I immediately took to Wylie when he appeared on CMT (when it was available), as he was the only country singer I knew who wore glasses. He also made great traditionally inspired country music, from his first release back in 1992 to Song of the Horse which is his 21st. Wylie is a prolific writer and his songs have graced his albums since day one. He is also a distinctive and recognisable singer whose voice has matured and grown through the years and is an immediately comfortable presence.
Wylie’s band, the Wild West, have changed personnel through the years, but have always provided an appropriate backing for him. Wylie Gustafson balances his music with his ranch work and horses and it gives his songs an authenticity that few others can offer. He brings a genuine western feel to his music that manages to avoid the corniness that is sometimes inherent with some cowboy music. This album is a heartfelt tribute to the horse and its place in the life of the working cowboy and ranch hand. The 21 songs on the album all feature that noble animal as a central part of the songs. Yet that specific subject matter in no way distracts from the enjoyment of the album, the songs could easily have been love songs (they are in themselves - but you know what I mean), or any of the other staples of good country music.
Gustafson has had a hand in writing all but one of the songs on the album (though I thought that Goodbye Old Paint was an older song) and manages to make each sound unique by ringing the changes in the way they are played and the moods they evoke. Some have a south of the border feel, others are more acoustic in tone, while some are more fiddle and lap steel orientated. Other songs rock and what appears to be a jaws harp and an electric sitar even make an appearance. All highlight the skill and understanding of the current Wild West band’s playing ability. All in all the album passes its hour plus running time without ever feeling that it is over-extending its welcome.
There are some real stand out songs like the two Paul Zarzyski co-writes; A Pony Called Love and Saddle Broncs and Sagebrush, but there is much to admire here and different songs will grow in favour depending on repeated listening and your mood. Although this is an album rooted in traditional country, Wylie never makes the music seem stuck in the past; rather, like its subject matter, Song of the Horse is a living, breathing and enduring entity. Song of the Horse is among the best of the albums that Wylie and his Wild West have produced and it is a testament to music that is made for all the right reasons.
The husband and wife duo of Pete and Maura Kennedy have been plying their trade for some time now and this, their latest album, finds them making music in peak form. An essentially self contained unit of multi-instrumentalist Pete and guitarist/vocalist Maura, although they do feature some guests on two tracks, but otherwise it’s all them. The sound here is classic folk rock with hints of 60’s west coast of USA and of UK bands of that era such as Trees. The main difference is that they don’t delve into the vast catalogue of traditional folk songs, rather they write the songs themselves. They do go to outside sources for John Stewart’s The Queen Of Hollywood High and Records member John Wicks’ Perfect Love.
Maura Kennedy’s Signs, replete with electric sitar, highlights her crystal-clear voice and the duo’s sense of melody and mastery of a quintessential essence of their own direction. The bulk of the lead vocals are handled by Maura but Pete takes the occasional lead on songs such as his Jubilee Time. His voice may not have the resonance of Maura’s, but does the job well. Sisters of the Road celebrates the female voice, while the title track is a paean to musical influences that sent them on a journey heading west. Southern Jumbo has a strong country twang that is a delight and recalls the time in the 80s when mainstream country wasn’t all pop and hair rock influenced. It recalls childhood, big guitars and Johnny Cash.
A short story by B.D. Love inspired Black Snake, White Snake to the extent that Love is given a writing credit. It has the duality of good and evil represented by two snakes as its subject. The electric sitar is central to its supernatural dreamscape. Bodhisattva Blues imagines Doc Watson and American mythologist Joseph Campbell exchanging ideas and ideals for a songwriting session. The penultimate songs are the two covers. The Queen of Hollywood High features the late Stewart’s band and is a solid groove in Southern California mode. Perfect Love is a Byrdsish flight of harmony vocals and 12 string guitars. The closing track could well sum up the album overall. Good, Better, Best might suggest their musical development and this album could easily be argued to fit that latter word.
The Stone Hill All-Stars are seasoned crew of players who play a tasty mix of roots fusion music that displays their collective skills from Paul Margolis’ songwriting and vocal prowess to the tight playing of the band and their guests. This is emphasised by the fact that the entire album was recorded live in the studio. It was committed to tape in a single afternoon session which requires a deep understanding of each other’s abilities and a solid knowledge of the songs themselves.
Margolis is joined by guitarist Tim Pruitt, bassist and saxophonist Dan Nainman with Hoppy Hopkins on drums and John Shock on keyboards and accordion as well as vocals. Collectively they make a sound that is immediately full of juke-joint jubilance, loose limbed jazz, border reggae and old world rhythmic rock ’n’ roll. This is a sound that gets feet tapping and suggests that they are the perfect band to cut a rug or two to. These are players who each bring a wealth of experience to bear on the songs and a host of different influences that has them described as ‘the Pogues but with polka’. Not strictly accurate but I see the comparison, especially on the accordion led songs. Another cross reference has been to Ry Cooder which, in truth, might give a clearer picture of the eclectic nature of the overall sound.
This is the band’s third album and one that shows them to be musicians playing music for the joy it brings them rather than as any career move. Several members of the band were previously in The Polkats, a similarly minded collective, and they are in it for the long haul. Songs such as Out Across the Frozen Lake, Jones et al v Petrie and Away all evoke images based on the lyrics that are well enhanced by the music. The All-Stars take them beyond just being words over the music, rather they are something more precise and perceptive. They are many reasons that suggest that The Stone Hill All-Stars will have a wider appeal than just a self-released album; this Baltimore band have made an album well worth checking out.
Brothers in arms rather than siblings, this Mobile, Alabama quartet have Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin producing this, their second album. A bass, drums, guitar and violin/mandolin is the lineup that is bolstered by some strong vocals. The lead vocal is from Ross Newell while the other members Ben Meininger, Gram Rea and Greg Deluca all add their vocals to create a solid, warm sound. Newell is also the main songwriter.
Their sound has been honed by numerous live shows and was polished by Berlin in the studio, who took that role having heard and admired the band’s debut release. Berlin brings experience and understanding to these Americana-styled songs, giving them additional range and nuance. Rather than home-record they used as professional studio, which accounts for the overall depth found in the album’s songs and sound.
Many of these tracks have a strong storyline that fits with the mood of melancholy on songs like Calamine, the tale of a gun of that name that seems to have a will of its own; one that ultimately leads to death. Louise is tale of love sought but not found with a girl of that name. Between those points of love and death the other songs tell their own short stories in a way that is often more uplifting than the subject matter might suggest.
This quartet is honing their sound and aiming to bring their music to a wider audience via touring and through their albums. They are not unique in terms of an overall roots sound and are equally not about breaking new barriers. What they do, they do well and with this album that have found a sound that they can develop and build upon. It is one forged in honest expression, something that is often lost in the search for wider commercial success. But for the Mulligan Brothers, they can go via Portland to wherever their music takes them and they will make many friends along the way.