Reviews by Eilis Boland

Janet Martin Eve Sessions Self Release 

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

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

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

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

Pierce Edens Stripped Down Gussied Up Self Release 

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

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

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

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

Hillfolk Noir Junkerpunch Self Release

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

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

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

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

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

Scroggins & Rose Grana Self Release

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

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

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

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

Get this album - and play it LOUD.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Hannah Johnson Shaken Wood Ville

This is a solo album from a member of the UK roots/bluegrass band The Toy Hearts which was recorded in Austin at the Amerpolitan Studios. Hannah,  her sister Sophia and Cris Burns produced this collection of original songs and covers and they were in the right place to pick up some excellent players to realise their vision. These include drummer Tom Lewis with Johnson’s father Stewart on electric and pedal steel guitars and a number of others. Throughout the playing is top notch and it is all topped by Hannah Johnson’s versatile and expressive voice.

The album opens with two original songs, Nowhere Train, a song that takes the notion of a train as that of a relationship and is followed by the more reflective bluesy Morning Cocktail which contrasts nicely and shows that her future as a writer is getting off to a good start. The other original is a co-write and has a humour in its tale of adverse relationships between woman. There’s some jazzy, swing playing with nice piano to enhance the mood. Your Girlfriend Hates Me completes that trio and the remaining covers come from a number of sources. 

Gotta Get You From That Crowd is a Skeets McDonald song with some effective vocal harmonies and fiddle. Three Days is the well know Willie Nelson song which has a slick 60’s feel that Johnson delivers with gusto. Never No More is a song recorded by Patsy Cline and her influence is here both musically and vocally. Sooner Or Later was a Bob Wills co-write and again has that period touch that is satisfying and shows that Johnson has a love and appreciation of some of the best names and musical directions in classic country. Not In Birmingham was written by Roger Miller, although he write it as Nottingham in the original (Johnson is from Birmingham so that explains the location change to make it more personal). It also has a nice guitar break in it. Gail Owen wrote West Texas Lullaby and it is a more recent song having first been recorded in the late 90s. Charlie Patton, the Delta blues singer wrote Shake It & Break It the song that close out this impressive album as a short uptempo song with a stripped back skiffle feel. An assured album from a musician who has a understanding of how to bring the past forward and give it a shake or two.

Ciara Sidine Unbroken Line Self Release

After a much praised debut album, the Dublin-based singer/songwriter returns with her second album. The standard has been kept up here too. Produced by noted guitarist Conor Brady and Sidine herself, it is a considered approach to her take on Americana, filtered back through an underlying Irish sensibility. The album opens in style with Finest Flower a brooding song with lots of atmosphere and an emotive vocal. The song’s harrowing lyric is based on the testimony of survivors of institutional abuse. Indeed the vocals throughout are impressive. Next is a take on a well know traditional song, Woman Of Constant Sorrow which features a new lyric and a Sidine arrangement. This is followed by 2 Hard 2 Get 2 Heaven which has a more soulful feel with keyboards a main feature. 

After that opening trio Sidine further explores a number of musical options like the late night jazz tinged Watching The Dark, and a rockabilly-fuelled Wooden Bridge. The sensual River Road complements the subtly of Take Me With You which tells of roads travelled together. The languid, longing of Lemme Drive Your Train is measured against the female perspective of Trouble Come Find Me. The title track and Let The Rain Fall again show the skill of the musicians creating a setting for Sidine’s often cautionary but crucial writing. The album ends with the more acoustic based Little Bird Song that has the sibling harmonies of Sidine and Michelle Considine.

That song closes the album as strongly as it began and places Sidine at the top of her game. It is no easy feat to produce an album these days. There is, more often than not, no well-oiled team pushing an independent artist’s release. It takes a belief and conviction in what one is producing, but when the end result proves itself worth of the effort than that is reward in itself. Unbroken Line should find  wider acceptance, a large audience and acclaim for its articulate and alluring music.

Kate Ellis Carve Me Out River Rose

This is the debut album from Louisiana born and now London based singer/songwriter.  Ellis’ smooth blend of country and folk pays off and heralds a new and rewarding talent. The thing about the broad based roots/Americana scene is that a lot of people are in and around the same formats. So in the end, it comes down, as it nearly always does in the genre, to the song and how it is delivered. Ellis has a number of songs that immediately hit home especially Ones You Love The Most which muses on how we always seems to hurt them. But the opening song Don’t Lie To Me tells of a heart-felt truth at the core of establishing a wild relationship. I Believe is a hopeful expression of belief in another person while in contrast Night Before Dawn looks at the darkest hours. Going Against The Grain has a male duet vocal from Bryan Miller which is effective and eloquent. 

There is a compassion for her fellow man (and woman) that is delivered with a melodic gentleness that is compelling and easy to like. The songs are never over sung or over produced, rather the playing is totally in sympathy with the nature of the sings. There are four producers credited as well as different set of players yet the vision set by the songs and Ellis’ voice has made the overall delivery consistent. One of the producers is Andy Hobsbawn who wrote Don’t Lie To Me and co-wrote two others with Ellis. The assembled players mix an understated rhythm section with violin, pedal steel, Dobro, melodica and piano on various tracks. All contribute to the warmth that the album exudes.

Like many similar artists Ellis has the potential to go on to surpass this initial statement of intent and one can only hope that the reaction she get here will help her sustain her music in order to progress and further reach to a wider audience so that it will become a ladder to greater heights. All the elements are here and Kate Ellis wants to carve herself a long lasting career. You can help with that by listening and purchasing.

Heather Lynne Horton Don’t Mess With Mrs.Murphy At The Helm

A member of The Westies with her husband Michael McDermott, this is Heather’s second solo album (following Postcard Saturdays) and it offers a wider sonic template than might be expected from her membership of The Westies. There is a certain ethereal feel and diffusion in her voice that is matched by the atmospherics in the music. The man in charge of pulling the whole thing together was Lex Price, a multi-instrumentalist who has worked as bassist with such artists as Miranda Lambert and Rodney Crowell. One track that sums the multi-layered approach is the immediately arresting Did You Feel That? Save The Rain express the wish to protect her daughter (Rain) from the darker forces that life tends to place in a person’s path. It also understands the vulnerability that that often engenders. 

As a writer, observer and advocate Horton looks at disability issues in the song Wheelchair Man. Elsewhere she looks at other issues but she does so in a way that is not the least preachy. It takes several listens before you get past the pure sound on a song, the layered use of voice, the reverb saturated instrumentation. But these can be no doubting her strength of character and her forthright opinions with a song like F.U., the lyrics of which contain some highly amusing but strategically melodic put-downs for a woman who seemed intent on making a move on her man! However there is also a strong sense of femininity throughout which is viewed from different angles from the person in Murphy’s Law who falls for the wrong man but, though knowing it, wants to be with that person. 

The album closes (almost) with a song that is a reflection of a fairly universal wish. It is a seven minute plus summation of all aspect of life, from love and longing to an overall statement of how a life is and what it might entail in the long-term. I Wanna Die In My Sleep signs off an album that reveals much as you get acquainted with its subtle intricacies and nuances. By way of contrast there is an unlisted track that follows, a duet between husband and wife, You’re The One That I Want, that is powerful in its simplicity and directness. Mrs Horton doesn’t mess about when it comes to her music. Neither should you. 

Lynn Jackson Follow That Fire Busted Flat

This is the ninth album released by Canadian singer/songwriter Jackson. For this collection of her songs she decided to hand over the reins to an outside person and choose Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies fame to produce. It was recorded in Timmins’ Hanger Studio in Toronto. The group of players includes drummer (and fellow Cowboy Junkie) Peter Timmins, steel player Aaron Goldstein and Aaron Comeau on lead guitar and keyboard who set about recording these dark and, at times, dreamy songs. These is a strong element of keyboards (both organ and piano) that are central to the sound, a layered folk-referencing sound that sits discreetly (for the most part) behind Jackson’s distinctive vocals.

The fourth song Alice is a scripted evocation of hard times and harder choices in a small town environment where there are “strength in numbers, and everyone knows everyone” and “everything that you do.” It is also a tale with a grim and fateful twist that has an unexpected end. It is largely sung over a sparse acoustic setting that reinforces the directness of the song. Meet Me In The City features a harmony vocal from Andy Maize (of The Skydiggers) on a song dedicated to Paul McLeod a friend and inspiration who had passed away. She tells him she will “hold you for all my days.” The delivery is compassionate and nuanced and there is some delicate guitar and keyboard playing that helps set the tone for the heartfelt tribute. Random Breakdowns, False Starts & New Beginnings is also for McLeod. 

Timming’ production bears something of his own band in its approach. Nothing is overplayed but the effect overall is peaceful. The album closes with a song that sums up an approach to life that sums up her attitude; No Regrets looks at divesting oneself of anything that helps to tie you down before you head out on “that long highway” while finding herself “finally free.” There are ten original songs featured that offer something of a new direction and sonic palette for Jackson. Perhaps a good place to start, if like me, this is your first encounter with her music. It will be an interesting journey from this point onward for her fans to follow.

Lesley Kernochan A Calm Sun Maple Syrup

Another exponent of roots music from Los Angeles Lesley Kernochan has just released her latest album of original songs. This time out however she has taken a less eclectic approach and delivered an album that balances her folk and country sides. The cover image may suggest the former but there is also plenty of the latter to be found in the songs. Songs like Tumbleweed and Old Fisherman’s Song are immediately memorable and genre variable. The pedal steel and guitar in Country In The City sees Kernochan at her closest to an overall country sound though a sense of Americana is prevalent throughout the album.

There is a sunny West Coast feel on many of the tracks which translates into a relaxed feel to  these songs. However there is also Dobro, lap and pedal steel guitar and mandolin all provided by one time Mavericks guitarist Ben Peeler who shares this task with another noted player in Dean Parks. Suffice it to say that this album is an easy and impressive listen. There are at times a jazzy/bluesy feel to some of Kernochan’s vocal delivery. She has a clear and concise voice that is able to be commanding in the context of the songs. Country In The City simply enthuses that there is nothing better than dancing with abandon to a zydeco band. While The Chocolate Tree notes that “life is bittersweet” which contrasts with the feeling that family is key and how her Mama “gave me a great start in the world.” Lyrically it is more folk than country; so less of the story-songwriting of the latter, rather more lyrical observation and allegory overall.

There have been some comparisons to other, mainly, West Coast female artists that show that Kernochan is being considered as being on similar ground vocally. All of which suggest that this album will be well received overall and that it may well be her best release to date. Kernochan has co-produced the album with John Scimpf and Scott Jacoby in a couple of studios in California and certainly A Calm Sun lives up to its title being both warm and peaceful. Who wouldn’t want to bask in some of that?



Reviews by Declan Culliton

Mark Olson Spokeswoman Of The Bright Sun 

The Jayhawks finest moments were captured when both Mark Olson and Gary Louris were on board, most particularly on the albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass which remain classic albums to this day. As forefathers of alternative country alongside Uncle Tupelo, their ability as both song writers and harmonisers to create an inimitable wistful sound was unparalleled back in the early to mid-90’s.

It may have been the disciplined band structure or possibly one too many song writers that resulted in Olson abandoning ship in 1996 to form The Original Harmony Ridge Crippledippers with his first wife Victoria Williams. Living in Joshua Tree in California, the band recorded a number of impressive, if somewhat disjointed albums that mirrored their carefree hippie like existence but failed to make anything like the industry impact of his previous work with The Jayhawks.

Fast forward to 2005 and Olson was to be found in a different place entirely - divorced, without a record label, homeless and suffering from depression. While recovering in Cardiff he wrote and recorded his first solo album, the excellent The Salvation Blues, reflective of his state of mind at that time. Equally impressive was his follow up album in 2010 Many Coloured Kites following a similar path, stripped down songs of love, loss and grief. Olson reunited with Louris and the rest of the original Jayhawks to record Mockingbird Time and tour the album before, surprisingly, leaving again in 2012. 

2014 saw the release of Good-bye Lizelle, recorded while he toured Europe and South Africa with his Danish wife Ingunn Ringvold, who has performed on his earlier solo albums. Recorded on portable equipment while touring, the album echoed his new-found love, happiness and fulfilment. More experimental than his previous work, it found Olson dabbling in world music, sometimes successfully other times less so. The album featured Ringvold on harmonium and backing vocals and was the stepping stone for another chapter in Olson’s nomadic musical lifestyle. 

Spokeswoman Of The Bright Side is in many ways a natural progression from Good-bye Lizelle, taking its lead yet offering a more organised package of songs that avoids much of the world music influences of its predecessor. Recorded at their home in Joshua Tree, Olson’s typical reflections on life, love and the passage of time result in a collection of songs that often present the innocence and simplicity found in his strongest work. As is often the case in Olson’s song writing the lyrics are whimsical and imaginative without being over challenging but are brought to life by his ability to create beautiful melodies. His vocals and shared harmonies with Ringvolt are delightfully easy on the ear with much of the content falling between folk and country with a nod in the direction of psychedelic pop at times. Seminole Valley Tea Sippers Society and Death Valley Soda Pop Cool Down Dream recall David Bowie late 60’s work while opener Dear Elisabeth, You Are All, All My Days and the superb Time Of Love are closer to Olson’s Jayhawks work, all immediately catchy and joyful.

It’s probably fair to say that Olson has never quite fully reached the enormous potential his early career suggested but for all that, in my opinion, he has not released an album that did not contain many magical moments. The new album's magical moments are plentiful suggesting his strongest work since The Salvation Blues and a return to form for Olson who seems emotionally and creatively to be in as good a place as he’s been at any stage of his career. Long may it last. 

Emi Sunshine Ragged Dreams Little Blackbird

Emily Sunshine Hamilton, at the tender age of 13, has already attracted over 14 million You Tube visits and can boast over half a million Facebook followers. Having started her career playing churches, community halls and local festivals Emi, supported by family members, has become a child prodigy in musical terms. With over a dozen appearances to date at The Grand Old Opry and endorsements from Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart her career continues to blossom four years after performing professionally for the first time at the age of nine.

Not merely a vocalist, she also plays guitar, mandolin and ukulele, but her most striking talent is her song writing ability which finds her tackling thorny and dark subjects such as murder (Tennessee Killing Song, KatieBelle), redemption (Sinners Serenade), environmental issues (As The Waters Rise, Resting Place) and autism (Ninety Miles). It can be somewhat unsettling yet perversely refreshing that someone of her age would visit such topics when most aspiring child musicians would be more likely to experiment with pop country and less challenging issues. All 15 tracks on Ragged Dreams, her fourth release, are written or co-written by Sunshine who also produced the album with the assistance of family members Randall Hamilton (father), Johnathon Hamilton (brother) and Bobby Hill (uncle).

With an exceptional vocal capacity to hit notes Iris De Ment wouldn’t even attempt she is accompanied musically on the album by her family members together with cameo contributions by Tim Crouch (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Justin Moses (fiddle, guitar, dobro, banjo), Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar), Ben Probus (fiddle) and Hitoshi Yamaguchi (cello).

It will be interesting to follow her career going forward. Many artists recording old timey and bluegrass seek out traditional material to cover so it’s to Sunshine’s credit that the self-penned material throughout is of the highest standard with Little Blackbird, Strong Armed Robbery, Ninety Miles and  As The Waters Rise particularly impressive.

A single indication of her enormous potential is the stunning KatieBell, a murder ballad as good as it gets, it also features Sunshine’s vocal pitched a few octaves lower than much of the material on the album and with Randall Hamilton adding backing vocals it’s an instant classic.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Life Is A Story Mountain Music

Native Tennessean and mandolin virtuoso Doyle Lawson together with his band Quicksilver have been a leading light in bluegrass circles for over 35 years since the release of the bluegrass gospel project Rock My Soul (1981), an album still considered to be ground-breaking by genre enthusiasts to this day. Up to forty musicians have played their part in Quicksilver in the intervening period but the core sound and quality output remains consistent with Lawson’s stunning mandolin playing, lead and baritone vocals still reaching dizzy heights. The current line-up includes Josh Swift (Guitars & Percussion), Joe Dean (Banjo & Guitar), Dustin Pyrtle (Vocals & Guitar), Eli Johnston (Vocals & Bass) and Stephen Burwell (Fiddles).

The awards won by Lawson and Quicksilver are endless including seven International Bluegrass Association Vocal Group of the Year Awards and Lawson himself was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame in 2012.

Like Is A Story is the latest in over forty recording by them and it manages to both recreate trademark old timey sounds with more recent and poignant storylines. Opening track Kids These Days could relate to any era with it’s  ‘ wasn’t like that in our day sentiment’ followed by Little Girl (penned by Harley Allen) with it’s theme of innocence and redemption, telling  the tale of a child born into a troubled family and finding emancipation  and sanctity when adopted into a loving family environment. Other highlights range from the Doyle Lawson written I See A Heartbreak Comin’ to the Fred Jay classic What Am I Living For first released by Bob Willis in 1958 and subsequently also recorded by Van Morrison and Ray Charles.

It goes without saying that the playing throughout is top drawer complimented by delightful harmonies and often soothing lead vocals from Lawson himself. A must have  album for lovers of bluegrass and a recommended place to start for any newcomers to the genre.

Mike Cullison Front Porch Philosophy Self Release

Mike Cullison’s roadmap into the recording industry may be somewhat unorthodox yet in many ways suggests a quite sensible approach given the meagre pickings and competition in an industry that suffers from increasingly over saturation levels. His debut album, recorded in 2004, coincided with his retirement after 32 years continuous employment with The Bell Telephone Company. Originally from Oklahoma he combined his nine to five job with song writing and performances and with music running through his veins even relocated to Atlanta during his career to be closer to Nashville. He finally made the final leg of his journey to the Music City in 1995 and currently enjoys the good life with the mundane forty hour a week career a distant memory and his current status as a performing and recording artist the ideal (semi) retirement.

Front Porch Philosophy is his fifth recording and follows the same template as his previous albums, telescopic observations of people, their actions and mannerisms considered, studied and moulded into stories that eventually become songs.

Kicking off the album with West Texas State Of Mind one could be forgiven for drawing comparisons with another elder statesman and Nashville resident Mr. John Prine.  Ain’t Enough Whiskey heads in an old timey Hank Williams lost highway direction. Front porch music would not sit comfortably with the absence of lost love and is represented solidly by  I Can’t Throw Stones while To God and Back, a delightful love song, characterises the flip side of that coin. If you’re going to include a tender love song and a love lost song on an album there has to be room for something in between and Big Legged Woman ticks that box famously. The title suggested a blues number before I even played the track and blues it is – closing the album in style. The blues is also well represented by Dorothy’s Shoes with its rootsy bluesy jam intro.

The album was recorded live at the Art Institute of Tennessee – Nashville Recording Studio with the design and photography on the album created by students at Ai TN. The playing throughout is top drawer with the wonderful guitar work by Mark Robinson particularly impressive.  It’s a cosy and charming album and we can thank the stars that Cullison chose a musically creative retirement rather than investing all his hours tending to the back garden and other somewhat less creative pastimes.

The Grascals Before Breakfast Mountain Home

Three-time Grammy nominated Bluegrass band The Grascals are a six-piece group founded in 2004 who can claim over one hundred and fifty appearances at The Grand Olde Opry to date and can also boast performing twice for President George W. Bush and at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball. Before Breakfast is another solid collection of songs from founding member Terry Eldredge and their second album featuring the present line up of John Bryan (Guitar, Banjo, Vocals), Adam Haynes (Fiddle), Danny Roberts (Mandolin), Kristin Scott Benson (Banjo, Guitar) and Tony Creasman (Drums, Percussion). 

The twelve track album includes the frisky toe tapping instrumental Lynchburg Chicken Run, composed by Danny Roberts and Adam Haynes, the gorgeous country ballad Lonesome, written by Terry Smith and his brother Billy and the Lester Flatt/ Earl Scruggs classic He Took Your Place. Christian themes are visited in both Sleepin’ With The Reaper and  I’ve Been Redeemed with Pathway Of Teardrops ambling  along delightfully with an exquisite three way harmony from Eldredge, Smith and newest band member John Bryan. 

Self-produced and recorded at Crossroads Studios in Arden North Carolina Before Breakfast, easy on the ear as it is, will no doubt excite The Grascals large fan base and with their ability to mix old timey and modern day bluegrass will continue to win them new followers.

The Wynntown Marshals After All These Years Wynntown Recordings

My initial introduction to The Wynntown Marshalls was in 2009 when they played a Saturday afternoon gig in a local pub in Kilkenny on a stage the size of a postage stamp. They made an immediate impact on me – and many others at the gig – with their rootsy sound, slick hooks and clever harmonies.  Regarded as the leading purveyors in Europe of Americana music over the past ten years, both as a live act and over three studio albums, After All These Years offers the perfect introduction to them for those unfamiliar with their music and an equally impressive collection of their work for their fanbase.  With a sound that incorporates many of the precious  elements of Americana while leaving lots of room for power pop noticeable comparisons to The Jayhawks emerge, possibly with a touch of Teenage Fanclub on the side.  Hailing from Edinburgh rather than some romantic sounding townland such as Greenville or Archer County may be an unfortunate contributor to them not making the industry impact they deserve, we Europeans have an annoying habit of often underestimating and even dismissing acts close to home rather than embracing and supporting them. Ironically the recognition they have achieved locally was boosted when a record label in New Jersey gave them the opportunity of contributing a song to a Hair Metal tribute album. The Marshals chose to give the L.A. Guns glam rocker Ballad of Jayne a rootsy make over which came to the attention of Bob Harris who featured it on his show and subsequently interview live on the show. 

The album celebrates the tenth anniversary of the band and over its sixteen tracks revisits material from their three studio albums together with the inclusions of three previously unreleased offerings. Those ten years have seen a number of personnel changes but their core sound remains the same and the tracks work snugly together as a unit from opener Low Country Comedown to closer Different Drug, the latter being a recently written song and one of the many highlights on the album. Red Clay Hill recalls The Jayhawks while Being Lazy tips it’s hat in the direction of Jeff Tweedy and the previously unrecorded Odessa and both 11.15 and Thunder In The Valley (each checking in at over six minutes) have a characteristic Marshal’s sound.

 Keith Benzie and Iain Sloan continue to handle vocals, guitars and pedal steel and the current rhythm section sees Richie Noble on keyboards, David Mc Kee on bass and Simon Walker on drums. On the evidence of the aforementioned closer Different Drug, recorded by the current line up, there is still lots more gas in the Marshals tank.


Reviews by Paul McGee


West Of Eden No Time Like The Past – A Collection West Of Music

West of Eden is a band from Gothenburg, Sweden and for the past 20 years they have been releasing music of enduring quality. This retrospective spans 8 albums, with 2 unreleased songs also included; together with a single and a new song written especially for the collection, Twenty Years Of Travelling.

The band was formed in 1995 and the main songwriters are Jenny and Martin Schaub. They are joined in the current line-up by Lars Broman on fiddle, Ola Karlevo on drums and percussion, Henning Sernhede on electric and acoustic guitars, plus mandolin and Martin Holmlund on bass. Their folk oriented sound has been inspired by Celtic music and tribute is paid to all the previous musicians who played in the band at different junctures and who all helped shape the career arc that has seen West Of Eden arrive at a point where their collective is mush respected and given due gravitas among fellow artists.

Martin Schaub plays acoustic guitars, piano, cittern and also sings, in addition to having quite a hand in most of the song production. Jenny sings in a beautiful clear voice that lifts all the songs and also plays accordion and tin whistle.

Well worth investigating further, West Of Eden are a multi-talented group who take the roots of traditional music and marry a sound that is both old and new with a focus on contemporary arrangements and a dynamic vision. There are love songs, songs of the sea, songs of leaving for new beginnings and there is even a tribute to their local football club, Glenntown. 

There are songs of longing and wishing for more. New World warnings mix with nostalgic memories of youth and the past. All along we are regaled by heady combinations of mandolin, whistle, fiddle, accordion and guitars. Many of the arrangements are bright and up-tempo with a sense of hope and belief in the future running through the atmospheric melodies.

There are 25 songs over 2 discs and a total playing time of 100 minutes. I can honestly say that at no stage did I feel bored or tempted to quit and this brave attempt to capture the essence of the band in all its different stages and guises is to be admired. The concept involved is sometimes fraught with difficulties and there can be an uneven quality to retrospectives at the best of times. This happily steers clear of all such traps and produces a beautifully packaged celebration of a band that began with a love of traditional Celtic folk music.

Eric Congdon Into The Woods Self Release

This is the fifth release from musician and fund raiser Eric Congdon. He plays guitar, mandolin, bouzouki, bass, percussion and drones across the ten tracks featured here and also produced the entire project.

He lives in Asheville, North Carolina and has created a video series called Hiking Jams which features the natural beauty of the region as you are taken on a musical journey to some of the most scenic spots in his locality. Eric has helped raise over $100,000 for Autism and supports the Autism Science Foundation and other organizations. He is committed to spreading hope through his music and the songs included here certainly highlight his terrific guitar playing skills to maximum effect. 

Cool Mountain Morning is a laid-back sense of summer with Lisa Taylor on co-vocal with his dextrous finger picking guitar style really impressing. Five instrumentals, Huckleberry, Enter In Silence, Requiem For John Fahey, Carolina Stroll and Becka’s Train add to the realisation that this artist is someone to be celebrated and his stripped back groove in Smokey Mountain Medicine Man is perfectly augmented by the fine lap steel playing of Billy Cardine. Acoustic blues and roots music of some quality and well worth investigation.

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot Songs For Mixed Company Vesper

Sarah Fuerst and Phil Barry are the duo behind the ten songs on this full album debut. Phil plays guitar and Sarah adds a combination of keys, mellotron, whistle, marimba and bass. Both share close vocal harmonies that really impress within the gentle acoustic structures of the melodies and stripped back arrangements.

Recorded at a studio in Kalamazoo, these songs of love and loss are quietly addictive on repeated play and the guest musicians add subtle touches on accordion, strings, organ, piano and drums. The playful nature of Can’t Be Trusted runs against the pleasure of watching a past lover rueing a break-up on Miss Me. Sad Song cautions the person to ‘take care, choices have consequences’. The light jazz feel of Goodbye Is Not The End sits against the acoustic strum of instrumental, Vesper.

A cover of the Bruce Springsteen song I’m On Fire is a strange inclusion and is just too clean; missing all the coiled desire of the original. The naïve optimism of Sweetest Baby is grounded by the clever Dearly Beloved which looks at the realism of relationships in lines like ‘I promise to always leave the seat down and no backseat driving on the way into town’. An interesting collection of songs and worth investigation. 

Robbie Cavanagh To Leave/To Be Left At The Helm

Labelled as Country/Folk this UK artist releases his second album of songs that were recorded at Eve Studios near Manchester and explore “leaving and being left. What’s taken away and what’s left behind.”

To these ears, the sound is quite commercial, with a number of radio friendly tracks highlighting Cavanagh’s sweet voice that could easily slot into any of the recent young singer-songwriter crop of talent.

My promo copy has no information so I cannot tell who plays what apart from the fact that Roo Walker produced the 11 songs. The soulful groove of Still Talkin’ stands out and the acoustic Let You Down highlights the expressive tone in Cavanagh’s voice. Fool is a bluesy stroll through the back catalogues of older artists complimented by a warm keyboard swell and back-up vocals. Roles Reversed is a rueful look back at a relationship now gone while He’s Alone brings things to a close with a further reflective musing on love lost.

Rob Jungklas Blackbirds Madjack

Rob Jungklas is an experienced musician who is based in Memphis, Tennessee. In the 1980’s he released a number of commercial records but left the music business and became a teacher in the search for something new. However, Jungklas began playing music again in 2001 and released two albums, in 2003 and 2007, that were blues-based in sound and led to opening for Lucinda Williams. In 2010 he released another album, Mapping The Wreckage and this was followed by The Spirit And The Spine in 2013. And so, to this new release, a mixture of blues meets folk at a crossroads where shadows lurk and a sense of foreboding hangs in the air. The song arrangements are sparse and possess a menace that seeps out in lines like "And I will stay here in this mortal coil, til I’m redeemed, blessed are the broken ones."

The ten songs are the work of a seasoned player who is confident in the sound he seeks and the overall experience is very compelling as the brooding tracks play out like a catharsis against all the wounds of the world. These are songs of loss and regret, moody and atmospheric. Low Hanging Fruit is a beautiful piece that reflects on relationships lost ‘The love we had becomes a wish and the wish becomes a star’ – a gentle arrangement with strings and a bare guitar sound.  Hymn is a prayer for the hopeful while The Spiritual Beauty Of Material Things plays out like a movie in looking at the life of a poor farmer.

Such good songs and Blackbirds, Shine, Gone, Diggers and Vitriol all warrant special mention but the complete work is worthy of the highest praise. Closing with Carry Me Home, the lines that best sum up the persona that runs through these songs are captured by "My angels ain’t got no halos, my angels ain’t got wings, they got on too much mascara, they’re wearing diamond rings" A special artist with either a skewed view of the universe or just pure originality in the song-writing. I choose the latter. A very impressive release and highly recommended. 

Susan Cattaneo The Hammer & the Heart Jerseygirl

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

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

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


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Moot Davis Hierarchy Of Crows Self Release

This is the fifth Moot Davis album release since his Pete Anderson produced debut in 2004 (not counting an album he put out prior to that to sell at gigs). It is another link in the chain of work from an artist who always delivers something special through his work. At least it is special to me. His combination of traditional country influences blended with the better moments of hard rock and vintage rockabilly always manages to entertain and excite. Doing so in a way that the majority of mainstream country doesn’t. Even when he rocks out the music never loses sight of the roots from which it sprung. Like any artist who’s been around awhile Moot Davis is constantly adapting and realising his overall sound.

This album was recorded in California over a period of time and was produced by Davis with Jody Sappington and Blake Oswald. His previous albums were produced by renowned guitarist/producers Kenny Vaughan and the aforementioned Pete Anderson. This time out Storm Rhodes IV is the noted string bender who can deliver some tight twang as easily as some telling tones of distortion - as the songs and mood requires. Other players here include Ted Russell Kamp on bass, Skip Edwards on keyboards and guitar, Gary Morse on dobro and pedal steel and co-producer Blake Oswald on drums, so there’s no doubting the talent involved.

Moot Davis has always been an interesting writer taking what are the universal themes of love and its manifestations as the subject matter of many of these songs. The album opens in a hard rock mode with hard guitar and heavy drums and a distorted vocal. Here Comes The Destroyer is centered on a man who is out to wreak havoc. This is followed by a song with a strong incisive guitar riff. Quite As Well As You Lie takes a similar hard man attitude. While Shot Down In Flames has a loose Stones-ish Exile groove.

What’s The Matter With Me and You’re Gonna Win (I’m Gonna Cry) are a link back to the Davis of yore with pedal steel guitar and twang guitar reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam's early output and these diverse moods are all held together by a strong vocal presence and attitude. The title track takes a moodier path with dobro and an oblique lyric. Another stand-out is the closing Hemophiliac Of Love. Is back to where we came in with a hard rocking Zeppelin-style riff and intense vocal refrain of “blood clots, love stops.”

It is natural that an artist will grow and change their music. Sometimes this is welcome other times not. With this artist I’m on board as the core of the music is coming from a similar place and seems a natural diversity that works in the hierarchy of things.

Jeremy Pinnell Ties Of Blood And Affection Sofaburn

There has been a lot of anticipation for this new album from Jeremy Pinnell following on from the much acclaimed debut OH/KY. The Cincinnati singer has seen a fair amount of blood on the floor while looking to find the kind of affection that everyone needs and seeks. This album affirms Pinnell as a genuine contender, and in truth, more honest to goodness traditional country music minded that either Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell. Nothing against those two gentlemen who are producing great music themselves.

These songs ring with truth and a sense that they come from within. Feel This Right is a testament to how way that love sometimes sneaks up on us and brings us to a place that just feels right. Different Kind Of Love is a reaffirmation of finding that there is a deeper, different kind of love that has the potential to be worth the fight to keep holding onto. These songs are not superficial love songs but ones that feel true. 

Best I Could Do is about being true to oneself and when standing before one’s maker declaring that the way you lived was honestly the best you could do. However Ain’t Nothing Wrong considers a lifestyle that might possibly point you in the opposite direction. Contemplation of afterlife and the consequences of the way one took life’s paths is the also the theme of the closing song The Way We See Heaven. It includes the telling line that in “19 hundred and seventy seven my Mama thought I came from Heaven … later in life she knew I came from Hell.” Affirmation of a life that has taken Pinnell through many situations that have informed these songs with no little grit and gravel.

What is central to the whole album is Pinnell’s contribution as songwriter, singer and co-producer - all of which are excellent. Mention also must be made of the players involved from steel player Cameron Cochran’s vital input alongside Brad Myers guitar and bass and Adam Nurre drumming and Bob Nave’s keyboards. Mike Montgomery co-produced the album which was recorded in Dayton, Kentucky. Far away from the prying eyes of any music executives who might have been present if the album was a major label project. Though it would be great to see Pinnell receive the kind of promotion that that position would bring. No doubt a contender for one of the albums of the year.

Amber Cross Savage On The Downhill Self Release

The title of the album is not an Irish opinion of one’s ability to ride a bike down a steep slope but rather a reference to how you would hold a rifle, Savage is a brand of hunting rifle, so as not to drag the barrel in the dirt. It is an indication of Cross’ affinity with land and lifestyle (as well as hunting). Something that informs the album’s songs as well as its title. Cross lives in Northern California but grew up in Maine so place and landscape inevitably seep in the songs. Those songs are a mix of folk and country. Storytelling that encompasses a direct form as well as, at times, a more poetic vision. Looking at the lives of those who may have drifted apart as in Leaving Again or the lifestyle of Tracy Joe in the windblown song of that name.

At the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko Nevada she met Chuck Hawthorne who in turn introduced her to Ray Bonneville who ended up producing this album in Austin. That location gave her access to a number of notable players such as Tim O’Brien, Gurf Morlix, Mike Hardwick and Dave Carroll. Seasoned and expressive players who do much to add a texture that has enhanced the songs greatly. But it is Cross’s voice (and songs) that are the heart of the album. She has a distinctive raw-boned voice that has distinctive phrasing and clear diction. There have been references to Iris DeMent as a vocal comparison and that is valid though Cross’ is less dividing in terms of liking and disliking her vocal presence.

There are a number of story songs on the album which opens with Pack Of Lies. A song that has a strong melody and a hardened sense of living “… I pray life is going to get easier” but qualifying that view with something more open “wish I could heal your broken heart.” The sense of troubled relationship is again highlighted in the line “did you think I’d stay here in your nightmare dream” from the title song. In Echoes that despair is central to the relationship of the couple who had raised two kids to find “Tell me again just why are we still together. Lying next to you I never felt so alone.” These snippets of the songs may suggest an album that is unrelentingly dark but overall though the lyrics are taken from some hard places the music has a sense of life and is upbeat overall. Cross has written these songs mainly solo. The title was co-written with her producer who also provided Lone Freighter’s Wall 

This is Cross’ third album and places her among the best independent women making roots music today. Making real music for real people. 

Rick Shea & The Losin’ End The Town Where I Live Tres Pescadores

It is good to hear a new release from Rick Shea. He is a distinctive singer, solid songwriter as a well as talented producer and skilled player. He is joined by his band of multi-instrumentalist Stephen Patt on guitars and keyboards, Bassist Dave Hall and drummer Steve Mugalian as well as some other guests. The songs have the feel of traditional storytelling. For instance, The Road To Jericho, The Starkville Blues or The Angel Mary and The Rounder Jim feel like they are the synopsis of some gritty, low-life B movie.

As with most of Shea’s albums there is a mix of blues, roots and country on offer. It is Shea’s warm, life-experienced vocal that provides much of the album’s individuality. The songs are all originals bar a Holleyesque/Bo Diddley rhythm underpinned upbeat version of Cowboy Jack Clement’s Guess Things Happen That Way which also features Shea’s pedal steel playing. He also plays dobro, mandolin, baritone as well as acoustic and electric guitars. Instruments he has played with a range of artists including the likes of Dave Alvin. Further showing, along with the rest of the band, an understanding of the music and traditions used in the creation of their own music.

Shea has been a part of the California country scene for some years where he continues to reside and perform. He does so with an ease that belies his talent as a conceptual all rounder. This is an understand master class in how to play roots music that, while it conforms to set parameters, manages to entertain and enlighten you in a way that feels good. Something that shows you the ethos and value of the music you’re listening to.  

My Darling Clementine Still Testifying CRS

Still testifying to the power of the music made by husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish under the My Darling Clementine banner. This time out they have added a soupçon of soul to the classic country stylings. What immediately stands out is the subtlety and certainty of their vocals. Better here arguably than on any previous albums. They have now reached a place where the male/female interaction could easily be listed with the best duos of the past. 

They have co-produced this album with Neil Brockbank, who worked closely with Nick Lowe and recently with Jim Lauderdale on his London Southern album. He sadly passed away recently and will be greatly missed by both the musicians who he worked with as well as those who were the beneficiaries of the music he produced. They gathered together a fine crew of players to give, excuse the pun, it’s soul.  They included guitarist Martin Belmont, Alan Cook on pedal steel, Kevin Foster on bass, Bob Loveday on violin and Geraint Watkins on keyboards among a host of brass players as well as being joined by their daughter Mabel Dalgleish-King. 

The songs, which again mix humour and pathos, deal with fictional relationships of married and unmarried couples. These are written with a skill and sensitivity that gives them a lasting and meaningful resonance. Indeed those who have followed King’s solo career will know he is a seasoned writer who has made some outstanding albums in the past (as has Dalgleish). There are songs here from both, including Dalgleish’s Eugene - a song that is about the town in Oregon as well as a person. She also penned a song that lyrically relates to another point of view to that of the central figure in Dolly Parton’s classic in Jolene’s Story. Another stand-out that takes a hard look from a feminine perspective is Just A WomanFriday Night, Tulip Hotel is a King song that was previously featured in their collaboration with Mark Billingham. The Other Half is a great example of the cheating song that used to be a big part of the county music cannon way back.  Tear Stained Smile has an underlying darkness about a dying relationship. “A heart of marble, a face of stone, That’s what I’ve come to own” are lines that could have come from any renowned real country songwriter in the past. 

That this album was produced and played in the UK is, in itself, a testament to the fact that world class roots music is being made in these Isles and so should not be simply seen as a good album from this side of the pond but a great album period.

Mo Pitney Behind This Guitar Curb

Something of a throwback to the new traditionalist country movement of the late 80s and early 90s Mo Pitney is no outlaw. Rather he is a fairly clean-cut straight-up country singer and songwriter who writes largely about love. Love of place (Come Do A Little Life), of a special girl (Clean Up On Aisle Five), of country music and its sensibilities (Country)and of Merle Haggard (I Met Merle Haggard Today). This album was a long time waiting to come out but was finally released last year and is getting a push gain now as Pitney is playing dates in the UK. Although the has been no news of a new product if you go to his site it lists the album as sold out!

But back to the music, this is undoubtedly country music and as solid as pretty much anyone would recognise. The production by veteran Tony Brown (for the most part) is entirely in sympathy with the overall mood of the album. The songwriting is a selection of co-writes between Pitney and such notable scribes as Bill Anderson, Dean Dillon, David Lee Murphy and Don Sampson. There are two tracks that Pitney had no hand in. The closing Give Me Jesus - which has an obvious sentiment from its totally non-ironic title and Behind This Guitar which is a story of many a seeker looking for his chance to get behind a microphone and make the music they might love.

The musicians involved are equally well chosen to emulate a sound that is part early George Strait with a little Randy Travis thrown in. Chris Leuzunger, Richard Bennett, Glenn Worf, Aubrey Haynie and Gary Morse (among others) fully understand what is required and deliver. It is not though something that will surprise or excite in the way that some may. But I feel that’s not quite the point of the process. It was an album made to remind people of what country music should sound like from an artist who also loved his influences and the music he grew up with. It is solid, safe and satisfying. The real question is where Pitney will go from here. Unfortunately he didn’t make the impact that some hoped but in doing what he does he has made some fans who would be more than happy for him to repeat the process - to stand behind his guitar again and sing.

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