New Album Reviews

Danny Schmidt Standard Deviation Live Once

The first thing you notice and the thing that draws you into this record is the warmth and intimacy of Schmidt’s voice. His songwriter is mature and poetic dealing with the kind of things that really matter to someone who has a few years behind them. This is essentially a broadstroke folk album but one where the assembled players round out the sound with subtle but essential touches and song-serving restraint. Producer Will Robertson crew of Fats Kaplan, Colin Agnew and Robertson himself handle the instrumentation in the main. The harmony vocals also play an important part with Schmidt’s wife Carrie Elkin joining Mira Stanley Costa, Chuck Costa and Cara May Gorman adding their voices to Schmidt’s voice and acoustic guitar. The sound they create has a wonderful all encompassing feel that has had me returning to the album more often that happens usually.

There is a strong sense of love (and gratitude) on the album which is dedicated to his wife and baby daughter. Something to welcome when so many albums rail against the woes of the world this album largely celebrates the more positive sides of life. Songs like Just Wait ’Til They See You, Blue Eyed Hole In Time, Bones Of Emotion and The Longest Way. One song Newport ’65 reflects on and quotes from Bob Dylan but does so in a non-obvious way that makes it an interesting observation in its own right. The final song is intensely personal yet universal and deals with the grief and trauma of miscarriage and the need to treat the experience in a more compassionate way. We Need A Better Word closes an album that is a career high and one that places Schmidt among the best songwriters of his generation.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Pete Berwick Island Self Release

Delivering what may be according to himself his last album Peter Berwick makes sure that it counts. It is a forceful album built around Berwick’s hard-scrabble voice and guitar. His music has been described as punk infused alternative country which about sums him up in the past through these days, he is well capable of a less forceful, more reflective set of slower-paced rock songs like the “love the one your” with sentiment of Just Make It You And Me Tonight or the yearning love of the title track. That as opposed to the full on opening salvo of I’m Getting Tired Of This Place. He is, as his song says, getting through One Setback At A Time maybe arriving at a place where he can look both backwards and forward and see that he is not afraid to face either view.

He recorded his album with producer Jason Botka (who plays keyboards and guitars) and the band The Mugshot Saints who include Jennifer Botka on baking vocals. It has a certain grit and grief in his outlook on a country that both gives and takes away. However, there is hope in his outlook as They Gave Love A Chance testifies though their other side of the coin is spun out with I’m Really Not That Kind. This mix of styles places him on the fringes of what might be termed outlaw. Berwick is never going to compromise his music and as such Island is a continuation of the path he has trodden since his first album was released in 1996. Berwick has made a journey to get to this point which is why these songs seem to be real slices of heartland rock drawn from real life.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Luke Spehar The Pilgrim Self Release

There is a sense of deeply held faith in this elevated folk album from the Minnesota singer/songwriter who now lies in St. Paul with his wife and children. Here he has penned a set of songs that encompass a sense of love, life and a lasting and enduring sense of hope. Spehar has a gentle but rewarding voice that sits above these quiet and largely acoustic bass songs that are not, though, without some occasional up-tempo moments. Otherwise he speaks softly of his travel as a pilgrim wherein he has brought together his experience from traveling about the US and further afield in his search for spiritual honesty.

Spehar produced the album with Matt Patrick in his home state and employs light touches of percussion, keyboards, bass, banjo and fiddle to give some weight to these songs which move through tempo and mood. They can vary from the drive and accessibility of the bonus track Joshua which has a big and encompassing chorus that make it an immediate stand out. This mini album contains 7 tracks so acts as an introduction to the artist who had previously released 3 previous full length albums. His work is maybe a little too pure for some but the opening songs The Farmer and America And Me offer a sense of place and of spirituality that offers a peace that will appeal to those looking for something that offers a lighter perspective without becoming lightweight. Spehar brings this thoughtfulness to this album and it something that is sure to find its followers.

Review by Stephen Rapid

William The Conqueror Bleeding On The Soundtrack Loose

Newquay based U.K. three-piece William The Conqueror have raised the bar quite a number of notches with their second album, the Ethan Johns produced Bleeding On The Soundtrack. The band comprise Ruarri Joseph on vocals and guitar, Harry Harding on drums and Naomi Holmes on bass. Glasgow born Joseph formed the band following a solo career that delivered four solo albums. Their debut album Proud Disturber Of The Peace was released in 2017 and their reputation has grown steadily as a dynamic live act bleeding grungy folk and hard edge blues and rock, a throw back to a sound often excelled by Brit bands in the late 60’s / early 70’s. If their debut album created a few ripples in the industry, Bleeding On The Soundtrack is more akin to a tsunami, with Ethan Johns the consummate producer to channel Joseph’s forthright, enraged and exasperated storytelling into a powerful and rugged piece of music. John’s equally manages to capture the dynamic of the band’s live shows on the album, from the rocky opener Path Of The Crow, to the beautifully paced and exceptional closer Within Your Spell. Following on from their debut album, it’s a further retrospective by Joseph into a traumatic and troubled journey from adolescence to adulthood. Tales of family alcoholism, drug addiction, self-loathing and remorse feature in the autobiographical writing by Joseph, reflecting on his early adulthood. However, the content is delivered more by way of cleansing and healing than contrition. There’s no lack of humour also, Sensitive Side recalls adolescence and confused signals as Joseph revisits an unfulfilled teenage crush (‘’ What a scene, I was only fifteen the world was a thorn in my side’’). Madness On The Line has a thumping bass line and harmonica riffs straight out of Canvey Island courtesy of Dr. Feelgood and Be So Kind could be an outtake from Van Morrison’s Into The Music. Crashing bass chords, brisk drumming and rumbustious guitar breaks are what define the band and no more so than on title track Bleeding On The Soundtrack - a hypnotic blues burner which explodes into a rip-roaring finale – and the equally impressive The Curse Of Friends.

William The Conqueror’s growing reputation as one of the U.K’s most dynamic emerging live acts can only be enhanced by BOTS. Ethan Johns has managed to capture their live high-powered energy and faultlessly transfer it to the studio. I’m loving this and looking forward to seeing them live once more at Kilkenny Roots in May. Crank up the volume to max and enjoy!

Review by Declan Culliton

Jamie Lin Wilson Jumping Over Rocks Self-Release

They don’t come much more authentic ‘country’ than D’Hanis South Texas (population 550) resident Jamie Lin Wilson. The former Gougers and Trisha’s band member may have arrived late to her calling - picking up her first guitar at the age of 19 - but she has certainly made up for lost time. The writing on her solo albums Holidays and Wedding Rings (2015) and her latest album Jumping Over Rocks, harks back to yesteryear, when many country writers were in

spired by simple everyday occurrences and observations. She also balances her musical career with motherhood, often overcoming the impediment of touring and providing for her family by bringing her four children on tour with her. She doesn’t hang around either, this album was recorded live in four days at Arlen Studios in Austin Texas, with no overdubs or vocal auto tunes. The production duties were handled by Steve Christensen and the album in many ways benefits from the accelerated recording giving it a sense of a live recording.

Five of the songs are self written, four are co-writes and one is a cover of Guy Clark’s Instant CoffeeBlues. Some covers work particularly well, if the artists put their own slant on the song, others less so. Electing to include the Guy Clark classic had me scratching my head prior to playing it. Fortunately, Wilson’s recording of the song sticks very close to the original. It’s a duet with Jack Ingram (whose vocal contribution sounds remarkably like John Prine) and they simply nail it, to the extent that I had the track on repeat several times. The choice of co-writers is also impressive and an indication of the regard Wilson is held by her peers. Ingram, Brian Wright, Mike Ethan Messick and Evan Felker all contribute. Opener song Faithful and True, co-written with Jack Ingram, is beautifully paced with Wilson’s disciplined vocal delivery entering Emmylou territory. In fact, the album as a whole recalls the sound Emmylou Harris created on her mid 70’s Reprise Label albums, the idyllic blend of country and roots music. Wilson’s Hot Band for the recording include a formidable gathering of quality players in Charlie Sexton on guitar, Scott Davis on bass, Richard Millsap on drums, Trevor Norton on keyboards and Cody Angel on pedal steel and dobro. Oklahoma Stars, written with Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, is a sweet country ballad, the added vocals by Felker and weeping pedal steel by Angel adding depth to the song. The strength of her own songwriting comes to bear on the stunning Death & Life, a widow’s reflection on the early passing of her husband (‘’it’s been three years in November, she still ain’t bought a stone, I used to be a lover and I still feel like a wife, that’s the way that it goes in the game of death and life’’). Run, grappling with a relationship gone sour, is possibly the most radio friendly inclusion, a richly textured sound complementing Wilson’s soaring vocals.

Jamie Lin Wilson is yet another name to add to the growing list of Independent female artists writing and recording outstanding material, yet remaining somewhat below the radar. She’s certainly pushed out the boundaries this time around, so do check this album out. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy it every bit as much as myself. 

Review by Declan Culliton

Buffalo Blood Self-Titled Eel Pie

Neilson Hubbard has been a busy man of late. Three artists, whose albums he produced, Mary Gauthier, Ben Glover and Dean Owens, won awards at the recent AmericanaFest U.K. He also recorded his last solo album Cumberland Island in 2018 and continues to perform with three-piece band The Orphan Brigade. His latest collaboration Buffalo Blood, is a blend of Celtic and Southern American roots folk, inspired by a desire by Hubbard and his musical associates, Dean Owens, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman, to consider and reflect on the landscape and environment previously occupied by the Native Americans. The recording voyage for their self-titled album brought them across The Trail Of Tears, the journey enforced on the natives as they were driven from their ancestral lands to what was designated as Indian Territory, across The Mississippi River. The album was recorded in locations from the New Mexico Desert to La Plaza Blanca in Abiquiu and atmospherically captures much of those environs and habitat including real life sounds of birds, animals and winds. 

The concept album consists of fifteen tracks, intended as a double vinyl release, with the song writing duties shared by Hubbard, Owens and Britt, some of which is fictional, others based on real life events. Instrumentation includes guitars, percussion, bass, keyboards and mandolin. Ghostly whistling and chanting  are also included, but the real winner are the gorgeous harmonies they create across the exceptionally well written narratives. Sadness, wrath and regret understandably surface, particularly on tracks Comanche Moon, Vanishing World and Reservations which deal directly with the banishment of communities from their lands, but there’s also positiveness and pride on I’m Alive and Carry The Feather.

The album is an ambitious and brave project, tackling a topic often ignored musically, with the possible exception of Buffy Sainte - Marie. To their credit, Buffalo Blood have managed to bring to pass an exceptionally well researched, written and vocalised work, which would pass with flying colours as a soundtrack to a movie on the same subject. 

Review by Declan Culliton

Great Peacock Gran Pavo Real Self Release

Nashville based Great Peacock release their second album and all songs are written by Andrew Nelson (guitars, electric piano & vocals) and Blount Floyd (guitars, harmonica & vocals). They open with Hideaway, a track that rocks with organ swells and a bright guitar tone. Following with the slow tempo and loose groove of One Way Ticket, this is alt country music that resonates. The soulful sound of Begging To Stay is balanced by the bar room feel of Heartbreak Comin’ Down and the slow blues of Take Me Down displays a different band dynamic as they build the arrangement into guitar driven territory. 

Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, the album was produced by Dexter Green (Jason Isbell, Elizabeth Cooke), who also contributes electric guitar, organ and bass to the record. Tom Blankenship (My Morning Jacket) also plays bass and Ralph Lofton plays organ and piano across the ten tracks. Nick Recio (drums, percussion & acoustic guitar) completes the line-up.

Oh Deep Water is a chilled, relaxed sound with pedal steel by Carl Broemel floating across the melody. Rattlesnake has an up-tempo rhythm with nice guitar lines while the acoustic sound of All I Really Want Is You suggests a more commercial direction. The final track, Miss You Honey, is a slow tempo melody and a wistful vocal about lost love. The band produce an impressive sound that channels Americana at its best.

Review by Paul McGee

Ben Fisher Does The Land Remember Me? Self Release

It’s always about Land – the conflicts of this World, dividing Nations and causing untold suffering upon so many populations… Land to be conquered, to be claimed, to be annexed, to be granted by Political favour, to be controlled by Governments and armies.

Ben Fisher has a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and he moved to Israel in 2014 in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the conflict between the Israel and Palestinian people. He wanted to present both sides of the argument that surrounds the daily focus of survival and the right to live a life in service to deep-seated beliefs.

He asked celebrated singer-songwriter Damien Jurado to produce the project, which runs to 17-tracks and clocks in at just shy of 56 minutes. The uncluttered approach and stripped-down use of instrumentation bring great focus and resonance. All songs are written by Ben Fisher apart from one cover, Why We Build The Wall, by Anais Mitchell. The sequence jumps around in terms of time and history while some songs are written from a personal, modern-day perspective (Brave New World, Horses and Helpers). The last song, Take A Look Around, is referenced by the comment that “The making of the modern state of Israel was a miracle...” 

Well, my understanding of history thinks that the United Nations Special Commission examined the Palestinian question and recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Despite growing conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews, United States President, Harry S. Truman ultimately decided to recognize the state of Israel. Great Britain had opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine, as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. 

The holocaust of WW2 caused the immigration of millions of Jewish people to Palestine and this is covered in songs like Exodus. The title track refers to the mass emigration of Arabs from Palestine having lost the 1948 war with the new Israel, a pivotal moment in all this conflict, and Yallah To Abdullah also covers this period with Jordan taking many thousands of fleeing families into the country. 

The inclusion of Why We Build the Wall is perfectly legitimised, given the fear, hatred and paranoia that exists on both sides of the divide. It also gives a wry nod to the utter chaos and absurdity of the USA situation where Mexico is considered less than human and a place where inhabitants must be corralled against leaving for greener pastures and opportunity. Had Palestine the power to take a similar stance, then would the current situation have developed - one can only ponder?

Gaza is addressed in terms of a jump between 1956 and 2014; the murder of a Jewish boy is set against the airstrikes and rocket launches where thousands of Palestinians died against 76 Israelis in terrible atrocities. Fathers and Sons lives repeat across the decades and the heartbreak of 1948 is balanced with the moments captured by, If I Have To Go, and the sense that everything is transient.

In the World where war torn reality invades our easy lives in TV land, a release like this is a wake-up call to realise the suffering of part of our human race on a scale that rarely impacts upon our comfortable way of life in the Western World. Credit to Ben Fisher (Vocals, Piano, Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Mellotron, Harmonica), Faustine Hudson (Percussion), Micah Simler (Bass), Steve Norman (Pedal Steel), John Northey (Flugelhorn, Trumpet), Noah Gundersen (Electric Guitar, Vocals), Shelby Earl (Vocals) and Damien Jurado (Vocals) for a work of some substance and most worthy of investigation.

Review by Paul McGee

New Album Reviews

Stone Mountain Sinners Tones Of Home Self Release

A debut release from a 6-piece band who are based in the U.K. and who really hit all the spots with a dynamic and energetic Americana & Rock sound. Lead vocalists Sarah Warren and Neil Ivison had separate bands and careers before deciding to join forces and experiment with a new sound. Joined by Nick Lydon (acoustic guitar, mandolin, upright bass & vocals), Roger Roberts (piano, hammond organ, vocals), Adam Hood (bass) and Duke Delight (drums & percussion) they have discovered an authentic sound that is hard edged and filled with plenty of drive in the song arrangements. The opening tracks, Roadhouse and Arms Of Love set the tempo with full on high energy playing and there are echoes of Bob Seger on tracks like Round Here & All Night Long.

Keeping On shows another side to the sound with a Blues workout that recalls the Allman Bros. The vocal delivery of Sarah Warren is very powerful, full of a bluesy soul and reminiscent of Janis in her tone. It blends nicely with the deeper, gravel timbre of Ivison and together they deliver a convincing performance across the nine tracks here.

Stronger is a track that shows the band in full flight with all players channelling a rockabilly beat with all jangly guitars and shuffle drum beats. The slower Music City Blues features Maurice Hipkiss on pedal steel guitar and the extended closing track, Tones Of Home suggests a direction they could explore further with duelling guitars playing around the rhythm and bouncing off the pedal steel parts. Impressive debut and worth investigation.

Review by Paul McGee

Taylor Martin Song Dogs Little King

A singer-songwriter who grew up in Virginia and who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, Martin releases his third album and Song Dogs is a very impressive statement of his talent and intentions. Amanda Anne Platt produces and along with her co-producer/engineer, Robert George, she delivers a beautifully balanced record with plenty of texture and vitality in the arrangements. The players on the album are quite superb and the quality and richness of each song is a joy to be discovered by the listener.

Little Pictures is a look at our modern addiction to cell phones/social media and how we end up “missing everything”. It has a blues feel with B3 and piano filling out the funky drum beat. The roots rock of Here Comes The Flood is followed by the country strum of Eden Colorado and the interplay between acoustic guitar and pedal steel. Martin writes eight songs and there are three excellent covers, which include Sign On The Window (Bob Dylan), Kern River (Merle Haggard) and Music Arcade (Neil Young). Milk & Honey and Our Memories are pure country with the fiddle playing of Lyndsay Pruett a real highlight; not only on the latter track but throughout the record. The title track closes the album and the simple piano lines, complimented by the lonesome sound of pedal steel, just leave you wanting more.

The musicians deserve the spotlight and this ensemble really knock it out of the park on every track; Taylor Martin (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Richie Jones (drums, percussion), Matthew Dufon (bass), Matthew Smith (pedal steel), Josh Shilling (piano, B3), Aaron Woody Wood (electric guitar), Aaron Ramsey (acoustic guitar), Lyndsay Pruett (fiddle), Amanda Anna Platt (harmony vocals). Quite superb and a must buy.

Review by Paul McGee

Gordie Tentrees & Jaxon Haldane Grit Greywood

This is a debut release from Canadian artists Gordie Tentrees and Jaxon Haldane as a duo. Both have recorded previously in their own names and have collected works that bear out their unique talents across a range of instruments. This release is a live album and was recorded at various venues in Alberta, Canada during 2016. Gordie plays dobro, acoustic guitar, foot percussion, porch board bass and prison whistle. Jaxon joins him on cigar box guitars (electric & lap steel), fiddle saw and 5-string banjo. The sound is very organic as befits twelve stripped down acoustic arrangements. There are story songs and others of keen observation while the Folk & Blues influences of Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson are never far away in these ballads. 

Ten songs involve Tentrees in the writing, with seven written solo and two involving Haldane. They all sound like old standards, which is testament to the authenticity that is brought to their delivery and performance. I hear echoes of Loudon Wainwright III in the vocals, especially on the blues tinged rendition of I Don’t Have A Gun (Womack/Kimbrough). 29 Loads Of Freight, Junior and Bottleneck Of Wire are all very strong songs and performed with great energy and passion. Well worth investigation for all folk music enthusiasts.

Review by Paul McGee

Blue Fish Diamond From Dark To Light Self Release

This debut album appeared in late 2018 and Blue Fish Diamond are an Irish seven-piece band who originally formed in 2016. Their sound is very melodic and resonates with commercial and contemporary Folk leanings across the ten tracks included here. The lead vocals of Jim Murphy are quite soft and he sings in a gentle, almost fragile tone, especially on tracks like Salvation Call and Innocent Child. Time To Go and Angels Of The Wind are more up-tempo arrangements and A World Away has a nice guitar break from McDonald which energises, before the song takes a change in tempo at the mid-way point. 

The harmony vocals of Ella Ryan and Matilda O’Mahoney are very appealing throughout and add colour to the arrangements. Gavin Glass produced the project at his studio and he also played on the tracks, with a credit of ‘all other instruments’ perhaps not telling the full story. The rhythm section of Ronan Quinn (bass) and Shay Sweeney (drums & percussion) provides a strong platform for the guitars of Murphy (acoustic) and Alex McDonald (electric) and the piano playing of Laura Ryder is also full of nice runs and subtle touches. Laura has a separate band which appeared recently at the Ones To Watch 2019 Festival in Dublin and her performance was excellent. 

The band originally met at the BIMM Dublin music college and they certainly are making the right steps forward with this release. So, overall a very pleasant listen with hope for more to follow in the future. 

Review by Paul McGee

Carl Broemel Wished Out Bismeaux

Better known as guitar god with My Morning Jacket, this is Carl Broemel’s third solo effort. Recorded in his newly constructed home studio in Nashville, he has roped in friends like Robbie Crowell (Deer Tick), Russ Pollard (Sebadoh) and MMJ band mates Tom Blankenship and Bo Koster to help out.

It’s a collection of eight self penned songs of mainly dreamy folk rock, but with more than a hint of his rock guitar leanings finding their way in, to a greater or lesser degree on most tracks. My favourite track is Wished Out - by far the longest at 6 minutes, Carl here gets to show his excellent vocal range on a soulful groove of a song, augmented by an appropriately long languid electric guitar solo.

There’s quite a variation of styles and influences here, from the retro twin harmony guitars of opening song Dark Matter to the Ryan Adams-esque vocals and piano on Starting From Scratch. Another standout track is the acoustic driven Malibu Shadow, with it’s catchy tune and lovely layered vocals. The album ends on a real rock out with the guitar driven Out Of Reach.

Review by Eilís Boland

Mark Mandeville & Raianne Richards Live In Manitoba Nobody’s Favorite

Mark & Raianne, a folk duo from Massachusetts, had the wise idea of bringing along a recording engineer during a 13 date house concert tour of Manitoba, Canada, and this album is the result.

It stands as a perfect calling card for their superb blend of original folk songs and musicianship. True folkies in every sense of the word, they are already known locally for initiating the Massachusetts Walking Tour, a now annual event where they walk through the state, carrying their instruments and camping along the way, performing concerts in out of the way locations en route. They even paddle their way in canoes at times!

The collection showcases their accomplished songwriting and duet singing, and between them they play guitar, ukulele, harmonica, clarinet (an acquired taste which has so far eluded me in folk music) and tin whistle. A nice touch is the inclusion of some of the between song banter, where you get an idea of their easy rapport with their audiences and their sense of humour and, indeed, humanity.

Review by Eilís Boland

Daniel Meade and the Flying Mules Live Mules Self Release

Glasgow’s finest exponent of ol’ time Americana with a hillbilly boogie woogie edge is back for a busy year where he intends to release 3 albums. Given his dexterity they are likely to show different aspects of his musical muse. The first of these will doubtless appeal to anyone who has seen the Flying Mules play across the U.K. or in Ireland where they were regulars at the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival. Meade is an authentic songwriter and many of his original songs have a timeless quality that would easily place them along side some of the classics pop the era that they evoke.

Neither should the contribution of the Flying Mules be underestimated. Guitarist Lloyd Reid is a top notch player well the equal of many better know players. While the rhythm section of upright bassist Mark Ferrie and drummer Thomas Sutherland bring the swing to its rightful place as the bedrock of the overall sound. The album was recorded at Mareel in Shetland  in 2016. It was their first visit and from the audience reaction and solid delivery that was captured on the night it was a memorable one.

The album features a selection of Meade’s songs taken from their first album to the then current album Let Me Off At The Bottom. That title song, along with astute titles like, There’s A Headstone Where Her Heart Used To Be, If It’s Not Your Fault (I Guess It’s Mine), Not My Heart Again all play out the timeless emotional relationship game viewed form both sides of love/leave divide. The album closes with a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee cover that brings the roots of the music full circle.

So crank up the sound system as this is a pretty hefty live sound given it’s simple origins and you can have the Flying Mules stopping round your living room while you wait to see what Daniel Meade come sup with next. Whatever that is it’s bound to be interesting.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Michael McDermott Orphans Pauper Sky

The many fans of Micheal McDermott will be more than happy with his latest release which underscores the reason they became fans in the first place. Strong songs that don’t shy away from the darker paths his life has taken in the past. As with Out For Under they are something of an exorcism of those times to the more positive place he finds himself. McDermott produced this album which has a big, full sound that will place him alongside some of those to whom he has been compared. Whenever I play his music to new listeners there is, inevitably, a comparison to Bruce Springsteen and on a certain level I can understand that. The instrumentation and delivery are similar as are the occasional arrangement but one major difference is that while Sprinsteen’s songs tend to focus on the working man McDermott’s are more about the ups and downs life of a working musician. The many nights away, the cheap hotel and cold motels, the sparse audiences that are very much a part and parcel of the life of a traveling troubadour. Not all the songs, of course, are about that and neither is he asking for your sympathy. It’s a life style he has chosen, or chosen him, so rather it is a more honest detailing of the path he has taken or, as truthfully, won’t let him go.

His wife (and singer in her own right) Heather Lynne Horton is a part of the musicians involved, many who were a part of the band The Westies with him and also played on his previous solo albums like Lex Price, John Deadrick and Fred Eltringham as well as guitarist Will Kimbrough. All in all these musicians are in tune with McDermott’s vision and production. He is also singing with energy and no little passion. Given that this songs are mostly drawn from his journey so far that have a conviction that is integral to McDermott’s thinking and actions. Songs like Ne’er Do Well, Meadowlark, Los Angeles, A Lifetime Ago and the closing What If Today Were My Last all take different perspectives mirrored in their delivery which ranges from piano ballads to more uptempo arrangements. All of which show that Michael McDermott is on a upward path that continues to produce music that has an all round excellence.

Review by Stephen Rapid

New Album Reviews

Tellico Woven Waters Organic

Original Roots music and a second release following debut album, Relics and Roses, in 2015. The band comprises Anya Hinkle (guitar, fiddle, vocals), Greg Stiglets (bass, harmonica, vocals), Aaron Ballance (dobro, lap steel) and Jed Willis (mandolin and electric guitar). There are guest appearances from David Brewer (drums) and John Doyle (bouzouki), who also produced the project. 

The band are part of the vibrant Roots music community in Asheville, North Carolina and the nine tracks included on this release run to almost 40 minutes and are played with impressive technique and subtle skill by these tightly integrated musicians. Storytelling was an integral part of the Appalachian sound and songs like the Ballad Of Zona Abston keep that tradition alive, as does the song, Salsa, which tells of a favourite horse who goes missing in the mountains. 

There is bluegrass, old timey rhythms and some sweet folk leanings included in these songs but it’s the collective playing that impresses mostly with songs like West Of The Cumberlands, Courage For The Morning and Like November that linger. Hinkle has a fine delivery and her vocal is very expressive, with hints of Natalie Merchant. Never more so than on, It’s Just Rain, with the lyrical imagery of “another storm has come to wash the sin out of the stain”, staying on the breeze. Anya writes five songs, with Greg penning three more and there is one co-write between them. Worthy of your time and attention.

Review by Paul McGee

Blake Brown & The American Dust Choir Long Way Home We Believers

This debut release goes back to March 2018 but it only found a recent place in my review pile. Blake Brown is an American singer-songwriter from Denver, Colorado. Collaborative projects apart, he formed The American Dust Choir which includes wife, Tiffany Brown (keyboard/vocals), Adam Blake (drums), Jason Legler (bass) and Trent Nelson (guitar). Their sound is based around guitar orientated arrangements that echo an Americana feel and the dynamic is added to by the subtle vocal style of Brown, who employs an approach of ‘less is more’. 

On repeated playing, the overall sound is understated, yet addictive, and the easy swing of tracks like Up In Arms and Fever Dreams channel a Chris Isaak mood. Clocking in around 35 minutes, this release does not overstay its welcome and the neat production of Joe Richmond has much to recommend it. With clean lines and a nice separation on all instruments, it makes for an engaging listen and the commercial sound of Stop Shakin’ and Bended Knee indicate one direction that the band could focus on. Acoustic numbers, Accidental Love and Untitled are also engaging. However, it is the more ‘noir’ sound of tracks like Kissing Knives and Get Out that indicate where the true heart of the band’s sound may lie. Interesting.

Review by Paul McGee

Martha Reich Brave Bird Self Release

This 7-track release opens with a simple banjo, cello & fiddle accompaniment to the sweetly sensitive vocal of Martha Reich on If You Only Knew, and you are instantly hooked. Drawn into a space where time stands still and the plaintive, sparse sound of this Folk artist slowly takes hold of the moment. Self produced and written by Reich, with the exception of a cover, Over The Rainbow, you are touched by the sense of being in the presence of, perhaps, Joni Mitchell’s older and wiser, sister. Ethereal, gentle soundscapes that drip with restrained atmosphere and tracks like So Brave, The River, Fade Away and I’d Rather Be Surprised, over 30 minutes plus, leave you transformed. Yes, it’s that good!

Review by Paul McGee

Kalyn Fay Good Company Horton

I was very impressed by Fay’s last album Bible Belt and the Oklahoma musician (and graphic designer) has gone one better with her new album. On this release she has brought in Jesse Aycock to produce. He is a session musician and a recording artist in his own right. The sound is layered and varied, one that runs from the solid riff and propulsion of Highway Driving to the more folkish soft rock of Good Company and all points in between, that include country and rock in its make-up. 

The result is a collection of thoughtful and considered songs that benefit from Fay’s alluring vocal. It is a sound that speaks directly to you in a way that is personal and not without its own sense of panache. A sound that is intensely welcomes you to a deep sense of her heritage, talent and place. Described as quintessentially Oklahomaian, it is also quintessentially Kalyn Fay, as the two are largely intertwined. The one feeds the other and as Fay has recently made a move to Arkansas to further her fine arts career, it is no doubt twinned with some sense of that separation.

To help her realise this set of songs Fay has a range of local musicians involved including John Fullbright and Carter Sampson, as well as Aycock’s contribution on guitars, pedal steel and piano. While these may be names known only to those who follow the musicians mentioned, the othermusicians are equally attuned to the song-writing which takes into account the possibilities of love, loss and of locality,. The songs include 10 originals and a well chosen cover of Malcolm Holcombe’s Dressed In White (an underrated songwriter). The titles offer a clue to her inspiration from Oklahoma Hills to Fool’s Heartbreak. These songs bookend theunderlyingsense of place and relationships. Though both, as with most places, exist as often inseparable points on life’s compass.

They overall theme that these songs touch on is one that is universal and the sound is also one that captivates on a broader level to make the album work for thelistener, no matter where they happen tom reside.It is simply an album that shows an artist communicating at her best with her finest music to date. 

Review by Stephen Rapid

Boo Ray Tennessee Alabama Fireworks Self Release

The album opens with steel guitar on a song whose lyrics include the album’s title. It sets the tone for a selection of tracks that cover a number of different moods that are held together by Ray’s songs, allied to Noah Shain’s production and the assembled players collective skills. “What doesn’t come from the heart doesn’t reach the heart” a line from that opening track,A Tune You Can Whistle, sums up Ray’s credo. There is a consistent theme of travel, highways, truckers and small towns. Going Back Down To Georgia, as suits that particular song, has a more soulful direction with  sone funky guitar, bass and brass. Honky Tonk Dream continues to use the steel guitar and brass to good effect. 20 Questions finds Ray under the spotlight trying to deal with a wide array of lifestyle enquiries from his partner. The slower paced,She Wrote The Song, has a solid beat with some effective guitar lines mingled with the pedal steel to emphasise the emotion of the song. Dee Elle is an instrumentalist that again has the steel well to the fore and giving it a desert atmosphere. Out Run The Wind is more straight up country. 

There is a weariness and understanding in Ray’s voice which shows that he understands these emotions and motivations. His music is described as “Outlaw” on his Facebook page and while he may not fit the current stereotype, he fits the description in that he does his music his way, without interference from outside sources. Music that reflects his varied musical influences and experiences in the clubs and stages of Nashville, LA and in South Georgia, as well as his experiences from growing up in North Carolina. His sound has been perfected over recent albums such as Six Weeks In A Motel and Sea Of Lights, as well as some interesting single releases that feature such duet partners as Elizabeth Cook and Lily Winwood. An easy album to like and one that gets better with repeated plays. The cover depicts a sign that Ray repeatedly passed in his travels appearing as a “surreal, southern gothic effigy” - a pretty good marker for his music then.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Charles Wesley Godwin Seneca Self Release

Looking not unlike an old-time explorer on the cover of this album, Charles Wesley Godwin is perhaps fitting for a songwriter who is constantly making discoveries about the people and locations he has met or passed through in his life so far. Previously a member of Union Sound Treaty with whom he released one album, he played and listened to bluegrass and traditional country and began writing his own songs. These were coloured by his upbringing in West Virginia where he grew up with a coal mining father and a school teaching mother. He understood the people and places that he encountered along the way and these experiences of life are the bed rock of these songs.

His songs can be affecting, like Seneca Creek, a downbeat ballad that lays out a story of arelationship that has been touched by different aspects of weather and the weathered relationships that can occur in a particular place. It appears twice on the album,as afull band version and it also closes the album in an acoustic guitar and voice version. Both adequately highlight the storytelling power of Charles Wesley Godwin’s song-writing and singing. 

Charles Wesley Godwin recordedover a 12 month period, in between touring to raise the money to make the album. Inthe process he met some of the musicians he wanted to work with and allowed for their schedules to achieve this. The results show the time well spent and the affinity that producer Al Torrence has with the material and the artist. The rhythm section provide a solid base over which there are bass, guitars, keyboards, fiddle, banjo, dobro and pedal steel embellishments that colour the  textures but never over paint the pictures that Charles Wesley Godwin conjures. Seneca is an album that is deserving of a wider audience. Several of the songs in an acoustic setting are featured along with his back story on his website and are well worth checking out.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Balsam Range Aeonic Mountain Home

Great expectations awaited this eighth release from Balsam Range, who are named after a sub range of the Appalachian Mountains in their home state of North Carolina. They have, after all, twice been voted Entertainer of the Year by the IBMA membership and between them they have won 11 other individual IBMA awards. 

And they won’t disappoint their myriad of fans with this latest self produced offering, ambitiously titled Aeonic (enduring, lasting immeasurably). The selection of songs from well established bluegrass and country writers and a couple of covers from other genres, all delivered in their traditional bluegrass style but with a smattering of newgrass and country touches, show that Balsam Range are not content to stand still musically.

The Girl Who Invented The Wheel kicks off the album at blistering pace, band leader Buddy Melton’s superb vocals doing more than justice to an unusual theme - extolling the virtues of a woman who has just dumped him but he is still in awe of her wonderfulness. In true bluegrass style, Buddy also gets to show off his much awarded fiddling on most of the tracks. Another particularly memorable tune is Tumbleweed Town (from the pens of Milan Miller and Beth Husband) wherein Tim Surrett shows that he’s as adept on the dobro as he is on bass. Guitarist Caleb Smith’s sweet vocals here are perfect for the pacy country ballad, with lots of lovely mandolin infills from Darren Nicholson.

Ray LaMontagne’s early song Hobo Blues is given an appropriately simpler arrangement and, again with Caleb Smith’s vocals, is one of the standout tracks.

The four gospel choices here are predictable fare but they allow the vocalists to indulge themselves in gorgeous three and four part harmonies. Marc Pruett’s legendary banjo playing shines on Let My Light Be A Life and also on the driving Get Me Gone.

Most outstanding though is the cover of George Harrison’s classic If I Needed Someone. Taken at double pace, and with Buddy Melton working some sort of electronic sorcery on his fiddle making it sound like a whole string section, it is over all too soon! 

Review by Eilís Boland

Whiskey Shivers Some Part Of Something Devil Duck

Whiskey Shivers seem to have exploded onto the music scene recently - certainly they have only come under my radar in the past year - but would you believe that this is their 5th release? They’ve been bubbling under in Austin for years now - often described as ‘Austin’s best kept secret’ - but the secret is out! Currently in the middle of an extensive European tour, I suspect Europe doesn’t know what has hit it.

The band’s live performances are by now legendary - they are known for their high energy, irreverence and good humour, and much of that spirit comes across on this album. Produced by Houston’s Robert Ellis, the songs are a combination of original songs and covers of traditional bluegrass and folk songs, all performed in their signature ‘thrashgrass bluegrass’ style.

If you’re a bluegrass purist, you can turn off your set now. Whiskey Shivers play with a marked punk sensibility that is strangely compelling to these ears, and definitely grows on you with repeated listens. ‘Manic' is the description that springs to mind on hearing their breakneck cover of the bluegrass/folk standard Angelina Baker, and it also applies to their original songs Reckless and No Pity in the Rose City. Cluck Old Hen sounds like it is being sung by a chain gang in the 20’s, but it really works with this rollicking bluesy psychedelic treatment. Long Gone, a country tinged ballad, allows the band, led by vocalist/ fiddle player Bobby Fitzgerald, to show that they are no mean musicians.

Music to drive to - but watch your speed! 

Review by Eilís Boland

Reviews by Paul McGee

Hat Check Girl Cold Smoke Gallway Bay

This is the seventh release from a duo who have quite a track record in the music business, including numerous albums as solo performers, namely, Peter Gallway and Annie Gallup. Their sound is essentially Contemporary Folk with subtle Jazz leanings in the sparse arrangements. Annie can sound somewhat like Joni Mitchell in places, while Peter reminds me of Eric Taylor in his delivery on occasion. Of course, any such similarities are purely in the mind of this reviewer and my subjective thoughts and the entire listening experience across some 53 minutes is quite a lesson in song craft and expansive lyrical ideas. 

I have always found the music of Hat Check Girl both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Not for them the simple love song or whimsical throw-away line; rather they build their story songs from historical context or imagined characters, placed in all kinds of straitened circumstances…

So, the soldier posted to the Army Air Corps in WW2 finds himself on an island where the Enola Gay lands, just before carrying out its fateful mission of dropping the Atomic Bomb in 1945.The lament for humanity is palpable in the narrative of the soldier as he helplessly witnesses the catastrophic build-up.

Andersonville is a song that relays the stark story of a Confederate prison of war camp during the American Civil War, told from the perspective of Newell Burch, the longest held prisoner at 661 days, in conditions that were dominated by infectious disease and severe overcrowding. The stockade commandant, Henry Wirz, was later tried and hanged for carrying out war crimes that were held to be the reason why quite a number of the 13,000 prisoners died.  Another Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater, recorded the names and numbers of the dead and his diaries were key to the eventual trial verdict. All these characters are interwoven into the song, making it almost like a short story or a movie script.

The story in Highway Of Tears refers to the British Columbia section of the Yellowhead Highway, a stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert where numerous women have gone missing over the years. It has been reported that eighteen women went missing, presumed murdered, but speculation puts that number into the forties… This tale is narrated by a chief of one of the indigenous, or first, people - an aboriginal, ethnic group who were the original settlers.

Thirteen Cents An Hour tells of the great industrial fire of New York in 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men. It is told through the eyes of a young Irish immigrant girl who worked and perished alongside her Mother.

And on it goes; a song about righteous objectors and the conviction to take action (I Broke The Law); a song about a family pet who gets recruited into the canine corps during the war (Liza Blue); another that tells the story of a runaway, single mother who makes a living by performing songs (Songbird Of Cincinnati) and the wife who seeks redemption in the company of a soldier returned from the war, risking her own marriage and thinking that her husband never knew (Cobalt Blue).

Towards the end of the project there is a duet between Annie and Peter that takes the form of letters received and sent between two young lovers during the Vietnam War and it is both poignant and heart rending in its description of the futility of battle and the longing to return to more innocent times.

A long review indeed but well merited and a release of some substance that will invigorate and involve the listener in all aspects of the creative process. 

Deer Tick Mayonnaise Partisan

Following the commercial and critical success of their dual release albums, Deer Tick Vol. 1 & Deer Tick Vol.2 in 2017 and the subsequent Twice Is Nice tour in support of the music, the band from Rhode Island are back to prove that their punk-roots rock leanings are a sharp as ever.

They have always walked a line between the light and the loud in terms of their musical output and this dual approach has won them many admirers over a career that began in 2007 with their debut release. With band members John McCauley (lead vocals, guitar), Christopher Ryan (bass, upright bass, backing vocals), Dennis Ryan (drums, backing vocals) and Ian O'Neil (guitar, backing vocals), this new release is a mixed bag of cover versions performed on tour, alternate versions of songs from Vol.1 and five new songs.

White City (The Pogues) works really well, with all its raw energy, both in a live setting and on this record. Run Of The Mill (George Harrison) has a slow groove, understated accordion mixed with jangly guitars, while Too Sensitive For This World (Ben Vaughn) has a very laid back, cool vibe. 

The 7-minute version of Velvet Underground song, Pale Blue Eyes, is given an acoustic Country treatment and new songs Strange, Awful Feeling and the instrumental, Memphis Chair, follow a similar sound. From Vol.1 we are given alternative versions of Limp Right Back, End Of The World, Doomed From The Start, and Cocktail, a song about drinking exploits that is rooted in the past memories and younger days of McCauley.

The loose electric attack of Spirals, another new song, kicks everything off in fine style and Old Lady is quite the opposite with a slow country tempo. Something for all tastes then and plenty to keep existing fans happy, while attracting new admirers to their eclectic musical world.

Jess Klein Back To My Green Blue Rose

This is the first release in four years from a singer songwriter who has been producing a consistently interesting body of work since her debut release in the late 1990’s. Now living in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her husband Mike June, she has put together a collection of songs that range from the commercial pop sound of opening track, In Dreams, to the blues tinged gospel arrangement of Gates Of Hell. 

However, it is her folk leanings that show her at her most natural as a contemporary singer songwriter of real depth and maturity. A strong sense of this is evident on songs like New Thanksgiving Feast and I Hear Love, two of the strongest statements on the album. With simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, New Thanksgiving Feast is a reflection of modern life in America and holds up a mirror against the injustice, prejudice and hatred that boils beneath the surface and all too often erupts. I Hear Love is an appropriate song to end with, as the sentiment captures the overall message of the project, which is one of healing and redemption.

Blair Mountain tells of the largest labour uprising in United States history where 100 people were killed and many more arrested in seeking to improve Mine Workers conditions. It has a fine rock arrangement and has an anger in the delivery that is reflected in the distorted guitar attack of the song. Kid is a song that offers sage advice to the young from the perspective of someone who has learned a few life lessons along the way. 

Tougher Than The Rest and Mammal are personal manifestos to believe in yourself and live life to the full, while Back To My Green has a similar theme with a prayer to leave all our burdens down and just breathe in the air, feel free and celebrate Nature.

Along with Jess, producer Mark Simonsen and engineer Thom Canova brought everything to life at Studio M in Durham and Hondo Creek Studio, North Carolina. Both contribute as musicians, with Canova (bass, electric guitars, percussion) and Simonsen (piano, organ, keyboards, electric guitars, drums, vibes, glockenspiel, percussion, vocals) adding greatly to the overall sound. Other guests include Mike Grigoni (pedal steel, lap steel), Laura Thomas (violin), Aubrey Keisel (viola), Leah Gibson (cello), Gaelynn Lea and Jonathan Byrd (vocals)… Another excellent release from an artist that should have a place in any discerning music collector’s library.

Peter Rogan Still Tryin’ To Believe Self Release

Debut release from an artist who lives near Philadelphia and who delivers twelve songs of real quality which resonate in the memory. He’s not afraid to mix the overall feel and sound with a diversity in the song structures that is impressive. From the southern rock of the title track to the country feel of The Only One and the blues funk of Kickin’ The Can, there is a confidence and swagger about this release. Beautiful Honey has a slow and easy groove while Big Green Rambler channels an Allman Bros feel and very enjoyable it is too. 

Rogan has a hand in all the songs (7 co-writes), which include two instrumentals and has assembled an impressive group of studio players in Will Kimbrough (guitars, dobro, pedals), Phil Madeira (guitars, organ, piano, lap steel), Chris Donohue (acoustic & electric bass), Dennis Holt (drums, percussion) and a selection of seven backing singers across the tracks. There are also additional players on selected songs that add to the colour of the arrangements. Produced by Rogan in Nashville, the sound is bright and clear which adds greatly to the enjoyment; no clutter, just straight down the middle arrangements laced with fine melody and rhythm. 

Rolling Mill Blues gives the ensemble a chance to really stretch out and the results are very compelling with a Stones vibe very evident. The slow blues of River Man is particularly appealing and the gospel rock refrain in Mercy is only topped by a searing guitar solo by Rogan that lifts everything to a new level.  

The jazz instrumental, Song For Keith, is beautifully delivered by a coterie of players who don’t appear on any other tracks, so it must have been created elsewhere – Rogan on jazzy guitar runs and the flugelhorn playing of Bob Meashey blend with the understated piano of Ron Stabinsky and the gentle rhythm of John Riley (drums) and Steve Varner (bass) – quite superb and so different to anything else here.

Working as a professional guitarist for many years and also holding down a day job as an electrician, this is the profile of the modern-day musician who tries to balance a lifetime passion with the everyday reality of paying the bills. The songs were written over a 4-year period and the old adage that ‘patience is a virtue’ has never rung truer. A highly recommended release.

Jesse Matas Tamarock Self Release

Jesse Matas is one third of The Crooked Brothers, a trio that hail from Winnipeg, Canada. They have released three albums and are recognised for their blend of country, back porch blues and folk sounds. On his solo debut, Matas does not veer too far away from this template and delivers music that is very easy on the ear and full of variety. There seems to be a Nature theme running through the project and the songs were written over a period of years outside of urban life and using the simple joys in Nature as a touchstone.  

Recorded in Winnipeg and Waterloo, Canada and produced by Matas and John Paul Peters, who also plays violin on the tracks; this is an understated sound that kicks off with a slow acoustic song, Tamarack, augmented with a brushed drum sound. The sweet instrumental, Sleep, is followed by the spoken word, jazzy, free-form arrangement of Monarch, a song about collecting butterflies no less.  Peace River Song has a country twang with banjo and harmonica setting the mood. Walking Human and Rock & Sound are two songs with a slow build and a rhythm that brings Neil Young to mind as the fluid and loose guitar lines give a great feel to both. 

The slow strum of Hardline and the easy groove of Before, We are both superb examples of the otherworldly quality that this project has. The Myth Of Forests is all jangly guitar, violin and spoken word and full of atmosphere. Overall, a fine release and one that comes highly recommended to fans of laid-back Americana.

Trent Miller Time Between Us Bucketfull Of Brains

This fourth release was recorded at Reservoir Studios in North London and co-produced by Miller with Graham Knight. The album also features renowned session guitarist Paul Cuddeford, violinist Barbara Bartz, cellist Bethany Porter and drummer Patrick Degenhardt. Miller was born in Italy before moving to London in search of a career in music and his road to this point has not always been an easy one. However, he has endured and made his way through to a point where his song craft is gaining greater recognition.

There is a big Rock sound on the title track and the closing She’s Leaving This Place For Good with electric guitar and harmonica winding around the rhythms and How Soon Is Never has a big strings sound to augment the arrangement. Moonlight Café has a strong keyboard/synth melody running alongside the plaintive vocal of Miller and the more acoustic arrangements of Motel Rooms Of Ocean Blue, Lament Of The Sea and Bonfires Of Navarino Road show another change of direction. A big, bright production and lots of good moments across the twelve tracks here.

Kaz Murphy Ride Out The Storm Self Release

An experienced singer-songwriter who has shared the stage with many noted artists and who released his debut album back in 1997 to critical acclaim. This is the fourth solo album and is produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb (Patty Griffin, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard). Newcomb also contributes on various guitars, both acoustic and electric, in addition to playing mandolin, bass and singing. Pat Manske plays drums and percussion.

Eleven songs based around a folk/blues sound with fine ensemble playing and a focus around varied relationships in the song-writing; Blue Devil Sky has a deserted family story while Soft Heart has a message of helping out others less fortunate. When People Come Together is a song of hope for society and our ability to endure.

Where You Come From is a song about having a strong identity with your roots and where you were born and raised, with a driving bass line and a great melody running through it. Forget About The World Tonight is a fine sentiment and one that is best enjoyed by a night fire with a slow glass of wine. The final song, Rise Me Up, with Penny Jo Pullus on backing vocals has a celebratory message and an appropriate end to proceedings. 

Dirk & The Truth Along The Road Self Release

This band are based in Annapolis and this debut is a 5-track EP produced by Matt Ascione and engineered by Bob Dawson. There are a lot of players on the song credits, with the core 4-piece band augmented by a further seven musicians across the tracks. 

Dirk Schwenk writes all songs and Table Set For Two is a cheating song while The River celebrates nature and the feeling of revival. I Am Graced is a love song with a nice melody and tempo and the following song, Along The Road She Comes has a similar theme, with the message of feeling lucky in life. 

The final song, Flag On A Hill, is a patriotic statement of defending the land of the free in the USA. Whereas the sentiment is perfectly fine, I’m somewhat troubled by the evidence to the contrary, every day, in the media. Professing to adhere to the words in the declaration of independence is one thing but the words of George Washington sound a clear warning; “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”.

Overall, this is a country rock sound that bodes well for future projects.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Amy McCarley Meco Meco Records

I have to admit the production credit of Kenny Vaughan and George Bradfute was the reason my interest was sparked by this artist’s latest album. I had not come across her work previously and it is something I will explore on the strength of this album. A release that is already going to be, for me, one of the best albums of 2019. Okay I know it’s only January but I doubt I will feel any different about it later in the year given the number of times I have gone back to it since the first listen. It is superb.

As well as the two gentlemen mentioned above, if you add the names of Chris Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Harry Stinson, Kenny Lovelace and Pat Alger, you know you are going hear something rather special. Those names however shouldn’t overshadow McCarley’s contribution as singer and songwriter. She possesses a strong and expressive voice that can display presentiment and positivity equally. The songs, McCarley writes in her sleeve notes, are about her life since leaving her role in NASA. The title is an acronym for “Main Engines Cut Off” something that occurred when the main engines had completed their task of getting the craft into orbit. This was a metaphor McCarley used to describe her life and for her musical career. 

She met Pat Alger, the noted songwriter and began to co-write with him in Nashville. One of their songs, Days, is an album highlight, an observational insight into the ordinary moments that she observed about her family. It is a deeply moving song. Alger co-wrote four more of the ten songs on the album. His input has no doubt helped McCarley as a writer but the other five songs show that she is a very capable writer in her own right. Such as, Never Can Tell, which looks at the unknown quantity that life is but that in the end, it’s your friends that count. This is done to a more acoustic setting with Marty Stuart on mandolin. How You Do is another reflection on life that shows off the versatility of McCarley’s voice and delivery. The lyrics question another’s role in her life. Elsewhere the songs take a more upbeat tack, such as the questioning Happy or the comment of Ain’t Life Funny.

Vaughan and Bradfut’s production is spot on, never overwhelming the vocal or getting in the way of the song. The playing throughout is supportive and inventive and shows the understated skill of all those involved. It is a shame that this album many never go into orbit in terms of sales and recognition. None the less, everyone involved can feel justifiably proud of what they have achieved with MECO. It features everything that is lacking in the majority of the mainstream right now. Ain’t life funny!

 Jason Ringenberg Stand Tall  Courageous Chicken

There is a line from an old song that says that ‘you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.’ In that light you don’t know you miss Jason Ringenberg until a new album arrives on your desk. Ringenberg says himself, in the sleeve notes, that he didn’t think there was an “internal drive or external demand to maintain a recording career.” Yet here he is and it’s great to have him back. The impetus for this venture was when he was made an artist in residence at Sequoia National Park. Spending a month in a mountain cabin, the location proved inspirational and he wrote several of songs that form the core of this album. 

This is prime Ringenberg, writing songs that are often humorous as well as heartfelt. To bring the album to fruition he co-produced with Mike Lescelius and decided to record in Misunderstudio in Illinois. He brought in two members of one of his college bands Tom Miller and Gary Gibula as the rhythm section and he then added players to fit the songs, such as George Bradfute, Fats Kaplan, Steve Fishell and guitarists Robbie Stokes, Andrew Staff and Richard Bennett amongst others. This set of musicians perfectly realise what is one of Ringenberg’s most enjoyable and diverse albums. The funding for the recording came from friends and fans who knew that Jason Ringenberg’s mission was not yet done.

The album opens with a strong, rounded and evocative instrumental, Stand Tall, which he notes took longer to get the right atmosphere than any other track he has recorded. From there on we get songs about The Ramones, John The Baptist (in which he notes that Baptist was a real humdinger), a Civil War story and a disenchanted soldier in I’m Walking Home. Here In The Sequoias is a song about the overall experience of being surrounded in such all-purpose environment. John Muir Stood Here is a more folk-based song that again is evocative of this special location. 

While the majority of the songs are written by Ringenberg with one Looking’ Back Blues written with his old friend Arty Hill. There are two songs that were added to the project when they turned out so well in the studio; they are Many Happy Hangovers To You (a Jean Shepard classic written by Johnny McCrae) which is delivered with tongue firmly in place. It also features some vibrant steel and electric guitar playing that is testament to the band enjoying themselves. The final track is his take on the old Bob Dylan song Farewell Angelina and it closes the album on a quiet note but on that is equally redolent of a revived spirit and passion.

Ringenberg, like fellow Nashville resident Jim Lauderdale, should be now be considered icons of determination with careers that have gone through ups and downs but now care only to make the kind of music that they feel in their souls. Both are decent men doing the very best they can to make the world a better place (musically at least). Take a bow and stand tall Jason. 

The Ponderosa Aces No Particular Way Mad Duck

This is a solid honky tonk five-piece band from Long Beach, California who after a previous album and ep are releasing their second full length album. The eleven songs on the album appear to be originals but there are no writing credits on the album! The band is fronted by Mike Maddux, who has the kind of voice that you want and expect from a hard-core honky tonk band. That is to say it has some gravel and depth without being totally unique. it serves as focal point of the band’s overall sound that is further enhanced by Marty Beal’s sterling guitar and Steve Meister pedal steel and the robust driving rhythms of Arthur Rodriguez and Jonny Bottoms on drums and bass respectively. 

The song titles fit with the overall notion of a honky tonk bar band and include If You Think I’ve Got A Drinkin’ Problem, Lots Of Ways To Be An Outlaw, Raising Hell In Honky Tonks and Gotta Keep Truckin’. Perennial themes for a band who trade in hardcore country and who were nominated in the Best Outlaw Band category in Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards in 2017 and Maddux certainly has the beard that goes with the overall image! 

However, these guys have it down and deliver an album that works on many levels and while it may not be totally different from a number of other bands ploughing a similar furrow, they do what they do with enough panache to make it easy to see why they have built a strong following in the US and also in Europe. No Particular Way, produced by Maddux and Beal, has a real affinity with grass roots, hardwood floor country music made for dancing and the album finds the Ponderosa Aces playing a winning hand.

Dave Rosewoood Gravel And Gold Self Release

This is another example of the fine, homegrown music that is coming from Scandinavia these days. Rosewood lives and works in Sweden after emigrating from the States.

He has a voice well suited to these Americana focused songs that recall any number of different influences and directions that are held together by Rosewoods voice and songs. He is ably backed by his Swedish backing musicians who sound as if they all work full time in a Nashville studio.

Oh No More is full of twanging guitar and vocal harmonies on a tale of returning to the place of growing up only without any troubles as he is now residing in a pine box!  While 20 Years is a song that opens with a distorted voice that sounds like it’s coming off an old scratchy 78. Before it boogies along with a roots groove. Blowin’ Round is about the preciousness of time. Back When features Rosewood on harmonica on a more acoustic based take on looking back at one’s past. Ozark Mountain Jam is a jaunty instrumental. Elsewhere Rosewood also touches on Southern Rock (In These Halls) and the music he grew up with so there are elements of folk, bluegrass, Bakersfield country, Allman Brothers blues and Gospel music on this first album, even though he has been playing music for some 20 years.

Settling in Sweden has doubtless, given him a perspective on his own country and a focus on the roots music that provided the impetus to make this a reality. Rosewood recorded the album in Aula Studios in Mariannelind where he co-produced the album (with Björn Holm) with a set of like-minded musicians to capture the essence of this Americana sound. Rosewood may well be making a name for himself in Sweden but could garner a wider audience on the strength of this, bringing together his many years on the road (gravel) and the songs that have come from those experiences (gold).

David Olney This Side Or The Other Black Hen

A renowned but underrated singer/songwriter David Olney has always released records that are full of literate storytelling delivered in a voice that is redolent with the understanding of age and what can be learned from surviving in a troubled world. Olney has lost none of his desire to continue to observe and offer his songs as testament to these times and to his world view.

This time out he is co-producing with Steve Dawson and they have gathered some musicians that infuse these songs with a depth and dexterity. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Dawson there is some atmospheric harmonica playing from Charlie McCoy, Fats Kaplan on oud and accordion and background vocals from Anne McCue and the McCrary sisters. The end result is a textured sound that is topped by a nuanced vocal performance from Olney. The songs themselves consider the peculiar nature of love and relationships in Death Will Not Divide Us, Open Your Heart (And Let Me In) and Running From Love as well as the sense of being that encompasses an outsider in Always The Stranger. Mortality seems central to biding one’s time in Border Town. Some of the songs are co-writes with John Hadley and on occasion a couple of other writers. The final track might seem a surprising choice with his take on Rod Argent’s Zombie classic She’s Not There. However, it fits completely within the context of the album.

Olney’s songs have been recorded by a lot of different artists and he has himself recorded many albums through the years. He delivers songs that are always contemplative and even when sometimes opaque they are open to individual interpretation. A new album from Olney is always worth exploring and that is true of this fine collection which will further enhance his reputation.

Doug Collins & The Receptionists Good Sad News Self Release

An album rooted somewhere between mid-sixties Beatles and Buck Owens. Collins writes some pretty meaty and beaty rootsy, pop songs. For his third album Collins brings his band into a couple of studios in Minneapolis to record these 10 tracks that sound like a lot of good pop songs should. Concise, fresh and memorable. The whole album clocks in just under 30 minutes so nothing ever overstays its welcome. Produced by Collins and Rob Genadek, it sounds contemporary without losing sight off its influences.

Some of the songs take on a more country influence with the addition of Joe Savage’s pedal steel guitar. Little House, I Saw You Dancin’ and Halfway Through are enhanced by its smooth sound. The core band of Collins, Charlie Varley on bass and drummer Billy Dankert are also joined by Dan Newton for a Tex-Mex flavoured Hey Mary and Jeff Victor brings his piano sound to Please Don’t Let Me Leave You and Tomorrow. The songs largely trade in misplaced lust and misunderstood love though the final cut, Top Of The Watertower, is about escapism and finding a place where no one else can find you.

The rhythm section also add some rewarding vocal harmonies and Collins is no slouch on the guitar either. The overall effect is to bring a smile to the face and a beat to the feet as the Good Sad News fills your head with a selection of catchy riffs and capable choruses.

Surrender Hill Tore Down Fences Blue Betty

Third album for Surrender Hill which is a husband and wife duo of Afton and Robert Dean Salmon. I had previously encountered Salmon as a solo artist (he has some 10 albums under his own name) but this pairing adds another dimension as their two voices are a perfect match. The writing is shared as are the vocals. Each taking a lead or harmony. 

There is a solid group of players working on the album with them, including steel and dobro player Mike Daly, Mike Waldren on electric guitar, drummer Matt Crouse and Eric Fritsch on bass and Hammond B3. Fritsch also co-produced the album with Salmon. They have delivered a solid sound that fits the songs well. The duo, after their first two albums, decided to consider some of the darker aspects of their lives before their paths crossed and they started working together. There were challenges that both endured and together they have faced their own pasts and are able to reflect  them in songs. There are also songs that show how their partnership, both personal and professional, provided the platform to help that introspection. There are also some songs that deal with  positivity as they were able to tear down fences and face a future together. One song that has a sense of their long-time commitment is Misbehave, while the closing PBR & Cigarettes is a celebration of some of these crazier times.

Tore Fences Down is the sort of album that those who love their roots rock robustly delivered with strong vocals. It is one also that will reward numerous plays, whether as focused listening, or music to accompany a drive.

Bye Bye Banshee Deathfolk Magic Self Release

The voice of Jezebel Jones (for whom this is a side project from her other musical activities) is the key factor in this strangely compelling EP. The songs embody a sense of pagan magic, feminism and ancient folklore. On one of the songs, Psychopomps, we are told of the spirit guides who surround a dying person. If I Die In My Dreams draws on the fear of death that many view as an equal fear of the devil. Bye Bye Banshee, one of the songs as well as the artist name, takes the Irish spirit that is often portrayed as an evil one but here sees it as one that warns of an impending death. So, the music that accompanies these four songs is likewise a dark, sparse, atmospheric, ambient folk music.

In the music it is the voice that is the key figure, with the surrounding background voices, percussion and upright bass (which takes a prominent place in the mix) supported by lap steel, cello, electric guitar and Hammond organ. The overall effect is melancholic yet entirely listenable and memorable. The effect, despite the darker aspects of the subject, is oddly soothing and soundtrack like. Not a release that will be for everyone but if your interests lie in the direction of the “old ways” and some the arcane folk tales such as the folklore of the Appalachians and other areas, you might well find this appealing.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Carol Markstrom Desert Rose Desert Rose

Awarded 2018 Country & Western Album of The Year by the Rural Roots Music Commission, Desert Rose is the third album release by Carol Markstrom. It’s a particularly ‘easy on the ear’ listen, a combination of folk and country ballads. Named after the flowering desert plant that survives and blossoms against all the odds, a similar resilience exposes itself on many of the songs included on the album. Bandida tells a tale of a fleeing escapee from an abusive relationship, having killed her abuser in self-defence and Where Did You Go hails the spirit and fortitude of the left behind partner, working menial jobs for a mere existence. It’s one of five co-writes with multiple Grammy Award winner Bil VornDick who also produced the album at Mountainside Audio Labs in Nashville and features a number of Music City big hitters including Andy Reese (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle, mandolin), Charlie McCoy (harmonica), Mark Fain (bass), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Paul Franklin (pedal steel).

A research psychologist and university professor in a previous life, Markstrom specialised in Native American cultures and has written extensively on the subject. Recent years have found her pursuing a professional career as a musician. It’s not surprising therefore that she includes songs such as Medicine Bottle, inspired by the execution of the Dakota Sioux leader of the same name and many of his warriors in the U.S.- Dakota War and Seminole Wind, another reminder of the colonisation of Native Americans’ lands.

Impressively packaged and very much delivered from the heart, Desert Rose is a body of work from an artist every bit as passionate about her writing as she is in delivering her messages in the live setting. 

Dillon Carmichael Hell On An Angel Riser House

Chris Stapleton’s somewhat unexpected rise to fame in modern country music circles has created ripples for like minded artists, whose previous opportunities to be played on country music radio amounted to zero. 

The young Kentucky native Dillon Carmichael ticks all the right boxes on his Dave Cobb produced debut album Hell On An Angel, from the astute selection of ‘go to’ guy Cobb as producer and engaging crack musicians Leroy Powell (guitars), Brian Allen (bass), Chris Powell (drums) and Robby Turner (pedal steel). Arresting artwork and packaging also impress, but the big winner is the selection of material, a combination of self writes, co-writes and well selected covers. Blending traditional and 90’s country, southern rock and a few weepies, is the perfect jumble to gain far reaching attention and each are well represented across the ten tracks on the album.

Natural Disaster kicks off the album with a tornado siren warning, preceded by six minutes plus of regret and reflection on a lifetime of travels down best avoided paths. Setting the scene for what follows, it’s one of two covers on the album, the other being a raunchy cover of Jon Pardi’s Country Women, which name checks Merle Haggard. 

Title track Hell On An Angel is standard southern rock fare as is the impressive bluesy Dixie Again. Hard On A Hangover is a slow classic country tune, What Would Hank Do may not be particularly original, penned by three writers it’s predictable enough, but still manages to sound good. Dancing Away With My Heart, the albums first single release, hits the spot on first spin, a big earthy sound. Might Be a Cowboy is catchy as hell, melodies and hooks that would work equally well in a stadium or barroom. Old Flame follows a similar pattern, big sounds and slick guitar breaks.

Dave Cobbs production works well throughout with Carmichael’s impressive baritone vocal always out front. Over a dozen co-writers are featured across the eight original songs on the album and the whole package is a box ticking exercise in what the industry considers marketable by a new and younger breed of Outlaws. Recorded at Nashville’s RCA Studio A and with Cobb at the controls it’s a fair indication of the potential the industry places in the young man from Burgin, Kentucky. All in all this is fair enough, as it certainly beats the dreadful crossover pop/country dirges that dominate much of country music radio at present. Carmichael has all the credentials to move from honky tonks to arenas in jig time and with this album he has climbed the first few rungs on the ladder.

Hayes Carll What It Is Dualtone

The sixth album from the Texan troubadour with the golden pen and it’s business as usual, sticking to his effective, non-cryptic and to the point song writing.  No surprises, simply another trademark album that ebbs and flows across its twelve tracks and finds Carll tackling issues close to his heart, both personal and social. 

Brad Jones, who produced Carll’s award-winning albums Trouble In Mind (2008) and KMAG YOYO (2011), is at the controls once more, alongside Carll’s partner Allison Moorer, who is also credited as co-writer on the opening track None ‘ya. The song tells the tale of a less than attentive partner – misunderstood in his own callow eyes – and similar to much of Carll’s writing, it’s laced with caustic humour. Times Like These, which follows, wipes the smile from your face and blows off the cobwebs in rockabilly fashion. Scratching his head at the often baffling present day political mess, he poses the question, ‘In times like these do I really need a billionaire just taking up my time, trying to tell me how he’s treated unfair’. If I May Be So Bold is a twangy joyride, an appeal for people to take back control of their lives despite the constant negativity at play. The Dylanesque Things You Don’t Wanna Know bemoans a dead in the water relationship and on the opposite side of the coin Beautiful Thing is a moving ode to a lover. Reading like a Valentine Card, it rocks along to a Stonesy beat, complete with tingling piano and slick guitar riffs. The powerful Jesus And Elvis mourns the unnecessary loss of life, the tale of the bar owner’s son not returning from war and his memory remaining some years later by a hanging picture of Jesus and Elvis behind the bar. The title track, with its toe tapping bluegrass rhythm, advises fulfilment and contentment and Wild Pointy Finger speaks to the judgemental, whether it be politicians, spin doctors or indeed ourselves. ‘I’ve got ten digits like most other people, I can build the church, but I can’t hold the steeple Nine of them stand up and do exactly what I say, but the one by the thumb it just points all day’.

Fittingly, the album closes with an eloquent love song, the charming I Will Stay, presumably dedicated to his partner.It’s the perfect bookend to another chapter of exceptional songs by an artist continuing the legacy of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine as one of the insightful pen smiths of his generation.  

Josh Peters Pages Of My Heart Memramcook 

An award-winning tattooist is not one who immediately springs to mind as a creator of a very traditional and classic country recording. Enter Josh Peters from New Brunswick, Canada.  A member of the High Tides Tattoo company, he has been inking the locals and not so locals for the best part of a decade. Pages Of My Heart, his debut recording, has been cooking for several years, as a tribute by Peters to his love of straight down the middle country music, the type performed by artists such as Charley Pride and Ray Price to name but two. One glance at the album cover, before even removing the disc, and you instantly get a flavour of where he’s coming from. Everything about the artwork – not unlike the images used by Colter Wall in his recent releases – suggest ‘country’ and very much without the word ‘rock’ following it.

The eleven-track album is made up of nine self-written songs, one co-write and his take on the traditional ballad Hesitation Blues. Titles such as Who Closed The Honky Tonks, Prison Of My Mind and The Working Man follow the classic country themes, but the quality of the material elevates Peters above that of a pretender. A close observer of traditional country, I expect Peter’s spent quite a while rooting in the bargain bins seeking out old classics to inspire him. 

 In some ways Peters may be accused of attempting to pay tribute to a greater range of artists than necessary. His accented vocals do vary considerably on a few tracks, to the extent that you could be forgiven for assuming different vocalists delivering them. However, this is a minor quibble which should not distract from the overall quality of the album.  Pages Of My Heart may or may not be a one-off project by a musician captivated by the time honoured sound of yesterday, or possibly the first instalment by an artist following a similar path to Joshua Hedley, Zephaniah OHora and Jason James, carrying the torch for real country as it should be heard. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Joshua Ray Walker Wish You Were Here State Fair 

 Maybe I’ve just hit a purple patch, but only three weeks into 2019 and I’ve already come across three or four albums that are most likely to feature in my favourites of 2019. The latest of the batch is this gem from a young man from Dallas, Texas named Joshua Ray Walker.

Not too many albums impress on first spin to the extent that it remains in the cd drawer on rotation for multiple spins, but that was the case with Wish You Were Here, the debut album from Walker. Initially drawn to Walker’s crystal-clear rich vocals and killer musicianship by his players, it’s only when you combine these with the quality of his storytelling that the whole picture emerges. And some picture it is! 

Walker has a lot to say across the ten tracks on the album, all self writes, and it’s fair to say he doesn’t waste too many words getting his stories across. Only one track, Lot Lizard breaks the four-minute mark and most of the others barely last more than three minutes. That track Lot Lizard finds Walker hitting notes yodel style that are octaves over most singer’s ranges. It’s a delightful Texan love ballad enhanced by some dreamy accordion playing by Ginny Mac. Burn It raises the temperature – pardon the pun – rocking along in top gear like a young Dwight Yoakam on speed. Keep is a Joe Ely style two stepper with Walker sharing vocals and Love Songs would sit pretty on any Mavericks recording. Trouble recalls Steve Earle back in his debut Guitar Town days, a lush melody enriched by perfectly timed piano and a killer guitar break with just about the perfect dosage of twang. 

I also love the album cover, a simple yet evocative Texas honky tonk shot, with Walker propping up the bar, beer in hand. The young man from East Dallas has recorded an album with the maturity of someone that has decades of life’s experiences under his belt. There is competition at present among several talented young men making waves outside the dreaded commercial country music drivel. The vast majority of them are targeting the outlaw side of things, given the success in recent years of Chris Stapleton, and more power to them. However, this young man is coming from a different direction entirely. Nothing outlaw about him at all, simply a country singer that can write and deliver strikingly impressive country songs. He has produced a treasure of a debut album with Wish You Were Here! 

Lula Wiles What Will We Do Smithsonian Folkways

Long before forming the three-piece Lula Wiles, Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin sang and played instruments together at Berklee College of Music in Boston and around the many folk clubs in that city. The natural progression of their combined talents lead to the creation of the band and the release of their self titled debut in 2016, an album featuring all original material.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institution of the USA, is the perfect label to host the trio, alongside other treasures that continue to keep the flame burning for traditional folk music such as Don Flemons, Kaia Kater and Los Texmaniacs.  Smithsonian Folkways are supporters and champions of artists that create what they simply describe as ‘people’s music’ - passionate writing and playing, reflecting political and environmental everyday occurrences, whether by way of protest or mere reflection. 

What Will We Do most certainly does just that, with reflections on their birthplace of Maine on Hometown, to romantic hopelessness on Nashville, Man. An album honouring the past as much as the future demands a murder ballad of sorts and Bad Guy ticks that box. However, unlike many of its predecessors, the perpetrator is the sister of an abused wife, who disposes of the offender in time honoured fashion ‘I followed her husband down to the glade, I drew my dagger across his chest, And the wound I dug deeply as his grave’.  A cover of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s classic The Pain Of Loving You also impresses. The national opioid epidemic is the motivation behind Morphine, the painful progression from a wide eyed and innocent child to the anguish and despair of the adult addict. The closing and title track What Will We Do is credited to Irish ballad singer Mary Delaney and fittingly bookends the album as a reflection on the themes and threads across the previous eleven songs. 

 Most notable is the forty-page coloured booklet accompanying the album, complete with attractive artwork and particularly informative liner notes. However, the real winner is the quality of the musical content across the twelve tracks on the album, stunning lead and harmony vocals and flawlessly understated guitar, bass and fiddle by the trio with the addition of drums on several the tracks courtesy of Sean Trischka. 

A joy from start to finish with vocals that call to mind Nanci Griffith at her peak and stands shoulder to shoulder with their fellow sisters Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins on their similar journey with side project I’m With Her. Take my word for it, this is seriously good!

River Whyless Kindness, A Rebel RollCall 

Asheville North Carolina quartet River Whyless follow their impressive 2016 release We All The Light with a more experimental and dynamic sound under the guidance of progressive producer Paul Butler (Bees, The Dawn Chorus, Devendra Banhart, Michael Kiwanuka). Formed while all students at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, the band have matured from their alt-folk beginnings to a more adventurous and imposing outfit with Kindness, A Rebel. Four songwriters in a band can create hurdles, whether it be competing egos or attempting to be overly diplomatic by allowing each member a free hand to include their individual compositions. The decision to give Butler a relatively free hand with their third album has resulted in an entirely more mature and compelling recording. It’s also very much an album of its time, exploring political and environmental landscapes. Born In The Right Country – with a melody not unlike Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark - addresses the privileged white classes, The Feeling Of Freedom laments the two-job minimum wage culture. Falling Farm and Darkness In Mind – both recalling Talking Heads – particularly benefit from Butler’s input, as does the powerful opening track All Of My Friends. New Beliefs enters The Decemberists territory, impressively it must be said. 

Kindness, A Rebel heads in directions that River Whyless could hardly have anticipated when they formed a decade ago. Sounding better and better on each listen, abandoning their folky overtones for a more expansive, dynamic and edgier sound has elevated them to another level which should introduce them to a wider audience. 

Willard Grant Conspiracy Untethered Loose

A posthumous release and a reminder of the virtuosity that the music industry lost at the untimely passing of Robert Fisher from cancer in 2017. At the forefront of what we now label Americana, Fisher had been the front man in Willard Grant Conspiracy since their formation in 1995. The band survived until his passing – albeit with numerous personal changes - despite never gaining the industry recognition his unique brand of gothic roots richly deserved. Up to thirty band members came and left during the lifespan of WGC, but their distinctiveness remained unchanged, with Fischer cavernous baritone vocals instantly recognisable.  He often performed as a duo in later years with long-time collaborator and violin supremo David Michael Curry. Their amalgamation fitted like hand and glove, Fischer’s prowling voice and Curry’s stylish and atmospheric strings adding the perfect effects to uncompromising and searching lyrics. Curry is on record describing how WGC’s final album was originally a fun time weekend project, in parallel to both their busy schedules prior to Fischer’s diagnoses.  It’s very much to Curry’s credit that he ensured that Fisher’s final works were not packed off to the archives, unlikely to see the light of day.

Notwithstanding that thirteen of the fourteen tracks were written prior to his diagnoses, an atmosphere of impending doom dominates throughout, from the Nick Cave echoing opener Hideous Beast to the ghostly and prognostic closer Trail’s End. The latter dipping and soaring gloriously with free fall instrumentation, confusion, distortion and indiscipline.  The albums title track was composed by Fisher after he became aware of his fate and it’s an honest, open hearted and plainspoken commentary on his impending death, not unlike Lazarus from David Bowie’s farewell album. Love You Apart has echoes of an outtake from the Lou Reed/John Cale tribute album Songs For Drella, it’s delivered semi spoken and aches and rejoices in equal measures, concluding with magical viola playing. Likewise, Saturday Night With Jane recalls mid-career Lou Reed. The chaotic Let The Storm Be You’re Your Pilot implies anxiety and agitation, Fischer’s drifting whispered vocals intensifying the sense of misgiving.

A poignant and fitting farewell that sits alongside Regard The End (2003) as a career highlight from an artist whose body of work, if there is any justice, will be uncovered, recognised and valued by generations going forward.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Heart Hunters American Eclipse Pretend Sweetheart

There are a number of husband and wife teams out there on the music highway, all trying to make a living while following their shared, creative muse. There are practicalities of travelling as a duo but when you have children at home, then the tug of the road is tempered by the urge to be settled into some form of domestic bliss.

Brianna Blackbird (vocals, guitar, Bolivian drum, bass) and Drew de Man (vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel, percussion), decided to experience life as a couple in a mountain village in Bolivia and the experience gave them a new perspective that cemented their belief in writing about the environment and the way that nature has fallen under the wheels of big industry. They have enlisted some premier players for this record that spans ten songs and is produced to a very high standard by Peter Case. Included are the talents of Case himself on piano, organ, harmonium, guitar and percussion; Fats Kaplin on violins, viola, accordion, mandolin and oud; Don Heffington on drums & percussion; Dennis Crouch on upright bass.

The Spanish verse of Cristo is suitably different to the rest of the project and has a haunting melody that reflects a hymn, sung with quiet passion and a wish for better tomorrows. Angels is an autobiographical song about life on the road and the struggle to make ends meet, while Normal America questions the pursuit of the American dream and urges a look behind the veil. The Good Fight asks about the waste of deserted strip malls and the hope that we could restore mother nature to her original form. Living a self-sufficient dream and making sweet music is enough at times and this duo certainly have their hearts in the right place.

Annie Oakley Words We Mean Horton

She was a sharp shooter in the Wild West days of yore and her name is aptly adopted by this trio that comprises of twin sisters, Sophia & Grace Babb (vocals, guitar) & Nia Personette (violin, vocals). They hail from Oklahoma and play Folk based acoustic music that is very appealing. All songs are written and arranged by the trio and the sound is bright and full of colour across the twelve tracks here.

The Curse is a song about love and loss and Did You Dream is a love plea, asking for answers, framed by a sensitive delivery. Good Things has a sense of discomfort, foreboding and sadness while If I Were A Ghost is about wanting more and looking for a closer bond. The message of honesty in relationships is continued in two further songs, Words We Mean and Into The Light

Missed Connection deals with a close relationship where a lack of communication has dented the love. Brother speaks of a lost soul with no direction and Nothing To Say is again about complex relations where trust has broken down. However, things end on a positive with the excellent Sweet Time, a song that speaks of belonging and loving over the years.

With great harmonies throughout and stellar support from a studio band that adds just the right amount of texture and tone to the gentle and restrained arrangements, this is a very fine release and comes highly recommended. 

Tia McGraff Stubborn In My Blood Bandana

Co-produced and arranged with husband Tommy Parham (banjo, guitars), Tia McGriff delivers her seventh release since her debut in 2000. Impressive vocals throughout and the conviction and timbre in her vocal really sells these eleven songs. Especially on the opening Pilot Of Change and Hole In Your Heart, one a song of renewal and change; the other a sad look at feeling broken and low. The pressures of live performance and the travel schedule of a journeyed musician is explored on Travellin’ By Guitar, while the message to always believe in yourself is perfectly captured on Own Your Sunshine

The excellent production continues on Let Em’ See Your Strong and Stubborn In My Blood, songs about living proud and being emotionally strong. Far Away Man is a song about how distance makes the heart grow stronger and a new day with hope of change is the message of The Faithful Ones. The temptation and attraction in Forbidden brings matters to a fine conclusion and the players are very much aligned with the song structures throughout.

David Haerle Garden Of Edendale Edendales

Solo debut from an artist who has been president of the CMH Label Group for the past 27 years. He describes himself as a late bloomer but has been playing guitar since his early teens. This project took 7 years to complete and I have to say that it is quite an impressive achievement. The 13 tracks run for approx. 65 minutes but I didn’t find myself getting tired of listening at any point. The production is top drawer with a bright and vibrant sound while the assembled musicians play with great finesse and freedom around the song structures. 

The guitar prowess of Haerle is quite something and he can take a solo run with the best of them. The violin of Luanne Homzy is also very much to the fore but every player contributes to an overall sound that is commercial pop/rock with sweet melody lines, catchy up-tempo numbers (Finding Natalie, Tell Your Story, The Tracer), mixed with more reflective, sombre songs (The Stranger, Do You Know Surrender?). The duet song, Women Make The World Go Round has a Beautiful South feel to it while the excellent Glendale reminds me of a Dire Straits workout. 

The Tone That Got Away is an impressive instrumental track and the closer, Everything I Ever Wanted is another instrumental that features some fine violin parts before going into a Skynyrd workout as it builds to a climax. A most engaging album and one to seek out if you like guitar oriented commercial rock with a touch of class. 

Mandy Rowden When the Day Comes Howlin’ Dog

Starting out with the religious message of the title track could go either way for this artist who grew up in East Texas. However, when you can deliver a vocal that suggests much of the attraction in the vocals of Lucinda Williams, then you have something of an open road ahead.

San Antonio is a love song to a place of refuge and safety and If I Could Have Known is a look back at an old relationship. All songs are written by Rowden (2 co-writes) and there is one cover version, a tribute to Tom Petty, with a stripped back Angel Dream #2. Don Richmond plays an influential role in mixing and production and also plays a range of instruments. James Doyle provides drums on eight of the thirteen tracks and Rowden chips in with multi instrumentation on guitars, piano, organ, viola and fiddle. So, a tight bunch of players who produce a fine record to build upon previous successes. Pedal Upon The Metal is steeped in Country with pedal steel from Richmond adding real charm to the song structure. A Chance To Give You Love displays a quiet anger at a close friend who took their own life. The chance to help a friend move on from a toxic relationship is captured in Sticks & Stones, a fine song that shows the trio in all their understated power. Well worth having this release in your collection.  

Ken Pomeroy Hallways. Horton Records

This 7-track EP was recorded on 4-track cassette tape – the more things change, the more they stay the same! What we get is a stripped-down acoustic sound of guitar, sometimes supported by piano, mandolin and muted electric guitar. Her voice is really beautiful, with a pure and strong delivery. Ken is a 16-year old artist from Oklahoma and this is her 2nd EP release. Wow...!

Deprived speaks of surviving in an indifferent world and Three Wonderful Words is a fragile need to be loved. There is a plaintive quality to Ken’s voice and the vulnerability in reaching out for a connection is delicately delivered on the title track, Hallways. Sidewalk Song is about homelessness and the self-belief to endure and rise above. It’s bare bones, full of gentle playing and rumination from an artist that is wise and talented beyond her years. A big future lies ahead…

Reviews by Paul McGee

The Tumbling Souls Between the Truth and the Dream Wee Studio

This Scottish group has released a collection of folk songs that reflect their influences and the twelve tracks are all performed with great gusto and no small amount of skill. The collective boasts eight players who create a celebratory sound and the mix of fiddles, guitars, accordion, banjo, mandolin and piano serve up lots of fine melodies in what is quite an enjoyable listen. 

Grounded by the double bass playing of Keith Morrison, the talents of all the ensemble are given flight across songs like Knowing Where You Come From, King Of The Moon, Wishing My Time and Stornoway at 2am.

All songs are written by Willie Campbell a veteran of many years playing in different bands and other collaborations and his vocal performance is very strong here. Production by Pete Fletcher is bright and clear and the inclusion of a live track, Dance A Little Better, gives a sense of just how good these musicians are in a live setting.

Eryn Lady E Self Release

Sweet soul music from a talented singer who knows how to deliver a powerful performance across the six songs included on this EP. There is a blues feel to tracks like The You Missing From Me and Just Jump, while the Gypsy tempo to the arrangement on Stranger In My House is suitably different and adds a new focus. Running Red Lights is back to a soulful delivery and the production of Jack Daley, who also plays bass, is very sensitive to the undoubted vocal talents of Eryn.

Trevor & Sylvie Time Is Free Self Release

Trevor Wheetman and Sylvie Davidson are a husband and wife duo based in Nashville. Trevor is multi-talented and can lend his skills to being an actor, musician, composer, and musical director. He is also a multi-instrumentalist and together with Sylvie, who also boasts acting skills in addition to her musical abilities, they deliver folk-based music that is both engaging and impressive in equal measure.

All of the thirteen songs included on this debut are written by the duo, with the exception of a Mark Knopfler cover, The Bug. Wheetman pens four songs, Davidson takes credit for three and the remaining five tracks are co-writes. Production by Nick Foster is very proficient and the fine harmony singing is given a central place in the mix. Foster also contributes on guitars, slide, mandolin, dobro and banjo while the other studio musicians play in a restrained and tight fashion throughout.

There is a nature theme with songs like Stolen Flowers (a wedding with a difference) and Thirsty, which speaks of love, simple ways and going back to the land. Build This Love speaks of union and the bonds of family. All I Know is a catchy love song with strings arranged by Matt Montgomery and it is another good example of the craft at play here.

Idiot and Opposite Of Love, both have a slow groove and an easy vocal from Trevor that channels James Taylor. Cupid’s Confession is a real joy and a clever look at the routine involved when you are a bored facilitator of love. The Few and Through The Cracks are two stand-out tracks as the project winds down, the first a slow folk blues with fine vocals from Sylvie & Trevor and beautifully restrained cello provided by Alex Kelly; the latter an acoustic reflection on love with winsome vocals from Sylvie and again, the superb cello of Alex Kelly. Definitely a recommended release that continues to unveil new treasure on repeated listening.

Low Lily 10,000 Days Like These Mad River

This is contemporary Folk music played to a very high standard indeed. The 11 tracks display a vocal dexterity and harmony heaven from the three key musicians involved, Liz Simmons (guitar, vocals), Flynn Coen (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Lissa Schneckenburger (fiddle, vocals). There are two instrumentals included, The Good Part and Single Girl. The former displays the power of the trio, with accompaniment on banjo and bass driving the arrangement; the latter is a reflective piece with solo fiddle from Lissa that shows off her impressive talents to full effect. This collection of songs bears repeated listens and the clear vocal delivery and the terrific production of Liz Simmons raises the experience to new levels. Songs like Dark Skies Again, Hope Lingers On and 10,000 Days Like These bear strong testament to the joy of fluid playing, sweet melody and harmonious vocals. The superb cover of Brothers In Arms (Mark Knopfler) also sits comfortably into the overall thrust of the project and I have little doubt that seeing this group in a live setting would rank as nothing short of a compelling evening. Highly recommended. 

Lee Palmer Horns & Harps Self Release

In the liner notes of this release, Lee Palmer says that he has had the privilege of releasing 5 studio albums over the last 6 years and that this release counts as his most musical experience to date. We are not inclined to disagree at Lonesome Highway, having reviewed a number of his previous releases on the website. 

Ten tracks that are split between featuring acoustic & electric harp, courtesy of Roly Platt, and saxophone by Turner King. The rest of the band are terrific support players with the back beat of Sean O’Grady and the bass of Alec Fraser Jr. adding greatly to the loose feel and blues drive of these songs. The warm sounds of Steve O’Connor on piano, organ & wurlitzer are augmented by the impressive background and harmony vocals of Chris Ayries and the production is crisp and uncluttered.

Tracks like My Baby Again, Isn’t That So and Shake 'Em Blues provide a classic bluesy feel while Old Picture, Old Frame and Life Rolls On, highlight sweet guitar playing over a gentle beat. The big sound of Rockin' Strawberry Jam is countered by slow burn of Somebody’s Daughter, a song that addresses homelessness and one that stands out here among an impressive body of work.

Swampcandy Mine Self Release

This collective hail from Annapolis, Maryland and have a number of prior releases dating back to 2007. Ruben Dobbs is the creative force behind the band and in addition to playing guitar and singing, he displays a healthy disregard for being pigeonholed into any genre. Included here, across 13 tracks is a huge gumbo of swamp groove (JC’s Revenge), light New Orleans jazz (Party With The Devil), jazzy blues (Holy Rope), hard rock (Dead Man Walking) and some ragtime, polka sounds (Burn The Meadow). To say nothing of the spoken word links between tracks, some of which are very humorous, with the loose percussive sounds of a Tom Waits, delivered in tracks like Knock Out and Never Going Back.

There are credits for 18 different studio players who range on instruments from strings, percussion across a heady mix of banjo, piano, keys, vibraphone, bass and things that go bump in the night!! Interestingly, no guitars, as would be expected on a big production project like this – voodoo with a bit of the Devil himself thrown in for good measure. Addictive and very impressive.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Amy Ray Holler Daemon

Indigo Girl Amy Ray possesses the musical and writing talents to effortlessly work folk, country, indie, gospel and blues like few others and her latest and sixth solo release, finds her at the top of her game. The album covers the emotional baggage of a lifetime spent in Georgia and is a reflection of personal struggles together with those of her fellow Southerners, across a range of topics including sexuality, racism, religion and addictions. It’s the third impassioned album of this year which follows a similar tread, the subject matter being the inspiration for two most impressive albums by younger female artists Kristina Murray (Southern Ambrosia) and H.C. Mc Entire (Lionheart).

Calling on the same production team and musicians as her 2014 album Goodnight Tender, the album includes guest performances by a host of musicians and has vocal contributions from Justin Vernon, The Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Vince Gill and Brandi Carlisle. Producer Brian Speiser also combines strings and horns this time around and with such a vast array of instrumentation it is to his credit that the sound mix is impeccable, each instrument crystal clear in the final mix.

The opening track Gracie’s Dawn (Prelude) lasts barely forty seconds before the stunning rocker Sure Feels Good Anyway kicks in. The song challenges racism head on and is a precursor for much of the compelling material which follows. Particularly moving are the final two tracks of the fourteen across the album. Bondsman (Evening in Missouri) inspired by the Debra Granik directed movie Winter’s Bone, paints a bleak picture of poverty and desperation ("Oh Lord, let me sleep through the thunder, Let me sleep through the rain, One more night before the bondsman comes, And takes it all away’’). Didn’t Know A Damn Thing, dedicated to the African – American author and social  activist Toni Cade Bambara, reflects on the  racial inhumanities and horrors inflicted on her people while she was a baby and young girl, oblivious to what occurring in her home State ( "Bodies were hanging, bodies were burning, And my Mama and Daddy, they were earning, I was rocking the cradle, while in that Tertile Black Bell, They were taking the blows for every toll of that Liberty Bell, I didn’t know a damn thing’’). Given the subject matter of much of the material, the album is also not without humour. Tonight, I’m Paying The Rent is an upbeat reality check about the toils of the industry, the hard-earned cash and the hardship often endured for that hard-earned cash. ("If it don’t feed the soul, it’s still heaven sent, Tonight I’m paying the rent!’’).

Holler is a reminder of exactly how gifted Ray is, as both a songwriter and storyteller, and her ability to translate personal emotional baggage in a compelling manner. It reads like chapters of a book by an artist that remains proud of her heritage having never abandoned her religion, while reflecting on being born during the civil rights protests in the 60’s, the horrors inflicted by her people on their neighbours, touring for over thirty years and the conflict of being a left wing and gay Southern woman. It’s a worthy successor to Goodnight Tender and one that will no doubt feature in my 'Best of 2018' listings.

 Whitey Morgan & The 78’s Hard Times & White Lines Self-Release

One of the caretakers of what many of us consider to be authentic country music, Whitey Morgan has been firing up audiences for a dozen years or more with his ass kickin’ and full on live shows. His studio output may be relatively sparse but always manages to recreate the hell for leather stage shows, that he and his trusty honky tonk brothers, The 78’s, continue to deliver.

Hard Times & White Lines sticks to his trusted formula of songs about drinking, drugging, suffering, self-destruction, surviving and carrying on, both from a personal and third person perspective. Don’t expect particularly deep thought-provoking lyrics to explore, that’s not what’s on offer here. Instead, we’re treated to full on straight-talking assault of hardcore country, kicking off with the opener and first single from the album Honky Tonk Hell ("The doors are always open and you're welcome inside, The whiskey and women or whatever you like, You’ll never check out of this heartbreak hotel, A man can get caught up down in this honky tonk Hell") – possibly a homage to a dodgy dive bar or maybe a state of mind. Raging guitars and pedal steel introduce Morgan’s raw baritone drawl on that first track and the ignition is finally turned off over forty minutes later, with the more traditional barroom country closer Wild And Reckless. ("Guitar on my shoulder, a drink in my hand, one keeps me from falling, one helps me to stand, I’ve been wild and reckless, a little insane, and there's a crowd just inside here calling my name"). The eight tracks that make up the balance of the album don’t stray from similar territory, though a cover of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid drifts somewhat into straight rock. It is one of three non-originals on the album, the others being Dale Watson’s Carryin’ On and Don Dupre’s What Am I Supposed To Do

Steel guitar always earns pride of place with Morgan and three peddlers are name checked on the sleeve notes - regular 78’er Brett Robinson and guests Larry Campbell (who also played on Morgan’s self-titled 2010 album) and Austin Tripp.  Also adding muscle to the guitar sound is Jesse Dayton alongside Joey Spina, Kevin Key, Tony Martinez and Dylan Dunbar. Bass and drums contributions are courtesy of Alex Lyon and Tony Dicello and Jim (Moose) Brown and Drew Harakal play keys. 

Morgan’s pace of life, by his own admission, has slowed down somewhat since becoming a parent and relocating to rural California and the aforementioned Carryin’ On -alarmingly similar to Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind! -  though written by Dale Watson, could be autobiographical, reflecting Morgan’s present predicament.  Hard To Get High, with its instantly catchy melody possibly refers to an earlier career chapter ("I put the lid on these pills, gave away that cocaine, I couldn't drink another whiskey to kill all this pain, your leaving left me damned down in this hole, and it's hard to get high when you're feeling this low").

There does appear to be an industry driven change in recent times – even if it’s at a snail’s pace – in respect of country music of the classic and outlaw kind. It seems to be slowly grinding its way back into favour with artists like Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson earning warranted exposure. Let’s hope the resurgence filters it’s way down to Whitey Morgan, there’s little doubt that it’s entirely deserved and anyone giving Hard Times and White Lines a listen, will no doubt concur.

John Blek Thistle & Thorn Self-Release

John Blek’s last album Catharsis Vol.1, released this time last year, was written while he was hospitalised having contracted a mysterious illness that side lined him for a number of months. Thistle & Thorn, his third solo release in as many years, was not inspired by such unorthodox leanings but still manages to improve on the lofty fineness of its predecessor. Recorded in both Wavefield Recordings, Clonakilty, Co. Cork and Louisville, Kentucky, the album contains ten songs written by Blek over a twelve-month period.

Whereas his last album flitted between folk and trad, his latest offering remains steadfastly in the former camp, a genre that Blek particularly excels in, both in his writing and vocal delivery. It’s a solid collection of folk ballads punctuated by some sumptuous vocal contribution’s courtesy of Kentuckian Joan Shelley and guitar work from her artistic partner and Grammy Nominated Nathan Salsburg. The production duties are by Blek and Brian Casey who also adds guitar, bass, piano, organ and mandolin. 

Conflicted emotions are addressed on The Body, the inevitable parting of former lovers driven by waywardness and neglect ("I’ve grown weary of you, the late nights and the drink too. Your foolish sense of duty, it means nothing to me"). It’s delivered delightfully in a call and response fashion by Blek and Joan Shelley.  Merrier euphoric times in (possibly) the same relationship are referred to the Colours Rising ("O my lover lay back down, I see the colours rising when you’re around"). Subtle strings courtesy of Lea Miklody and Dolcie Ross Keogh assist in creating a dream like ambiance to the song. IF I is an uncomplicated poem put to music. The Blackwater opens the album in an unhurried and patient manner, paving the way for what is to follow. Simplicity has always been one of Blek’s finest points and in a similar manner to his previous solo work, Blek’s vocals are out in front on Thistle & Thorn, but fleshed out more dramatically on this occasion by some wonderful instrumental arrangements. In Your Likeness considers existence and continuity, an ode to a fallen brother. Self-control, longing and mental well-being are present on the closing track All The Night. It’s an impressive closer to an album that once more reinforces Blek as one of the premier singer songwriters in the folk genre in Ireland and indeed beyond, where his talents were formally recognised in 2017 with his nomination for Song of The Year by The International Folk Alliance. 

With tours of Ireland, U.K, Germany and further afield programmed for 2019, Thistle & Thorn is a powerful statement to have to offer from an artist that pays homage to writers from previous decades such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Nick Drake as well as his modern day peers Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley and Alela Diane.

Daniel Romano Finally Free New West

You certainly cannot accuse Daniel Romano of being predictable or unproductive for that matter. Never idle or dwelling in one musical location, his output of eight albums in eight years have covered traditional country, folk, rock and roll, desert and ‘in your face’ rock. His latest release creates a late 60’s early 70’s ‘back to basics’ feel across the mainly acoustic recordings. In essence it’s a one man show, with the only contribution being that of Kay Berkel, who plays piano on Between The Blades of Grass and There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form.  Vocals, writing, instruments, production and engineering are all by Romano, with the album being taped on a four track Tascam cassette recorder from one microphone, which remained in a single position throughout the recording, picking up the various instruments from their locations in the room.

Finally Free may be a head scratcher on first listen and does demand repeated and undisturbed plays to appreciate, but it’s well worth the time invested. Romano admits that "A lot of it is intentionally out-of-tune and not sung obsessively, but I just felt like that's how it needed to be." Though the album may appear to be ‘mind changing substance induced’,Romano actually confesses that the lyrics came to him while driving across the Prairies and suggests that he does not necessarily totally comprehend them himself and therefore the lack of a lyric sheet is no handicap. It’s as equally challenging to interpret the albums title as it is the lyrics. The discerning listener may draw his own assessment from the streams of consciousness, but in real terms the charm of the album lays in the melodies and harmonies throughout.

Empty Husk, opens with gentle harmony vocals and guitar strumming before erupting mid-section and closing as calmly as it started. All The Reaching Trims is a beautiful ballad with languid vocals and acoustic guitar dancing from speaker to speaker. Both these tracks together with Gleaming Sects of Aniram recall early career Roy Harper, possibly played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm. The Long Mirror Of Time stands out, the most conventional and up-tempo offering, Romano’s vocals dip, soar and wail impressively aided by some delightful organ contributions. Celestial Manis is distorted, ghostly and searching, its trippy melodies recall Bowie at his most experimental, the sound of lost souls in purgatory seeking liberty. There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form bookends the album, mischievously distorted vocals, guitar and percussion combining seductively.

Followers may not necessarily have seen this coming but Finally Free is very much the sum of its parts, an album to be savoured in one sitting, preferably alone and in a dark room. Romano continues to challenge the listener as much as he challenges himself and this new album is yet another essential instalment from an incomparable craftsperson.

Bill & The Belles Dreamsongs, Etc. Jalopy 

Four-piece Johnson City Tennessee band Bill & The Belles signature sound is a throwback to popular music in America back as far as the 1920’s when Ragtime was the flavour of the day, soon to be overtaken by Jazz, Swing and eventually merging with country music as the preferred choice for many radio listeners. Bill & The Belles manage to recreate all these styles with their amalgamation of the various genre across the thirteen tracks that comprise Dreamsongs, Etc. Five of the inclusions were penned by lead vocalist Kris Truelsen.  

Reflecting a sound that is also closely aligned to bluegrass, it’s no surprise that they were nominated in 2017 for four IBMA Awards, though it hardly does them justice to pigeon hole them to one single genre. Banjo, fiddle, clarinet and guitar are provided by Truelsen, Kalia Yeagle and Grant Van’t Hoff respectfully, the trio also contributing harmony vocals, with fourth member Karl Zerfas adding bass. The musical arrangements, production and performances throughout are impressive and stylish.

Hum Your Troubles Away starts the ball rolling in simple Ragtime style, followed by the Hank Williams sounding - both in title and musical content - Lonesome Blues. A similar melancholy is visited in Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues – complete with yodelling – one of two Jimmie Rodgers songs covered, the other being the broody My Carolina Sunshine Girl. The self-written material compares favourably, in particular the timeless Wedding Bells Chimes and Good Gal I’ll Be Okay, both of which could have been borrowed from The Great American Songbook. 

The Jalopy Theatre and School of music, located in Redhook, Brooklyn, NY is a grassroots cultural centre preserving traditional music from The States and further afield, with an inhouse record label. Bill & The Belles debut recording is their latest offering and fits perfectly into Jalopy’s ethos. Anyone with an awareness and appreciation of old-time music should explore their impressive catalogue of artists.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown have developed a very successful touring and recording career presenting a similar approach to music of bygone eras as did the Manhattan Transfer some decades back. Here’s hoping Bill & The Belles can also continue the tradition.

J.R. Harbidge First Ray Of Light Absolute Label Services

You could be forgiven for assuming that First Ray Of Light was a recording by an artist hailing from Long Island or the like, given its Americana singer songwriter feel. In fact Harbidge hails from the Black Country and has been present in the Birmingham rock music scene for over two decades. Currently residing in Derby, First Ray Of Light finds Harbridge somewhat abandoning his rock and grunge background for a more polished and considered collection of songs. Included are some impressive weepies (When You Don’t Love Your Man, Learn To Love The Rain, A Side Of You That Cares) alongside more up-tempo songs including opener – and very much a song for our turbulent political times -  Turn The Screw, a damning commentary on political and financial institutions. The albums highlight and closing track I Know You Know I Know, which kicks in at nearly seven minutes, follows a similar upbeat and rattling sound. I Won’t Support Your Wars continues the political overtones of the opening track and the title track First Ray Of Light optimistically visits a sense of possible rehabilitation from darker times.

Nine tracks on the album are self-penned by Harbidge and one track is a co-write. He also contributes vocals, guitar, bass, harmonica and mandolin together with production, recording and mixing duties. The album delivers a collection of thoughtful and honest song constructions, easy on the ear and well worth investigating. 

Reviews by Paul McGee

Kathy Mattea Pretty Bird Captain Potato

Six years since her last release, Calling Me Home, sees Mattea return with a collection of twelve cover songs that highlight the talents which turned her into one of the most successful country singers of her generation. Not that she restricted her recording history to just one genre of music; Mattea has often explored bluegrass, gospel, celtic and folk leanings.

This release displays her wonderful phrasing and tone, despite some health scares over recent years which saw her temporarily fear the loss of her voice. Her ability to interpret a song over many years of experience has served her well and she tackles covers by Martha Carson (I Can't Stand Up Alone), Jesse Winchester (Little Glass Of Wine), The Wood Brothers (Chocolate on My Tongue), Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billie Joe) and Joan Osborne (St. Teresa) with her unique stamp of making the songs her own.

Mostly the songs are pared down to simple guitar or piano accompaniment and this allows for a new perspective on the sentiment or words contained within.  A good example is her treatment of the traditional arrangement, He Moves Through The Fair and the fine version of Mercy Now, a timeless classic written by Mary Gauthier. 

Production by Tim O’Brien is wonderfully bright and vibrant in the speakers and the musicians excel on every track. Welcome back to one of the greats.

Martha L. Healy Keep the Flame Alight Self Release

This is the second release from a Scottish artist who really impresses. Healy sings in a confident and strong style that brings an extra energy to these ten tracks and the instantly appealing openers, No Place Like Home and Fall In Love Again, have you hooked from the outset.

Recorded in Nashville during 2017, Healy used the production talents of David Spicher who had worked on her debut release, Better Days, back in 2014. Local Nashville session players on the sessions include Bill Cooley (guitars/bazouki), Todd Lombardo (guitars/mandolin), Rory Hoffman (accordion, piano), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle), Wendy Newcomer (vocals), Dave Racine (drums) and Chas Williams (Dobro). All songs are penned by Healy with one co-write included, We Will Be OK, written with Wendy Newcomer and a song that speaks of hope for tomorrow.

The title track is a personal testament to the need to keep enduring and work through the inevitable hard times that we all face from time to time on our respective journeys. The swing and the swagger of Woman With No Shame channels Dolly at her best and the Folk tinged Unmade Bed takes a wry look at an old relationship that time has passed by ("All that is left is the things that they should have said; in an unmade bed...").

There is a soulful power to Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream and the frustrated message of this song is extended into Sisters To Strangers, a look back at the toll paid in living a life that veers away from youthful hopes and dreams. The closing ballad, Don’t Give Up, is a fitting sentiment to an artist who has forged a career for herself that continues to grow and the momentum gained with this superb release will surely power her along to greater heights.

Lisa Mednick Powell Blue Book Self Release

This collection of ten songs has a release date in 2017 but only recently found its way to the Lonesome Highway mailbox. It is a real keeper and worthy of a belated review, albeit at the end of 2018.

There is a wistful atmosphere to these reflective sounds and a sense of long forgotten memories that come back to remind us of younger days. Understated, stripped back arrangements and a soft focus to the production on songs that resonate and repeat like some lost dream…

Victoria Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, Greg Leisz, among others, assist in the studio but it is the focus of Lisa and her husband, bass player and co-writer, Kip Powell, that brings the magic to tracks Checkpoint, Cold Coffee and Highway Prayer.

With a debut release in 1994, (Artifacts Of Love), it was 2002 before the release of her follow-up (Semaphore), until sixteen years later we are given Blue Book. This artist has played with Earl King, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry to name but a few and has quite an eclectic history, having toured with The Chills and Juliana Hatfield. Something for every taste here. 

Tom Freund East of Lincoln Surf Road 

A quality release from an artist who has been creating terrific music for over 20 years. He has collaborated with so many headline names, such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, The Silos to name a few… His song-writing is superbly crafted and his back catalogue is well worth investigation. On this latest release there are eleven songs and Freund is joined by a list of great players – drums from Matt Johnson (St. Vincent, Jeff Buckley) and Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson, John Cale, Blind Boys of Alabama), pedal and lap steel from Ben Peeler (Dawes, Shelby Lynne, Father John Misty), keys from Rami Jaffe (Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams) and Chris Joyner (Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones) and violin from Jessy Greene (Wilco, The Jayhawks). 

His writing is subtly laid-back in style but filled with little gems and great insights. A toxic relationship in Freezer Burn is captured in the lines "I was running on hope and fumes" while the self examination of a life lived in the fast lane (Brokedown Jubilee) is referenced with "I was a friend of the devil, but even he got sick of me." 

Abandoning The Ship and Homer Simpson’s Clouds (Day Of The Locust) are other tracks with real punch. Great writing and excellent songs that stay in the memory long after the disc has finished. Always a good sign!

Brad Colerick Nine Ten Thirty Back 9 

This is the fifth release from Los Angeles resident & singer-songwriter Brad Colerick. It was recorded in South Pasedena and co-produced by Colerick and Guillermo Guzman, who contributes bass and percussion across most of the 12 tracks.

They are joined by a group of local musicians who play their part in adding colour to the song arrangements. David Plenn on electric & 12-string guitars is very much to the fore as are the talents of Tim Fleming on pedal steel, dobro, 12-string and baritone guitars. 

Colerick sings in an easy style and there is a commercial, contemporary sound to tracks like Bachelorette Party, while Great Year and Millard Stream channel a Jimmy Buffet style and the sense of a soft breeze on a sunny day. Healer, Almost Home and Weeds are songs with a gentle tempo that drift along on a pleasant groove. A very easy listening experience. 

Ultan Conlon Last Days Of The Night Owl Darksideout

In the five years since his last release, this talented singer-songwriter has continued to grow into an artist of real quality and his creative muse is further enhanced on this latest project. There are twelve songs included and the warm production adds greatly to the arrangements and melodies of opening songs, As The Light Gets Low, The Town Square and Hall Of Mirrors, which set the tone for the rest of the album.

There is some lovely tight playing from the band that comprises of Ultan (acoustic guitars, vocals), Dave Curtis (electric guitars, baritone and 12-string guitars, piano, keyboards and vocals), Jon O’Connell (double and electric bass, acoustic guitar and lap-steel, mandola & vocals), Donal Kerins (drums, vocals), along with Jimi Higgins on percussion, Sabrina Dinan on vocals and Adam Shapiro on violin. 

Strings and brass add greatly to the overall production and these were recorded at Tesla Studios in Sheffield with additional musicians credited in the liner notes, along with pedal steel credits to Russ Pahl in Nashville, who plays on A Weak Heart Like Mine... This has recently been released as a duet with Mary Coghlan providing vocals to great effect.

Quite an investment in terms of energy and time, the commitment given certainly pays off and Ultan can move forward with some confidence into a future that holds plenty more opportunity to build further media attention.

Sorrow Ease and Hurt Inside are fine songs with gentle tones while Ojai takes things down a little with the reminiscence of a city trip, with an old flame, that still lingers in the memory. The radio friendly sounds of The Measure and Twice The Child are perfect examples of how astute a song-writer Ultan is; plenty of feel-good grooves and sing-along choruses that point to increased chart opportunity. However, it is the quiet, pensive strum of the final track, The Fine Art Of Happiness, that gives the greatest hint towards the future success of this blossoming talent. A release of some substance and one that comes highly recommended.

Sina Theil Under Cover Downda Road

Debut release from an artist who was born in Germany and has now settled in Ireland and taking her music career to the next level. Sina has quite a talent and her abilities have seen her songs achieve seven separate number one slots on the Country download charts from her Kildare base. 

This covers record has already gone to the number one slot on the Country download charts and to see what all the fuss is about; well, just go and buy this collection of eleven songs.

The difficulty with releasing a covers record is that you are "damned if you do; damned if you don’t…" Delivering a decent version of a favourite song is hard to do and if you fall short then you open yourself to all sorts of criticism. Especially if you decide to cover such diverse artists as Gretchen Wilson, Cheap Trick, Paul Brady, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Eagles.

The good news is that Sina carries it all off with some style and the overall production by Brian O’Mahoney at Golden Egg Studios in Portlaoise is very impressive. The players, including O’Mahony, deliver a tight sound across each track and the fiddle playing of John Davidson is a real joy throughout and brings a real country feel to covers of These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ (Lee Hazelwood) and I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick).

Some of the covers work better than others, which is only to be expected across such an eclectic mix of choices. However, the overall project is very infectious and the three Brandy Clark inclusions (Stripes, Crazy Women, Since You’ve Gone To Heaven) show the key influences in Sina’s choices. She certainly likes to rock it up but it is the superb version of Colder Weather (Zac Brown Band) that steals the show and points a clear direction for where this talented artist should concentrate when it comes to following this release.

A word about the stylish press kit that was given to Lonesome Highway and the colourful biography and three separate singles that were included. Proof positive that here is an artist with her eyes set on the big prize. The packaging is high quality and makes a statement about the very professional approach being taken here. 

A recent single is Travelin’ Soldier (Bruce Robison), covered by the Dixie Chicks, and is blended with the traditional Irish song, The Minstrel Boy, to great effect. Not included on this covers release but another reason to seek out this rising talent. Watch this space…  


Reviews by Eilís Boland

Nathan Evans Fox Texas Dust Self Release 

The title track of this outstanding second album from folk/Americana artist Nathan Evans Fox chronicles the tragic story of his grandfather, which Nathan discovered quite recently and which inspired the whole collection of songs here. His grandfather was a migrant Tennessean worker who ended up in Texas, volunteered for the army and was posted into conflict abroad. After a family tragedy, he was granted a compassionate discharge and returned home to try to pick up the pieces. The universal theme of the struggle of soldiers to return to civilian life and family after the horrors of war is explored with stark imagery -‘I can’t change all my ways, I can’t change the laws of grief’ - and with some fine fiddle playing and echoes of military snare drum from Nathan himself. 

Displacement - from family, from friends and from familiar landscapes - is the other overriding theme in most of the songs. A North Carolina native, where he was immersed in country, rock, bluegrass and gospel music growing up, Nathan spent a year working in the Texas flatlands. On the evidence of the melancholy songs that were inspired there, one can safely assume that it didn’t go very well.

Texas Blues No.7 deals with that time, when he struggled with his faith and had somewhat of a meltdown.  ‘Lost my taste for poetry, picked up my taste for gin’. Simple accompaniment by Nathan on acoustic guitar and some subtle Hammond organ are all that are needed as a backdrop to his gritty vocals.

St Louis is another song wherein the temptations of wanderlust are tempered by the worry of being away from ageing loved ones, this time bookended by Nathan’s superb mandolin playing. It’s not all melancholic, thankfully. There are some memorable love songs here too.

Despite what one would expect from the title, Grief Song is a beautiful love song accompanied by Nathan’s piano and fiddle, atmospheric upright bass from Mike Conners and enhanced further by gorgeous backing vocals from Lindsay Foote. She is a revelation throughout the album, but particularly on another love song, (the inappropriately titled) Texas Blues No.4, where she sings a duet with Nathan.

Corn Whiskey is a gentle country ballad about an Appalachian couple’s adventures in evading the law, which comes to the inevitable gruesome end. The staying power of love in a long-term relationship is explored in Quicksand, where more sweet piano playing from Nathan is perfectly enhanced by claw hammer banjo from Mike Conners. Seek out this excellent album and enjoy.

Montana Tunesmith Dream Catch Self Release

‘Never judge a book by the cover’ goes the old adage and I certainly learned this lesson when I first played this album. My expectations had been low - I didn’t particularly take to the stylised cover painting of the salmon leaping out of the lilac tinted lake (apologies to acclaimed Montana artist Monte Dolack) - I had speculated that this would be another collection of mediocre songs with a New Age sensibility. How wrong I was! From the very first chords I knew this was something special. 

Brothers Tim and Mike Nordstrom make up the band - Tim is the main songwriter and instrumentalist while Mike contributes vocals. For this their third album they have returned to Texas to work again with maestro producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines in The Zone studio, where everybody who’s anybody in Texas music has recorded at one time or another. 

I suspect Lloyd Maines had a simple task, however, along with his bunch of seasoned session musicians, because the material brought to him by this little known duo from Montana was indeed much better than average.  

This is true Americana music. Tim Nordstrom is justifiably proud of his home state and this pride permeates all the songs here, either overtly or covertly. The musical style is a combination of folk, rock and country. As well as Lloyd Maines playing his signature pedal steel and dobro etc, he is joined by Pat Manske (Joe Ely, Alexandra Escovedo) on drums and Dennis Ludiker (Asleep At The Wheel) on fiddle and mandolin.

It’s difficult to single out a favourite song, but title track Dream Catch is particularly memorable - inspired by the death bed story told by an elderly grandmother who once caught a 21lb fish and then let it go. They are joined on this song by renowned fiddle player Tracey Grammer, who  contributes vocals as well as a gorgeous fiddle instrumental interlude.

There are many story songs - Beatnik Son, Hillbilly Storm Chaser and Death of a Salesman are outstanding. 31 Flavors bemoans the decline of culture as a price for the rise of convenience and mass production. Destination Desolation is a rollicking country road song.

Unusually for a record, there’s a three song epilogue, ‘dedicated to Montanans who have protected the natural environment’. The first of these is overly sentimental, but it’s saved by some searing pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. Full Moon On The Missions and One Montana are truly beautiful and moving.

Tim and Mike’s vocals are clear throughout the album, and their sibling harmonies are as sublime as one would expect. If this album doesn’t make you want to go visit Montana, nothing ever will.

PK Gregory Honkabilly Blues Genuine Butter 

Some very funny songs from one-man-band PK Gregory which will whet your appetite to see him live. PK manages to inject humour into every situation - so much so that I found myself smiling through almost every song here. As well as being possessed of an irreverent sense of humour, he’s an excellent composer of melodies. He plays mainly electric guitar, which is punctuated by bluesy harmonica and percussion from a foot drum. 

There are love songs (of sorts!) like She Showed Me A Picture Of Her Cat and Beat Me Senseless With Your Love. Then there are more conventional love songs like She’s Not My Type (She’s Not You)  and Let’s Not Fight - which is a plea to a long term partner to hang up the gloves (although this one is not for the easily offended either).

He excels at evoking the gothic in the black humour of My Soul Is A Wasteland Of Pain And Death and The Executioner’s Song, both of which are delivered at lively ditty pace. By contrast, Heck Of A Deal delivers a serious message about bullying. Kelly Got The Stomach Flu is just hilarious. Best of all is the opening song The Jesus Cure in which PK details his Catholic schoolboy obsession with a young female teacher who happened to have been a nun!

The overall musical direction is country blues with folk and honkytonk thrown in. It was all recorded live in his home studio so there’s nothing fancy here, but I expect it’s a good indication of how he sounds in a live gig situation.Based in Arizona, I don’t expect he’ll be touring Europe anytime soon, more’s the pity.

The Mallett Brothers Band Vive L’Acadie Self Release  

If you like your rock on the heavy side, with a touch of country, blues and southern thrown in, then this could be the album for you. This is their fifth recording since the brothers Luke and Will Mallett formed their band in 2009. They’ve been playing in their native Maine and up and down the East coast and Mid-West of the US ever since. 

The title track Vive L’Acadie is a nod towards the Acadia region, which stretches from the north east corner of Maine right up into Quebec. However, apart from a Cajun feel to this opening celebratory song of all things French-Canadian (with superb fiddle playing from Andrew Martell) the rest of the album has a more conventional country rock feel.

There are story songs - Onawa tells the tragic true story of a head-on train collision in 1919, when 23 newly arrived Scottish and English emigrants lost their lives. There are trucking songs - the metal heavy Headed Home starts at a gentle pace as the long distance trucker bemoans his lot, only to build into a frenzy that even ZZ Top would be proud of. Then there are the songs of the ordinary working class heroes from every small town in America - Too Much Trouble is a musical contrast to most of the album with acoustic guitar and fiddle dominating.

But of course there are also the love songs. In Few More Dozen Roses the said flowers end up ‘on the side of the road’, allowing Wally’s steel guitar to get a peek in (it is otherwise drowned out in the mix throughout the album, as is the mandolin and banjo, unfortunately).

The album is attractively packaged in a trifold digipak with a lyric book (essential as Luke Mallett’s growly vocals are difficult to decipher!) and with lovely illustrations by Nyla Smith-Lachman.