Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dennis Ellsworth 'Romantic As It Gets' - Busted Flat 

Love is at the heart of Canadian singer/songwriter Dennis Ellsworth’s latest (fourth) album. Romantic as it Gets is produced by David Barbe and has a drifting sound carried by Matt Stoessel’s pedal steel over a solid rhythmic base supplied by Barbe and drummer Seth Hendershot. Add Thayer Sarrano on keyboards and Ellsworth himself on guitars and thoughtful vocals andf the album is complete. The mood is gentle, reflective and, indeed, romantic. Songs like Stay True and Full Moon Blues. Ghosts Of Love is a song with a melancholy mood and features an effective backing vocal from Sarrano who has released music in her own right.

This music is partly summed up by the alt-country label of some years back. The pedal steel helps that association, though Ellsworth is not honky-tonk singer. His music needs a gentler ear to take in it’s decided worth. Though in a song like Mercy Doll the band pick up the beat, but not in a way that raises sweat. Instead they bring a sense of energy which posits the truth that “no one is ready for loneliness”. Perhaps the overall mood can be summed up by the song Beauty is Sad from which the line for title comes.

The album finishes with Dancing All Alone where the singer wonders “do you still belong to me?”.  Romantic as It Gets is full of these questions and the answers may come from the music, but mainly from Ellsworth’s mostly self-written songs and his effective vocals. Throughout he is backed by a band and producer with whom he has worked before and who fully understand him and his songs. Recording in Athens, Georgia has given this music a sense of time and place that makes his Ellsworth’s latest album a understated gem.

Woody Pines 'Woody Pines' - Muddy Roots

Mr. Pines appears on the cover of the latest album to bear his name. His music is a continued exploration of the acoustic hillbilly, country blues, vaudeville and jugband that has long been associated with his work. This time there is the mix of covers and originals that he integrates to a point where they fit seamlessly together. Here Pines surrounds himself with a cutting crew who add to the music’s wide range and includes some fine guitar picking, upright bass, fiddle, harmonica, piano, electric autoharp and percussion.

As befits the man with his name on the cover, a lot of these are played by Woody himself. His two main accomplices are Skip Frontz Jr on upright bass and Brad Tucker on guitar and vocals. But what really matters is that the eleven tracks entertain, enthuse and enrich in their delivery from the foot tapping Nashville Boogie and the jazzy take on Irving Berlin’s My Walking Stick. The Mississippi  Sheiks’ number Make it to The Woods has a sense of latent criminality, while Little Stella Blue is a quite song for a lady friend. The closing Worth the Game is stripped back to just Pines’ voice, guitar and atmospherics on a song that considers that “life’s a gamble, but it worth the game”.

There is an old soul in Woody Pines who, with his commanding voice and overriding sensibilities, breathes life into the music which has it’s roots at the beginning of the last century but is well presented for this one. Those already acquainted with the music of Woody Pines will very much enjoy this new collection of song, while newcomers could well find themselves enthralled of his effusive Americana.

The Rosellys  'The Granary Sessions'- Clubhouse

This is another band to add to the list of those who add creditability to those making original roots-orientated music in the UK and Ireland. The band is led by Dr Rebecca and Simon Rosellys. They are accompanied by fellow members Drew Bridges on drums, Bob Lane and bass and Allan Kelly on pedal steel and resonator. The latter ups the country music quotient overall and what is, at times, a blend of folk rock, indie and roots influences, or ‘British Americana’ as they label it on their website.

Rebecca and Simon Rosellys are the songwriters and they have turned out some well crafted stories of travel, travail and temptation. Although from Bristol, many of the songs appear to come from observations made during their wide ranging touring. A Thousand Miles, Maryland, Asheville 1784 are all songs of people and  places a long way from Bristol. They actually address the subject in Red, White and Blue where the question “why don’t you sing about your country” is one they seemed to have been asked, and to which they reply that the “streets of grey might show you where I was born, but to the black tops of Texas I belong.” Whatever the inspiration or the location, the end result is well executed and easy to like.

Label mates and major influence the Redlands Palomino Company have been a source of encouragement and more, with members Hannah and Alex Elton-Wall appearing as guest players, with the latter also serving as co-producer with the Rosellys. The additional guests add piano, double bass and cello to a couple of tracks. This gives the sound a rounded and diverse feel topped by the shared vocals of the Rosellys,  both of whom take the lead on certain songs and also harmonise together. They handle both tasks with clarity and conviction. The Granary Sessions is the band’s third album and it is evident that they can only get better, but that this is a good place to get acquainted.

Mark Brown 'Skin & Bone' - Self Release

Mark Brown has a  sound that kinda reminds me of those Texas albums that bring a lot of strands together under one roof. This is the type of thing that Gurf Morlix might be involved in. Brown’s new album is a diverse and distinguished set of songs from a voice that commands attention with its rough and tumble tone, a tone that suggest that Brown has seen and experienced a thing or two and is happy to divulge his thoughts and emotions. There are 14 songs on Skin & Bone and they are full of hard rhythm and extramural sounds that weave in and out of the overall backing track.

The album opens with Brown’s voice sitting on top of a strident banjo motif, some distorted guitar and hard percussion. It set the listener up for something a little out of the ordinary and a long way from the honky-tonks. From then on Dean Jones (credited with recording the album along with Ken McGloin) is featured on keyboards, trombone and “other noise making devices”. The guests include Mike Merenda on banjo. Pooch Fishcetti on pedal steel with vocal contributions from Eli McNamara, Kendall Jane Meade and Wayne Montecalvo. Montecalvo also adds fiddle and musical saw on a couple of tracks.

There are occasions like Smashed and Hatchet Man where Brown conjures the jukebox ghost of Johnny Cash - during a bar-room fight in the former case, but the end result is more pleasing than that might sound. Other songs capture different moods like the confessional, pedal steel enhanced Cried in Your Bed, the processed pain of Hurt or Spaceship which takes a futuristic view of the man traveling far afield to establish himself before sending the fare the bring his partner to him. However, as the title suggests, the destination in the song is the moon. The music is an understated mix of trombone and upright bass. Granny, the song that ends the album is a memory of a departed close, influential and much loved relative. The words, as they do throughout, have a directness that underscores their effectiveness, especially when delivered in Brown’s hard scrabble and road-worn voice of the ages.

Shelby Lynne 'I Can’t Imagine' - Rounder/UMG 

The well respected Shelby Lynne continues to follow her muse in a direction she has followed since she left the tight control imposed on her by the major label deals she has had in the past. Lynne has released on her own label in the past, but is now working with Rounder. She produced the album with assistance from her guitar player Ben Peeler, a former member The Mavericks. Recorded in a live setting in Louisiana, these soulful songs are never over-sung or produced, but rather use the assembled musicians in a way that enhances the overall delivery. 

Back Door, Front Porch uses the backing vocals of Clarence Greenwood as counterpoint to Lynne’s vocal and the other players show restraint and taste in their playing. It is Lynne’s powerful vocal that is at the centre of her work. There are moments of pure pop-soul that underlines the comparison that has been made in the past to Dusty Springfield. However, the overall feeling is sparse and laid-back. There is a loose grooved southern-ness that pervades much of the work, though when it comes to a song like Down Here there is a kick from the driving lead guitar and swelling keyboards.

While Lynne has co-written some of the songs here with Ben Peller, NRBQs Pete Donnelly and Ron Sexmith (two each) the majority are solo compositions. Over the length of I Can’t Imagine there tend to be moments where the pace does lag, but once you’re in the mood that may not matter and certainly long-time fans will not complain.

There is a nod to her Nashville days on the title song with a compelling melody that places the pedal steel guitar to the fore. It also forms a part of the atmospheric and intriguing Following You which opens with Leni Stern’s n’goni before become a largely acoustic delivery. This is a song that points to the diverse nature of Lynne’s muse and the wide range of options open to her that finds her looking to not repeat the sounds of previous albums. That wish however doesn’t change the confidence and conviction of Lynne’s work. This may be something that is not for outright country music fans, but for those in the know.

David Massey 'Until the Day is Done' - Self Release

With a couple of previous albums under his belt, Massey blends folk, bluegrass, country and rock together. He is in the troubadour tradition, telling stories over a musical backing that is easy to assimilate and to like. Massey, as with many similar artists, is traveling on a well worn path,  but one that can still lead you to a place where you would like to find yourself. A huge asset to the songs is the tasteful guitar of Jay Byrd who is a focus throughout behind Massey’s vocal assuredness. The other assembled players also do their job well. They rock the songs, giving them a toe-tapping energy that makes them work within the confines they have set themselves. Some of the songs like Sweet Marie have a simple but memorable chorus that works and imbeds itself in the memory.

The use of mandolin and cello on the Song for Olen give it a broader, more reflective feel to a departed friend. Producer Jim Robeson brings in additional instruments as the song requires so with the bass, drums, guitar core you get Dobro, harmonica, keyboards, pedal steel, accordion and washboard which add different tones to the songs. Massey’s songs, mostly self-written, all have a sense of craft that shows a writer working to better tell the tales he wants to. One, Holden Caulfield is a tribute to the fictional hero which given the simple voice, guitar and violin rendition an effective sparseness. Equally stripped to its core is the closing Until The Day Is Done, a song recorded at home that could have been worked up, but is allowed to sit in its rawest form 

It finishes a likeable and easy listening collection of songs that won’t change your life, but may well make it a little more enjoyable. David Massey and his team have done a good job of getting these songs across. They could easily be enjoyed by a wider audience if they were placed before them and Massey with his third album will undoubtedly enhance his local reputation and please those who have encountered his previous work live or in recording.