Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dave Insley 'Just the Way That I Am'  Self Release

David Insley is a man who loves the sounds and imagery of country music, no doubt from his days growing up in Arizona. He has a long history of making roots music, including stints with cowpunk band Chaingang and the more traditional slant of The Trophy Husbands. In recent times Insley has lived in Austin and plays a regular Saturday night gig there at the White Horse Saloon. He has released three previous albums under his own name that including his 2005 debut Call Me Lonesome. Now comes his latest release Just the Way That I Am and it is a career peak. As well as his regular band, the Careless Smokers, he has gathered some friends who enhance the songs with their strong contributions. These include Rick Shea, Kelly Willis, Elizabeth McQueen, Redd Volkaert, Danny B. Harvey and Dale Watson.

Still, it is Insley’s show, with his voice with, its hint of Willie Nelson, and his songs front and centre. The songs are a mix of the classic county themes; lonesome heartbreak, the appreciation of real love and its attributes and the temporary anaesthetising effects of alcohol. The titles pretty much sum up some of these feelings: Drinkin’ Wine and Staring at the Phone;  Win, Win Situation For Loser;  Call Me If You Ever Change Your Mind; No One to Come Home To and We’re All Together Because of You. Most of these are songs written by Insley but on a couple he has co-written, one with Rosie Flores and another with Rick Shea and Paul Lacques. Adding to the basic guitar, drum and bass core, Insley employs brass effectively with Matt Hubbard adding a lot to Drinkin’ Wine and Staring at the Phone with his trombone and piano interludes. Later on Arizona, Territory, 1904 Jimmy Shortell adds depth with trumpet and accordion accompaniment to the tale of two brothers who took opposite directions in life. Shortell’s trumpet also adds to Dead and Gon,e with it’s opening funereal melody. Elsewhere fiddle and pedal steel segments underline the traditional aspects of Insley’s music.

For all that Insley is no retro artist, he plays regularly and he continues to explore his muse without stepping too far outside of recognizable country music. Insley, as a family, seems to play fairly close to home and his Saturday night gigs sound like a real treat. Those who have come across Insley before will delight in this latest addition to his recorded output. Those who are coming to him for a first time should enjoy this well packaged album which puts a lot of releases on major labels to shame. It is not really going to appeal to those who are in thrall to the current chart acts, rather those who appreciate good Americana music and playing allied to some thoughtful and often humourous lyrics will see that Insley being himself is just the way we like him.

Dori Freeman 'Dori Freeman'  Free Dirt 

This is an engaging folk-country debut from a woman from the small town of Galax, Virginia. On the strength of hearing Freeman via Facebook, fellow singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson agreed to produce the album. Thompson made an excellent country album a while back and he is known for his love of the form. The album was recorded in New York with some noted musicians from the area, including guitarist and pedal steel player Jon Graboff with a rhythm section of Jeff Hill on bass and Rob Walbourne on drums and percussion. Erik Deutsch adds occasional keyboards. The core here though, is voice and guitar with subtle additional playing. For instance, there is a full band on the closing song Still a Child, yet it is played with a subtle grace that underscores the sentiment of the songs and allows Freeman’s voice to ring true. And that voice is clear and alluring and suggests something special. The opening track You Say, states that from the off with just a bass guitar under Freeman solo. Where I Stood alludes to the brother harmonies of yore, as Thompson joins with her to create a strong vocal presence. The most underplayed song here is Ain’t Nobody, that has the feel of Sixteen Tons ; we hear just the sound Freeman’s voice and snapping fingers. 

Elsewhere, as on Go on Lovin’, the feel is that of a classic traditional country song, with piano and steel an essential part of the song’s broken heart. Tell Me is also a forceful song that insinuates itself into the memory with its chorus and keyboard motif. Freeman is a songwriter who is already accomplished, and she should only get better with time and more life experience. Not that these songs are without depth as Ain’t Nobody considers the nature of hard work and those who toil in a factory, in a prison or at the kitchen sink without either recognition or proper compensation. So the words and voice are integral but there are also special which is why I have returned to this album more often than I have to most. 

There are deep roots here and also inspirations from doo-wop, swing and 60’s pop. The end result is a sound that incorporates all of these into something that sounds organic and natural for Freeman. This is the sound of someone who understands that life can offer a lot, but that it also has a darker side which equally needs to be examined. This is an outstanding start, one which deserves to be heard and hopefully will be. Free Dirt, her label, have packaged the album well and given us a release that includes the lyrics. These show how an album can be worth much more than just a download of one or two songs. This is a debut worth owning.  

Robbie Fulks 'Upland Stories' Bloodshot

Lately Robbie Fulks had moved towards more acoustic musical settings and while that is largely true here, there are some of the flavours of his earlier work with Bloodshot Records, the label who released some of his earliest albums. The players on Upland Stories include bassist Todd Phillips who has worked with David Grisman, Jenny Scheinman on violin, guitarist Rob Gjersoe as well as multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin. 

Fulks possesses a singular voice that is immediately recognisable. He is an adept songwriter too, as the opening song Alabama at Night and the later, A Miracle, attest. The first is written from the viewpoint of James Agee, the noted journalist who, with the photographer Walker Evans, captured the lives of migrants and sharecroppers in the late 30s in the South; the second takes a similar theme and angle in its direction.

There are also songs that are tender such as Sarah Jane, others such as Aunt Peg’s New Old Man and Katy Kay (about a cute girl who, if she wasn’t loved, would probably have to be shot!) are lighter and show a humorous side. It is an album full of character and characters. People you can identify with and through Fulks’ words gain insights into their lives. That is the mark of a storyteller who understands his craft. Folks can bring these songs to life in their most natural setting of just voice and guitar or with a fuller group behind him. Needed is the former, while the version of Baby Rocked Her Dolly has a full band including steel which gives it additional depth.

The banjo and fiddle of America is a Hard Religion give the song a harder edge that the lyrics need to give it the feel of earlier times and of current time too. 

Overall Fulks delivers these songs with a softer edge, one that is not as strident as his earlier Bloodshot albums. Robbie Fulks has a devoted following for his music and Upland Stories won’t disappoint those who have followed his music from the insurgent days to the more considered and less frantic songs that are featured here.

Nate Currin 'The Madman and the Poet' Archaic Cannon

For his fourth album Georgia native Nate Currin has recorded in Nashville with producer Matthew Odmark and it makes its mark from the get go with the immediate appeal of the overall sound. This is something that in the past would have been labeled alt-country. It is essentially a singer/songwriter record built around Currin’s concept song cycle and his voice, both of which are good. The album is divided into sections, with the first 6 songs under the heading of The Madman. These are more roots rock with hints of blues which lend a feeling of darkness with songs such as Another Love Song, which talks of upbringing and good and evil. City of Angels considers belief. It is an uptempo song with an insistent chorus that is effective in its catchiness. That contrast with a slower building mood of the Ballad of a Horse Thief which is equally compelling in its more restrained delivery which, like the story itself, builds in intensity. 

The title track starts the second set of songs under the overall theme of The Poet. These songs are all based on a more acoustic foundation, but while they are lighter in overall sound, they are not without a certain sense of melancholy. The final song Let Grace Fall Down on Me is call for forgiveness that contrasts Currin’s vocal with that of Molly Parden (who with Audrey Assad and Ryan Horne add vocal harmony on several tracks), over a cello and acoustic guitar that underline the poignancy of the song. We All Need a Love Sometimes picks up the pace and delivers a universal need. Ship with No Sea is summed up by the line “without you, I’m a ship with no sea”. Throughout the assembled musicians play guitars of acoustic, electric, baritone, lap and pedal steel varieties, with keyboards, bass, drums and strings adding depth and texture to the songs that brings them to full flower.

I had not heard of Currin before this album, but on the strength of The Madman and the Poet, he is an artist well worth discovering. This is something that becomes apparent fairly quickly and in this case Currin certainly gains approval. This is a thoughtful, well recorded and performed album that is packaged in a way that makes it a testimony to an artist caring about his work as a lasting contribution, rather than an exercise in economy and disposability. It was funded by those who believe in him and it shows that there are many who still want and believe in beautifully crafted musical endeavours.

The Waco Brothers 'Going Down in History' Bloodshot

 The first line of the opening song DIYBYOB is “this is the first track from the last album” and so it heralds the (possibly) final release from the Waco Brothers, the insurgent country band who mixed a sense of punk rock urgency with their country leanings. Indeed they would have made an reasonably appropriate opening act for Eric Church. The influences here are as much Clash as Cash, but also take in some garage and glam rock along the way, as well as a little of the 60s mod beat with a cover of the Small Faces’ classic All or Nothing which is as much a tribute to that band’s keyboard player, the late, Ian McLagan as anything. 

The band sounded spirited and energised on this, their 12th (or so) album since 1995. They feature a bunch of expats such as Jon Langford, Alan Doughty and Tracy Dear alongside Joe Camarillo and Deano to make up the current line-up. The ten track set never lets go of their angry agenda, summed top by the credo that they have “had about enough” (Had Enough). They mix their political views with a more personal sense of close-to-the-edge living.

And the Waco’s solid fan base will find themselves rockin’ along to the wolfman howl of Lucky Fool as they will to the title track, as they propose that you need to “bite the hand that feeds you.” If this is their final will and testament, it is one of strength and snarl and one that sums up the intent and nature of the band.

The Blazing Zoos 'Chocks Away' Corinthia

This album shares its title with another album by a London band who dabbled in country. The Kursaal Flyers album of that title was released in 1975 and now some 40 plus years later The Blazing Zoos take on country is also imbued with some humorous intent. For instance Still Up at Five begins with “It’s four in the morning and I’m listening to Four In The Morning.” Mentioning the Faron Young classic, it also recalls the early songs of Hank Wangford. In other words the music is done with a tongue-in-cheek reverence that raises a smile.

The songs are largely from the pen of guitarist/vocalist Andrew Mueller. Bass guitarist Lara Pattison adds harmonies and lead vocals on Brighter with Your Love. The two remaining members Jeremy Jones and Gen Matthews (guitar, keyboard and drums) are joined by guests Neil Bob Herd on steel guitar and Paul Fitzgerald on banjo. All bring skill to the proceedings and the whole thing is good fun, but not to be taken too seriously given the lyrical themes and the wonderful Ed “Big Daddy” Roth illustration on the sleeve. 

Mueller is a well know writer. One of his subjects is writing about rock and related music, so it is interesting that his occasional nighttime pastime is playing country music. In Country Drinking Song he set the record straight by admitting that “I don’t wear a hat, I can’t ride a horse, I’ve never been in jail (but then these days who does.)”. It’s just one of those songs that testifies to a love of country music without ever living a life that is associated with the cliched ‘supposed’ lifestyle. None of that matters if you enjoy poking at the form on this, the band’s second album. However there is no doubting that the collected members of The Blazing Zoos have a few Faron Young, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson albums in their collective collections.

Taken in the right spirit this is a foot-tapping and enjoyable slice of country roots rockin’ that entertains as much as it amuses. Those with fond memories of Mr. Wangford’s musical endeavours (which went from outright laughing up a musical note embroidered sleeve to something more serious in time) will thoroughly enjoy this. Likewise the Zoos may well shift focus in time and use their talents to something more akin to tribulations of the heart than cover tributes. For now Chocks Away  represents a good night out and diverting night in that is preferable to some of the Music Row produced music where the joke is on us.