Reviews by Paul McGee

Sugar Brown 'Poor Lazarus' Self Release

The Blues is open to all styles of interpretation with different players bringing their own unique take on what is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Born in Ohio to a Japanese father and a Korean mother, Ken Chester Kawashima, stage name Sugar Brown, sounds like he just walked out of a southern cotton-field and sat, guitar in hand, on a front porch stoop to exorcise some personal demons.

These are fourteen tracks of wonderfully restrained playing, sparse accompaniment and a production that feels just timeless. All of the tracks were recorded live-off- the- floor using analog recording techniques and in addition to a number of striking original songs, this release contains a number of covers from RL Burnside (Goin’ Down South) to Willie Dixon (Weak Brain and Narrow Mind) and Tom Waits (Get Behind the Mule). There is also a Lewis Carroll poem interpretation, The Mad Gardener’s Song Parts 1 & 2, that is very special. 

This artist gathers some wonderfully gifted musicians to accompany his unique song arrangements and the harp playing of Bharath Rajakumar, rhythm guitarist/upright bassist Joolyah Narveson, drummer Art Maky, vibes/percussion Matt Phillips - all combine to give the recording an atmospheric, authentic, laid-back groove that stays long in the memory.

Po’ Lazarus was a folk song written in 1911 and revived in the early 1960’s by both Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk. Moved to revisit the song in the wake of the Missouri shooting of Michael Brown and give it a modern relevance, Sugar Brown has not only served the call for social equality but also involved us in a lasting testament to the reality of blues music from its roots to the way we live in society today. A superb work and well worth checking out. 

Kristina Stykos 'Horse Thief' Thunder Ridge

Living in Vermont and working from her Pepperbox studio, this talented artist is a music producer, recording engineer, songwriter, radio host and performer. Her recording studio is solar, wind and generator powered and fully off-grid. She is founder-owner of Thunder Ridge Records and has released upwards of 20 albums for her label. So when it comes to focusing her creative muse, Kristina Stykos has plenty of experience to call upon.

This is her sixth solo project and her American roots, folk influenced rural sensibilities are fully realised by her fine musicianship on various instruments such as acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, mandolin, keyboard and bass. Great words flow out of Kristina in a stream of consciousness way on songs like Me, Myself and Moi, Talk to Me and Let It Run, with its spoken word approach.

The 13 songs on Horse Thief examine love and aging together with the strength of living a singular life on the edge of questioning our human fragility. The isolation of rural living can be fuel to the fire for a sensitive artist and these songs, with titles such as It’s Over, Heart in the Wreckage, You’ll Never Love Me and point to the direction that challenges the desire for human connection .

Sounding like Lucinda Williams meets Patti Smith in her vocal delivery is no bad thing when it comes to the passion and conviction displayed in the vocal performance here. Mix in the groove of Ani DiFranco and you have a signpost as to what is on offer. The beautiful arrangement and solo playing on  As If Tears Could Say segues into the final track, Remembering, an instrumental that highlights the great musical talent on display here. This is music of depth and vision that comes highly recommended.

Caroline Aiken 'Broken Wings Heal' Self Release

Nietzsche said ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you strong’ and the true meaning of these words was never more evident on this 12 track release from Caroline Aiken. She has released 8 albums over a music career that has seen her develop into an artist of some renown in her home city of Atlanta, Georgia and beyond.

This new release examines the relationship between mother and daughter in close up, motivated by the sad tale of her own daughter, Sarah Page Dukes, who is currently serving 10 years in prison for armed robbery. Here is no holding back in the sentiment and honesty that is on display here and if there is to be a cathartic element to the artist bearing her soul to this extent, then it has been well earned.

Deeply personal songs such as Fragile, Razor Wire, Broken Wings Heal, Everything Can Change and Saving Grace give a sense of the anguish experienced by a parent who sees their child go astray but there is also a universal element to the songs that call out to everybody who has faced difficult challenges in life. The symbolism contained in the album’s artwork of a bird being released from a cage is key to the optimism that is at the heart of the project as the artist looks to the future.

Production duties are by John Keane, who has worked extensively with R.E.M., Indigo Girls and Widespread Panic among many others. He also plays a range of instruments quite superbly on this project and is the real glue that binds everything together. Joined by a list of excellent players, including Randall Bramblett on keys, piano and saxophone, Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls on vocals and acoustic guitar, Caroline Aiken delivers a powerful performance in her clear vocal and playing and places her talents among the best of contemporary folk singer-songwriters.