Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Reckless Kelly Sunset Motel No Big Deal

As a band who loosely defined what was eventually to become labelled as Americana, Reckless Kelly rocked, honky-tonked and country rootsified their chosen musical path since moving from Oregon to Austin and releasing their first album Millican back in 1998. The band is fronted by the Braun brothers Willy and Cody. For their ninth studio album, they are joined here by bassist Joe Miller, guitarist David Abeyta, and drummer Jaz Nazz. The latter two have been reckless for some time and indeed Abeyta has been a co-producer on their recordings with the Braun brothers over the last few albums. Guests on the album include Bukka Allen on keyboards, Marty Muse on pedal steel as well as Eleanor and Chris from the Mastersons.

All contribute to a full and eventful sound that while it may not have altered a great deal since they started, shows how that have matured, honed and clarified their sound. It is a pretty engaging one that has found them many friends and fans through the years. The album opens with the very accessible How Can You Love Him (You Don’t Even Like Him)? A fairly self-explanatory song in terms of subject matter. This leads to the hard rockin’ Radio and example of maybe how not to get on radio while considering what would. Willy Braun takes the lead vocals and has a strong, emotive and engaging voice that can handle the rockier songs as well as the moments of regret like the moody title track with ease. Braun is also the writer of all the songs here and as such sings them with the total conviction required.

There are few bands better at what they do. The kind of scrappy, rough-round-the-edges roots music that still has a tightness that comes from playing together for some time. It is shared experience that knows its own place and isn’t trying to be anything it isn’t. There has been no compromise in how Reckless Kelly have approached their music. There have been no flirtations with the big label and that has enabled them to be true to themselves and their fan base which knows what to expect from a Reckless Kelly album. That includes a clever, well thought-out and designed cover (it comes with a key fob that when used as a viewer reveals further hidden images) something that is easily the equal of any major album release these days. 

This is a set of songs replete with choruses and hooks that are trying to be too-clever but equally share experiences that are readily relatable. Volcano, Give It Up, Moment In The Sun are further examples of how this band delivers on its early promise. While Sad Songs About You is just that, a song of pure heartbreak and sadness. The final track Under Lucky Stars is a slow acoustic based ballad that balances well with the more upfront songs that also permeate the album’s thirteen cuts. There are vacancies in the Sunset Motel - check in and check it out at your leisure. You will be back.

Luke Bell Self-Titled Bill Hill

Bell seems to be picking up press for his third album release. Deservedly so as his new album, released through Thirty Tigers, is a good one. After growing up in Wyoming and playing in a variety of rock bands he moved to Austin where he honed his mix of honky-tonk blues and New Orleans r’n’b. Now he lives in Nashville and this album reflects that move. There are a few tracks from his previous album Don’t Mind If I Do including the opening traditional sounding Sometimes, in which he reveals that he feels being in a relationship is like “sometimes I feel well … but other times I feel like hell”. If these songs have been remixed or recorded is not entirely clear but as the credits list only a Nashville studio I’d suggest the latter. 

From then on it’s one strong song after another. Where Ya Been? about looking at the straggled stranger looking back at him from the mirror. The Bullfighter takes the analogy of taking on the titular role in a honky tonk bar. Working Man’s Dream is a fast and furious fiddle-fuelled song with a yodel that recalls the resurgence of hardcore hillbilly down on Lower Broadway and back in the day. The album closes with the New Orleans sound of a big solid ballad, a self-written song, The Great Pretender. It shows that Bell can take on different sounding songs and sound like he is at ease with them all. He is effectively becoming known with this release which has a greater prominence that his previous releases - and deservedly so.

Producer Andrija Tokic has gotten a good take on mixing traditional modes with some contemporary mores. With players like bassist Dave Roe, drummer Jimmy Lister, steel player Brett Resnick, fiddler Casey Driscoll and Caitlin Rose on backing vocals there is an expectation and all play their part in bringing these songs to life. Fiddle, steel, twanging guitars and feisty harmonica all feature prominently giving the whole album its context and clarity. Proof again that even in Nashville music that bears some relation to the reason the city made its name is still being played there, even if it is not getting past the front door of the established labels at this point in time. All you need to do is listen out for the likes of Luke Bell and you will be, if you’re a honky-tonk fan, a happy listener. 

Bap Kennedy Reckless Heart At The Helm

It was great sadness that I learnt of the death of Bap Kennedy and somewhat ironic that his new album arrived through the letterbox on the same morning. Without the added poignancy of his passing this would still be a great album in keeping with the overall body of his work either as part of his punk band, Energy Orchard, or his solo albums. Through his career he has been recognised as a distinctive and emotive singer and songwriter who first came to wider attention with his Steve Earle & Ray Kennedy produced Domestic Blues album and through such releases as The Sailor’s Revenge, Howl On (which also featured the late Henry McCullough on one track), Lonely Street or The Big Picture, an album that featured Shane McGowan and a song co-written by Van Morrison. Kennedy stood toe to toe with these largely better known artists and leaves a fitting body of recorded work behind him.

Reckless Heart was written and produced by Kennedy and was recorded in Northern Ireland with Rod McVey, featuring  wife Brenda on backing vocals and percussion as well as lead guitarist Gordy McAllister, bassist Nicky Scott and Rod McVey on keyboards. All provide a musical bedrock for these songs that is perfect for the rootsy flavour and relaxed feeling that the tracks purvey. There are obvious standouts like the story telling of the wandering Henry Antrim, the wish to revisit a missed opportunity on I Should Have Said It or Honky Tonk Baby a song dedicated to the object of his affections and the music of their choice. The Universe And Me is a sad consideration of his life and times, his music and his love. A song that is all the more affecting because of his demise. As the songs tells us truthfully that for many “there’s no music in money, there’s no money in love”. 

Once again you’re reminded of how much talent exists on these isles that has long been dismissed or ignored for not emanating from the US or being too closely linked with the jukebox/covers syndrome that has been associated with country cover bands and artists for a long time. His much-praised debut was released in 1998 and Kennedy has been at the forefront of original (what has come to be known as) Americana since then. Bap Kennedy will be missed for his on-going musical and writing skills that marked him as one of the originals - and best.

Ben Glover The Emigrant Proper

Working again with producer Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover has delivered an album that largely reflects the nature and life of the emigrant. To do this Glover has used a set of traditional arranged songs as well as such sterling songs as the fiercely anti-war song of the Australian campaign in Gallipoli in World War 1 and the devastating effects that conflicts brings. The oft recorded And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda never fails to move in its unsentimental impact. Here it is a slow piano-based ballad (played by on this track by Dan Mitchell) that runs over seven and a half minutes and slowly builds up as the story unfolds and the bitterness intensifies. It is largely a singer’s song and Glover gives a heartfelt vocal that underlines his presence in that area. The piano is a central to many of these songs giving them an intimate and understated feel that works well in the context of the album’s timeless themes.

Something that is apparent throughout and where an artist covers non-original and traditional songs is that it is often largely down to their vocal skills to make the song their own. So, while some of these songs have versions that are already ingrained in the memory, Glover adds his own personality to his reading of such songs as The Green Glens Of Antrim, Moonshiner and The Parting Glass. The latter is the opening track and one of the albums standouts. It is given a folky rendering with fiddle and acoustic guitar but has an energy that highlights the essential message of the song.

The new songs are written by Glover solo or with Gretchen Peters (The Emigrant), Mary Gauthier (Heart In My Hand), Tony Kerr Carpe (A Song Of Home). Aside from Eric Bogle’s … Waltzing Matilda, there’s Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here and Brendan Behan’s The Auld Triangle. All the latter are songs that Glover must feel are special enough to want to risk comparison to previous versions and in doing so he has given them context that are is as relevant to many today, as to the time or time frame that they were written. The appreciation of end result may depend on how open a listener may be to previously recorded songs but should also be considered in the way that fits with the new songs. Ben Glover is to be applauded for taking this risk; one that should establish him as an artist who can bring something of himself to all these songs. They have the capacity to make the listener reflect and think anew and that in itself is a pretty good thing all round.

Kaia Kater Nine Pin Self Release

The cover features Kater with back to the camera and a well-played claw hammer banjo cross her shoulder. Maybe signifying that this is an album, while that instrument is key, where she is considering other options than the usual routes. Kater and co-producer Chris Bartos have assembled a group of players who bring a set of tones that are as effective as they are unusual to accompany the banjo. These include flugelhorn, trumpet, electric guitar and moog alongside upright bass and fiddle. There are also several credits for backing vocals which play a subtle part in the proceedings. It is Kater’s banjo and voice however, that are the centrepiece to the recording.

Recorded in Toronto, the album highlights a combination of traditional arrangements and self-written originals. Kater has sleeve notes on the album that are related to the traditional song’s sources. All the material however fits seamlessly together with an experimental discourse that, while it is rooted in her musical heritage and that of the banjo, offers something a little different. Some of the tracks take a more stripped down approach like the song Little Pink.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird has a sense of acapella with some minimal percussive effects behind the voice. In other cases, though the instrumentation is largely voice and banjo, the arrangements feel more contemporary in outlook. The final track Hangman’s Reel is a fiddle and banjo reading that feels very traditional and shows Kater’s understanding of the instrument’s potential past and present.

The songs are strong and her voice compelling which makes her one to watch in the ever-growing list of those playing their individual take on old-time and bluegrass music. She has also got a strong visual presence that helps her to stand out. Something that always helps in what is a difficult time for any artist to gain attention for their music.

Jesse Dayton The Revealer Hardcharger

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad album from this Texas roots/country/rocker since his debut album back in 1995. Raisin’ Cain introduced a prodigious talent as writer, singer, guitarist and later as a producer. Since then there has been some seven albums under his own name between that album and this new set of songs. All but one of the songs are written (or co-written) by Dayton. The one outside song is from the noted artist Mike Stinson, who also plays drums on some of the tracks here. Brennen Leigh also duets with him on Match Made In Heaven (the duo also have released a full duet album Holdin’ Our Own back in 2007). Dayton plays all guitar as well as bass, percussion and keyboards. On the latter three he is also joined on different tracks by Eric Tucker, John Evans, Riley Osbourne and Erich Hughes. Beth Chrisman adds fiddle on several tracks. Evans also is the main producer here (he himself has made a number albums, one which I managed to track down a while ago was Biggest Fool In Town which I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is something of the outlaw outlook about Dayton and his ‘go-your-own-way’ approach he has taken to his music. He also has played with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the past. There’s nobody looking over his shoulder here advising that this or that might be better “received’ if it was polished more. This is rough and ready and infused with the energy of the booze fuelled spirit of the honky-tonk and roadhouse. The opening song also reasons that that such an attitude was an inherited thing when he tells us that his Daddy Was A Badass. The humorous I’m At Home Getting’ Hammered (While She’s Out Gettin’ Nailed) is one of those oh so country songs that will always raise a smile, not unlike the Notorious Cherry Bombs It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long did. Dayton previously released a version of this song on the spoof album Banjo & Sullivan in 2005. This was a fictional band that featured in the Rob Zombie directed The Devil’s Rejects. Dayton has worked as an actor himself in subsequent films directed by Rob Zombie. Holy Ghost Rock ’N’ Roller is as you might expect a full-on piano-thumping stomper which is prefaced by a sampled diatribe about the evils of rock ’n’ roll. The Way We Are is another song that considers the life of a “this or nothing” working small-time musician looking towards “the hour on stage … playing for minimal wage … we do it for nothin’ or drinks from the bar.” Never Started Livin’ is a love song that is followed by the acoustic guitar and vocal finale Big State Motel which again deals with the life of the drifter, those who know no other way of life.

But it is his musical output that concerns us here and Jesse Dayton is the real thing and joins the ranks of those unreservedly in thrall to the throne of high octane country and rock ’n’ roll. The Revealer offers the listener some righteous unrighteous uncluttered music that will shake, rattle and country roll.