Reviews by Stephen Rapid

David Ramirez ‘Fables’ Thirty Tigers

The latest album from the troubadour is full of his rich baritone voice and sweet pedal steel guitar. A mix that emphasises his sense of aloneness and understanding of how the nature of his working life allows little in the way of a personal and private life. There is a certain romance in that life but it is one that creates a certain way of thinking (and acting). It also leads, in time, to a growth in terms of maturing and his understanding of himself and those he interacts with.

These ten songs need time to get truly acquainted with but reward that perseverance. The album opens with Communion, a song that hopes for the development of a relationship, which might end up with participants finding a space of mutual consent and closeness. Sonically you are immediately immersed in the textured guitar of producer Noah Gunderson (an artist in his own right who recently released his album Carry The Ghost) and the pedal steel guitar of either Greg Leisz or Brian Douglas Phillips. These sounds are played over the solid foundation of the rhythm section of Micah Simler and Jonny Gundersen. Abby Gunderson also joins the musician line-up on violin and cello. Something of a family affair for the Gunderson’s then.

The songs have a context that moves from track to track evoking a selection of feelings that are often melancholy or morose in attitude, while at the same time being uplifting by dint of the overall musical conviction in which they are rendered. Harder To Lie, Rock And A Hard Place and Ball & Chain - the latter considers the life of a traveling independent musician - are all titles that give clues to the lyrical themes being expressed. Despite these downbeat drifts, a song like That Ain’t Love has a positive musical spirit that centres around a memorable chorus that will soon have you singing along. There are other songs that are more up-tempo but still hold some hard thoughts like with Hold On where the subject seeks something, however small, to hold on as he walks the line between “cocaine and communion wine.”

This album will take time to bring out the best in these downbeat songs and dissolute attitudes but that does not take away from a sympathetic production, sterling playing and a voice that has the ring of truth. That, for many lives, is not easy as we create our own fables of existence and entertainment.

John Moreland ‘In The Throes’ At The Helm

This is Moreland’s debut album, now available in these parts, via At The Helm. It comes as his recentl (and reviewed here) U.S album High On Tulsa Heat, also hit the shelves. This album was also produced by Moreland himself and again features his talents as a multi-instrumentalist on many tracks. He is also joined on three tracks by an additional pianist, bass and drummer and pedal steel player. As with his current album this shows the strengths that Moreland has as a songwriter. One who bares his soul in a fairly relentless but open and honest description of emotional pain.

Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore has a pedal steel threaded through its melodic heart and a rumination of a songwriter existing on the fringes of indie land Americana. As a writer he is not about the simple verse and chorus patterns of many a chart chasing song. These songs are wordy and worthy and the simple setting of some, largely just guitar and voice based, like 3:59 AM or Blacklist, allows them to take centre stage. Many will find that they bear a similarity with the more stripped back songs of Bruce Springsteen in their depiction of life’s rougher edges and the characters who try to survive in such circumstances. Though, equally, he can up the tempo if not the honest brutality on a song as in Oh Julia.

In that respect, there is little of the light relief or band-backed big choruses that you would find in much of Springsteen’s more crowd pleasing music. But then again maybe Moreland isn’t looking for that kind of recognition at this point of time. He has played, produced and written these songs so presumably this is the way he wants them to sound. That is something you, as listener, will either find favour with or simply not particularly want to share space with.

John Moreland is from Tulsa and proud of the fact judging from the fact he has Oklahoma tattooed on his knuckles. He is no pretty boy with a pop upbringing, rather he came up through the punk and hard-core scenes. Something that, no doubt, is part of his no compromise approach to how he makes his music. That music has already appeared in shows like Sons Of Anarchy and it is easy to see how it fits that show. He is not without his fans and admirers and his most recent albums are testament to his talent. In The Throes is not for everyone and should be ignored by those who like their music light. For those who like more light and shade, who give a damn about songs, they should take John Moreland as seriously as he does.

Austin Lucas ‘Between The Moon And The Midwest’ At The Helm

Unbroken Hearts, the song that opens Austin Lucas’ third album, starts with some ambient sound before he sings the lines “I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album.” Given that this album was reportedly originally done for but rejected by his former label New West,underscores the tedious nature of making music either as an independent artist or one signed to a major label. The title of the album is a line from the song about how dreams and ambitions can be so easily crushed. About how Lucas feels beaten but has an unbroken heart for his music.

Lucas worked with Joey Kneiser on the album (who recently released his own album The Wildness) which has the feel of some of the new traditionalists of the late 80s. Sensible songs that are fuelled by steel guitar and a pinch of the psychedelic stylings associated with an even earlier decade of country-rock. The promo copy supplied has no credits for the musicians involved but from reading online it would seem that helping out are Cory Branan, John Moreland and Lydia Loveless dueting on Wrong Side Of The Dream and presumably on the other songs where female backing vocals also appear. There are many other strong songs here such as Pray For Rain, The Flame and Call The Doctor wherein the protagonist feels that the doctor, the preacher and even higher powers won’t be able help him.

Lucas is another artist who has a punk rock background and uses that platform and directness to inform his writing. The playing is strong with guitar, piano and steel over a solid and driving rhythm section on a set of songs that vary tempos and emotions. For instance, Next To You is a mid-paced song, while The Flame turns up the heat, contrasting again with the acoustic and stripped back essence of William. All of which make for a satisfying album. The latest in a long line of recordings that have won him fans and friends. That Lucas has not sustained his deal with one of the more established labels may mean that recognition in a wider context may be harder. Equally his music is perhaps better placed with a label that believes in him as much as he, obviously, believes in his music. Between The Moon And The Midwest is an album deserving of attention and is solidly within the boundaries of alt-country broader pastures. Lucas possesses a voice that is right for these times.

Cale Tyson ‘Careless Soul’ Clubhouse

Lauded as one of ten country stars you need to know by Rolling Stone the Nashville based, Texas-born singer/ songwriter is about to release his debut album Careless Soul, which was recorded  at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. He previously released two EPs in the States which were combined for release in the UK by Clubhouse Records. Fame Studios has lately attracted some contemporary country artists through its doors seeking to combine the essence of country storytelling with some soulful spiced ingredients.

Producer Michael Rinne has gathered together a selection of players from Nashville alongside renowned musician like Dave Hood, long associated with the Fame Studio. The Music City players include Skyler Wilson, Jeremy Fetzer from Steelism and some players who are set to accompany him on his upcoming tour of these isles - Smoking’ Brett Resnick on steel guitar alongside Peter Lindberg. Jordan Leaning was the man responsible for the string and horn arrangements

The music is imbued with a relaxed, southern vibe throughout but especially for the first three tracks with rolling brass and smooth backing vocals. Easy then kicks up the tempo and gets a bit more rowdy with some twangy guitar that leans towards a hint of funk too. Travelling Man is a steel guitar infused country ballad that highlights the expressive nature of Tyson’s voice. The addition of strings and horns adds a new dimension to his work and sounds like a big step forward in many ways. There are no writing credits on the promo pre-release so I assume that they are original songs though Pain In My Heart sounds not unlike the Otis Redding song of the same name. Things get more honky-tonk orientated then with Railroad Blues. Dark Dark sounds like a second cousin to the song Dark Moon while High Lonesome Hill has the feel of a traditional song that could work in a bluegrass treatment but is here inhabited by the soul of Hank Williams Sr.

Piano and brass then give Gonna Love A Woman a certain jaunty stance while Pain Reprise is a short instrumental version of Pain In My Heart. The album closes with another big ballad on which Tyson again shines with an emotive vocal performance. The song opens with strings then slowly builds with acoustic guitar and steel guitar. Like the other songs here the theme is of a love that is lost, found or strayed. Songs that are easy to understand and empathize with their universality and with the overall connnectiveness of the production and performances here; that further underscore why Cale Tyson is being picked as a name to watch for in country music circles in a way that makes the music thoroughly progressive with resorting to making it into with rap, pop or light weight faux metal. Tyson on this showing is packing a heavyweight punch.