ordinary Things Self Release

First listen to Ordinary Things brought to mind the Ohio singer Rachel Sweet, who’s blend of country infused pop was to the fore in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Not sure why she was released from my memory bank having not listened to her music for over thirty years but I did detect quite a number of similarities between her and Sarah Morris. Crystal clear voices, snappy country pop and simple but cleverly crafted songs mostly involving relationships, being the common tread between the two artists.

Following her previous two albums Grateful Moon (2011) and Lonely or Free (2012) Sarah Morris took time out from recording after the birth of her second child before returning to the studio earlier in spring 2015 to record the eleven tracks that feature on Ordinary Things. Recorded at River Rock Studios Minnesota with her band which includes Thomas Nordlund, a technically superb guitar player (whose solo album is coincidentally reviewed in this section), Andrew Foreman on bass and Zachary Schmidt on drums, percussion and keyboards, Morris also contributes acoustic guitar. Production duties were carried out by Eric Blomquist. 

The real winner on the album however is the heavenly quality of Morris’ soaring vocals that dip and soar throughout and leave a lasting impression with the listener.

No Memory is instantly catchy and hum a long, both Sway Me and Lie Here Tonight follow a similar path, delightfully mainstream and certainly radio friendly. Hope Sweet Hope fittingly closes Ordinary Things on a high note completing what is an upbeat and solid collection of songs delivered in some style.

Rachel Laven Love & Luccheses Self Release

I have Rebecca Roselly, who together with her husband Simon form the UK Roots band The Rosellys, to thank for the introduction to Rachel Laven, a 24 year old Texan singer-songwriter. Rachel guested at a show in Nashville that featured The Rosellys and certainly made a marked impression with her brief appearance.

A winner of the Texas Music Coalitions Artist of the Year while performing with her family band The Lavens she was also recently voted San Antonio’s Best Female Vocalist.

What places her ahead of many of her contemporaries, with ambitions of an industry breakthrough, is the possession of a quite luscious voice that recalls a young Carlene Carter and places Laven approaching the territory of the new breed of young gifted female songsters Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Munroe.

 Love & Luccheses features eleven songs, eight of which are written by Laven, three co-writes and one cover Something Like Heaven written by Walt Wilkins. It’s altogether a solid collection of songs ranging from ballads Each Other’s Shoes and Something Like Heaven with echoes of Patty Griffin and the beautiful title track to the ripping Do You Dare which is straight in your face 80’s Carlene Carter fun country at its finest. 

In summary the song writing and delivery on the album suggests a maturity way beyond Laven’s years and the potential for much bigger things going forward.

John Blek Cut The Light  Self Release

‘I would bleed myself dry, I would take the blows for you, I regret the day you went away, And the things I put you through’

The opening lyrics to the debut solo album from John Blek sets the scene for a collection of well-constructed songs often depicting tales of lost love, heartbreak, despair and sorrow.

The frontman of Cork roots outfit John Blek and The Rats abandons the more swashbuckling and high gloss style of his writing for the band and explores territories more familiar with recent outputs from artists such as Richard Thompson and Ryley Walker. The album as a whole leans towards a British / Irish folk sound with also a healthy nod towards more traditional Irish music in parts particularly on both Where Are You Tonight and Lightness vs Weight.

Often stripped to the bone the emphasis is always on the lyrics and the stories they reveal.  Rich in emotion and melody Ruby Blood, one of the albums strongest tracks, is achingly mournful and melancholy (Did you hear my heart, break in two, Ruby blood, Ruby blood that bled for you).

Little Sparrow certainly calls to mind Richard Thompson both in melody and style, The Northline speaks of unrequited love. The Night and the Liquor tells a tale of unrepentant, reckless over indulgence, weightless in its delivery and featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar. Recorded at Wakefield Recordings in West Cork the album was produced by John Blek and Brian Casey (who also contributes piano, Hammond organ and guitar).

Unlike Blek’s work with The Rats Cut The Light is not the album you’d choose to select to liven up the party instead it’s a consistent collection of ballads by one of the most impressive Irish songwriters to emerge in recent years.

Amanda Shires My Piece of Land BMG

Musically Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell are a marriage made in heaven and this latest offering from Shires speaks volumes of their compatibility also as partners and parents. 

Isbell has been since his early days a song writer of absolute talent whether it be his classic Drive By Truckers songs Decoration Day and Outfit or his work with his band The 100 Outfit which resulted in some equally impressive offerings such as Sunstroke and Streetlights. However memorable his early work was it has been surpassed by his output since his relationship with Shires began, her steadying influence and support instrumental in Isbell reaching a stage where he must be considered the leading singer songwriter of recent times.

In a similar vein based on My Piece of Land, the sixth album released by Shires, domestic bliss, motherhood and contentment seems to have had a positive creative influence resulting in the strongest album of her career to date.

Lubbock, Texas born Shires professional career started as a teenager as the violin player and member of Bob Wills backing band The Texas Playboys. Releasing her first album Being Brave in 2005 her fragile and sweet vocals, flawless violin skills and an ability to write heartfelt songs in the folk/country genre suggested a young lady with immense potential.

The quality of her debut album was equalled by her 2009 recording Sew Your Heart With Wires and possibly surpassed with the Carry Lighting (2011) and its successor Down Fell The Doves (2013). My Piece of Land, however, is a further step up from her previous work containing some beautiful songs both revealing, honest and personal.

Written while Shires was pregnant When You’re Gone reveals the loneliness of the house bound Shires while her husband is on tour ("I’ve learned exactly which of the floorboards groan and how the ac exhales when it kicks on"). My Love (The Storm), is one of two co-writes on the record with Isbell, the other being Pale Fire. Nursery Rhyme anticipates the birth of her first child ("My breath a prayer I’m holding in, I know you’re coming soon").

However it is the closing track You Are My Home that is the stand out song on the album. A seductive love ballad which features some glorious violin playing by Shires  and an equally impressive guitar break by Isbell, it’s a piece of music that having listened to a number of times will take some time to leave the listeners memory bank.  ("Your six one frame, my address is your name, high ceilings and walls, walls are just walls, and you are my home"). Production duties were undertaken by Dave Cobb with Isbell adding guitar and piano. Nashville session players Paul Griffith on drums and Paul Slivka on guitar also feature.

In an industry where heartbreak, failure and defeat more than often act as inspiration to song writers it’s a breath of fresh air to have a wonderful set of songs created by love, honesty and contentment. Highly recommended indeed.

Vicky Emerson Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down Self Release

Third outing from the Minneapolis resident Vicky Emerson and it’s an album that is immediately listenable from the word go. The opening track Under My Skin kicks the album off in fine style and what follows is a collection of quality songs that really work.

The sound throughout is a blend of folk, country with a splash of blues here and there. The song writing is strong, intimate, contemplative and matched by elegant playing throughout, mostly undertaken by Matt Patrick. 

The previously mentioned Under My Skin rocks along to a chunky guitar driven rhythm. Dance Me Into The Night, enhanced by some delightful fiddle playing, simply drifts along and tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen. Silhouette tells a tale of lost love and opportunity, delivered with a disciplined and soaring vocal. Runaway Train does its title justice, rolling along at speed and Save All My Cryin’ (For Sunday Afternoon) is as country as it comes, with shades of Emmylou Harris and including some smart guitar and pedal steel licks. September Midnight is a beautifully paced and immaculately sounding love song, possibly the albums strongest track. 

As was the case with her previous albums Long Ride (2009) and Dust & Echoes (2012), production duties were undertaken by the aforementioned singer – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matt Patrick who also co-wrote two tracks on the album.

Thomas Nordlund Divide Avenue Codesong

Stunningly atmospheric and technically superb Divide Avenue is an eight track instrumental album by Minneapolis based guitarist and composer Thomas Nordlund.

The album pays homage to the expansive landscapes of Baja, Mexico and was recorded live at The Hideaway in Minneapolis. The lead instrument is Nordlund’s electric baritone guitar and includes the input of six other musicians who contributed 6 string guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, wurlitzer, Rhodes, piano, bass and drums.

The result is quite stunning with the open desert and burning sun imagery being evoked not by a mariachi musical expression, as might be expected,  but by an intoxicating jazzy sound which often revisits some of the  jazz rock guitarists so popular of the 70’s such as Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell.

Instrumental albums can often be difficult listens and Nordlund’s debut album is no exception. They generally suit a certain mood and require more than couple of listens to digest. Divide Avenue is no exception but on repeated listens reveals itself as a wonderful body of work which would certainly work well as a film soundtrack. 

The Sawtooth Brothers One More Flight Self Release

Eight album in from the Minnesota band consisting of two sets of brothers, Ethan & Jesse Moravec and Clint & Luke Birtzer. It’s also their first album featuring all original material and was supported, as so many albums are these days, by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Named The Sawtooth Bluegrass Band in a former life, the band dropped the Bluegrass from their title and widened their musical horizons dipping into folk, country and a bit of pop together with their core old timey sound. The change in direction will no doubt appeal to a wider audience and avoid the band being pigeon holed into one particular genre, even if it may upset some of the purists. The end result is One More Flight which offers a rich mix of all these genres and creates a sound quite similar in style to their counterparts Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line. 

Lead vocals are shared on the eleven tracks between Jesse Moravec and Clint Birtzer, the other two members adding harmony vocals. The instrumentation, flawless throughout, consists of violin, mandolin, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and resonator guitar.

The album kicks off in fine style with the catchy and audacious Another Cliché giving a taste for what will follow. Next up is County Road X which features some heavenly violin breaks by Luke Birtzer. Summer All The Time is delightful, a combination of vocal harmony, bubbling violin and mandolin breaks that combine perfectly. The title track, possibly the albums standout, is the perfect mix of old and modern and sums up what the brothers do best. Take Me Away is an intoxicating and fitting closing track to a very impressive and cohesive collection of songs by a band certainly worth checking out.

Adam Levy Naubinway Self Release

Before listening to this album I was somewhat intrigued by the stark and rather disturbing imagery on the cover and inner sleeve and was interested as to how the artwork related to the album. I was aware of Adam Levy as band leader and singer-songwriter with Minnesota band The Honeydogs, but was completely unaware of the motivation and the event that lead to the recording of this solo effort.

Written in the memory of his son Daniel, who having battled with mental illness for a number of years, tragically took his own life in 2012, Naubinway is understandably anything but an easy listen. The lead up, event, aftermath and topic of suicide and mental illness are dealt with openly, honestly and was no doubt part of a grieving process surrounding such a painful ordeal. Understandably Levy found it impossible to write creatively for a couple of years after the loss of his son but was eventually inspired by Daniel’s artwork, having poured through the many sketchbooks he left behind. The album’s title Naubinway is the name of a small beach at Lake Michigan and is the last place that Daniel’s mother saw her son smile.

The lyrics are often pain staking to read and one can only imagine how difficult they must have been to compose and record. Tracks such as How I Let You Down ("Daniel, all your sketchbooks are a journey, the pain revealed…..We’re still learning how to be without you. Daniel, you ventured on to the thin ice. We threw you so many lifelines. You burned them to the quick") and Pitch Black Path ("It’s long and its dark. It’s a pitch black path lit by nothing but a spark and it won’t get any better till you move on") leave nothing to the imagination. 

The title and closing track, detailing the trip to dispose of Daniel’s ashes in Lake Michigan, would challenge any listener as would the accompanying photograph of the young man beside some of his striking artwork. ("A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway"). As with the opening track Take it as it Comes it features only vocal and acoustic guitar by Levy suggesting that the message was too personal to have an input by others.

However, beyond the despair and darkness the album reveals itself as a beautifully constructed, intelligently written set of songs, quite a few which recall a mid 60’s Beatles sound, How Your Well Runs Dry, This Friend and Atoms Never Die in particular. Marigold is a lovely honeyed ballad, I Wish You Well an equally upbeat love song both of which feature some dreamy steel guitar courtesy of Joe Savage.

Levy is on the record saying that the album was not about immortalising his son, which he would not have wished for anyway. It was primarily written by way of personally dealing with the loss. 

Produced by Adam Levy and Scott Miller and recorded at both their houses and at Essential Session Studios Naubinway is a striking body of work that deals honestly and compassionately with a particularly difficult subject matter. Well worth investigating. 



Reviews by Paul McGee

Eve Williams Peregreni Self Release

Living in the town of Bangor, County Down in Northern Ireland has informed and influenced the creative output of this very talented singer-songwriter. Having battled the early-life afflictions of both Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes, the desire to endure and succeed has been a driving force against the challenges placed before Eve Williams.

Recognised by the Nashville Songwriters Association International as a talent to watch and a member of the prestigious Irish Songwriters Guild, she has not let her difficulties stand in the way of achieving a Master of Music in Songwriting from Bath Spa University. Her first recording, What, Now? was released in 2008 and was followed by Twenty Miles From Home in 2012.  Now we are presented with Peregreni (a Latin word for ‘wanderers’). The nine songs included here are all beautifully performed and laced with melody and gentle mood.

Steven McKnight, one of Northern Ireland's best known guitarists, is joined by James Scott on guitar, bass; Darren Matthews on keys with Eve singing and playing keys also. Her voice is warm and strong and these songs are informed by optimistic messages of rising above the daily life constraints that we all face – titles such as Don’t Anchor Me and Eagle’s Wings suggest as much and the message of Who Needs a Knight goes straight to the belief in oneself and the ability to live independently. The past is visited in songs like Vale of Angels and Illumination speaks of the inspiration of seeing a brighter tomorrow. This is an excellent folk music and comes highly recommended.

Jeff Scroggins & Colorado Ramblin’ Feels Good Self Release

This bluegrass band from Colorado has two previous releases and feature superb playing from Jeff Scroggins on banjo with Tristan Scroggins on mandolin. This father/son combination is backed by the energetic rhythm playing of Mark Schatz on bass, Greg Blake on guitar and vocals with some fine fiddle contributions from Andy Leftwich. 

Additional vocals are provided by Don Rigsby and David Peterson to compliment the positive feeling created by the twelve tracks included here. Dismal Nitch, and Lemonade in the Shade are two self -compositions from Jeff and Tristan that sit comfortably alongside the other songs selected from a variety of musical sources, players and writers.

Carefree Highway (Gordon Lightfoot), Galveston (Jimmy Webb) and I’m A Memory (Willie Nelson) all get the bluegrass treatment to great effect and the superb picking on tracks She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind and Ramblin’ Feels Good sum up the feel-good factor and foot tapping pleasures that await the myriad listeners and adherents of this vibrant music all over the world.

Roger Roger Fairweather MFM

Lucas and Madeleine Roger are twins who grew up with a rich musical influence as the children of producer/engineer/musician Lloyd Peterson. These sibling singer/songwriters have now joined forces with their Dad on this debut release which highlights their diverse song-writing skills, their excellent guitar playing and some superb vocal harmonizing. Their songs channel a folk/roots influence and are superbly crafted with strong melodic arrangements and interesting lyrical musings on relationships (Scott Free, Think Of Me, Another Girl’s Shoes, Fairweather, You Came Around), life and being part of this cosmic whole (Mad Trapper, Dead Horse Creek, 13 Crows, O Rainy Day).

Recorded at Paintbox Recording in Winnipeg with Lloyd Peterson (The Wailin' Jennys, The Weakerthans) and mixed by John Whynot (Kathleen Edwards, Blue Rodeo, Bruce Cockburn), these nine songs are beautifully complimented by Julian Bradford on bass and cello, Damon Mitchell on drums, Scott Senior on percussion, Alex Campbell on organ and Lloyd Peterson on organ and percussion.

Madeleine also drew and designed the album artwork while Lucas built some of the guitars that were played in studio. A family affair that strikes a fine balance between the talents on display with echoes of early Joni Mitchell, the Indigo Girls and CSN, all mixed into a beautifully produced album that makes quite a statement as a debut recording. Certainly worth tracking down. 

The O’s Honeycomb Punch Five

This duo, John Pedigo and Taylor Young, started out in 2008 with the release of their first album We Are The O’s. In 2011, they recorded a second album Between The Two and an additional release, Thunderdog, arrived in 2013. This fourth offering boasts twelve tracks, produced by Chris “Frenchie” Smith and recorded at two cabins behind the River Road Ice House in New Braunfels, Texas. 

Justin Currie of Del Amitri adds his vocal talents to Woken Up and with a banjo, guitar and harmonica full frontal assault, the celebratory nature of these songs really comes alive and engages the listener. Halfway Sideways and Brand New Start channel a Mumford & Sons vibe while the more considered Reaper and Wanted both have a slower tempo that attract equally well. A solid folk /rock record that builds on a reputation that continues to grow.  

Ross Neilsen Elemental Self Release

Blues artist Ross Neilsen has lived a life of recording and touring since he first embarked on his personal quest back in 2007. With six releases to his name this passionate blues guitar player has delivered eleven tracks that are dripping in atmosphere and attitude. From the slow groove and tom tom beat of the title track to the big guitar sound of Woman’s Name, Neilsen is on a mission to win over as many new converts as possible. The atmosphere continues on tracks like The Race and Black Coffee. The Arrow is an excellent jazzy workout with some outstanding guitar work.

Produced by Steve Marriner who also plays a variety of guitars plus keys, drums and vibraphone on selected tracks and augmented by Jim Bowskill, guitars, mandolin, violin and pedal steel, Darcy Yeats on bass, Matt Sobb on drums, Ed Lister on trumpet, Brian Asselin on sax and other guests.

Ash Fault is a fine track steeped in acoustic blues with some atmospheric and dynamic violin playing. Nobody Gets Lonely is a folk based song that skips along while Ballad in Low E is a country-tinged, warm blues workout. The final track, Step Into The Light, has a Band feel to it and brings matters to a very satisfactory conclusion. Recommended. 

Jesse Aycock Flowers & Wounds Horton Records

Jesse Aycock is a singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma that has two previous recordings, Life’s Ladder in 2006 and Inside Out of Blue in 2010. He sings with a high pitch which takes a little getting used to but when you have enlisted the calibre of highly respected Neal Casal, (guitarist for Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Ryan Adams & The Cardinals), David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) on guitar, Tulsa legend Jimmy Karstein on percussion, and Al Gamble on B3, then you know that this man has talent. 

Add in George Sluppick (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, JJ Grey & Mofro) on drums, as well as Eric Arndt on bass and the sweet song arrangements win you over with a warmth in the melodies and easy rhythm. These songs are rooted in a country rock sound and cover a range of topics such as lack of self-belief, (Where’s The Light), standing still in a small town (Out To Space), taking opportunity (Heavy Day), self-preservation (When The Day Crawls Out of the Night), broken ties and moving on (Leave Again) and the title track which deals with relationship changes. 

Recorded at the legendary Church Studio in Tulsa and produced by Jason Weinheimer and Neal Casal. This is a very pleasant listen.  

Victoria Klewin & the True Tones Dance Me To Heaven Self Release

Victoria Klewin is a professional vocalist and songwriter based in Bristol, UK. She has been involved in a number of different projects and session work over the years and her present focus is the release of this debut recording with the True Tones.

Her song-writing and vocal skills are very impressive and the eleven tracks featured are all written by Victoria and arranged by her and the band. Featuring Sophie Stockham on sax, Paul Field on harmonica, trumpet and flugelhorn, Sam Mills on keyboards, Paul Crawford on guitar, Mark James on bass and Tom Bradley on drums. This 7-piece band really make the songs come to life with plenty of superb playing that spans smoky jazz, big band groove, laid-back blues and some funky soul sounds. The interplay between the musicians is very enjoyable as the song arrangements leave room for some sweet spontaneity in the solo parts and band runs.

The songs cover the usual heart-torn topics of bad lovers (Can’t Help Myself), return of an ex-lover (Got A Question), playing the field (Why Should I) and the possibility of sweet seduction (Taking Me Down, Dance Me To Heaven, Roving Eye). The vocals are confident and colourful while the production by Klewin, Ben Capp & Sam Mills is both bright and compelling. Recommended.

Libby Koch Just Move On Berkalin 

Eleven songs that deal with relationships in all their ragged glory from Houston born Libby Koch. She qualified as a lawyer before turning to music as her preferred career choice, so she is well armed to swim in the shark-infested waters of the Nashville music industry. 

Her debut EP appeared in 2008 and two full albums, Redemption and The Shadow of This Town followed in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Tennessee Colony followed in 2014 and this marks her latest collection.Which is traditional country and Koch sings with a voice that will bring to mind Loretta Lynn or Reba McEntire. Not that she is trying to be anything but herself, as she sings from the heart about break-ups in a trio of songs that open up the record; Just Move On, You Don’t Live Here Anymore and Out Of My Misery.

Produced and engineered by Nashville legend Bil VornDick and featuring a 7-piece studio band who play with great understated rhythm, there are also 4 harmony vocalists who assist in filling out the sweet melodies, as Libby sings and plays a variety of guitars.

Don’t Know How deals with the life of a lonely soul while Chance On Me is the same person looking for a new relationship. Tell Me No Lies and I’ve Been Blind speak of the search for honesty and in recognising what was there all along. Back to Houston is a leaving song that says goodbye to an old life while the closing track Wish You Were Here is a drunken lament for an old lover. A very fine country artist who deserves your attention.

Erin Rae & the Meanwhiles Soon Enough Clubhouse

What an impressive full-length debut. This gifted musician hails from Tennessee and announces herself with a sweetly seductive voice and a song-writing ability that is a joy to experience. Erin co-produced the 13 songs here with Michael Rinne, Rodney Crowell's touring bassist, and the studio band sound just perfectly in tune with the gentle arrangements and melody of each track.

She had her first release in 2010 with a 5-track EP titled Crazy Talk and on this superb follow-up, Erin Rae sings of regret (Mistakes Made), advice for the impatience of youth (Soon Enough), appreciation of life’s perspective (Minolta), longing and memory (Monticello), a plea for meaningful communication (Panic), memories of family/mother (Pretty Thing) and real understanding (Light parts 1 & 2).

Rose Colour speaks of a debt owed to an old friend/lover while Owe You One deals with an argument and a need to find closure. Futile Attempts is a song about mental illness and a wish for a positive mental attitude. Sleep Away is a touching song for a sick Father and a quiet prayer for release.

On her website, she offers private singing lessons and speaks of becoming comfortable with your own natural voice. I can only imagine that any class with Erin Rae would lead to an improvement in the technique and way to approach mindful singing. Erin Rae sounds wise beyond her years and stands front and centre on this beautifully realised project. One of the highlights of the year and a must buy. 

Sue Sergel Beneath the Willow Tree Self Release

Born in Liverpool, this lady grew up in Spain before going to live in Sweden and achieving some fame on the Swedish blues scene. She had taken a break from the music industry to study and become a teacher but never really turned her back on music. Her last release was "Move Into The Light" in 2008 and this return to the studio is welcome news and proves that Sue Sergel was meant to sing the Blues.

Her voice is confident and has a quality and tone that suits the 12 songs that are included here. Sue is joined by Jimmy Olsson on upright bass and Erik Ivarsson on guitar and each plays with dexterity, subtlety and feeling. Sue plays acoustic guitar as a strong rhythm accompaniment to the songs and this allows Erik Ivarsson to stretch out with some impressive licks and solo runs across the recording.

The production duties were handled by Sue, in tandem with Stefan Svensson, and there is an open sound quality which gives the musicians plenty of space within the tunes. The tracks are all acoustic based, with no drums to ramp up the beat, but the dynamic playing of the musicians more than carry the project forward with real swagger.

Move Into the Light is one of the strongest songs with Ivarsson sounding like an early Mark Knopfler with his sweet guitar tone. Making Out and After the Apocalypse are very atmospheric and The Man, Breaking Even, Diamonds in the Rain and A Man Like That all really show off the great riffing of Ivarsson who swoops in and around the melody with great fret work. Well worth investigation.

Red Tail Ring Fall Away Blues Self Release

 Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo are the creative power that is Red Tail Ring and their gentle acoustic sound brings the listener into the world of old time roots music with guitar, fiddle, and open-back/gourd banjos releasing their timeless sound into the ether.

The record includes original songs, traditional interpretations and some fine sampling of old tunes with new lyrical additions. The harmony singing is really excellent and the production is as clear as if the musicians were seated in your living room. 

There is a Bible belt feel and the hushed, reflective and unhurried playing spins an atmosphere that just invites further investigation. With a number of prior releases, including some collaborations, Red Tail Ring bring a self-assured honesty to reviving tunes such as Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies; I’d Rather Be the Devil (Skip James); Yarrow and Gibson Town (Muddy Waters). 

Camp Meeting on the 4th July/May Day is a traditional tune that is given a very modern spin by Premo who also includes a song called Shale Town, written in protest of hydraulic fracturing practices. This duo is certainly rooted to the land in their sensitivities and the sweet singing on A Ghost Whispers is in direct contrast with the song sentiment. The title track speaks of defeating the blues while The New Homeplace tells of hard times and the hope of better days ahead. Please do yourself a favour and check this out. My favourite folk/roots release this year.

Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer Great Shakes Self-Release

Session Americana is a collective of musicians that reside in the Boston area and have been playing together in various combinations since 2003. This release is their seventh since their debut in 2005 and comprises Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar). 

Jefferson Harmer has worked with Anais Mitchell and is a gifted guitarist who co-produced the ten songs included here with the band. The feel is very much in the Folk tradition with excellent playing throughout. There is a quirky quality to some of the writing which adds an understated charm, particularly Big Mill in Bogalusa and What Are Those Things (With Big Black Wings).

This feels like timeless music with every player adding to the colour of the song arrangements and assisting with the co-writes. Tired Blue Shirt has a sense of Leonard Cohen running through the melody while Great Western Rail conjures up images of days past and the development of the rail system throughout the States.

The harmonica playing of Jim Fitting is very atmospheric and evocative while the simple rhythm and acoustic strum of One Skinner, One Good Rain and Barefoot Sailors are very fine examples of what is best in the American music tradition. A nice balance to the production and the playing and a collection of songs that impress.  


Reviews by Stephen Rapid


Elouise Deep Water Self Release

Although this is under singer Elouise Walker’s name, it is a group effort with the other four featured on the album cover who play a major part in making the music. Deep Water was produced by Walker and John Chamberlin and the production technique was to keep it as raw and field recording-like as possible. Most of the songs are original, but fit neatly with those from other sources such as the opening I’ll Fly Away (written by Albert E. Brumley) and a sombre version of Amazing Grace which has new music by band member Richard Dembowski. Takes on Silent Night and Link Wray’s Fire and Brimstone follow a similar route, a path that can be imagined as wandering through creaking twisted trees, abandoned graveyards, dark moonlight shadows and perhaps even a crossroads at midnight.

Walker and Dembowski, along with John Chamberlin, Michelle Beauchense and Willam Bongiovanni share the majority of the composing credits in different combinations. All, however, understand this pre-electric vision and no matter which is the composer, they have a similar feeling for the patina of times gone by. Walker’s vocals are delivered as if through a cracked radio speaker or carnival style megaphone. This is not music designed to cheer the soul or get you in the party mood. Once in the musical deep water it is easy to surrender to the atmosphere and sink down into a world of death, murder and decay which is actually grist to the mill for a music rooted in bygone times where morbidity and murder ballads were common. Both Walker and the band are gifted exponents of this musical eeriness and use all the instruments at their disposal to bring these songs and recitations to life. Trombone, cello, tuba, banjo, harmonium, lap steel, double bass and percussion all feature, giving a distinctive texture to the music, as do the occasional lead vocals from Dubowski.

It is music that might scare some away, but will equally attract those drawn to its rich, heart of darkness. There are, naturally, 13 tracks which may appeal to those who enjoyed the song and ballads recorded at the dawn of technology as well as those who have been drawn to the music of the likes of 16 Horsepower and Th’ Legendary ShackShakers in their non-electric moments. Although the album is credited to Elouise in fairness it would seem to be more of an Alice Cooper set-up with all participants contributing to a fairly unique take on a potent musical soundscape, one self-described as “blackgrass”.

Adam Lee Sincerely, Me Self Release

Sincerely is the first solo album from Adam Lee, whose previous album with his band The Dead Horse Sound Company, When the Spirits Move Me, was a more honky-tonk affair. This time Lee has broadened his outlook and tonal palate and has devoted this album in to a side one and side two. However, there is nothing immediately obvious that divides the two sides in terms of content. The last album dealt with themes of country music, while this album, while still touching on those themes, takes a broader viewpoint and looks deeper inside with songs like the title track and Good Days - wherein the man in question faces his drinking demons and hopes to look towards a better future.  

Lee has taken a long hard look at life and delivered some honest song-writing that recognises the less savoury and affirming sides of life, but also sees that things could always get better which gives the album a positive outlook. When She Danced views the submerged spirit of a dancer working in a dive bar who transcends the negativity and necessity that are fundamental to that situation. He does this with just a bruised voice and solo piano backing. Misery has a muted guitar-twanged tone that is perfectly in tune with a man facing his inner torments.

Elsewhere Lee blends rock, blues and blue collar sentiments with a little country to create a set of self-written songs that are a précis of where life is for him right now. He has done this with a set of players that he and co-poducer Johnny Kenepaske have assembled for the album. They include Dane Talley on electric guitar, Hanna Rae Mathey on violin, Tim Rose on bass and Paul Andrews on drums. Lee’s contributes various instruments with additional vocal input from Keepsake among others. One track, Hold On adds trombone and trumpet with some hard-nosed guitar. There is a swing to What I Need and again Lee shows versatility in his vocal delivery that pegs him as an assured singer throughout. Patrick is a song with a strong Irish-American theme, both in lyrical content and musical setting. It is about the loss of a brother and the reaction to that by a mother who then calls the surviving brother by the name of the lost sibling.

Lee resides in Chicago. He was a cast member of the stage production Million Dollar Quartet and will tour in support of Sincerely, Me. He shows here that he can produce songs in a range of styles that make this an interesting and entertaining collection highlighting a writer, singer and musician who is developing his muse in a number of different ways. This is a promising and revealing album.

Jack Ingram Midnight Motel Rounder 

Looking at my music collection recently an acquaintance asked “Why would you need more than one album from any particular artist in your collection?”.The answer would depend if you’re a fan of Revolver or Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Music evolves and even if an artist stays largely within specific parameters there are nuances and new found strengths to be discovered in their music. Not necessarily true of all artists - some simply get less interesting with each release - but in the main there is good reason to continue listening. Jack Ingram is one case in point; after 12 albums (the first released in 1995 and the most recent in 2009) I looked forward to listening to his new album. It encompasses all the aspects of his music from the storyteller, the humourist, the roots rocker to more seriously-minded artist.

It also takes a certain self-assurance to make your title song and album opener a song written by another songwriter, Blu Sanders who wrote Midnight Motel , which  also closes the album in an acoustic version. Between those bookends are eleven other songs. Nine are either Ingram co-writes or solo written songs, one is by Will Kimbrough (Champion Of The World) while the remainder The Story Of Blaine is an amusing anecdote prefacing the song Blaine’s Ferris Wheel. It is a taste of how an Ingram live show might go. There are also some snatches of ambient dialogue included at the start of a couple of the tracks.

The album sounds right and part of that is down to producer Jon Randall and a team of top notch players like Charlie Sexton on guitar, keyboard player Bukka Allen, drummer Chad Cromwell and contributions from Randall and on background vocals Bruce Robison. But Ingram has a seasoned vocal delivery that is expressive and never leaves you feeling that the process was without a spontaneous element. It’s Always Gonna Rain is song co-written with Lori McKenna and accepts that life has always got hope no matter how it might seem at times.

Two of the songs talk about letting go and relaxing with I Feel like Drinking Tonight and I’m Drinking through It, where the multi-voice closing chorus changes the I’m to We’re. The former is prefaced with a dedication to fellow songwriters Hayes Carll, Todd Snider and Chris Wall amongst others, writers with whom he has doubtless shared a brew or two. The other songs display a deceptive simplicity that serves them well.

This album is classic Ingram and will also appeal to anyone who has a taste for Texas storytelling and songwriter. It may an old motel but it is one that you can feel comfortable in and one that can be returned to whenever you’re passing. After 7 years it is good to have Jack Ingram back on a label that means that many will get the chance to hear this very fine album.

Michael Ubaldini Starshaker Self Release

The man dubbed ‘the rock ’n’ roll poet’ by both fans and critics focuses here on the rock part of his moniker. He has written and produced this album which is an energetic run through 14 songs of rock, roots, blues and a little country (Tombstone Woman - with Gary Brandin on pedal steel).  It’s not all hell for leather though, with the occasional introspective song such as Ballad Of Brian Jones, a slice of country blues in tribute to the Rolling Stones’ founder’s roots. Otherwise Ubaldini and the band let loose, play the blues and have fun. 

Mrs. Johnson, Simpson & Tucker is a cautionary tale of a man who does want his late night visitors to lead to his outline in chalk on the floor. Late night liaisons forms the theme of House Of Red Lights too. Whole Lotta Nothin’ Blues has a distorted vocal, some harmonica and soulful keys and slippin’ and slidin’ guitar. The Rooster Moans at Midnight, Once Over Twice and Ballad Of An Innocent Man are catchy blue-collar, foot tappin’ rock songs while 9 Ball Shuffle calms things down with a funky 12 bar. Ubaldini knows how to pen a song and place it in a musical context. That’s as true here as in has been on his previous albums. And while this album is a little outside the parameters of Lonesome Highway’s regular route, it has a broad enough musical base to appeal to those who regularly read our reviews.

Ubaldini has built up a steady following for his albums and writing and those acquainted with him will find much to enjoy. It is not going to cause anyone to rethink their musical opinions, but in the context of good time (or should that be bad times too) rock ’n’ blues Starshaker will get you to where you need to go. One listen to the closing song One Good Woman Blues underlines that.

The Goat Roper Rodeo Band Cosmic Country Blue Aveline 

A UK acoustic country blues trio based in the North West, the Goat Ropers have recorded this new album with Romeo Stodart (The Magic Numbers) as producer and have achieved a fuller, more rounded sound this time out. The band are Thomas Davis on vocals and double bass, Jim Davis on vocals and lead guitar and Sam Roberts on vocals and rhythm guitar. Here they are joined by some guests (including fellow Magic Numbers members Angie Gannon and Michelle Stodart) to realise these new, self-written songs that build on the vocals harmonies of the trio and their essentially acoustic approach.

The album opener I Got Room has a strongly nasal lead vocal that some may not like but it is one that fits neatly into the vocal mix on the other tracks. The songs are a mix of tempos from adrenalised stompers like Mean Man, Stick It On Red and Catch Me If You Can through a more blues orientated Blossom Blues to the softer harmonies of ballads Old Joanna, My Sweet Woman and the restrained piano and guitar of the closing Hey Chuck. There are 12 slices of the cosmic country that they righteously proclaim throughout. This is a sound influenced by many diverse American acts, but one they are developing to their own ends. This has led to their at times quirky and occasionally sad songs finding favour with the likes of Bob Harris and International Submarine Band member Ian Dunlop. 

The Goat Roper Rodeo Band look and sound like a band who would have fitted neatly alongside a similarly-orientated outfit like Quiver back in the 60s. They offer hints of the cosmic side of their sound which aren’t as prominent as they might become in the future but, for now, they are establishing themselves alongside other promising UK bands playing original roots music with a refreshing approach and independent attitude. 

Martha Fields Southern White Lies Self Release

For this album Fields has taken a more bluegrass/acoustic route compared to the electric sound of her previous album Long Way From Home. Dobro, fiddle and mandolin are prominent in the sound, all underpinned by double bass and drums. This is a sound that Fields has explored with the band Mountain High previously. This album is under her name however rather than that of Texas Martha, another name she uses. Some of the players here also play with her electric band and are versed in both styles, though in truth the songs could easily adapt to either (or other) formats easily. 

The songs are a mix of original songs from Fields and some traditional songs like Lonesome Road Blues and What Are They Doing In Heaven? She has also included Jimmie Rogers’ California Blues, Janis Joplin’s What Good Can Drinkin’ Do? and Mickey Newbury’s Tell Me Baby among the album’s 12 tracks. Front and centre though is Fields’ commanding voice which leads each song with conviction on tales of lies, hard drinking, hard times, lonesome roads and dead ends. American Hologram talks of a poor underclass being shut out of the American Dream to always find themselves on the margins with little to give them hope and so they have to resort to making the best of what little they have. 

Martha Fields, on this album, explores another aspect of her musical and familial heritage. She does it with the forcefulness that makes sense of her own story and of those who came before her. This is an album that Fields fans will doubtless want to explore. 

Massy Ferguson Run It Right Into The Wall At The Helm

This album features some unashamed rockin’ -  with some country rock thrown in for good measure.  It is what was once dubbed cow-punk, although this time there is less twang and more of a hard nosed attitude. What is good about these songs is that that have an honesty that rings true. They are not unique or that different to some other acts that have been mentioned in passing, such as Son Volt or The Backsliders, with reference to their music. Massey Ferguson (the name of a sturdy American farm tractor) are a solid and believable band who are committed to their music, and that counts in an era when so much of what is heard refers to another musical era anyway. 

Massy Ferguson are Ethan Anderson, Adam Monda, Dave Goedde and Tony Mann; the line-up is guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. They describe themselves as American rock which is a good a description of what they do. I’m assuming that singer Anderson is the primary writer as there are no credits on this promo CD. The album was produced by Johnny Sangster and recorded at Soundhouse Studios in Seattle. There are influences of that city’s grunge heritage in the music. However the things that count are how these songs sound and if they bear repeated playing. They do on both counts and Run It Right into the Wall has enough energy and melody to make the listening experience one that the more rockin’-oriented amongst you will want to return to it’s blue collar heart.

Tim Easton American Fork At The Helm

Tim Easton is another accomplished and lauded songwriter who has some twenty years as a performer and writer under his belt as well as four albums on the New West label. He’s back and he still delivering the goods. This album is produced by Patrick Damphier and goes for a full sound. Damphier employs some fine musicians like steelie Russ Pahl, Michael Rinne on bass, Jon Radford on drums and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Crowell 

There are a number of avenues explored in what is a broad palette of well-arranged and melodically structured songs. In the song Elmore James Easton lauds the bluesman in a swampy harmonica-laced groove. Gatekeeper shows off his guitar skills and is another dirty slide guitar-fueled reference to the oil that makes the entertainment industry world turn. He takes a smoother path with Burning Star, a literate song that features piano and steel which give it a dreaminess and longing. There is a darker and grittier, but equally feisty and fun sounding, take for Alaskan Bars (Part 1) which has a growled backing vocal that adds a sense of disquiet to the proceedings. Now Vs Now is an appeal to not get stuck in a state of apathy but rather to take control in whatever way possible. The album opens with Right before Your Own Eyes, a rhythmically realised song with touches of saxophone to bolster the chorus. The eight track (mini) album closes with On My Way, a soft touching song to his young daughter to let her know that he is always thinking of her, even those his chosen path takes him away.

Tim Easton writes songs that are those of one who continues to hone his craft and develop his sound. Here it is a well realised and considered exploration of his previous work as well as pastures new. American Fork is a twist on the folk music of America he grew up with and everything he has distilled since then into his own interpretation of the world he sees on his travels. He is past the gatekeeper and looking to his own future and muse now.

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