Reviews by Paul McGee


Billy Hector 'Old School Thang' - Ghetto Surf

This New Jersey-born blues guitar player has been releasing records for over 20 years. Hector plays with a very dynamic and fluid style that is reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the phrasing and touch (Short and Sweet Blues, Vitamin Big Daddy). With a brass section that really adds to the fine blues playing and tight backbeat rhythm, the eleven songs here are a great example of his talent at play and the sound that Hector has been perfecting for many years.

Sim Cain on drums is a real driving force on all tracks and whether joined by Winston Roye or Tim Tindall on bass, the pace never slackens as the tunes are given full throttle, topped off by Tommy Labella on Sax and Steve Jankowski on trumpet. It is the great guitar licks of Billy Hector that carry the day and really colour the songs with his fine guitar riffs and runs, from the down home dirty sound of Fake ID to the sweeter groove of Come On Home and the slow burn of Evil, Slick ‘N Sly.

This guitar player has taken the blues and stamped his own influence on a genre that pays dues to the greats of the past, but also carves out a unique place for his own impressive talent.

Scott Albert Johnson 'Going Somewhere' - Self Release

Johnson is resident of Jackson, Mississippi and has been honing his craft as a harmonica player for many years. This collection of nine songs is a follow up to his 2007 debut Umbrella Man. The self- produced project kicks off with a couple of tracks that are energising and Going Somewhere and If I Only Knew the Words leave a strong impression on the listener. The cover of I Don’t Remember (Peter Gabriel) is less convincing and it is hard to understand the decision to include it here.

Johnson is a strong singer and carries the songs well, from the funky groove of Haunt My Dreams to the honky-tonk workout of A Bigger Gun. The closing song Fragments is a gentle and thoughtful piano based arrangement with fine harmonica and the vocal delivery sounding like John Hiatt. This artist has delivered a solid record that should easily find an audience to enjoy his talents. 

Tom Freund 'Two Moons' - Surf Road 

New York-born Tom Freund has been releasing music since his debut album in 1998, and has also contributed to releases by the Silos and Graham Parker among many others. This self-produced record is on his own Surf Road Records and sees guest appearances from Ben Harper and Brett Dennen. The feel is mainly acoustic and the mood is predominantly laid-back with the slow tempo of Heavy Balloon a perfect example; pedal steel and electric guitar weaving fine lines through the melody.

These are songs of hope and of reflection with the stance of Lemme Be Who I Wanna Be a validation for living free and being true to oneself. Happy Days Lunch Box is a nod to the past and the full flush of youth; ‘when did I get so jaded’? Freund sings, and the string arrangement adds a melancholy feel to the song. The sunshine of California, where Tom currently resides and where this project was delivered, comes through in the upbeat playing on Next Time Around, an ode to love gone wrong. Weekend Guy is another love oriented song that questions relationship roles and the need to meet someone who is compatible. 

This is a solid set of songs and an enjoyable listening experience.

Danni Nicholls 'Mockingbird Lane' - Self Release

Born in Bedford, England, this talented singer-songwriter releases her second recording as a follow up to her 2013 debut, A Little Redemption. Again we have Chris Donohue at the production desk (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, and The Civil Wars) recorded in Nashville.

’The path is steep, hold somebody’s hand’ sings Danni on Let Somebody Love You, a plea to open up and trust in feelings and vulnerability. Leaving Tennessee reflects on the other side of that coin with the singer nursing a wounded heart, but more worldly wise after a failed relationship. Look Up at the Moon is a light jazz arrangement that shows the breadth of talent on display and Beautifully Broken has a sweet acoustic swing, while the slow blues groove of Back to Memphis has traces of a Sheryl Crow influence.

Danni sings in a beautifully clear voice that has a hint of melancholy in its’ wistful delivery. The musicians are all top drawer and serve the songs in such an understated way that the melodies just glide on by in an easy manner. Chris Donohue plays a range of instruments and the appearance of multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough adds plenty of range to the melodies.

All songs are written by Danni with co-write credits on seven tracks. Mockingbird Lane is very impressive, highlighting an accomplished artist fully in tune with her creative muse.

Canaan Smith 'Bronco' - Mercury

This is the debut release from country music artist Canaan Smith and it comes full of great songs with an honesty and style that bodes well for the future. Smith is working here with producers Brett Beavers, Jimmy Robbins and Ryan Tyndell, all of whom play on the album.

There are songs about dangerous women (Good Kinda Bad), returning to the old neighbourhood (Stomping Ground), drinking to forget (Hole In A Bottle) and lost love (Stuck). However, Smith displays a talent that rises above the usual country clichés contained in such songs. Great production and harmonies promote a tight country sound that can more than hold a place against the current crop of rivals in this genre.

The songs are performed by a group of very talented players who know when to hold back on the dynamics and give the tunes room to breathe. This is a welcome change from a lot of the full blooded assault tactics that stifle many of the current releases in country music.

Love You Like That has already brought Smith to the attention of country radio listeners and there a other numbers here that can also challenge the charts (One of Those, Mad Love) as they are so well delivered and produced. Love at First and Two Lane Road are two examples of what this artist can deliver and the use of synths and programming sounds are used here in a subtle but effective way that adds to the production qualities.

The title track is a tribute to Smith's older brother, Nathaniel, who died in a car crash and the song is a real standout with a heartfelt lyric and delivered with a classy elegance in such emotional context; ‘takes a life time of prayers on bended knee, trying to come to peace with your memory’. 

This new country artist is one to watch and he has delivered a fine collection of songs on his first outing.