Thursday
Apr282016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid



Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst I Feel Like I’ve Got Snakes in My Head  Silent City

This mini-album opens with a spaghetti western-styled instrumental titled For a Few Dollars Less and thus wears its influences on its sleeve. Guitar and keyboards shoot it out over a galloping rhythm, but it represents one aspect of Los Angeles based Steven Casper, a veteran of several bands before he put his name upfront, along with that of his regular band. They have released several previous EPs, as well as full length albums which attest to Cowboy Angst being a seasoned band.

Casper fronts the four piece, which is largely American/roots orientated, combining elements of country-rock, blues, folk and straight ahead rock. Restless Heart, Maria, Slow Dancing, She’s Bad and Driving Fast are all written by Casper. He has a distinctive voice, full of character which holds attention. The band and producer Ira Ingber have taken a slightly different tack with each song. Maria has strong a Tex-Mex influence with a featured repeated organ riff and conjunto accordion, while Slow Dancing is a piano and slide guitar-lead ballad that exudes a certain tenderness. Driving Fast appears in two versions, first in a Canned Heat style straight-ahead rock riff take and the second version, designated as the “4AM” version, is more acoustic with guitar, accordion and tambourine. It is the song from which the title line comes and shows how easily a song can be adapted to a different setting or mood, and work equally well, depending on how one wants to frame a particular story.

This is an accomplished band led by Casper, whose voice and songs probably have a strong following in California and beyond as their back catalogue attests. Equally they are not making music that hasn’t been heard before or is going to take you by surprise. They are a tight, focussed and talent unit whose songs and performances should guarantee them their place and piece of the pie.

Spicewood Seven Still Mad  Phoebe Claire 

This collective released their debut album in 2006 titled Kakistocracy. They were led by lyricist Luke Powers and Austin musical stalwart Tommy Spurlock and included the likes of Leon Rausch and Garth Hudson in the line up. All four are here with the latter pair appearing together on the song The Magic Bullet. They are joined by the likes of Suzi Ragsdale and a solid rhythm section. The songs are all written by Powers and Spurlock. The latter is the album’s producer and the two handle the vocal on a series of songs that are not without their bite and pose a polemic reaction to their immediate surroundings both personal and political. 

The previous album was rooted in the Bush era. That era may have changed, in terms of the names, but Power and Spurlock still aren’t too happy with what they see, hence the title of this new set of songs. These songs represent a different viewpoint from many in country music, apart from well know dissenters like Steve Earle. The titles pretty much give you an idea of the overriding lyrical themes expressed: I Live with The Devil, Hey Idiot (a song about some sound parental advice), Broke, Dumb It Down as well as the more reasoned and open consideration that People Are Basically Good. The final song The Magic Bullet is a reference to the theory of the single bullet theory associated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Not normally a subject heard to the backing of a steel guitar-led country band.

Recorded in Nashville, the Spicewood Seven prove themselves to be a united team who play the songs with a conviction that suggests they are all behind the sentiments expressed. The overall sound is edgy country rock, with both Spurlock and Powers handling the vocal duties with ease. The songs are not exactly designed for superficial listening and with no lyric sheet they require engagement to connect with them. Given all that, this will appeal to a certain frame of (open) mind and those who like things a little rough and ready. Let’s hope they’re still mad enough to do another album. No doubt the political climate will provide inspiration in the coming months and years.

Daniel Meade & the Flying Mules  Let Me Off At The Bottom  At the Helm

This is the latest album from the Glasgow singer/songwriter Daniel Meade and is the follow up to the Nashville-recorded, Morgan Jahnig produced album Keep Right Away. It is a tribute to Meade’s regular band; Lloyd Reid, Mark Ferrie and Thomas Sutherland, with guests. It sounds as good as that previous album both in songs and performance. Jahnig was again involved, as he did the mix in Nashville. Otherwise it was recorded in Glasgow.

The rhythm section is tight, Reid is a damn fine guitarist and there is some great piano playing throughout. Meade is an especially convincing vocalist and writer and the whole album could easily have emanated from the Americana community in Austin or East Nashville.

There’s a Ghost Where Her Heart Used to Be and Ghost and Crocodiles have an energy that is contagious. Meade can also keep the pace down as with the regretful “what could have been” He Should’ve Mine where Meade gives a passionate and perfectly suited vocal that fully conveys the emotion in the song. The title track is a cautionary tale about wanting to stay away from the dubious dizzy heights of success, another song that shows just how talented this crew is. That mood of an uncompleted relationship is further enunciated in Leave Me to Bleed, which features a strong guest vocal from Siobhan Wilson. These and other unresolved and unrequited factors of an unhappy life reach a conclusion in the final track of the self-explanatory The Bottle Called for Me 

The overall feel draws from an earlier era which blends hillbilly, swing, blues and folk, but sounds like a living, breathing, hard-kicking iteration of a timeless musical form which might only require water, or something stronger, to grow. Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules have made a very fine album that proves again that the roots of this music lie (partly) in these isles and is as much at home here as it would be in Tennessee.  

The Chapin Sisters Today’s Not Yesterday  Lake Bottom

While male sibling harmonies are fairly prevalent, there are not that many sister duos in recent times. Nieces of the late Harry Chapin, the Chapin sisters, Abigail and Lily, are releasing their 4th full length album. Their previous album was a tribute to the Everlys that didn’t get as much attention as the one by Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong.

The Chapins are dressed for the cover with white dresses and cowboy hats, and the album has a certain country-rock flavour, among other styles. What is foremost is their voices, either singing together in harmony or with one or other taking lead vocal - a very attractive sound it has to be said. The production, with Dan Horne and Jesse Lee, makes effective use of those voices over a layered musical setting that includes keyboards, bass and drums  (Horn and Lee respectively)  as well as pedal steel on three tracks and some judicious use of electric guitar here and there. 

The overall feel is of a slightly dreamy county/folk/pop; a sound that insinuates itself and allows the listener the chance to luxuriate in the music. The sisters have written all 12 songs on the album, with one co-write, and they show skill in that area too. Love Come Back, Autumn, Angeleno, Sleep In, and Waiting are all examples of this. The sound is fairly similar throughout and doesn’t vary a great deal, but that enhances the album nature of the music, where one tracks follows in tone from the next without showing up anything that seems out of place. Today is not yesterday, but tomorrow holds a future for these two talented and visually aware sisters and their music.

Underhill Rose The Great Tomorrow  Self-Release

With The Great Tomorrow the trio of Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Sally Williamson release their latest album of their folk/bluegrass/pop and country infused music. It has ten songs written by the individual members, plus one outside track. It is centred on their vocal harmonies. They usual have one of the trio take the lead vocal, generally the song’s writer, with the others adding close harmonies. 

The country connection is emphasised by Matt Smith’s pedal steel guitar, which is featured prominently, as is Nicky Saunders’ violin. The album’s producer, Cruz Contreras, adds guitar and keyboards to the sound. Williamson plays bass with a drummer to create a solid and effective rhythm section. Undersell and Rose add guitar, banjo which along with the upright bass give the core sound it’s folk and bluegrass centre, around which the other instruments help to embellish the particular song’s mood.

Although all three contribute as solo writers, the overall theme of love and relationships blend together. And while the album plays together well, there are a couple of songs that stand out in terms of immediate connection. They include Rest Easy, which has a livelier pace and is given some distinction by a Dobro. Elliott Wolff’s Straight Up is essentially just the band with a drummer and the stripped back arrangement works well. Not Gonna Worry pairs banjo and steel together and gives the two instruments equal prominence.

The Great Tomorrow should have appeal and it expands from what I imagine is the normal live trio’s acoustic setting. There is nothing too demanding here. It is all very understated and that is both a strength and a weakness. However Underhill Rose will continue to grow the fan base to a listening audience. 

Murder Murder From The Stillhouse  Self-Release

Think along the lines of punk-infused old-time music, Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions and a touch of the Pogues and you might have an approximate idea of what this 6 piece band sound like. They are an Ontario-based acoustic band and this is their second album of original songs, the one exception being a spirited version of Guy Clark’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad.

Three of the band share vocal duties, offering different styles, and they all lead the choruses over rambunctious rhythms and dexterous playing. Some of the songs have an immediate affinity with age-old traditional songs, which is a testament to their commitment to bring life into a style that has been around a long time and needs the occasional kick in the arse. Murder Murder are not the only band doing this by any means, but on their own terms, they may be one of the best.

There are some stand-out performances on the album including the environmentally-themed Where the Water Runs Black. Duck Cove is a song about the sailing life and suggests that these guys could easily play a pirate party. They can also calm things down to good effect on the spiritual quest pondered in When the Lord Calls Your Name. Alberta Oil is a song about an oil worker’s journey through a hard working life to death. The Last Gunfighter Ballad sounds in good hands too with Murder Murder making it sound like a song for the ages.

They sound like a band well worth seeing live and they are touring the UK and Ireland in May. If you can’t make it along, then check this album. It has a lot going for it and while it has precedents it has colour and power. Despite the dark name and intent, the band look pretty colourful in the main picture on their website - maybe to balance out the murder ballads they play. Check them out.

Monday
Apr182016

Reviews by Paul McGee

Matt Andersen Honest Man Self Release

Matt Andersen is an award-winning Canadian blues guitarist who hails from New Brunswick.  He’s been playing his blend of blue-collar folk, electric blues and roots rock for many years. Honest Man, produced in New York with Commissioner Gordon (Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Santana, Quincy Jones), follows the JUNO Award-nominated Weightless and sees Anderson breaking new ground without losing his signature sound. 

Anderson is blessed with a rich gospel/soul voice and here he uses a cast of players that includes Andy Bassford (Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Natalie Merchant), Benji Bouton (Ibibio Sound Machine), Josh David Barret (The Wailers, Lauryn Hill), and Lenny Underwood (Mary J. Blige, Amy Winehouse).  Using beats in the tracking gives the songs a real groove and swing that carries the arrangements along and gives an overall feel of good times had by all in the studio sessions.

The ten songs that make up Honest Man explore both the political and the personal wrapped up by his powerful vocal delivery which is filled with emotion on songs such as Last Surrender and I’m giving In. Let’s Get Back talks about how daily life has changed and the need to be an inclusive and open in society again. Who Are You Listening To? is a call for people to think for themselves and not be swung by a media message. Break Away is a song to remind us that sometimes a change of scenery is all we need. 

With a 2013 European Blues Award, and winning Best Solo Performer at the Memphis Blues Challenge, it appears that the wider world is waking up to Matt Andersen. He has built a fan base through relentless touring and  his reputation has built steadily through word of mouth. This is a fine honest blues record played with style and plenty of heart. It comes recommended and this artist is certainly one to watch.

Gem Andrews Vancouver Self Release

Andrews was born in Liverpool and is currently based in Berlin. This is her second release, which  has its roots in the time she spent in Vancouver learning her craft of song-writing and performance. Vancouver is produced by Martin Stephenson, who also plays and adds harmonies on several tracks. The songs are very much in the folk tradition and conjure up images of lost innocence and the disappointment that life can bring. 

Andrews has assembled a fine band of musicians, with the fiddle playing of Bernard Wright particularly prominent, which adds real colour to the arrangements with some atmospheric melody lines. Her voice is clear and strong as she delivers songs about family memories (Your Father’s Diary), lack of hope (Dead Weight) ageing and role-reversal (Mother Dear), longing (Crimson Tide) and broken relationships (Please Forget Me/ Ten Thousand More). She also covers the McGarrigle’s Heart like a Wheel. The production is airy and bright throughout which gives us an album that is full of excellent interplay and gentle reflections.   

Jason Rosenblatt Wiseman’s Rag Self Release

This is an intersting take on roots, blues and early jazz, featuring producer, pianist, vocalist and harmonica player, Jason Rosenblatt, one of the world’s foremost harmonica innovators. On his latest recording, Wiseman's Rag, Jason returns to his blues roots. With touches of Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Paul Butterfield and Professor Longhair, Jason's all original repertoire of blues, jazz and ragtime compositions are gritty but performed with good humour. The players are Jason Rosenblatt (harmonica, piano, vocals, B3), Joe Grass (guitar), Joel Kerr (bass) andEvan Tighe (drums). 

Ken Dunn & Gypsy Starfish The Great Unknown Self Release

Ken Dunn plays with a finger style acoustic guitar technique and performs either solo, with partner Anna Green, or the band Gypsy Starfish.  These songs are firmly based in the folk tradition. This CD won Best Americana Album for February 2016 at the Akademia Music Awards in Los Angeles, and the music is both undemanding and classic in composition. Dunn has been releasing music since the early 1990’s and has built a reputation for original and thoughtful song arrangements. 

Cross of Lorraine has some lovely interplay between Tyler Beckett on fiddle and Keira McArthur on cello, while the harmony vocals of Anna Green are always complementary and fit gently into the melody. Fukushima Nightmares has a nice groove with the guitar of Dean Drouillard supported by the attractive keyboards of Drew McIvor. Equally Shifting Sand has a quiet groove that rewards repeated listening and the title track is a gentle tribute to a performer’s life and is an insight into the price that is paid for the perceived freedom of the open road. Again the fiddle playing of Tyler Beckett is a standout feature as on many other tracks here.  

Tiny Toy Cars Falling, Rust & Bones Self Release

Tiny Toy Cars feature mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar and upright bass, so there is an expectation that bluegrass and old time rhythm will be the order of the day. However, add a high level of instrumental virtuosity from violinist Martin St-Pierre, guitarist Andrew Chute, bassist Brian Burns, plus the drumming of Aaron Guidry and the song writing of Peter Fand ( mandolins and voice) and an unexpected image begins to emerge. 

Traditional West African music mixes with roots based Americana music and lends the songs an intriguing slant. Indie Americana with a twist; this band has members from Cirque du Soleil and display both great song writing and a keen eye for cutting edge arrangements and melodies. Tracks such as Rapture and Hell, Do Everything You Can before you’re Dead, Down on the Bowery and Addicted To You build into a compelling release. Think Mumford and Sons meets Old Crow Medicine Show and Tiny Toy Cars is the next chapter in a genre with roots in traditional music, but with a firm vision for the future.

Text editing by Sandy Harsch

Thursday
Apr072016

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Various Artists Country to Country (Volume 2) Hump Head

Compilation album in support of the recent Country 2 Country tour of the UK and Ireland (See Lonesome Highway Live Reviews). The album includes twenty tracks by artists who featured on the tour including  household names on the US country circuit for decades Dwight Yoakam Man Of Constant Sorrow and Lori McKenna The Time I’ve Wasted, both still sounding as vital as ever.

The standout tracks on the album are perhaps those contributed by female artists, in particular American Idol winner Carrie Underwood Smoke Break, Ashley Munroe On To Something Good, Miranda Lambert Automatic and Kacey Musgraves with High Time. Chris Stapleton also does his gender proud with Traveller - the title track from his CMA award winning album.

The album certainly highlights the contrast in music styles being marketed today as “country". Purists may very well bemoan the lack of fiddle, banjo and steel guitar on the majority of the offerings on the recordings. The thorny issue of what actually represents true country music today comes to mind when considering a number of the artists represented. Contemporary Country, bordering on Country/Pop in many cases, is well represented by artists such as Luke Bryan, David Nail, Frankie Ballard and Sam Hunt. 

Emerging singer-songwriter Andrew Comb’s offering Nothing To Lose recalls a young Glen Campbell whereas UK duo The Shires contribution All Over Again is closer in sound to The Corrs than country. Also featured on the album are Dierks Bentley, Kip Moore, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Callaghan, Old Dominion and Maddie & Tae. With twenty artists represented there is something to savour on this album both for purists and for the punter that prefers their country music a tad sugar-coated.

Matt Patershuk  I Was So Fond Of You  Black Hen

There appears to be an endless supply of hugely talented Canadian singer-songwriters emerging in recent years. Ryan Boldt, Jim Bryson, Kathleen Edwards, Kendal Carson, Luke Doucet, Frazey Forde, immediately come to mind in this context, artists unfortunately unlikely to achieve the commercial recognition they richly deserve. Matt Patershuk, on the basis of this delightful offering, is yet another Canadian to richly impress.

I Was So Fond Of You follows Patershuk’s debut, the Western Canada Music Awards nominated Outside the Lights of Town released in 2013. This album is a collection of eleven songs, in the main dedicated to his sister Clare, tragically killed by a drunk driver in 2013. It’s an album that has the listener immediately seeking out the lyrics to some beautifully written songs from the understated title track to the equally moving and saddening Prettiest Ones.

Equally impressive is the quality of the musicianship throughout. Fiddle, banjo, accordion, mandolin and guitar are contributed by Nashville resident and one of America’s finest, Fats Kaplin. Gary Craig adds drums and percussion, with backing vocals, to beautiful effect, by Ana Egge, an extremely talented singer-songwriter in her own right. The album was produced by Juno Award Winner Steve Dawson who also adds some elegant steel guitar throughout and was recorded at Dawson’s Henhouse Studio in Nashville 

Sounding decades beyond his years (elder statesmen Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker come to mind) Patershuk’s baritone vocals throughout cannot be described as melodic but are controlled, disciplined and magically suited to his lyrics. Melancholy may be the overriding tone of the album yet it’s not without humour.  Pep The Cat Murdering Dog tells the tale of Pep the Labrador sentenced to life without parole by a State Governor for killing his wife’s cat and Burnin’ the Candle is straight down the middle honky tonk. 

Despite these lighter moments it is the material dealing with its core subject that remain with the listener. The previously mentioned and understated title track, the wonderful Tennessee Warrior ( his lines weren’t straight but his heart was true, papa said girl he was meant for you) relating to a horse owned by Patershuk’s sister and the evocative Prettiest Ones standing out in particular. 

Noteworthy also is the striking packaging and artwork on I Was So Fond Of You which is better described as a sharing of thoughts by Patershuk than simply an album. Highly recommended indeed.

Shane Joyce An Introduction Self Release

Briefly fleeing the nest from his duties as lead singer and frontman with The Midnight Union Band, this five track mini-album emphasises the song writing ability of Joyce, whose career kicked off not so many years ago busking on the streets of Kilkenny.

Making no apologies for his love in particular of the heavyweight songwriters Dylan, Cohen and Van Morrison the main focus on the five songs  is on the lyric with the vocal always out in  front in the recordings. Opening track Blame tells of unrequited and lost love in Leonard Cohen fashion with a simple hum along chorus. The Same Old Song is a modern day protest song (‘’ pretty soon they will tax you just for living in your skin’’) a reflection, written from the heart, of the profound difficulties for survival in an austerity driven environment 

Those Who Pay The Rent, the absolute  standout track on the album and also released as a single by Joyce last year, is a beautifully constructed piece of music, perfectly paced an including some heavenly  harmonies aided  by Jan Ramsbottom. Again, very obviously, Leonard Cohen influenced but also delivered in an individualistic style quite recognisable from Joyces’ work with The Midnight Union Band. 

Peter Flynn and John Wallace from The Midnight Union Band contribute guitar, bass, piano and drums with acoustic guitar on the album, with harmonica and Hammond organ from Joyce. 

Where Joyce particularly excels is in his live performances as punters who have enjoyed The Midnight Union Band gigs will be aware of.  He is a confident frontman, who possesses the required intensity and natural ability to immediately engage his audience - not always an easy task. I certainly look forward to hearing the songs from this most impressive debut solo effort live in the near future and if he can continue to create music as imposing as Those Who Pay The Rent then the sky is the limit for this young man.

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones Little Windows Cooking Vinyl

What do you get when you mix UK music royalty with Californian power pop? An outstanding result on the basis of this delightful collaboration between Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones. The combined vocals on all ten original compositions are heavenly with the lead melodies being shared between both artists.  

Interestingly only one of the songs clocks in at over three minutes and recalls an era when such beautifully countrified rock and roll music was aired regularly on daytime radio performed by musical dignitaries such as the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. Thompson and Jones first sang together at LA’s Club Largo in 2011, performing a George Jones song and sowing the seeds for Little Windows. The songs were subsequently written and developed while Jones resided in LA and Thompson in New York.

Having recorded five solo albums to date Thompson, the son of the legendary Richard and Linda Thompson, Little Windows is the first collaborative venture that Thompson has pursued, following in the same vein in terms of two part vocal harmonies as those perfected by his parents and indeed by his sister Kami and her husband James Walbourne (The Rails).

Jones, for her part, has recorded with Daniel Lanois  Buddy Miller and Brian Blade during her musical career which has seen her move from her childhood residence on a Washington horse farm to Nashville via Manhattan and finally to LA where she presently lives. 

The collection of musicians who contribute are household names within roots music circles and  include guitarist Steve Elliot, Ryan Adams keyboard player Daniel Clarke, Davey Farragher of Cracker, John Hiatt and The Imposters fame on bass and Pete Thomas of The Attractions (Elvis Costello) on drums. The album was recorded live to an analog 16 track tape machine by Mike Viola. Linda Thompson acted as executive producer.

Stand out tracks are the opener Never Knew You Loved Me Too, which would hold its own on any Everly Brothers album, Don’t Remind Me which enters Emmylou and Gram sacred ground and Make A Wish On Me the highlight being some captivating keyboard playing by Daniel Clarke.

At 26 minutes the album is regrettably on the short side but given the absolute quality on offer sometimes less is more.


Friday
Mar252016

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dave Insley 'Just the Way That I Am'  Self Release

David Insley is a man who loves the sounds and imagery of country music, no doubt from his days growing up in Arizona. He has a long history of making roots music, including stints with cowpunk band Chaingang and the more traditional slant of The Trophy Husbands. In recent times Insley has lived in Austin and plays a regular Saturday night gig there at the White Horse Saloon. He has released three previous albums under his own name that including his 2005 debut Call Me Lonesome. Now comes his latest release Just the Way That I Am and it is a career peak. As well as his regular band, the Careless Smokers, he has gathered some friends who enhance the songs with their strong contributions. These include Rick Shea, Kelly Willis, Elizabeth McQueen, Redd Volkaert, Danny B. Harvey and Dale Watson.

Still, it is Insley’s show, with his voice with, its hint of Willie Nelson, and his songs front and centre. The songs are a mix of the classic county themes; lonesome heartbreak, the appreciation of real love and its attributes and the temporary anaesthetising effects of alcohol. The titles pretty much sum up some of these feelings: Drinkin’ Wine and Staring at the Phone;  Win, Win Situation For Loser;  Call Me If You Ever Change Your Mind; No One to Come Home To and We’re All Together Because of You. Most of these are songs written by Insley but on a couple he has co-written, one with Rosie Flores and another with Rick Shea and Paul Lacques. Adding to the basic guitar, drum and bass core, Insley employs brass effectively with Matt Hubbard adding a lot to Drinkin’ Wine and Staring at the Phone with his trombone and piano interludes. Later on Arizona, Territory, 1904 Jimmy Shortell adds depth with trumpet and accordion accompaniment to the tale of two brothers who took opposite directions in life. Shortell’s trumpet also adds to Dead and Gon,e with it’s opening funereal melody. Elsewhere fiddle and pedal steel segments underline the traditional aspects of Insley’s music.

For all that Insley is no retro artist, he plays regularly and he continues to explore his muse without stepping too far outside of recognizable country music. Insley, as a family, seems to play fairly close to home and his Saturday night gigs sound like a real treat. Those who have come across Insley before will delight in this latest addition to his recorded output. Those who are coming to him for a first time should enjoy this well packaged album which puts a lot of releases on major labels to shame. It is not really going to appeal to those who are in thrall to the current chart acts, rather those who appreciate good Americana music and playing allied to some thoughtful and often humourous lyrics will see that Insley being himself is just the way we like him.

Dori Freeman 'Dori Freeman'  Free Dirt 

This is an engaging folk-country debut from a woman from the small town of Galax, Virginia. On the strength of hearing Freeman via Facebook, fellow singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson agreed to produce the album. Thompson made an excellent country album a while back and he is known for his love of the form. The album was recorded in New York with some noted musicians from the area, including guitarist and pedal steel player Jon Graboff with a rhythm section of Jeff Hill on bass and Rob Walbourne on drums and percussion. Erik Deutsch adds occasional keyboards. The core here though, is voice and guitar with subtle additional playing. For instance, there is a full band on the closing song Still a Child, yet it is played with a subtle grace that underscores the sentiment of the songs and allows Freeman’s voice to ring true. And that voice is clear and alluring and suggests something special. The opening track You Say, states that from the off with just a bass guitar under Freeman solo. Where I Stood alludes to the brother harmonies of yore, as Thompson joins with her to create a strong vocal presence. The most underplayed song here is Ain’t Nobody, that has the feel of Sixteen Tons ; we hear just the sound Freeman’s voice and snapping fingers. 

Elsewhere, as on Go on Lovin’, the feel is that of a classic traditional country song, with piano and steel an essential part of the song’s broken heart. Tell Me is also a forceful song that insinuates itself into the memory with its chorus and keyboard motif. Freeman is a songwriter who is already accomplished, and she should only get better with time and more life experience. Not that these songs are without depth as Ain’t Nobody considers the nature of hard work and those who toil in a factory, in a prison or at the kitchen sink without either recognition or proper compensation. So the words and voice are integral but there are also special which is why I have returned to this album more often than I have to most. 

There are deep roots here and also inspirations from doo-wop, swing and 60’s pop. The end result is a sound that incorporates all of these into something that sounds organic and natural for Freeman. This is the sound of someone who understands that life can offer a lot, but that it also has a darker side which equally needs to be examined. This is an outstanding start, one which deserves to be heard and hopefully will be. Free Dirt, her label, have packaged the album well and given us a release that includes the lyrics. These show how an album can be worth much more than just a download of one or two songs. This is a debut worth owning.  

Robbie Fulks 'Upland Stories' Bloodshot

Lately Robbie Fulks had moved towards more acoustic musical settings and while that is largely true here, there are some of the flavours of his earlier work with Bloodshot Records, the label who released some of his earliest albums. The players on Upland Stories include bassist Todd Phillips who has worked with David Grisman, Jenny Scheinman on violin, guitarist Rob Gjersoe as well as multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin. 

Fulks possesses a singular voice that is immediately recognisable. He is an adept songwriter too, as the opening song Alabama at Night and the later, A Miracle, attest. The first is written from the viewpoint of James Agee, the noted journalist who, with the photographer Walker Evans, captured the lives of migrants and sharecroppers in the late 30s in the South; the second takes a similar theme and angle in its direction.

There are also songs that are tender such as Sarah Jane, others such as Aunt Peg’s New Old Man and Katy Kay (about a cute girl who, if she wasn’t loved, would probably have to be shot!) are lighter and show a humorous side. It is an album full of character and characters. People you can identify with and through Fulks’ words gain insights into their lives. That is the mark of a storyteller who understands his craft. Folks can bring these songs to life in their most natural setting of just voice and guitar or with a fuller group behind him. Needed is the former, while the version of Baby Rocked Her Dolly has a full band including steel which gives it additional depth.

The banjo and fiddle of America is a Hard Religion give the song a harder edge that the lyrics need to give it the feel of earlier times and of current time too. 

Overall Fulks delivers these songs with a softer edge, one that is not as strident as his earlier Bloodshot albums. Robbie Fulks has a devoted following for his music and Upland Stories won’t disappoint those who have followed his music from the insurgent days to the more considered and less frantic songs that are featured here.

Nate Currin 'The Madman and the Poet' Archaic Cannon

For his fourth album Georgia native Nate Currin has recorded in Nashville with producer Matthew Odmark and it makes its mark from the get go with the immediate appeal of the overall sound. This is something that in the past would have been labeled alt-country. It is essentially a singer/songwriter record built around Currin’s concept song cycle and his voice, both of which are good. The album is divided into sections, with the first 6 songs under the heading of The Madman. These are more roots rock with hints of blues which lend a feeling of darkness with songs such as Another Love Song, which talks of upbringing and good and evil. City of Angels considers belief. It is an uptempo song with an insistent chorus that is effective in its catchiness. That contrast with a slower building mood of the Ballad of a Horse Thief which is equally compelling in its more restrained delivery which, like the story itself, builds in intensity. 

The title track starts the second set of songs under the overall theme of The Poet. These songs are all based on a more acoustic foundation, but while they are lighter in overall sound, they are not without a certain sense of melancholy. The final song Let Grace Fall Down on Me is call for forgiveness that contrasts Currin’s vocal with that of Molly Parden (who with Audrey Assad and Ryan Horne add vocal harmony on several tracks), over a cello and acoustic guitar that underline the poignancy of the song. We All Need a Love Sometimes picks up the pace and delivers a universal need. Ship with No Sea is summed up by the line “without you, I’m a ship with no sea”. Throughout the assembled musicians play guitars of acoustic, electric, baritone, lap and pedal steel varieties, with keyboards, bass, drums and strings adding depth and texture to the songs that brings them to full flower.

I had not heard of Currin before this album, but on the strength of The Madman and the Poet, he is an artist well worth discovering. This is something that becomes apparent fairly quickly and in this case Currin certainly gains approval. This is a thoughtful, well recorded and performed album that is packaged in a way that makes it a testimony to an artist caring about his work as a lasting contribution, rather than an exercise in economy and disposability. It was funded by those who believe in him and it shows that there are many who still want and believe in beautifully crafted musical endeavours.

The Waco Brothers 'Going Down in History' Bloodshot

 The first line of the opening song DIYBYOB is “this is the first track from the last album” and so it heralds the (possibly) final release from the Waco Brothers, the insurgent country band who mixed a sense of punk rock urgency with their country leanings. Indeed they would have made an reasonably appropriate opening act for Eric Church. The influences here are as much Clash as Cash, but also take in some garage and glam rock along the way, as well as a little of the 60s mod beat with a cover of the Small Faces’ classic All or Nothing which is as much a tribute to that band’s keyboard player, the late, Ian McLagan as anything. 

The band sounded spirited and energised on this, their 12th (or so) album since 1995. They feature a bunch of expats such as Jon Langford, Alan Doughty and Tracy Dear alongside Joe Camarillo and Deano to make up the current line-up. The ten track set never lets go of their angry agenda, summed top by the credo that they have “had about enough” (Had Enough). They mix their political views with a more personal sense of close-to-the-edge living.

And the Waco’s solid fan base will find themselves rockin’ along to the wolfman howl of Lucky Fool as they will to the title track, as they propose that you need to “bite the hand that feeds you.” If this is their final will and testament, it is one of strength and snarl and one that sums up the intent and nature of the band.

The Blazing Zoos 'Chocks Away' Corinthia

This album shares its title with another album by a London band who dabbled in country. The Kursaal Flyers album of that title was released in 1975 and now some 40 plus years later The Blazing Zoos take on country is also imbued with some humorous intent. For instance Still Up at Five begins with “It’s four in the morning and I’m listening to Four In The Morning.” Mentioning the Faron Young classic, it also recalls the early songs of Hank Wangford. In other words the music is done with a tongue-in-cheek reverence that raises a smile.

The songs are largely from the pen of guitarist/vocalist Andrew Mueller. Bass guitarist Lara Pattison adds harmonies and lead vocals on Brighter with Your Love. The two remaining members Jeremy Jones and Gen Matthews (guitar, keyboard and drums) are joined by guests Neil Bob Herd on steel guitar and Paul Fitzgerald on banjo. All bring skill to the proceedings and the whole thing is good fun, but not to be taken too seriously given the lyrical themes and the wonderful Ed “Big Daddy” Roth illustration on the sleeve. 

Mueller is a well know writer. One of his subjects is writing about rock and related music, so it is interesting that his occasional nighttime pastime is playing country music. In Country Drinking Song he set the record straight by admitting that “I don’t wear a hat, I can’t ride a horse, I’ve never been in jail (but then these days who does.)”. It’s just one of those songs that testifies to a love of country music without ever living a life that is associated with the cliched ‘supposed’ lifestyle. None of that matters if you enjoy poking at the form on this, the band’s second album. However there is no doubting that the collected members of The Blazing Zoos have a few Faron Young, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson albums in their collective collections.

Taken in the right spirit this is a foot-tapping and enjoyable slice of country roots rockin’ that entertains as much as it amuses. Those with fond memories of Mr. Wangford’s musical endeavours (which went from outright laughing up a musical note embroidered sleeve to something more serious in time) will thoroughly enjoy this. Likewise the Zoos may well shift focus in time and use their talents to something more akin to tribulations of the heart than cover tributes. For now Chocks Away  represents a good night out and diverting night in that is preferable to some of the Music Row produced music where the joke is on us.

 

 

Friday
Mar112016

Reviews by Declan Culliton

 

 

The Paul Benjamin Band 'Sneaker' Horton 

Some albums take a few listens to kick in, others hit the spot on first listen. Sneaker by The Paul Benjamin Band certainly inhabits the latter territory. The Paul Benjamin Band are a hard working touring band, renowned for the quality of their live shows. They have, without doubt, recreated that live sound with an album that scarcely contains a weak moment. Sneaker is the band's second album following their self-titled debut released in 2010.

Recorded at Fellowship Hall Sound in Little Rock Arkansas and unapologetically recalling the Tulsa sound of the mid 70’s, much of the album brings to mind in particular the work of the legendary JJ Cale and also of Leon Russell, although delivered in overdrive rather than Cale’s customary laid back style.

Estoy Loco positively grooves along with a jazzy rock feel, Ball and Chain rocks along with slick guitar licks from Benjamin and formidable pedal steel from Jesse Aycock (also a member of Hard Working Americans). Auburn Road slows the pace down beautifully, evidence of the versatility of Benjamin. Monticello Honeymoon drifts along sublimely and includes some wonderful piano playing by Jeff Newsome complimenting Benjamin’s guitar riffs.

Sneaker, sounding both fresh and nostalgic in equal measures, is an album that I’d happily slip in to the car CD player for a summer road trip, windows down and volume up and enjoy this refreshing mix of rockabilly, country, rock and roll and blues.

Franc Cinelli 'The Marvel Age' Song Circle

Recorded at Song Circle Studios, London The Marvel Age was written by Cinelli over a two year period while on the road touring the UK, USA and his native Italy. Having engaged Danton Supple (Morrissey, Coldplay) to produce his debut solo album I Have Not Yet Begun The Fight, Cinelli has taken the decision to record and produce The Marvel Age himself together with the vocal, guitar, keyboard and harmonica duties. Laurence Saywood plays bass and Drew Manley is on drums and vibraphone.

Cinelli cites his musical influences being his mother’s vinyl collection which included Springsteen, The Police, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley. Whatever about the other artists noted, the influence of Springsteen is particularly recognisable on Blindsided, a delightful song accompanied only by Cinelli on piano.

Breaker, the most convincing and strongest track on the album, is undoubtedly Tom Petty territory with a powerful driving guitar riff throughout. In contrast Blue is a delightful love ballad and the closing track Leave Here Running, with its spoken lyric is full of promise, optimism and rediscovery that is "drawn from life with open arms, I welcome in The Marvel Age."

Kreg Viesselman ‘To The Mountain’  Continental Song City

Kreg Viesselman earlier work gained him a reputation as a singer songwriter capable of creating sparse yet beautifully atmospheric music, delivered in his trade mark grizzled and craggy vocal tone. His albums demanded and rewarded repeated listening, none more so than his self-titled album released in 2003 which resulted in him sharing the stage with noted admirer Taj Mahal.

The Minnesota born Viesselham, while residing in Norway, released two further albums The Pull (2006) and If You Lose Your Light (2012) with a similarly stripped-back arrangement before commencing work the same year on To The Mountain which took nearly four years from conception to release and finds the artist enticing the listener down an altogether more upbeat journey than his previous efforts.

Much of the credit for the diversion is the introduction of Bjarne Stensli as producer whose influence appears to have rejuvenated Viesselman and encouraged a more fuller and accessible sound on the album.

Having written the songs in draft format he further developed them by spending a week with his band in a remote cabin in Norway where the final versions were pieced together before being further honed on a UK tour in 2014 to bring the proposed material before a live audience.

The material has most definite leanings towards UK folk both musically and lyrically, understandably painting pictures of Scandinavian and British landscapes on many of the eleven tracks. The opening track Garland could have been penned by Richard Thompson and The Disciples Song (Summer Leaves), a beautiful piece of music, would have comfortably adorned any early 70’s Caravan album. Similarly in the Summer, in Oslo succeeds in evoking music from that era.

Many artist are currently recording music heavily influenced by UK Folk, some more successfully than others, Viesselman undisputedly does the genre justice with this offering.

Danny Barnes ‘Got Myself Together (Ten Years Later)’  Continental Song City 

Few, if any musicians occupy the same territory as Danny Barnes. Often criticised for not taking himself seriously enough, the Austin born banjo picker and talented singer songwriter has flitted from solo recordings to forming the suitably named bands The Bad Livers and Danny Barnes and The Old Codgers, to several collaborations with noted artists such as Tim O’Brien and Dave Matthews. Barnes also tours as part of Robert Earl Keen and Bill Frisell‘s bands. Robert Earl Keen says of Barnes "I’ve said many times that he is the world’s greatest banjo player."

Got Myself Together (Ten Years Later) sees Barnes returning to possibly his strongest recording Get Myself Together which was released in 2006, an album that lyrically entered doom laden territory with tales of alcoholism, drug addiction, troubled existences, wasted romances and opportunities lost, all delivered with a certain degree of tongue in cheek attitude. The primary motivator in revisiting the album was the amount of fan mail received by Barnes in relation to the album which is unavailable as a result of the record label going out of business.

Rather than offer a richer and fuller recreation of the original album Barnes has headed in the opposite direction and recorded versions of the songs which to the listener might sound to be original demos or the material in its infancy prior to the final mix. Recorded in his kitchen with all instruments played by Barnes, he confesses that his technical ability as a musician is in a better place now that ten years ago, another reason for the ‘bare to the bones’ approach to the songs.

Quirky lyrics and impeccable picking dominate the album. Titles such as Get Me Out Of Jail, a traditional drunkards lament, Rat’s Ass and Big Girl Blues are timeless and depict scenes containing banjos, dungarees, front porches and jugs being passed around.