Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers Real Sharp Proper/Last Music

This compilation brings together pretty much everything recorded by Chilli Willi who, essentially, started out life as the duo of Martin Stone and Phil Lithman. The former had a long musical career in bands such as Savoy Brown Blues Band, The Action and Might Baby among many others before becoming a dealer in rare books. Lothian nicknamed ”Snakefinge” had played with Stone in Junior’s Blues Band before moving to San Francisco. On his return he reunited with Stone to form Chilli Willi and play country oriented rock music. Both are now deceased as is their icon graphic designer Barney Bubbles. This compilation is dedicated to all three. Bubbles’s work is featured throughout the package and was one of the reasons I sought them out when they were originally released. 

The first CD in this two disc set opens with the songs originally released as Kings Of The Robot Rhythm. A mix of original songs and a couple of traditional arrangements. Though remastered the overall sound quality is a little thin but none-the-less quite entertaining. For the recording of that album Stone and Lithman were joined by Bob Andrews, Nick Lowe and Billy Rankin from Brinsley Schwarz along with a couple of other London-based players. It is a more acoustic sounding affair with some strong harmonies from the duo. Friday Song was an unreleased single and nit a bad one too. It is reminiscent at times of The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and the more country side of Moby Grape and seems to kick the sound up a notch or two with some good steel and guitar interplay. Their ethos may be summed up, to a degree, by the first song of a series of demos that come up next - Goodbye Nashville (Hello Camden Town). These tracks would make any current band feel happy with their content. Truck Driven’ Girl has banjo, fiddle. What you hear is that these guys can certainly play. Another highlights include Jesse Winchester’s Midnight Bus and a rockin’ version of Choo-Choo Ch’ Boogie. A song that also turns up on the second disc.

That disc starts with the eleven tracks that made up the band’s second album Bongos Over Balham and a slight shift in direction that encompasses some swing ands blues along side the more countrified numbers. The band had now solidified with a rhythm section of Pete Thomas (later of the Attractions) and Paul “Bassman”Riley along with P.C. Bailey and guest Bob Andrews who both added sax and other instruments. Mike Nesmith sideman 'Red' Rhodes also guested on pedal steel guitar. Again the playing singing and self-written songs are all engaging and enjoyable. Highlights include Desert Island Woman, All In A Dream and newer versions of song from the demos Midnight Bus and Truck Driving Woman. All of these were Lithman originals other than the aforementioned Choo-Choo Ch’ Boogie and Midnight Bus. The remainder of the album is taken up with some live tracks either from gigs or radio sessions. The final two tracks were final demo recordings of cover sings. These round out a package that is interesting both musically and in visual terms and for Paul “Bassman” Riley’s informative sleeve notes. Well done to Proper for reissuing this archival project of what was obviously a fun band to witness and remain to listen to. 

Bill Kirchin and Austin de Lone Transatlanticana Proper/Last

Anyone fortunate to catch Bill Kirchin live will be well of his prowess. Equally his albums make for a good listening experience that is full of memorable songs and playing. Nothing different here then for his collaboration with keyboardist Austin de Lone, an American who initially made his name playing with Eggs Over Easy on the burgeoning Pub Rock scene in London. The album was recorded in Austin and in London and it’s well up there with either’s best work. They work well together as they have in the past with either Kirchin or De Lone taking the lead vocal. But some fine guests abound such as Butch Hancock dueting on his own Oxblood. Gurf Morlix on electric guitar, Bobby Black on pedal steel and the rhythm sections of Paul “Bassman” Riley and David Carroll on bass and drummers Malcolm Mills and Rick Richards. Harmonies are added by Caroline de Lone and Louise Kirchin. 

The song are mostly covers including Blackie Farrell’s opener the amusing and arresting Hounds Of Bakersfield through to the blues of Charles E. Calhoun’s Losing Hand. Kirchin and de Lone have distinctive voices that work well in context. The former is, naturally steeped in the sound of Bakersfield while the later showed Kirchin is also adept at playing the blues. Throughout the duo cover a number of musical bases with ease and success. de Lone delivers a soulful and sensitive vocal on Warm And Tender Love. In the main the original songs are from de Lone while the rest are covers that suit the duo well including a version of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing.

There is nothing ground breaking or monumental on the album, but that’s largely beside the point, as these are two musicians (and friends) who love to play music and are seasoned players who are putting there heart (and soul) into these songs. They perfectly delineate passion over posturing and the ease that such a long career making notable music brings to such a project. Both Bill Kirchin and Austin de Lone are comrades and old friends and Transatlanticana is a hands across ocean that shoes the true connections that music can make. Incidentally the UK version of the album has two additional tracks.

The Long Haul Beautiful Lies (10 Tales Of Temptation) Self Release

This UK band are Simon Sparrow and Francois De Ville who are the writers of these songs and who play guitar and pedal steel respectively. They are joined by Matt Windler and Dil Davis. A different set of players to those listed on the press release as can sometimes happen. They play traditionally minded songs that are enhanced by (Nashville based) Eamon McLoughlin’s production. He also adds fiddle, mandolin, cello and viola to the sounds and has brought in some fine guests in Lloyd Maines, John Jarvis and Chris Scruggs. The music was recorded in Brighton as well as Nashville and in Austin. Which gives the album some additional weight behind the duos songs. There are times when a little more grit in Sparrow’s voice would have been welcome but that shouldn’t distract from some solid songwriting and playing. Largely the sound falls into a smooth steel and string enhanced mood that is less honky-tonk overall than a song like the opening ode to the Austin club The Continental might suggest. Though another of De Ville’s songs is also more in the dance floor vein. His Beautiful Lies is also a good song.

Sparrow songs seem take a more melancholic direction that rewards some repeated play. Songs like Waiting And Wishing, Blind and You’re Still Here all have a sense of regret that is matched by the the music and you can see why McLoughlin wanted the steel and strings to form a central part of the song’s core. They provide the right sense of existential heartbreak that is part country, part universal songwriter. The Long haul are another example of how the UK country scene has moved away from jukebox style covers to something far more rewarding and  important to the development of a strong sense of individual identity. Having said that it is unlikely that this band will achieve the kind of recognition that The Shires or Ward Thomas have gained. However the songs here could and the album is a showcase for the songwriting of Sparrow and De Ville as well as McLoughlin’s sympathetic production.

Lil’ Lost Lou Self-Titled Bully Records

Another hands across the ocean production with Lil’ Lost Lou recording parts of the album in the UK and in Nashville. There she got producer Billy Livsey involved and she co-produced the album with Livsey and Sean Kelly (who handled the UK end of things). In Welcome to 1979 Studios they got a bunch of players like Dave Roe, Russ Phal, Stuart Mathis and Livsey himself lending their talents to the recording. The music is a vibrant mix of some rockabilly, country, rock ’n’ roll and punk ingredients. Psyche (an old family name?) wrote all the songs on the album that is focused around her edgy vocals and sassy, untameable attitude. 

The sound of the album is not as trenchant rockabilly as some others have been in the past which, in the end, makes for a more varied result that utilises the various skills on offer to good effect. Grounding it all is the rhythm section of drummer Justin Amaral and bassist Roe - who himself knows a little about attitude having played with a who’s who of interesting singers from Johnny Cash to Dwight Yoakum. Yet Psyche can also manage to keep things sparse yet edgy on a song like Ride A Train with simple stripped back instrumentation and voices. Elsewhere songs like I Kissed Your Man (Jolene), which has the air of an answer song about it. It is a harmonica filled gutsy tale of lust and need. Ramblin’ Woman with is the tale of an unsettled “other” woman who need to keep moving on and making her own way and own rules.

The album is divided into a Side A and a Side B Though there is no immediate difference sound wise between the two. He Put A Hook In Me (Bones, Feathers, Black Book, Rabit Foot) is another songs that has a voodoo rhythm and some midnite mayhem in a song that features some strident female backing vocals to harden its sense of want. More reflective is Red Is The Colour Of My Shame a restrained redemptive rating of ones internal demons that is largely some steel and acoustic guitar behind a telling vocal. Things get hotter again for Brown Boots that quotes from other boots related paeans to getting things done right. The closing song is entitled Song For Bob Dylan and is indeed just that. Questioning to the way that in her mind his words were written about her and for her. “Did you read my mind in a dream sometime” she asks. The song builds from voice and acoustic guitar to a full band finish that acts as a fitting end to this interesting and insurgent artist.

Nathan Bell Love>Fear (48 Hours In Traitorland) Stone Barn

The role of the protest folk-singer seems have gained an even greater relevance in recent (darker) times. Echoing a time when the guitar and harmonica wielding story-teller and oracle of truth was front and centre. Now they work on the fringes. What you see is what you get here with this album. Bell with guitar and harmonica and a bunch of songs that tell it as he sees it. Songs of the working man, the working woman and of lost souls. 

In these songs ordinary people are given a voice by Bell. It is a voice that has some portent and potency. One that is set against his simple but effective guitar playing. Raise Your Fist, is as it sounds, a call to action to make yourself know. It is dedicated to the athletes at the 1968 Olympics who gave the black power salute. While Coal Black Water takes to task those coal companies who abused the land and the miners for profit. One Man Walking is about how an individual can face up to those things in life that he finds difficult to face but makes an individual stand against. Traitorland is a song that set some guidelines for living (and loving). Perhaps the immediate standout though is MIA (Bill In 1975), wherein the turns the acronym into a number of alternatives like Missing In America and Mad In America about a brother who after returning from the Vietnam War went to live in Montreal and lost contact with his family.

Bell stands alongside the likes of Joe Purdy as a man who follows the path laid down by Woody Guthrie and the stripped down harshness and hardness of Springsteen’s Nebraska. This is how Bell would sound live and in fact half the songs here are live recordings and full of life and light. This is a raw recording that follows previous albums like the studio recorded I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love which was released in 2016. This is a timely release that will hit home for many.

Drew Holcomb And The Neighbors Souvenir Magnolia

The latest release from Holcomb and his band offers some more big sounding music. Produced by Joe Pisapia and Ian Fitchuk in East Nashville it again covers Holcomb and the bands’ genre mixed roots style that is riven with hooks and melodies. Though it is Holcomb’s voice that is front and centre here (it has the kind of timbre that would be familiar to David Gray fans) it is largely a full band effort with the members contributing both to the music and to the writing of the songs. This makes for a cohesive and complete album that has a strong organic feel from a group of musicians who have played a lot of dates together and have that ease with each other that shows in the music.

The writing credit are shared between Holcomb and band members Rich Brinsfield and Nathan Dugger in various combinations. Yet it is Holcomb’s name over the door and he ultimately has the responsibility for the overall direction of positive, passionate and at times fragile and figurative outcome. Souvenir is Holcomb’s tenth release and so he has been working to this point for a long time. And one wonders how much longer before he can achieve the kind of recognition that Nathaniel Ratcliffe and the Night Sweats have gained in recent times.

California an upbeat ode to that State, a place to return to from far away, is as bright as you would expect. While Fight For Love explores the disparate nature of a relationship that requires the titular effort to make it work. Keyboard player and guitarist Dagger’s The Yellow Rose Of Santa Fe has pedal steel to bolster it’s country feel. It is about meeting a woman who is a quiet force of nature, a slow shuffle about time and place. It looks wistfully about what might have been though from a place of positivity with what is. Postcard Memories is another song that considers home and wanted to be there with someone you love and need. It is a restrained ballad that is subtle and effective. The album ends with Wild World that is stripped back to guitar and voice until the piano and bass comes in to give the song a further depth. The song continues the theme of love s redemption that we all try to find our pace in a wild world where love is all that we have got to give away. A souvenir for romantics everywhere.

Euferzine Where Did The Time Go Little Crab Creek

Essentially this is a project of Denise Reagan working with producers Jeff Taylor and John Mock. Both are integral to the music with both performing multi-instrumental duties on Reagan’s co-written songs that sound timeless and traditional. Often with a strong celtic connection and featuring tin whistle, bodhrán, uileann pipes and fiddle. Through the double bass is a prominent and grounding element and in the hands of players like Byron House and Dennis Crouch you would expect no less. Elsewhere musicians of the calibre of Shad Cobb, Thomm Jutz, Kenny Malone, Glen Duncan and Wanda Vick join Taylor and Mock and others in creating an ethereal bedrock for the ethereal and evocative vocals of Reagan and other like Deana Berry, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses and John Thompson on backing vocals.

This is a double CD of some 20 tracks that are solidly rooted in the past and in heritage. Euferzine is the name of Reagan’s grandmother who grew up in the Appalachians in a place with no electricity or running water. Reagan lost her at the age of 13 but had a song impression of the saddest person she have ever encountered. So it is no surprise that this music is imbued with a sense of melancholy and deal, largely, with her family’s 400 year history.

The album runs as an overarching concept that brings together different style of music that have, equally, a simplicity and acoustic energy that finds the songs connecting together as a tangible whole. There is a companion book that goes with this which would doubtless given a greater emphasis to the songs and the soldiers, hunters, preachers, patriots - the men and women who people these songs. Songs that encompass the genealogy of the place and the old-time, front porch, bluegrass. folk, jazz and celtic musical tributaries that contribute to this river of song - one that is worth emerging yourself in.

Carrie Elkin The Penny Collector Self Released

A strong, often beautiful album from Carrie Elkin that has a strongly poetic nature that is bolstered by a strong musical setting that is perfectly attuned to the lyrical content. Themes include loss as her father passed away recently and love as she also recently gave birth to a daughter. That cycle of life that is central to music that has substance and sincerity. The album title is a dedication to her father who collected pennies all his life. 

 The album was produced by Neilson Hubbard and marks her return to solo work after working with Sam Baker and with her husband Danny Schmidt. There are stylistic elements of folk and Ambient Americana at play. The production manages to mix the moments that need to be heard with an undeniable power that picks the music up at the points it need to. the instruments can sweep and soar and also be subdued as the song requires. This give Elkin expressionistic voice the freedom it needs to for a strong emotional empathy perhaps mirrored in titles like Albatross and Lamp Of The Body.

Alongside Neilson playing drums are studio stalwarts Will Kimbrough and Eamon McLoughlin and backing vocalists Danny Schmidt, Robby Hecht and Ryan Culwell. The album was recorded in Nashville although she resides in Austin. This perhaps allows for a certain distance and distillation. Here Elkin’s voice is full of merciful strength and grace. There is power and equally a telling intimacy that brings the songs their heartbreak and joy. This is Elkin’s sixth solo album and easily ranks with her best recordings and arguably her finest to date. One that is indeed collectible.