Tuesday
Jul292014

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tuesday
Jul292014

Jonny Two Bags 'Salvation Town' – Isotone

Jonny Wickersham is a member of the current incarnation of Social Distortion, and like founder and fellow guitarist Mike Ness, he shares a love of roots-rock music along with his punk sensibilities. Under his stage name of Jonny Two Bags, Wickersham has released this solo album which is full of captivating songwriting and thoughtful singing.

With co-producer David Kelish Wickersham has gathered a striking collection of musicians to join him on his journey to Salvation Town. Included are members of Social Distortion and luminaries such as Jackson Browne who adds harmony vocals on There You Stand Alone. Browne sideman, veteran guitarist David Lindley adds his guitar and fiddle skills to some tracks and Grez Leisz adds  steel and slide guitar. Also present is Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas with Joel Guzman who plays some atmospheric accordion, an instrument that sets the tone for a lot of the album and gives a heated border feel to songs like Clay Wheels and Avenues. Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos bring their distinctive tone to the album which in many ways has its roots in the LA scene of the Eighties when bands like Los Lobos, X, The Blasters and Rank & File shared stages.

The album is not a replay of that era, but picks the spirit that saw bands absorb a lot of  influences and channel them into something new that had enormous vitality. This is what Jonny Two Bags has done here and done it in some style. His songs deal with the vernacular of relationships that can lead to being alone or just trying to find your way in the world or looking at the polar opposites that pull your life in different directions, as with album opener One Foot In The Gutter, a co-write with Pete Thomas.

There is a muscular mien to much of the music but there are moments that have a softer edge and show Wickersham’s versatility as a vocalist. Alone Tonight is one such evocative moment on what is a rewarding and rejuvenating record. Salvation Town should find favour with those who enjoyed Mike Ness’ two solo albums and who like their roots music to be played by someone who wants to deliver their best means of gaining some salvation - musically at least!

Tuesday
Jul292014

The Secret Sisters 'Put Your Needle Down' - Republic/Universal

Your response to this long delayed second album will depend on whether you’re a fan of the stripped down duo live with just their two voices and one guitar,  or if you’re a fan of the production work of T-Bone Burnett. Burnett was the executive producer of the sister’s debut album which was a relatively restrained affair of mostly covers songs that didn’t diverge a great deal from sources. Here the duo are surrounded by many different sonic layers, with lots of percussion and guitars behind a high quotient of self or co-written songs.

Rattle My Bones lives up to its title, but the music settles down for the next song Iuka, written by Laura and Lydia with Dan Wilson. Elsewhere they co-write with seasoned writers Gordie Sampson, Brandi Carlile and Angelo Petraglia , also adding additional lyrics to Dirty Lie, written by Bob Dylan , but unfinished until now. This has a real atmosphere pertaining to the telling of untruths, tarnished ones at that.

Some of Burnett’s usual crew are present such as guitarist Marc Ribot, who is joined on some down-home dirty guitar by Gurf Morlix. T-Bone hits the strings too on several songs over a robust rhythmic base from (though not exclusively) drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Zachary Dawes. Once you acquaint yourself with this more complex musical setting, the sister’s harmonies slowly emerge from the backing to firmly establish themselves as a key factor in the overall sound. When the music is less forceful the girls deliver some great vocals, as on Let There be Lonely, one of their co-writes, as is the more 50s oriented sound of Black and Blue. That era is also referred to on Boudleaux Bryant’s Lonely Island which has a nice string arrangement in the background of its tropical-tinged scene setting.

The album overall is, in truth, a logical progression for the sisters as developing writers and with some living to take into account which brings their music to something new. Another co-write is the kiss-off karma of Good Luck, Good Night, Goodbye, which is a highlight here with their close harmonies perfectly delivering the punchline. The album closes with the up-tempo spiritual song River Jordan, which was part of their live set the last time they played here.

It is a good note on which to close a strong album which may please all their fans, but it is likely to bring some new ones to the fold. One can only hope there won’t be such a delay with the next record. It will be interesting to see where the sisters take their music if they are left to their own devices. But for now put the needle down anywhere on this album and enjoy.

Tuesday
Jul292014

Petunia 'Inside of You' - Trapline

A new album by Petunia, the charismatic Canadian country celebrant, is always something to look forward to. This time out he takes the sole album billing, though his band the Vipers are present among a sterling line-up of musicians. Vipers Jimmy Roy on lap steel and guitarist Stephen Nikleva are joined by some of Vancouver’s finest, including Paul Rigby (who played with Petunia on his debut album), JP Carter on trumpet, Kathleen Nisbet on violin and Frank Fairfield on a number of vintage styled instruments and  pump organ. All add much to the flavouring of these songs which incorporate elements of traditional country, rockabilly, swing, blues, folk and jazz to create something both original and special.

 

The album opens with the express rhythmic twang of Runaway Freight Train Heart. It begins a journey over twelve tracks that take in a wide variety of musical stops. All are centred around Petunia’s inventive writing and idiosyncratic vocal style. There’s  jazz trumpet on Forgotten Melody. The paean to two wheel travel Bicycle Song is a tight song with lap steel and guitar. More stripped back again is Holy Budge Winters which is just acoustic with steel, violin and pump organ on the strange tale of Budge. It is a perfect example of Petunia’s individual and idiosyncratic vocal delivery that makes him immediately identifiable and special.

Further down the line there is a love song in Lucille and the intimate title track that is just Petunia and his acoustic guitar which is more than enough to give the song its heart. Things kick up again with The One Thing with guitars and trumpet topping the focused rhythm section, which is solid throughout. Gunned Down is a sombre balled of imminent death delivered in a suitable musical setting. They Almost Had Me Believing is another song with attitude, while the album closes with Teardrops Rolling, a song that bookends the album with a twangy tone that relates back to the last album as well as to the opening track and to the idea of moving on. There is an additional unnamed track at the end of the album whose subject is difficult to define as it’s not sung in English but has a nice relaxed jazzy feel to it.

The songs are all credited to R. Fortugno, which is the name that can be found on Petunia’s legal documents, but his nom-de-plume Petunia suits him best. He certainly flowers on this album. He co-produced the album with Phil Sgriccia and it has a rich warm and diverse sound that is filled with quirky elements that are peculiar to Petunia. If you’re coming from the Rascal Flatts or even Garth Brooks perspective, then it’s likely that Petunia is not the one for you. But anyone who likes something a bit more intrinsically interesting, whose genesis is in the broad based music of earlier times, will find that  this music may take some time to get to know its inspirations and intentions, but then it will be inside of you too and have you coming back for more.

Tuesday
Jul292014

Bruce Robison/Kelly Willis 'Our Year' - Thirty Tigers

The Austin-based married couple are back with their second joint album. Both have released some excellent solo albums in the past,  but here combine their talents on an album that is warm and welcome. The opening song Departing Louisiana has some understated dobro under the voices on a song that talks of the draw that that particular state holds. Motor City Man is one that talks about the motor industry or lack of it and its effect on a working man. Carousel, written by Robison and Darden Smith, has a gentle touch with pedal steel and fiddle that is centred around the notion of impermanence of relationships on occasion. Willis wrote the next song Lonely For You with Paul Kennerley and it immediately takes you back to the early solo albums that Willis released With Kennerley’s Holly-esque overtones it’s an immediately likeable song. Robison takes the lead on the ballad Hanging On that features a nice string arrangement from producer Brad Jones, on a classic well sung song. 

T-Bone Burnett wrote Shake Yourself Loose on a heartbreak ballad, again underpinned by tear-filled steel guitar. Willis and Robison tackle the classic Tom T. Hall song Harper Valley PTA next, and while they don’t displace the original, Willis gives another vibrant vocal performance that makes this version fit the overall context of the album with a more down-home back porch feel than the original Jeannie C. Riley version of this small town melodrama about hypocrites. Waggoneer Monte Warden co-wrote Anywhere but Here with Robison, another song that talks of finding a better situation, a better place to live. I’ll go to My Grave Loving You is a harmony-laden duet that professes love at the highest level. The album closes with another cover; this time it sets the tone for a couple growing together and over coming adversity with This Will Be Our Year

Recorded in Nashville, the album features players of the calibre of Pete Finney and Geoff Queen on steel guitar, Eamon McLaughlin on strings,  John Ludwick on upright bass and Fred Eltringham on drums - but no lead guitar player,  something that gives the sound a softer edge overall. The acoustic guitar duties are handled by Robison, but as you’d expect, it is the two seasoned singers who are the spice here. This is a solidly old school, country style album. It not only serves as a solid album in its own right, but is a reminder of the great work that both artists have produced in the past and will continue to do in the future.