Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Mavericks Brand New Day Mono Mundo

This is the first album of original songs from the reactivated Mavericks since leaving Big Machine Music Group and it finds that the Mavs are pretty much business as usual. The core team of Raul Malo, Eddie Perez, Jerry Dale McFadden and Paul Deakin are joined by the Fantastic Four, which includes long-time associate Michael Guerra on accordion, guitar and percussion as well as the brass section and current bassist. So, there’s nothing here that strays too far from what might be expected - and loved - from the band.

Per usual, the musicianship is without question and the focal point of Malo’s vocal prowess is well to the fore. The 10 songs have been written by Malo, mostly with co-writer Alan Miller. There is one solo credit and one on which guitarist Perez joins in. The themes are, as they have been of late, of affairs of the heart and in most cases the songs affirm love and life. I Think Of You, I Will Be Yours, I Wish You Well and the title track attest to the generous state of the heart. The more acerbic older songs such as From Hell to Paradise seem likely to remain in the past. This would seem to be one of the reasons that the Mavericks are often tagged as a good time party band which has both positive and negative effects, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

For any long time Mavericks fan though, Brand New Day offers a brand new way to get acquainted with the band with their trademark sound firmly to the fore. It is an album that many are already placing alongside the best of their earlier incarnation and it will give the Mavericks the impetus to carrying doing what they do best, hopefully making some new fans along the way too.

 Sam Outlaw Tenderheart Six Shooter

Following on from the success of his last Ry and Joachim Cooder-produced album, Sam Outlaw has followed up with an album that reinforces his trademark sound. His sound is focused around his distinctive vocal style and his neo-LA (So-Cal) country stylings. As the title implies, there is a new tenderness to some of the songs, especially as he and his wife now have a son. This makes the process of being a working musician, of being on the road, a lot more difficult, yet the call to carrying on making music is strong. In order to do that successfully there is a need to tour behind a new album and Tenderheart is that album and a fine one it is too. Prior to releasing Angeleno, Outlaw had self-released a vinyl album and  an EP. For both his last and the new album he has rerecorded some of those earlier songs, and on this album Diamond Ring, Two Broken Hearts and She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of) have been chosen beside 10 new songs.

The production this time out is by Outlaw himself and Martin Pradler. and here he works again with Molly Jenson, Daniel Rhine, Jeremy Long, Brad Lindsay, all of  whom contributed to the debut release Nobody Loves Sam Outlaw. Jenson and Long also appeared on the Angeleno album and this brings continuity to the context of his music. Outlaw is steeped in the music that emanates from Los Angeles. It is a broad spectrum of the country music that has always differed from that being produced in Nashville, but this is less Bakersfield and more Burbank. There is a nod to the border again with familiar mariachi moments that allow for a broad palate and musical expression. 

The songs are much enhanced by Long’s steel guitar and the equally sympathetic playing of all. Outlaw looks at love, loss, friendship and forgiveness. Everyone’s Looking For A Home is a universal statement of the wish to belong, to have a home, to find some peace in a crazy world. The title track is about finding that special relationship. Yet it’s not all on the upside as a song like Trouble asserts; it is an album highlight and is delivered with a kick that is welcome. She’s Playing Hard To Get (Rid Of) looks at a relationship that has it’s warmth and is sung with a empathy that is easy to fall for. Two Broken Hearts is about lovers meeting and making their way in the world.

This is Outlaw doing what he does best and it is the next step in what has already been an interesting and individual musical journey, that has seen Outlaw gaining both critical respect and audience acclaim in a relatively short time. While Tenderheart may not be as well received as Angeleno in some quarters, to these ears, and after repeated listening. it is at least it’s equal.

Jim Keaveny Put It Together Self Release

The spirited troubadour returns with a brand new set of songs, most are solo writes and two are co-writes. There is a storyteller at work here who engages the listener with a loose amalgam of styles that  fall under the roots label. The album is co-produced by Keaveny and Bill Palmer who is also a player here and they are joined by a bunch of players who sound like they’re having fun and getting the groove right. The songs have a certain spontaneity totally in keeping with lifestyle of a wandering spirit, a man who looks at life with a wry smile and an open heart. 

There is also a border feel to some of the songs with the addition of guitarrón, trumpet and accordion. There are some great vocal harmonies behind Keaveny’s engaging voice and lyrics. This feels something like a conversation in a warm sunny place with a music drifting in on the wind. Given it was recorded in Santa Fe in New Mexico that may be an intention. Those who heard his last album (or previous releases) will know what to expect and newcomers are likely to be equally enchanted. This is not chart bound music, nor is it intended to be.

There is a strong folk/country axis to the overall sound with pedal and loop steel, keyboards, electric and acoustic guitars and a solid rhythm section that are right behind the songs. There is also enough change of pace and texture to keep the album interesting. Most of the songs are over the 3 minute mark and several clock in over 5. The album opens with What I ain’t Got which is a précis of the things in his life that he has to hand. Is It You? opens with trumpet and a lyric about the person he has in his life. It is one of the album standouts in that it sums better than words what  Jim Keaveny is all about. The Grand Forks is an atmospheric song that mixes backing vocals with trumpet to create a Calexico styled instrumental piece. Also check out Blown Away, the heartfelt plea Please don’t Underestimate my Love, which is delivered in a soft and understated way. Limbo and Grim/The Mariachi Mantra builds from Alex McMahon’s pedal steel through to Eric Ortiz’s trumpet to create a soundscape that plays like the end credits of a modern day western.

Keaveny has put it together here in more ways than one and it underlines him as a fringe figure who continues to make music that recalls much but is very much owned by his attitude and his auspicious endeavours to be heard.

Christopher Rees The Nashville Songs Red Eye

From the first notes of this album you welcome the return of this distinctive Welsh wonder. As the title indicates, this set of songs were written with a number of co-writes including Rick Brantley, Mando Saenz, Sandy Cherryholmes, Amy Speace and others. However the recording, production and mixing was done by Rees at his studio in Wales and it features Rees’ notable attention to detail and a sound that brings his multi-instrumental abilities well to the fore. He plays everything here other than drums (Dan Tilbury) and pedal steel guitar (Aaron Goldstein - a talented player who has worked with Daniel Romano and The Cowboy Junkies). Another vital asset here is Rees’ dynamic and individualistic vocal, which is central to the album’s success. 

A listen to Something about Nashville will confirm that accomplisment to any listener. The song is about being separated from a partner who once shared the city together but is now not there. In the song A Place Upon My Face Rees’ writes that “I want my face to be a reflection of where I’ve been and where I come from.” In many ways his albums also offer the same sort of illumination. Each album is about a musical adventure and inspiration as well as a diary of where he was when he recorded it in terms of inspiration and application. Even though they are largely recorded back in his studio in Wales they draw from the experiences and the relationships he has made along the way. These are both personal and musical. 

Rees is an artist whose compulsion to make music as a necessary expression and fundamental need is evident. There is little doubt that the path of any independent artist is not a particularly easy one, but when the results are as good as this is, then it is one that needs to be encouraged and applauded. But if the end result was below standard then it would be easy to suggest that, as is sometimes the case, the continued release of albums may be something of a fool’s errand. That is not true of Christopher Rees, who has consistently proved his worth and the worthiness of his endeavours. The Nashville Songs is his latest album and long may he continue to do what he does so well.

Ed Dupas Tennessee Night Road Trip

The sleeve note from Dupas explains something of the genesis of this album - how a trip to Nashville and a stay in a remote writer’s cabin helped to inspire several of the songs featured here - songs born out of longing and some inner turmoil (I can’t let you go, I watch your picture on the wall, and I wait for it to fall - Do It For Me). Overall the mood is not upbeat, even though the music is. Dupas looks at his life, his hopes and his past and uses that to create this music and in doing so expresses something that many will have experienced themselves.

The album was produced, engineered and mixed by Michael Crittenden, who is also a part of the players who have brought these songs to life. Full credit to them and their individual talents. The album is a worthy successor to Dupas’ debut A Good American Life and underlines his talent as a writer, singer and performer. It has the feel and energy of such wonderful albums as Bob Woodruff’s 1994 album Dreams & Saturday Night which was produced at a time when a country album could rock while remaining true in spirit to the core music without becoming a parody of overblown heavy metal, as is often the case these days.

Mention should be made of the contribution of Drew Howard on pedal steel which does much to flavour the music’s roots orientation. Crittendon’s B3 and banjo also add to that overall texture. Dupas himself plays acoustic and electric guitars which complement his grounded and graceful vocal performance. He is joined on a number of these songs by vocalists Tara Cleveland, Judy Banker and Cole Hanson and all add a counterpoint and harmony behind the emotion evident in Dupas’s delivery. Too Big to Fail, Anthem and Everything is in Bloom are all examples that immediately stand out and show why Ed Dupas is an artist who well warrants investigation and interest. These songs have insight and inhabit a space that, if nothing else, shows that Dupas’ need to make music is a true one. That is something to be deemed as a worthy endeavour. 

Malcolm Holcombe Pretty Little Troubles Singular

There is little doubt that Holcombe has his detractors as well as his admirers. His grit and gravel sandpaper voice is not to everyone’s taste, but those that do fall under his spell seem to be growing and he is certainly been prolific of late with a number of albums to his credit over the last few years. This time out noted artist in his own right Darrell Scott has taken on the production duties. Holcombe’s bluesy tales, his own pretty little troubles, are as often about the world around him and how it is being eroded (Yours No More, Good Ole Days, Damn Weeds) as about his own life and times (Crippled Point O’ View, Outta Luck), some of the songs encompass both.

However these tales of woe are given a musical setting that always make them never less than interesting with a wide range of instruments adding substance and sustenance to the hardworn nature of the music. Many of the instruments are played by Scott himself but with major contributions from Jelly Roll Johnson, Joey Miskulin, Verlon Thompson and Denis Crouch. Mike McGoldrick brings a distinctly Celtic flavour to The Eyes O’ Josephine with Uillean pipes, which makes that song an immediate standout. Yet in the end it is Holcombe’s voice which is the most prominent feature of the tracks and the success of the album will largely depend on your liking for that particular vocal inflection.

For those that do like this sound, Pretty Little Troubles is a compelling album that employs all the skills of its participants to best advantage which makes it a highpoint of Holcombe recorded output. His pretty little troubles have produced some nuanced and balanced personal and unique representations of the blues that are as effective as many of the more applauded practitioners of that often ignored genre. Malcom Holcombe continues to do it his own way. Singular indeed. 

Angaleena Presley Wrangled Mining Light

For her second album Presley takes a particular stand for her take on traditional country music and against some prevailing attitudes on the role of the women gagged. Add to that a the album’s title and you get the impression that Presley wants to break free. She does this by expanding her parameters while remaining within the country corral. 

The songs also tell something of the tale with titles like Dreams Don’t Come True, Country, Outlaw, Mama I Tried and Motel Bible. The album’s overall tone is her largely contemporary takeon  a musical form she loves. The steel and baritone guitar on Only Blood takes things right back. This duet with Morgane Stapleton was co-written by Presley and Chris Stapleton and is a sweetly sung song of revenge and that “she’s been talking to Jesus and he said that only blood is strong enough to wash away your sins.” There is a distant distored male voice and some discordant sound that adds an air of disquiet to the song. Country heads the opposite direction with a rap vocal from co-writer Yelawolf that wipes the floor with some of mainstream country’s rap aspirations and mixes the two approaches with success. 

The songs are a mix of those written solo and co-writes. Dreams Don’t Come True with her Pistol Annies bandmates Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert. There are two co-writes with writers who had obviously played a major influence on her in terms of attitude and writing aspirations. They are Guy Clark in Cheer Up Little Darling (which uses Spanish guitar under Clark’s spoken advice over that intro) and Wanda Jackson (and Vanessa Olavarez) for Good Girl Down. Co-producer Oran Thornton also has a couple of writing credits (Mama I Tried and Motel Bible - the latter also with Trevor Thornton). Her own Outlaw makes the point that she doesn’t want to be a renegade or outlaw, that she would like to be a straight shooter on the hit parade, a place she has been with The Pistol Annies. However one gets the feeling that Presley would want to do that her own way rather than as any sort of record company puppet.

There is a whole bunch of attitude at work here that makes for an album that has both variety and velocity which in turn make it a step forward for Presley. However hse may still find her music sitting outside the tightly controlled focus of country radio’s current thinking - sad to say. 

The Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band Front Porch Sessions Family Owned

The big voiced Reverend is back with his band on these stripped back acoustic blues and country blues outings. So stripped back,in fact, that the Big Damn Band here is just two people; Breezy Paton on washboard and Maxwell Senteney on drums. However a lot of the performance are just Payton alone or predominately him. It was recorded on vintage equipment in order to capture a certain timeless quality that is not exactly retro but rather realistic.

Payton went in to lay down some old songs and some new songs in a live-in-the-studio format while capturing the looseness the title indicates. The results are going to please any of those who have witnessed the band’s live performances. It also stands up as a pure listening experience as it captures the spirit of the songs and the lineage that they convey, When My Baby Left Me by Furry Lewis being a good example. As is  the Reverend’s taken on the songs from the 1900 Let Your Light Shine, an infectious spiritual reading.

Between the covers and the originals there is not a lot of distance, which is to say the new songs capture the spirit of older ones. It is about intimacy and illumination, but also it is about Payton’s big and booming voice and his growing skills on his guitar on his Dobro. Not an album to please everyone, especially those with one foot in the honky-tonk, but for anyone who likes their music honest.