Entries in Birds of Chicago (2)

Thursday
Oct192017

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Malojian Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home Rollercoaster

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

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

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

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

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

Dovecote Self-Titled Self Release

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

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

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

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

Levi Parham An Okie Opera CRS

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

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

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

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

Birds of Chicago Real Midnight Five Head 

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

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

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

Caroline Spence Spades & Roses Tone Tree

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

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

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

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

Michaela Anne Bright Lights & The Fame Kingswood

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

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

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

Saturday
Mar082014

Birds of Chicago 'Live From Space' - Self-Release

Birds of Chicago, is a collective based around JT Nero and Allison Russell. Whether touring as a duo or with a full band, Nero and Russell have emerged as two of the most compelling new voices in North American Roots music. This live recording is a debut offering by Birds of Chicago and has been getting rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album is certainly impressive with the playing and singing of the highest quality. I have known of Allison Russell for her excellent track record as a member of Po Girl while the name of JT Nero is new to me. Their voices complement each other beautifully across the seventeen tracks here and it is a brave attempt to release a live recording as a debut. However, the risk is well worth taking and we are served up with a compelling and vibrant recording that leaves you feeling like you missed out on a special night.

There is a celebratory abandon to the performances and I am reminded of Maria McKee and Lone Justice as a reference point. With keyboard swells and piano progressions all wrapped up tight by some literate guitar explorations, the intense and passionate vocal delivery of songs like All the City Girls and I Have Heard Words really take proceedings to a higher level.

The sexy flirtation of the Latin groove, Sans Souci, is instantly appealing while the blues infused Nobody Wants to be Alone, Nobody Wants to Die steals the show here with a compelling performance from the two lead musicians Nero and Russell. Heady stuff and warmly delivered.