Reviews by Declan Culliton

SUSTO & I’m Fine Today Acid Boys/Missing Piece 

The most satisfying aspect of reviewing albums is coming across a particular gem that otherwise would have remained unknown to the reviewer. This is very much the case with SUSTO, whose album & I’m Fine Today sounded interesting on first play, very impressive on second spin and one of my albums of the year on further listens.

Translated from Spanish as ‘when your soul is separated from your body’, SUSTO is the brainchild of South Carolina’s Justin Osborne who, together with guitarist Johnny Delaware, have created a stunning body of work that compares favourably with the early work of John Mc Cauley’s Deertick and more recent recordings by War on Drugs.

From small town America and a particularly strict religious childhood (Methodist father and Pentecostal mother), Osbourne’s conservative upbringing turned upside down when he began experimenting with narcotics while attending military college leaving him confused, questioning his identity and vulnerable. 

Osborne closed the door on his previous band Sequoyah Prep School and relocated from South Carolina to Cuba putting his musical career on hiatus or possibly putting it to bed entirely. Rather than dampen his creative output the move had the opposite effect and ignited a purple patch of inspiration that rekindled his passion for song writing. The move to Cuba therefore became short lived with Osbourne returning home to record the bands self-titled debut album. 

& I’m Fine Today is far from easy listening, much of the song writing is searchingly painful, bordering on disturbing, yet in a perverse way the end result is both uplifting and satisfying. The songs unfold intimate tales of battles with alcohol, drugs and sexuality with Osborne’s lyrics drenched in a downpour of spacey guitars, keyboards, orchestras, harmonicas and layer upon layer of additional vocals. His vocals are nicotine raspy and leathery as he confronts personal issues such as substance abuse (Far Out Feeling, Wasted Mind), sexuality (Gay In The South) and relationships (Hard Drugs) in a confessional and truthful manner.  

Kicking off with self-deprecating lyrics ‘I could be comatose in a parking lot, I could be sleeping on your floor, You might check yourself into rehab in California, while I’m pulling into New Mexico’, the opening track Far Out Feeling is simply spectacular, blanket upon blanket of vocals, strings, synths. Hard Drugs and Wasted Mind could take pride of place on late 90’s Wilco albums. Cosmic Cowboy is autobiographical, questioning the authenticity of the Southern religious ethos (‘My great granddaddy Cook was an itinerant preacher, always preaching about the liquor he’d been drinking the night before’). 

Equally impressive, and consistent with the whole psychedelic feel to the project, is the stunning artwork on the album cover, a multicoloured depiction by Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo renowned for his work while under the influence of the psychoactive substance entheogen. 

Classic albums are more than often conceived from deep dark places and this album most certainly ticks that box. It’s also a magical psychedelic treasure that should appear on your best of 2017 listings, I know it will be on mine.

The Remedy Club Lovers, Legends & Lost Causes Self Release 

With two albums recorded in a previous life as B and The Honeyboy, Wexford husband and wife duo Aileen Mythen and Kj Mc Evoy have rebranded, reformed and recorded a most impressive eleven track album of country and roots styled music, further evidence that Americana is very much alive and kicking locally and not confined to artists across the pond. 

Taking the album as a whole, you get the impression that they have certainly pulled out all the stops in all areas. The production and mixing are excellent, as is the selection of instrumentation featured on the album, with the inclusion of strings (courtesy of Eleanor Mc Evoy), trumpet (Aidan Kelly) and pedal steel guitar (David Murphy), all combining to enhance Mythen’s gorgeous vocal range and Mc Evoy’s equally notable guitar work. Naturally all of the foregoing would be fruitless if they did not have the material to match and again they have come up trumps in this department. Of the eleven tracks featured five are written by Mc Evoy with the remaining six co-writes with Mythen. The Lovers (I Miss You, Last Song, This Is Love), the Legends (When Tom Waits Up, Listening To Hank Williams, Django) and the Losers (Bottom Of The Hill, Sweet White Lies) all get their day in the sun with the Legends possibly winning by a short head courtesy of Mythen’s jazzy blues vocals on Django and Mc Evoy’s twangy guitar work and woozy vocals on Listening to Hank Williams.

Gorgeous harmonies and aching pedal steel combine on the weepy opener I Miss You, Big Ol’ Fancy enters Hayes Caryll territory with Mc Evoy taking lead vocal.  When Tom Waits Up (complete with daughter Layla Kay McEvoy’s heartbeat ‘from another world’) is a pointer towards how The Handsome Family might sound if they attempted to lighten up, lots of twangy guitar strings and tingling piano keys. This Is Love closes the album in style, a slow dreamy ballad beautifully vocally delivered with Murphy’s dreamy pedal steel again taking pride of place.

Recorded at Asta Kalapa Studios in Gorey Co. Wexford and co-produced by the duo, the album was mixed in Nashville by Engineer Mark Petaccia who has worked previously with Kacy Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega and Nora Jane Struthers.  The album was also mastered in Nashville at Room and Board Studio by Five Time Grammy Award Winner Ray Kennedy whose clients include Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. 

Most impressive album that ticks so many boxes and the ideal Christmas stocking filler for your loved one!

John Blek Catharsis Vol.1 Self Release

Inspiration for John Blek's latest solo album came from a most unusual source. Struck down and hospitalised with a mysterious illness that totally drained him of energy and led to considerable weight loss, he dealt with the condition and uncertainty by articulating his fears, pain and hopes through words and music that resulted in the demos for the album being recorded in his hospital bed. 

Similar to his 2016 release Cut The Light the emphasis again is always on the lyric with Blek's rich yet gentle and controlled vocal presenting tales of reflection, defiance, confusion and concern that visit the past, accept the present and question the future. The personal and often stark material blends folk with nods in the direction of traditional, leaving his more bombastic writing for his other project as lead man with John Blek & The Rats. 

Freedom and the nomadic existence are beautifully depicted in Salt In The Water, lived through the eyes of the sailor, the consummate traveller.’ I'd rather die a sailor than in the infirmary, on crisp white sheets of cotton no stars above me’. Needle and Thread is old worldly folk, stripped to the bare bone and featuring only echoing vocal and mellotron.

No Surrender is a candid, in the moment reflection on his illness, a limbo like existence but a spirited resolution to continue and is followed by the equally stark Hospital Bed, dealing with the anguish of loved ones as they helplessly observe the sufferer.

Thankfully John Blek has returned to full health and remains one of our outstanding young song writers of recent years, be it his solo work or with his band John Blek & The Rats. This album may have been conceived unwittingly but it’s a victory of mind over matter and a delightful body of work that he can be justifiably proud of. 

Jim White Waffles, Triangles & Jesus Loose Music

For two decades since the release of his debut album Wrong Eyed Jesus, Jim White has continued to record dark gothic, tortured and personal soul-searching music. At 60 years of age and seven albums later his exploration continues, coming to terms with childhood oppression and rejection, bouts of mental illness and a change of identity from the child born in to the world as Michael Davis Pratt to who we now know as Jim White. It’s been a fascinating journey for the listener, songs and tales that often demand repeated listens but reward the time invested handsomely. Waffles, Triangles & Jesus recommences the quest last visited in 2012’s Where It Hits You Hit and in some ways suggests a degree of personal acceptance and contentment with his predicament, a sentiment not often recognisable in White’s previous work.   

The familiar territories of religious hypocrisy, contradiction and confusion are called on in Reason To Cry and Prisoners Dilemma. Wash Away A World revisits his troubled and confused childhood days, recalling family dysfunctionality in a similar manner that Warren Zevon sang about in Play It All Night Long, though you don’t detect the same degree of playfulness in White’s recollections.

 However, it’s not all brimstone and fire and as usual White’s album contains its fair share of comicality, in particular the throw away ditty Playing Guitars and even more so on E.T.Bass At Last Finds The Woman Of His Dreams. The latter recalls the sheriff dodging T.V. sitcom character Ernest T. Bass who starred in The Andy Griffiths Show in the 60’s. Obviously a personal throwback to White’s growing up years, the track is a duet with U.K. singer songwriter Holly Golightly and it’s delivered in whimsical hillbilly fashion complete with guitar pickin’ and exaggerated country accents.

Not renowned for recording material that might be considered remotely commercial, Silver Treads breaks that mould and is possibly the most ‘radio friendly’ song in White’s wide catalogue. It’s an entrancing seven-minute-long song which brings to mind Gene Clark in his mid-70’s post Byrds days.  Gorgeously overlaid with backing vocals, strings and horns and complete with trumpet solo, it’s an unforgettable track and one of my favourite of this year. Here I Am dreams of freedom and release from the past but eventually gives up pursuing that lost chord and settles for recognition and possibly acceptance of the present. Sweet Bird Of Mystery, the closing track, is a beautiful father/ daughter love song, stripped back and clutter free, the final chapter in another Jim White classic.  

One of the most fascinating musical minds of his time with an extraordinary talent with the written  word, I’ve often considered Jim White and Howe Gelb’s back catalogues as my desert island listening and Waffles, Triangles and Jesus is a welcomed addition.

Chris Blevins Better Than Alone Horton 

There must be something in the Oklahoma air in recent years. Chris Blevins is yet another Okie in a stream of impressive roots break out artists to emerge from that musical hotbed. Following in the footsteps of John Mooreland, John Fullbright (who plays Wurlitzer on the album), Carter Sampson, Samantha Crain and Levi Parham, the ten track album is the debut recording by a young man mature way beyond his years with a gravely unadulterated vocal and a bunch of tales to tell. The mono chrome album front cover in no way prepares the listener for the onslaught of stellar music contained within. Mixing country with full on blues, Blevins vocals together with the stunning guitar work of Chris Combs (who also produced the album), combine to deliver ten tracks that has the foot firmly on the pedal from the word go. 

Out of the blocks in full tilt, Big Man opens the album, the rockiest track of the ten before Blevins changes direction with the bluesy soul number Clean. Abilene heads south to Texas recalling Hayes Caryll’s Drunken Poets Dream, Jezebel has a more Bob Segar feel to it. Wildfire and Way Down are slow burning ballads with Bevin’s bluesy drawl centre stage, bass player Aaron Boehler adding backing vocals and Combs contributing sleepy pedal steel on the former and a slick guitar break on the latter. The title track bookends the album, stripped to the bone, a reflection on ageing, mortality and acceptance.

A very impressive first offering indeed and hopefully the launching pad for further albums from this talented young man.

Darius Rucker When Was The Last Time Capital

Since signing for Capital Records in 2008 and launching his career as a country artist Darius Rucker has had no fewer than eight Billboard Country No.1 singles and four hugely successful album releases. This, from his second album Learn To Live, was the first No.1 single in the country charts by an African America since Night Games by Charley Pride in 1983. Lead singer and guitarist in Hootie and The Blowfish in his earlier career, Rucker was invited to sing at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday party and has sung the national anthem at the World Series and is currently a partner in MGM Sports an agency that represents professional golfers. 

You say you never danced to a dashboard, singing R.E.M. under summer stars’ is the opening lyrics of For The First Time, the first track on When Was The Last Time. Nonetheless, I doubt if many R.E.M. lovers are the target market for the album given it follows the tried and trusted Nashville winning formula, with twelve tracks that qualify for what is marketed today as country music.

The album contains only four tracks that Rucker is credited as a co-writer, the remainder include no fewer than twenty one other writers, big hitters such as Ross Copperman (who also produced the album), Shane Mc Anally, Jon Nite and Josh Thompson featuring. Even more musicians than writers are credited as contributing to the album, twenty six to be exact.  Undoubtedly Rucker possesses an incredible vocal and the album will sell by the cart load but personally I found the material to be soulless, repetitive and over produced. The inclusion of a cover version of Drivn’N’Cryin’s Straight To Hell will no doubt have the smartphone torches waving in the air and lighting up packed out arenas on his next tour, it’s a powerhouse version and tailor made for the live setting.

 For The First Time and If I Told You So were already released earlier in 2017 to huge exposure on country music radio and there is no doubt that the album will also generate equally impressive airplay and sales. Bring It On and Don’t are typical Rucker anthem ( both worryingly similar it has to be said), Twenty Something is a catchy pop sound reflecting on the passing years and the soft rocker Story To Tell closes the album out in a similar style to opening track For The First Time.

With Music Row’s marketing machine firmly behind them, Darius Rucker together with artists such as Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and others will continue to dominate country music radio and sell albums and tours in exceptional numbers. However, I’m reminded of a recent interview with John Prine where he described what is been marketed as country music today as basically ‘poor pop music’. Unfortunately, When Was The Last Time ticks that box for me.