Sunday
Jun122016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

The Honeycutters On The Ropes Organic

More than fulfilling the promise of their last album The Honeycutters have delivered an album (their fourth) that underlines both the writing and singing talents of Amanda Anne Platt alongside the playing skills of her four band mates Matthew Smith, Rick Cooper, Tal Taylor and Josh Milligan. Alongside some additional guests on keyboards and harmonica, the North Carolina based band have doubtless built up a strong following wherever they tour On The Ropes, which far from what the title might suggest, is another knockout punch in terms of their recorded output.

There are songs here like Blue Besides that could easily fit on a Kacey Musgraves album while others would not feel out of place on a Eilen Jewell release. That just shows the versatility and scope of the band, it’s music and Platt’s writing. From the underlying sadness of the ballad The Only Eyes through to the dance floor dynamism of Let’s Get Drunk - a song that emphasises the “in for a penny in for a pound” nature of certain uncertain relationships. There are twelve songs written by Platt and one cover of the seemingly ubiquitous Hallelujah, a song that must be keeping Mr. Cohen’s accountant well pleased. My first thoughts were do we really need yet another version? That answer is open to debate but, in fairness, the version here is given a solid country take that is pretty original and played with the appropriate passion that makes it a worthwhile exercise.

On The Ropes is an album that any self-respecting admirer of the current blend of traditional country and roots Americana should be more than happy to be acquainted with. Recorded in a North Carolina studio with Platt and Tim Surrett producing they have realised an album that is free of outside influences and is all the better for that. As it says on the back cover “great music, no boundaries.” Nothing here disputes that claim.

John Doe The Westerner Cool Rock

At the age of 63 the former punk rocker is still making great music. Time has not only weathered his voice but it also has given him time to reflect. The passing of his friend and Dances With Wolves author Michael Blake has doubtless been a factor in the attitude of this record. He co-produced it with Dave Way and Howe Gelb. The sand worn, desert location of that artist’s work with Giant Sand is a factor in the overall feel that is purveyed on the album.

These songs are at heart a mix of acoustic folk orientated songs with some more solidly rocking moments to balance that out. The opening track Get On Board fairly steams along as it tells us that we are all on board life’s train. We all ride the rails at some point. Sunlight, the song that follows is a parched sun drenched song that has some atmospheric Spanish guitar underpinning its mood. A Little Help, with piano and pedal steel, notes that we all need a little help at times - something that all can relate to. Go Baby Go is a more robust and rockin’ tale of getting out there and doing it with a backing vocal from Debbie Harry. A song that could easily resonate with fans of Doe’s days in X. The isolation and sadness of Alone In Arizona is full of heartfelt thoughtfulness that requires some genuine loss in life to make it feel real. Sonically it is restrained but full of ambient sounds that are sympathetic to the song. In truth all the songs here have their place and an understated but committed performance.

It is a solid listening experience, an album in the fullest sense, rather than a random collection of songs. John Doe is still making vital music - some of the best in a long career. The Shephard Fairey illustration on the cover and the title maybe suggest something that is more akin to his work with the Knitters. However this is a wider exploration of openness, space and a sense of freedom that covers a broad but still essentially rootsy soundscape. One that Doe fans and those who look for engaging roots music should get acquainted with.

AP Mauro Rainmakers Lamon

As with any broad format there are a lot of people out there making records. They make albums to be heard to express a point of view or because they just want to. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good - or bad. It just means that finding a place in an over supplied marketplace is difficult. This is no reflection on AP Mauro or his latest release rather it is a fact of life. This 6 track EP was recorded in Nashville and was produced by Mauro and Dave Moody. Other than that and the fact Mauro wrote all these songs there is no mention on the cover of who the other players were. But they did a pretty good job in fleshing out these songs. 

The title song You’re A Rainmaker has a propulsive beat with guitar and piano lines under Mauro’s song that offers a wry look on political posturing and shows that the man possesses a solid voice. It’s easy to see the Springsteen/Mellancamp/Earle comparisons that have appeared in reviews. Comparisons that anyone who aspires to a “blue collar” ethos seem to pick up. They are valid if not essentially all there is to know about the music here. In the end most Americana music is redolent of something that has gone before. That’s pretty inherent in the DNA of the genre and can apply to any number of artists.

Of the other songs here all suggest a maturing artist who is developing his craft and while none of the songs have that classic quality that defines a career song These Chains and Lonesome Highways (a trucker’s tale) are well worth repeated listen along with the aforementioned Rainmaker. Those who have heard and enjoyed AP Mauro in the past will be happy that they have some new music to listen to. Others could well start here and maybe find a new name to add to their listening list.

Marlon Williams Self-Titled Dead Oceans

The New Zealand native opens this, his debut solo album, with a the attention seeking Hello Miss Lonesome a fast a furious song that introduces his distinctive and acrobatic vocal style. Previously he has recorded with a band The Unfaithful Ways but this solo album gives him the opportunity to explore a broader more eclectic set of songs. And while he has acknowledged the influence of Gram Parsons for playing country music with respect but with a rock ’n’ roll attitude this album would be hard pressed to be classified as country to some more traditionaly orienteted fans. Country, in truth, would just be one influence in many.

His songs, some co-writes, have, at times, literary and cinematic quality all directed by his undaunted vocal ability that matches the lyrical twists. Dark Child has that a certain sense of that hue in it’s overall delivery. I’m Lost Without You is a 60’s style orchestral ballad written in that era by Teddy Randazzo and is the sort of thing that Marc Almond (or any number of 60s balladeers) would feel right at home with and is full of expressive regret and longing. An ethereal synth solo underscores this dark mood and it is an album standout. Silent Passage is a cover of a Bob Carpenter song (the title of his 1984 album). 

There is a dark humour to Strange Things theme of death, strange dreams and things that creep in the night. Not exactly the theme of your modern country song! When I Was A Young Girl has an eerie folk quality that is stripped down to a voice and guitar setting that again highlights the qualities of Williams’ vocal dexterity on his version of a traditional ballad. The downbeat mood continues for the final track a restrained setting with vocals choruses that tells us that Everyone’s Got Something To Say. Something I would imagine is true of this album. I look forward to Williams next move after what is a pretty remarkable debut.

Scott Cook and The Long Weekends Go Long Groove Revival

This package comes with an extensive full colour booklet of lyrics, an explanation of the Nashville numbering system and a note from Scott as well as a lot of pictures. These pictures show the assembled cast playing Beersbie (also explained in the booklet). A good time was had by all from the evidence and that feeling seems to have extended to the music too. An open love letter to the world it says on the back cover. There has been some love expounded for most things although Bob Geldof and Bono (as well as Russell Brand) may not think so from their mention in Drink Poverty History. Although I think the attitude is tongue in cheek. “And there’s still no snow in Africa this Christmas, and good, ‘cause wouldn’t that be strange?” A cheap shot or a personal observation? One for you to decide, but from Cook’s sleeve note this is the view of a character in the song rather than personal observation.

Elsewhere the direction of Cook’s darts are aimed at big stars, the folk communities reliance on certain songs, a song about the “kid with the comic book” written by Trevor Mills and called exactly that. As an alternative to singing Happy Birthday he wrote his own song The Day That You Were Born

One of the centre pieces is the warm and full timbre of Cook’s voice. It matches his lyrical storytelling. There have been mentions of Guy Clark, John Prine in some of the reviews and to that I might add maybe a touch of Todd Snider and Fred Eaglesmith in their more humourous mode. He gathers members of his old band to, in his own words, “try to put summer on record.” Whatever the intention he and his seven band mates and co-singers have delivered an upbeat acoustic folk stew that both sustains and is flavoursome. 

Cook is a storyteller and and worthy addition to many other notable Canadian singer/songwriters. There are 13 songs on the album the longest and most wordiest is Talkin’ Anthropocalypsc Blues at over eight minutes. It’s fun and makes some points on subjects that interest and provoke Cook. Whatever spirit you take it it deserves to be taken. You may well need that long weekend to take it all in though. Pick a sunny one.

Clarence Bucaro Pendulum TwentyTwenty

The fourth song on this tenth release from the New York based performer is a song that immediately sounds both new and familiar as perhaps the best kind of song should. Girl In The Photograph has a light reggae-ish lilt that has an instant appeal. A substantial but breezy pop song about treasuring a photograph of a person who has meant much at one part or another of someone’s life. Bucaro is also touches on more troubled moments as in Tragedy where he doesn’t want to be caught up in the drama created by another, not wanting to be a part of their tragedy. Watching You Grow is a tender observation with accordion a part of the musical setting.

The subtle sense of melody as well as something a little deeper edge applies to many of the songs here and they become more appreciated with regular play. Bucaro has a strong velvet smooth voice that gives life to these reflective and intimate songs. Throughout he works with a band that includes Scott Ligon on bass and keyboards, Rich Hitman on guitar and pedal steel and Alex hall on drums, accordion and keyboards. A tight but essential unit of players under the direction on Tom Schick (who has previously worked with Ryan Adams) and Bucaro himself behind the production desk. My Heart Won’t has central characters  that seek but are wary of finding love, or anyway a love that might last. Another notable contribution comes from Alison Moorer who co-wrote and sings on the final song Strangers. There is a sense of melancholy in the strangers in the night theme that is reflected in the prominently featured pedal steel. That instrument does not a country album make though and this, overall, has a folkier feel - even with the full band there to give the songs some added strength.

Clarence Bucaro after nine previous albums should be making some headway in terms of recognition and judging by the overall consistency shown here on Pendulum, one can only hope that some of that might just swing his way. Even if that’s not the case in proves that although there is something of an overdose of singer/songwriter albums on the horizon there are still undiscovered performers out there who make travelling down our lonesome highway worthwhile.

 

 

Wednesday
Jun082016

Reviews by Paul McGee

David Berkeley Cardboard Boat Self-Release

These ten songs are companion pieces to stories contained in David Berkeley’s book The Free Brontosaurus. He uses the song characters to mirror the perspective of each story’s main character. This is an interesting idea and one that gives the listener the chance to absorb the songs/stories from different angles. Writing in character can give a song a somewhat distant feeling, but the reflections and insights in each song here can be taken as very personal. 

This is the sixth studio release from a literate, talented and accomplished song-writer who creates a gentle mood with his rich voice and a superb backing band that includes guitarist Bill Titus (Dan Bern, Brother Ali), trumpet and banjo player Jordan Katz (De La Soul, The Indigo Girls), bassist/keyboard player Will Robertson (Shawn Mullins) and drummer Mathias Kunzli (Regina Spektor). The harmony vocals of Sara Watkins are especially memorable and her vocals dovetail beautifully with Berkeley amongst the easy flow of these songs.

There are references to the sea with Setting SailTo the Sea and Cardboard Boat. Many of the songs contain a melancholy air touching on topics like relationship vulnerability, loss and regret; absence and a need to return; disillusionment and sadness and lost souls. However, there is also a perspective that new beginnings are possible and a brighter day awaits with new love and opportunity. This is folk music that is thought-provoking and delivered with great assurance.

Corinne West Starlight Highway MAKE

West has four previous releases and here the talented songstress has gathered a troupe of musicians who serve Starlight Highway’s ten songs with great reverence and some sublime playing. The arrangements are acoustic based with plenty of room for the various instruments to be heard and the production, by West herself, has to be applauded as she delivers a real gem. 

Her voice is very sweet and can soar with the rise of the instruments on songs like Give Our Ships Away and the jazzy tinge of Gypsy Harbor. There is the bluesy mood of Find Me Here and the old time swing of Cry of the Echo Drifter together with the rockabilly up-tempo pace of the title track. These are sophisticated songs delivered with fine feeling and restrained playing by an ensemble that includes the talents of Mike Marshall, excellent on mandolin and Henry Salvia on B3 Hammond organ, piano, accordion and Wurlitzer. Most of the songs are co-writes with the very talented Kelly Joe Phelps who adds some fine guitar and vocals on a number of tracks while Edo Castro on 7-string Fretless Bass and Ricky Fataar on drums give a solid rhythm to the melodies. A number of additional musicians add to the rich colour and the best way to enjoy these songs is to turn the volume up on the headphones and sip a slow glass of red wine to the sweet strains of, Audrey Turn the MoonTrouble No MoreMonday’s Song and Night Falls Away Singing – so much to enjoy.

Daniel Martin Moore Golden Age Sofaburn

This is Daniel Martin Moore’s fifth release. He possesses a beautiful voice which is startling like Art Garnfunkel’s and sings with a melancholic tone to melt even the hardest of hearts. Produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, the 10 songs here drip with atmospheric melody on the air of a soft breeze.

Joined by the subtle playing talents of Dan Dorff, Jr., Joan Shelley, Jim James, Kevin Ratterman, Dave Givan, Ben Sollee, and others from around  Kentucky, Moore takes his gentle reflections and turns them into finely polished gems of light jazz, piano-based, late night soulful spiritual searching.

Monday
May302016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

TWO FROM CANADA: A hotbed of some traditionally orientated country music

Ginger St. James One for the Money Busted Flat 

St. James is a Canadian singer and songwriter who has a passion for traditional country, rockabilly and blues. You can add the word rowdy to this description to help sum up her sassy attitude which may spring from her previous involvement in the burlesque scene. This 9 track album also has some more thoughtful and quieter moments like Honeymoon Stage, Best Of Me and You and Somebody Shot Me alongside the more up-tempo stompers like Train Whistle and the hard rockin’ Hair of the Blackdog

St. James has a commanding voice as well as a way with words that suits her chosen musical path. She is accompanied by a band of players including longtime guitarist Snowheel Slim and pianist Chris Altman, who join her on the credits for the mostly self-written songs. The set was produced by James McKenty and it is a step up from her previous entertaining EP release Spank, Sparkle & Growl, recorded with her previous band, The Grinders. One for the Money affirms that St. James is developing her craft in what might be considered a segment of the musical spectrum that is under represented. This is one for the moment.  

Eli Barsi Portrait of a Cowgirl Red Truck Int.

Barsi is an artist with a string of releases under her (cowgirl) belt and one I have not encountered previously. The Canadian roots/country scene is full of artists who tend not to receive much recognition outside their homeland. Barsi’s experience and talents shine on this album, which deals with themes related to farm and ranch life. She also touches on the more personal aspects of relationships such as He’ll be Back Again and I See You Everywhere.  

Barsi’s sound is a fairly satisfying blend of traditional and contemporary. A solid rhythm section gives a radio friendly base under the banjo, fiddle and steel guitar embellishments. Add keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars and you have a layered sound that isn’t retro, but stays within what can be rightly credited as country music. 

She has written all the songs here and the sound has a wide ranging appeal. Perhaps she should be considered as a parallel to singers like Joni Harms and Wylie Gustafson. They all come from a background rooted in the land, horses and a western lifestyle. Indeed Barsi has a number of “western” albums to her credit and Portrait of a Cowgirl fits well, as it is a musical evocation of an attitude and ethos that is fast disappearing, one which many are attracted to but don’t have the opportunity to live. This is something that Barsi considers (as have others) in Big Hat, No Cattle, but in the end the song Country Music Was Made for Saturday Night sums up the letting off steam, end of the week release that country music seems well suited for.

TWO COVERS ALBUMS: Two artists offering their choice of favourite songs - with the mixed reaction that that often entails.

Karl Blau Introducing Karl Blau Bella Union 

This album from Blau is far from an introduction; it is more an introduction to some of his favourites and is being presented as a country/soul album. This is a combination that is big buzz word right now. A look at Blau’s discography on his website highlights some of the numerous releases he has made over a 20 year recording career. 

There are twelve songs on this album which opens with the oft recorded That’s How I Got to Memphis. The sound is, in truth, not overtly country in a sense that fans of honky-tonk or Texas dance floor might imagine. Rather it is a blend of smooth delivery with soulful overtones that allows Blau’s warm, rich, deep vocal to sit front and centre. However, a little against type, there is little brass featured. Strings and keyboards feature with acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars.

The overall feel is perhaps a take on the more refined countrypolitan Nashville melodious sounds of the 60s and 70s. Producer Tucker Martine gathers together a set of players who clearly understand what the songs need to give them a makeover. How successful this is, and indeed, any cover is, depends on your relationship to the original or best known version. I’m curious as to how many of these songs Blau’s audience would have encountered previously. 

Woman (Sensuous Woman) was recorded by Don Gibson, No Regrets was written by Tom Rush and recorded by the Walker Brothers (amongst others). If I Needed You is perhaps Townes Van Zandt’s best know song. Dreaming My Dreams was written for Waylon Jennings, was a hit in Ireland when covered by Marianne Faithfull and was also covered by Patty Loveless. To Love Somebody is a Bee Gees song that has been recorded by a number of roots/country artists such as Blue Rodeo. The first single from the album is a compelling version of Fallin’ Rain, written by Link Wray. 

There is plenty here to both admire and enjoy and the album may serve as an introduction to Karl Blau’s broader musical world. It might even get some indie fans to explore the richness of country music’s past and in turn open the minds of some usually more strictly focused country fans. In the endit is down to the performance, the singer and the songs. Here the match is good enough to hold attention and to reassess the songs that Blau has chosen. He’s the one wearing the cowboy hat and embroidered jacket on the cover and this gives you a clue as to where he’s coming from this time.

Robert Rex Waller Jr. Fancy Free Western Seeds

Waller fronted the band I See Hawks in LA for some years now before deciding to release this solo outing, funded by Kickstarter. Divided into Side A and Side B, the first song from Side A is his take on Walking through your Town in the Snow and it is a good opening choice as it highlights Waller’s deep baritone voice. Written by Bruce Utah Philips the song sets you up for the Americana that follows, including a melancholic, but uplifting take on Neil Young’s Albuquerque.  From then on there are versions of songs from Ray Davies (Waterloo Sunset), Albert Hammond (The Air That I Breathe) and Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, which features an extended guitar outro. There are also lesser known songs such as the title track or Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars. There is also a short piano and vocal version of Amazing Grace 

Each listener will find their own loves and loathes, although nothing here should deserve the latter opinion. Waller has produced the album with Marc Doten and they ring the changes across the songs; some are stripped back while others offer a more cosmic sound. The version of the Doors The Crystal Ship fits that particular sonic sound well.

Doten is at the heart of the sound, playing keyboards, guitar and bass and he is joined by drums, guitar and violin. The album takes each song on its own terms and as such is difficult to pin down to any one single genre direction. Which, if you are listening without a particular preconception, offer a wide ranging listening experience.

With I See Hawks in LA Waller sings original song. Here he is given the freedom to interpret songs that have entered his consciousness in an individual, stylised way that makes the most of his voice and their musical settings. Enjoyment will depend largely on how willing you are to follow him down a winding path.

TWO FROM THE PAST: Two artists offering popular songs, with the mixed reaction that often entails.

Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock Mr Country Rock Humphead

Craddock is a singer whose recordings on this 2CD collection go from 1978 to 1986. He was a vocal stylist rather than a songwriter, recording songs that had a solid enough country backing, but were in many ways more associated with rock and pop. The set opens somewhat ominously with Knock Three Times which was a big country hit for him. After that we get 49 other songs including Dream Lover, You Better Move On, Come a Little Closer, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Think I’ll Go Somewhere (and Cry Myself To Sleep), Sea Cruise and a live version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On. Starting out as a rock ’n’ roll/rockabilly singer Craddock released records and toured in the 50’s before taking a career break. After that he returned as a country singer and it is from this period that these recording come.

There is a certain nostalgia about these songs that are largely inoffensive and inessential. They are not without a certain charm and highlight Craddock’s serviceable voice that owes a little to Elvis Presley in tone. The production makes the best of the backing musicians who include Lloyd Green on steel and there is enough variety in the tempo and tone to ensure a solid listenable experience. The penultimate track She Belongs to Me is not the Bob Dylan song but an unrelated, uncredited one. By this time, as exemplified by the final track I Didn’t Hear The Thunder, things had moved on as it is a largely keyboard-based song with backing vocals that is neither rock nor country. Billy “Crash’ Craddock is an performer who largely changed with the times and this compilation misses his early rock phase and goes from country to something more middle of the road.

Dave Dudley Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun Humphead

Humphead put together these two CD collections and, depending on individual preferences, some hit the spot more than others. This collection spans recordings from 1965 through to 1977, so the production from each period changes the sound and the musical backing styles. The difference between tracks 5 and 6 (You’ve Got to Cry Girl and What We’re Fighting For) is quite wide apart from Dudley’s voice. It is the earlier recordings that largely hit home the most for me.  

The version of Six Days on the Road is not the original version from 1963 but a later recording from 1975. The subject matter Dudley’s best known for are those that dealing with the trucking fraternity. Songs like the aforementioned signature songs along with Me and Ole C.B., Farewell to the Road, Trucker’s Prayer, Truckin’ Dad and the title track. There are also a wide variety of relationships that were also a staple of any singer’s repertoire. You Got to Cry Girl, a song he co-wrote in 1972, sounds like mainstream crooner pop to me. 

The majority of the songs are more about relationships than on the road themes. What is apparent throughout is the strength of Dave Dudley’s deep baritone vocals. He seems at home with the choices that the producers made to keep the songs relevant with radio styles when these songs were recorded. One writer Dudley turned to was Tom T Hall who provides some 14 of the songs - two co-written with Dudley and one, Day Drinkin’, on which Hall and Dudley duet on a song illustrating the title.

There is no getting away from the period sound of the production on these tracks, but that is part and parcel of the appeal. Dudley’s voice was suitable for this material, but he is most fondly remembered for the truckin’ songs. However there is enough here to show that Dudley loved what he did.

TWO FROM THE SAME SOURCE: Michel McDermott is the primary songwriter for both of these albums.

The Westies Six on the Out Pauper Sky

On this second Westies album the band continue in the vein that they set up on their fine debut release. The band is fronted by Michael McDermott and Heather Horton with five other players including guitarist Will Kimbrough and bassist Lex Price, who also produced and mixed the album. For the uninitiated there are some comparisons to the writing and sounds of Dylan, Springsteen and Elliott Murphy in the mix, but the Westies stand on their own feet and make a sound that will appeal to fans of certain periods of those other artist’s work.

McDermott is the writer and main singer here and the songs are dark and dirty and deal with the lives of those who exist in shadows and on the margins of a largely uncaring society. The songs tell truths and have undoubted passion and understanding for those who inhabit these songs. The Gang’s All Here is a strong ballad with tin-whistle that suggests a certain Irishness in ethos and community. Like You Used To is another ballad, sung this time by Horton, that seeks love from another in a way that may have been lost over time. Love is something that these characters seek and other songs here look for the meaning of that. Everything is All I Want for You and This I Know are declarations of hard won solace.

The opening If I Had a Gun pulls no punches in that the lethal weapon could either be “pointed back at me” or equally used to “blow them all to hell” and the sense of desperation is palpable. Henry McCarty is the tale of an Irish-American outlaw better known as Billy the Kid. It tells his tale, one often told before, in a way that has an understanding for who and how he became that legend. Sirens is the about murder and the deep devastating loss that results from loss of family. These may be not the stuff of mainstream music, but the performances here make these songs stand up and fight for themselves and they put up a good fight.

Michael McDermott Willow Springs Pauper Sky

Ostensibly this is a solo album from Westies frontman Michael McDermott, although the cast of players has names common to this album and Six on The Out. McDermott sits in the production chair this time, and while the Westies recorded their album in Nashville, this album was recorded in the titular Willow Springs in Illinois. McDermott started out as a lauded songwriter and singer and released his debut album 620 W. Surf  in 1991. Stephen King called him “one of the greatest songwriters in the world.” Indeed his Irish heritage has given him the gift of storytelling.

This album seems a little more oriented around an acoustic guitar, folkish approach, though the full band is present throughout to fill out the melodies and add a texture to the sound palate. The songs take a similar approach to those on the Westies album in that they are considered and concerned tales of the lives of everyday working or unemployed folk. 

A wider audience has so far eluded McDermott and that may be due to a superficial comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s work. That may be something initially obvious, but there are songs her that I’m sure the Boss would have been proud to have penned. Both men come from the “Judas” tradition of amped up electric folk rock in any case. This is something McDermott addresses in Folksinger. “I don’t wanna be a folksinger anymore, I wanna hear some big guitars.” In truth though he may always be a folksinger at heart , though one who also rocks hard.

There is a strong sense of melody and lyricism on display throughout the album. Soldiers of the Same War notes that man has been “fighting for a thousand years” and that war and all it brings is a constant, something we never seems to learn from. From reading the lyrics in the booklet one gets a sense of an overall despair and downbeat hearts. The feeling that a person who is a half empty guy who if he “wasn’t laughing … you could bet that he would cry”. But that would deny the positivity that is inherent in McDermott’s music and life. He has been through bad times and has come out the other side. In Let a Little Light In and Shadow in the Window, he underlines a need and search for love, both to give and to receive. 

I would place him along side Elliott Murphy as singer/songwriters who plows their own furrow, who continue to write songs that are relevant and real. They are artists who exist outside mainstream commercial success but who may be the better for it in terms of their artistic endeavours. Willow Springs is an album to savour, one to admire and one that salutes the human heart for all its frailties, faults and fervour.

Friday
May202016

Reviews by Paul McGee

Christa Couture Long Time Leaving Self-Release

On the track That Little Part of my Heart, Christa Couture sings “Don’t be afraid to be amazing – you are amazing”. She could be singing this line to another or to herself, about herself, in an attempt to boost her self-talk to a level where renewed courage shines through. It is just one example of the subtle muse at play when she writes her words of life and longing, love and lust and everything in-between. 

This is Christa’s fourth release and it marks a departure from the searing self- analysis of her previous albums which dealt with personal tragedy in a way that both inspired and devastated in equal measure. Coming out of a marriage and going through divorce  is a time for reflection and self-examination, but when life has dealt you dire cards in the years before, then a certain perspective is brought to bear. Fighting cancer and losing a limb, yet winning the battle, was nothing compared to the deaths of her two children, losses painfully and bravely borne and now referenced through her music.

For this new project Christa has employed the many-talented Steve Dawson as producer/musician and his finely tuned influence is very prominent on Long Time Leaving ‘s 12 songs. The studio musicians add a texture that allows plenty of space and room. The sound is lighter and more commercial with a number of upbeat arrangements to add a nice tempo to the overall feel.

The early glow of a potential new relationship is explored in Alone in This and is balanced against the sad realisation of Separation/Agreement that leaves a feeling of resignation, with lines like “it’s difficult to know how to divide which ghosts are yours and which are mine”. The Slaughter explores flirtation with the heady swim of experimentation and new opportunity to play at being Aphrodite. Solid Ground reaches out to try and find mutual understanding where the “best medicine is an honest conversation”, while Zookeeper looks at the whole process of counselling and the role of a marriage guidance counsellor as a zookeeper overseeing the zoo animals who might strike out at any moment. Dealing with the frustration of failed relationships is given a fresh spin on When It Gets Dark Again and the urge to binge drink all problems away for just a little while. 

We end with feelings of enduring, which is a mantra that seems to run through the path of this artist; brave and resourceful, talented and open to tomorrow. Along Time Leaving is a very fine release that sits well in Couture’s catalogue and is an example that creative music that can be found in the worst of experiences and shared for the greater good.

Jeb Barry Milltown Dollyrocker

Milltown is a follow up to Barry’s solo EP Bury Me in a Lonely Place released in 2014.  It is based in the acoustic singer-songwriter vein and comparisons have been made to Jason Isbell and Steve Earle in both the vocal delivery and subject matter of the 15 songs.

 Clocking in at just over of 47 minutes, the tracks become somewhat repetitive with sparse songs of the darker side of life; small town decay (Milltown #2, No Way Out of This Town) resignation with life (Drag the River, $10 Girl), regrets over the past and old relationships (Shoot Out the Moon, If You Were Whiskey, Gone), lost hope and lost lives (Hard Times, Why I Drink Alone, Weird Places).

 Barry sings in a weary, gravelly voice that fits the words well and the support musicians slot superbly into the songs with Pat Powers (banjo, harmonica), Ernie Barufa (bass, percussion), Mike O’Neill (guitar, Dobro) and Heather Austin (vocals) all adding understated support to Barry and his various guitars. 

This is a contemporary take on bleak, economically busted small town America and the perspective of wasted lives. Barry’s style has been aptly described as ‘hard dirt Americana’ which sums it up very well. 

West of Eden Look to the West West of Music

West of Eden is a 6 person Swedish band inspired by the creative hub of Jenny and Martin Schaub, who write the majority of the songs. This is their 9th release, a concept album focusing on the emigration trail taken by many Swedes in the 19th century, looking for a better life and greater opportunity on the shores of England, America and beyond. There is a strong resonance with Ireland and our own mass emigration following the Famine years of 1845-1849. The music of both nations is similar and this is added to by the very Gaelic feel that runs through many of the song arrangements. 

Both Schaubs have studied Irish traditional music here and their sensitive arrangements are beautifully produced with a swell of melody giving a lush feel to songs about missing home (Going to Hull, Sweet Old Country), sailing away from loved ones (Oh I Miss My Home, The Final Cut), reluctant travellers (The Crying Stairs, Look to the West) and hard luck stories of deception and robbery on distant shores (Wilson Line).

Their sound has been described as ‘Celtic Folk’ but this is not a very fair reflection of the experience and talent that these musicians bring to each project. Yes, they honour to old folk traditions of songs about land and sea, hard times and hope for the future, but they are so much more with fine harmonies lifting the melodies to new heights and the subtle use of horns and trombones on certain tracks giving the project a deeper resonance. The fiddle/viola playing of Lars Broman is always a joy, along with the fine accordion playing of Jenny Schaub and the flute of Steph Geremia, the mix of dobro, mandolin, pump organ and guitars make for a heady experience.

There are songs of packing for the journey (The List) and of having to escape a loveless marriage (Please Mister Agent). However, one of the most poignant songs is The Ticketless Man which tells of those left behind through not being able to afford the ticket to a new life. Rainy Town sings of another left behind who does not envy those who leave for an unknown fate – better to stay with the familiar life that is tried and tested. Two instrumentals show the band and guest musicians in full flow and both  Paddy Fahey’s/Sweel and Tekla’s Tune display the range of talent at play.

Strong storytelling in the traditional folk style and the sweet voice of Jenny Schaub make this a potent listen and the talents of West of Eden are worth investing time in discovering. 

James Houlahan Multitudes Gumbo Luvah

James Houlahan is a singer- songwriter who first came to prominence with bands like Dogs on Television and The Jody Grind around Boston. Now living in Los Angeles, he has released two previous solo albums, Seven Years Now and Misfit Hymns and has a number of recognised session musicians on this collection of 10 songs, including Fernando Perdomo (Jakob Dylan) on bass and Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, kd lang) on percussion. The project was recorded at Veneto West studios in Santa Monica, and was produced by Houlahan and Ronan Chris Murphy (King Crimson, Steve Morse).  

Many of the song arrangements display a leaning towards the eccentric and strange, with the instrumentation somewhat at odds; the drums on the opening murder song Fires of Mercy sound ponderous and a second murder song Marcy’s Lament suffers from noise treatments and vocal distortions. The rock groove of The Rogue Song stands starkly against the gentle folk strum of acoustic guitars on Morning Sun and the ghost/fantasy dreamscape of Mystery Earth Song, the longest track here at almost 7 minutes, contains elements of Mexican brass and strings added to the mix. The country twang of Home shows the direction that this artist could benefit from placing greater focus on, with some neat pedal steel from Erik Kristiansen and sweet violin from Kaitlin Wolfberg.  

The final track is also interesting with the slow strum of Joyful Circuit  and Danny Levin’s horns adding greatly to the overall feel. There are just too many different styles here, which leads to a general feeling of no real direction. 

Carly Dow Ingrained Self Release

This is the first solo release from Canadian artist Carly Dow, who lives in Manitoba. She sings of the environment and our relationship with nature (Too Much to Go Back) in addition to reflecting on matters of the human heart and our ability to endure (Watch it Go). 

She sings with a clear and strong voice that blends perfectly with her acoustic based songs and her banjo and guitar rhythms. From the clap and stomp beginning of Olive Branch and its message of sisterhood, to the bluesy beat of This Dress, there is a confidence flowing through the arrangements and the playing that fits perfect with the overall feel of the project. 

The light jazz groove of Down This Road has some very tasty bass playing from Ashley Au that is complemented by the fine playing of Matt Filopoulos on lap steel and electric guitar. Cello by Julian Bradford on Yours & Mine is beautifully understated and dovetails with lap steel in a reflection on past relationships ;  “I search in the past, where I sometimes live; for the touch, for the brush of a hand”. This is fine writing and plenty to enjoy ona very promising debut.

Mike Jacoby NorthEastSouthWest Self Release

Jacoby is based in Long Beach California and has released his second solo album which takes the title from his birth place in the NorthEast and his current abode in the SouthWest. The album is a self- produced project and Jacoby plays all the instruments on the eleven self-penned songs included here.

 He writes in an American-ish vein, with opening tracks Ready When You Are and Nevermind Me setting the tone with strong beats and a rhythm that sweeps along with attitude. He is clearly a musical talent and his ability to deliver this project single-handed has to be admired and applauded.

There is a country feel to Explaining to Do with its’ swing and swagger and Lay of the Land has a radio friendly groove that will appeal to many. Lie in Bed is a strong track that slows everything down before the driving beat of Where She Goes recalls early 1950s rockabilly.

Thursday
May052016

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Lera Lynn  Resistor Resistor

Shape Shifter, the opening track on Lera Lynn’s latest release, announces a radical change in direction. Her previous releases Have You Met Lera Lynn (2012) and Avenues (2014), were brooding folk-tinged Americana with cleverly crafted song writing delivered by Lynn’s distinctive vocal. Resister finds her abandoning her earlier twang and replacing it with a darker mystical psychedelia which approaches territory inhabited by Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter and more recently by St. Vincent. The album is released on her own record label Resister Music, a further indication of an artist intent on maximum control over her own musical destiny. Whatever her motivation on leaving her previous comfort zone, the results are staggering ,with Resistor going places not previously visited by Lynn.

Perhaps her impressive involvement on the True Detective series (the trailer featuring a clip of Lynn performing The Only Thing Worth Fighting For achieved over 35 million views) pointed her in this direction, perhaps her writing with T-Bone Burnett on the series was the catalyst. Lynn has said that writing with Burnett allowed her freedom to experiment with her darker side.

The production duties were shared between Lynn and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Grange ( Dwight Yoakam, Lionel Ritchie, Victoria Williams, Dixie Chicks and Michelle Shocked;production work for Conor Oberst, Stephen Malkmus and kd lang). All instruments were played by Grange and Lynn.There is so much to savour on the album which has an otherworldly, almost cinematic feel, throughout. Unlike her previous work the vocals aren’t out front but drift around atmospherically.

Slow Motion Countdown is hypnotically dreamlike and intoxicating, bordering on frightening, Cut & Burn is revengeful (I cast my soul into a bullet babe, fine metal for our last dance) with an almost Joy Division like baritone guitar dominating. What you Done recalls late 80’s Marianne Faithfull (You can pluck a rose while wearing sheep’s clothes but you know what you done) and the power poppy Little Ruby closes the album in style.

The sweet’ girl next door’ from Have You Met Lera Lynn (2012) has moved to an entirely darker and seedier neighbourhood. The move may lose her some of her earlier listeners, however  Resistor is likely to expose her to a considerably wider audience and, if given the promotion it richly warrants, should feature in many year-end ‘best of’ lists whether that be in the Americana or Indie categories.

Carter Sampson Wilder Side Continental Song City

Hot on the heels of Margo Prices’ superb Midwest Farmer’s Daughter comes another classic female country album. Carter Sampson has been working, recording and touring relentlessly in recent years without achieving the deserved industry breakthrough. Like Price, Zoe Muth and Elizabeth Cook, Oklahoma born Sampson possesses a glorious country voice which certainly packs a punch on the ten tracks on Wilder Side. Her love of the traditional country queens Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline and fellow Okie Reba Mc Entire is evident throughout the album.

Wilder Side is her fourth album and sees her reunited with producer and multi-instrumentalist Travis Linville who also produced her second album Good ForThe Meantime (2009). Linville plays guitars, Dobro, bass, drums, percussion, banjo and pedal steel. Tulsa Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland, who has gained much acclaim for his latest album High on Tulsa Heat, adds backing vocals. Boasting a musical family legacy that includes Roy Orbison and with music flowing through her veins, Sampson has been experimenting and writing music from the age of fifteen. She founded The Oklahoma City’s Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, offering a formal music education for girls and women.

From the opening and title track Wilder Side (which  Sampson admits is a tribute to her alter ego) through to the  closing track See the Devil Run, much of the album has a breezy  late 70’s country feel to it, uncomplicated, captivating, and conjuring up scenes of road trips on hot, dry, sun drenched highways. A self-confessed lover of travel from an early age, much of the material references movement, freedom and journeying. Medicine River is inspired by Medicine Park in the Wichita Mountains;  Holy Mother could be drawn from the Linda Ronstadt songbook and Highway Rider is a sobering road song depicting both the joys and strains of constant career-driven travel. 

Sampson performs on average 220 shows a year and if there is any justice the masterfully crafted Wilder Side will bring her to the attention of a much wider audience both in her home country and Europe.

Cathryn Craig & Brian Willoughby In America Cabritunes

Recorded in Nashville in the summer of 2015, In America offers seventy minutes of charming folk music in this latest collaboration between Virginia-born singer-songwriter Cathryn Craig and the superlative UK guitarist and ex-member of The Strawbs, Brian Willoughby. This is folk music at its very best, weighted with traditional Celtic influences and including a group of talented musicians in Andy Reiss, Brent Moyer, Mark Fain, Fran Breen, Dennis Bryon, Pat McInerney, Ritchie Bailey and Jeff Taylor. The production duties were undertaken by Thomm Jutz, who also plays on the album.

In America features sixteen tracks, eleven of which are co-writes by Craig and Willoughby. This includes four bonus tracks, two of which acknowledge Craig and Willoughby’s very early career work, his with Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days ( Willoughby played guitar) and the Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling (recalling Craig’s first venture into the music industry).

The title track tells of immigrant dreams of escaping the potato famine in Ireland for the shores of America (We’re glory bound I am told, Bluest skies and streets of gold in America). A Soft Place to Fall is a thoughtful, sincere and hopeful ballad, written by Craig for her niece. Willoughby’s solo album Black and White (1998) is revisited with The Fire. Bullet, co-written with Bill Mead of The Sharpees fame, bounces along with a catchy chorus.Worth special mention is the delightful artwork and packaging of the album, which includes a twelve page booklet including lyrics and a brief introduction to all the tracks.

In America is perfect listening for a lazy rainy afternoon. The combination of Craig’s wonderful, yet sometimes delightfully vulnerable vocals, Willoughby’s remarkable playing and the many talented contributors, makes the journey from Malahide to Donegal to America both reflective and rewarding.

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