Reviews by Stephen Rapid

JP Harris Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing Free Dirt

After two albums on Bull Hunt’s supportive Cow Island label, JP Harris released his new album on Free Dirt and has also changed his approach to making these records to some degree. This time out he brought in Morgan Jahnig to produce and they decided to pretty much assemble these new songs in the studio. The musicians had heard the voice and guitar demos but from that point on they brought to each song what they felt it need. The steel guitar underpins the regret of When I Quit Drinking wherein the protagonist has given up drinking but found that his clear head brings back memories that are maybe too revealing and hence he considers heading back for the oblivion of the bottle again. There are two things that this track emphasises and they are the quality of Harris’ matured lyric writing and the strength of emotion in his voice. He is indeed a fine singer on these traditionally minded but new sounding songs

There is a slightly more acoustic approach to some of these songs and they gain from these different settings. The omnipresent lure of drink is again the subject of I Drink Alone, where he wishes to hide the habit away from judgmental eyes - his own included. Miss Jeanne-Marie is a tale of regret about a lost relationship. The closing song Jimmy’s Dead And Gone, a train song, is first cousin to Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia On A Fast Train. It closes the album on a fast tracked musical high. Elsewhere Lady In The Spotlight has reminded some the Lonesome Highway team of Gordon Lightfoot. What men can all too often bring or remove from a relationship is the subject of the title track as it considers how men can cause pain by just being a man. A sentiment that he expresses with some conviction.

On the album Harris is joined by some very accomplished players including Leroy Powell on steel, Mark Sloan’s effective keyboards and Chance McCoy on guitar, fiddle and vocals. The Watson Twins add harmony vocals and Kristina Murray sings a duet on Runaway, a song about being the eternal drifter. So, all in all a top-notch album from a man who appears (on the cover) like you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night, but in truth would be great company on a dark night. Or in fact any night when he makes music this good. Undoubtably an album that is contender for the year’s ‘best of’ list.

Jimmy Rankin Moving East Songdog/True North

The seventh album from the easily likeable Rankin. Simply put, this Canadian singer/songwriter is a must for anyone who enjoyed Springsteen’s Seeger Session. This full-blooded high-octane folk music is given the kind of production that is both stirring and strident. It reflects the nature of life in Nova Scotia and Canada’s East Cost maritime community. Rankin lived in Nashville where he honed his songwriting skills before relocating back to Nova Scotia. There he recorded and mixed the album with producer Joel Plaskett at the helm. There is heart and salted soul at the core to these blue collar tales of working men and women. 

Rankin was a member of the Rankin Family - a band well known in Canada and elsewhere. The sleeve lists eleven plus players who brought this album to live. All bring their spirit and heart to these songs. Mostly written by Rankin solo but with one co-written by Patricia Conway and one with Steven McDougall. The final non-original is a traditional set of reels under the overall title of Dirt ’n’ Potatoes. This is life affirming, blood stirring music that draws form a musical tradition that goes back a long time but here in Rankin’s hands is given a vibrancy that is largely irresistible. Something akin to the aforementioned Seegar Sessions or the Pogues at their rowdy best. It is the sort of music and album that would, more than likely, find an audience on this shore as it would back in Canada. Moving East is simply moving.

Garrick Rawlings Self-Titled Peloponnese

Formally a hard rock guitarist, who during his travels met and became the road manager for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This instilled in him an interest in songwriting and solo performance (often opening for Elliott). Another person he met at this time was Rick Shea, who was also a part of Dave Alvin’s band. This has resulted in Shea bringing his talents to this album and co-producing with Rawlings in drummer Shawn Nourse’s studio in Los Angeles. Both Rawlings and Shea play a variety of stringed instruments throughout including mandolin, Spanish guitar and pedal steel.  

The songs are, in the main, written by Rawlings except for two covers which are indicative of his influences and overall direction. They are the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter written Grateful Dead recorded Friend Of The Devil and Townes van Zandt’s Pancho & Lefty. Both are given credible readings that fit easily in the overall style of the album. I Want To Run Away opens the album in an upbeat musical style even if the song talks of running away to find a better feeling and day! There is something of a border feel to Notengo Palabras - sung in Spanish. Then there are some story songs of some of dark travellers, such as the central figures in Lights Of Marfa. It features some sweet pedal steel and a harmony vocal from Jaimi Lyn Shuey. Lost In Time is about finding a somewhat worse for wear cello in a pawn shop. Jaimi Lyn Shuey again joins him on the vocals.  The slow ballad of ‘whatever gets you though the night’ Whiskey, Cryin’, Pain … is perhaps the best of their dual vocals. Rawling’s own vocal has a little of the age and rough edges it needs to make the songs believable.

This is one of those albums that is not trying to reinvent anything new, instead it consolidates a tradition of the troubadour who during his travels has had a chance to see many of the aspects that life has to offer. The interplay between Rawlings and Shea is seamless and portrays two men at ease with themselves and this music. I suspect any fan of Rick Shea’s work will also enjoy this and will be equally rewarded by Rawlings songwriting.

Tom Van Stockum Trebuchet Self Release

This newest of songs from Van Stockum shows him developing his skill as a writer and singer as well as offering a sound that builds on his debut self-titled EP by bringing together many of the same players that featured on that release. This is a full sounding album that includes a myriad of influences that stretch in many different directions. That ranges from the brass bolstered Strayed Out, the Hammond infused 60s influenced Want It As Bad As Me to the more roots-styled Cracks And Folds or the acoustic Autumn Rose which features backing vocals form Liz Hanley. The final track, the appropriately named, Going Time has some twangy guitar over a solid up-tempo and uplifting beat. A fully realised album that producer Alex P. Weinquest lets flow to whatever placed that the song requires.

That makes for an engaging album overall but not one that will appeal to those looking something that fits their concept of Americana as less expansive and more easily digested. This is the kind of album that has some layers in the recording that are revealed on repeated listening. However, it is Van Stockum’s voice that is the lynchpin that the album is focused on. The writing takes on a level of self-realisation and retrospection about the condition of relationships that are either a cause for regret or revelation. Whichever direction Van Stockum takes you on you can fell happy that you’re along for the ride. Tom Van Stockum has made this album a little difficult in one aspect and that is the use of what appears to be hieroglyphics on the front and back over. While it adds to the intrigue may not be the most effective communication of the contents. But it is the music that counts and this does that.  

The Pine Hearts Carousal Self Release

This band is fronted by the songwriter Joey Capoccia. It appears to be a three-piece acoustic bluegrass based band with some additional members on board for the album including pedal steel guitarist Leo Grassl adding an extra sonic dimension to this Nashville recorded album. The band are from Olympia in Washington State and have a couple of previous releases under their belts before this album. On the recording the six piece also feature banjo, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and guitar. The overall feel is of a forward thinking bluegrass band rather any form of newgrass. They also have a penchant for traditional country and cover George Jones’ The Window Up Above as well as two other non-originals Good Luck By The Sea song written by Scott Nolan and a public domain instrumental President Garfield’s Hornpipe. The latter shows that the band have the chops to impress in this field. The remaining songs are written by Capoccia 

All are well realised and take on some important topics such as the self-explanatory opener Living With Depression. Elsewhere the perennial theme of forlorn love is central to Crying For Another or the considered solace of the lovelorn in The Pedal Steel Let Me Down Easy. All of which mark this as a band with strengths as players and well as having, in Capoccia, a decent songwriter who is developing his craft. The band’s bassist Charles R Humphrey 111 produced the album alongside its engineer and mixer Charles Chamberlin. This is an album that should please any open-minded bluegrass fan as well as the casual listener who appreciates some well played and delivered songs that are, at their best, readily memorable.

Bob Collum and The Welfare Mothers Pay, Pack And Carry Harbour Song

Making the reverse musical journey to the usual route, Bob Collum came from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the London’s Thames Estuary to deliver his power-pop inspired country rock. So, what do you get? Well 10 memorable slices of Collum’s take on the blending of the two genres. The name of the man behind the desk should be familiar to some sleeve readers from the late 70s. It is none other than the Vibrators bassist and producer Pat Collier. He also played with the Boyfriends who were a poppier combo overall. So, he has a pretty good track record (ha) for this. The songs are written by Collum, either solo or with writing partners. The covers include a welcomed take on Mike Heron’s (of the Incredible String Band) Log Cabin Home In The Sky that is a standout. He also takes on Mike Nesmith’s Different Drum, which holds its own against other versions, without outdoing some of them (there are some 20 or so versions out there!).

There are some other interested parties involved including guests Martin Belmont on guitar and Peter Holsapple on guitar, keyboards and vocals. Also prominent in the mix and giving the songs their country flavours are Mags Leyton on violin and vocals as well as Allan Kelly on steel guitar. The later features heavily on the opening Across A Crowded Room. The violin is central to Scarecrow. Tin Can Telephone is a song co-written with Martin Belmont and Rambow - making me wonder if it is Philip Rambow of the late, lamented Winkies fame? An up-tempo song with Belmont’s trademark twang over a solid up-tempo beat and a memorable chorus. It is a song that helps defines the sound that Collum seems to be aiming for, where the two elements fit together comfortably. So if you want to single out a representative track to listen to this may be the one. Otherwise the whole album is well worth packing and carrying home for some more listening. It also comes in a neat Saul Bass inspired cover.

John David & The Jerks I Love You Means I’m Lucky sonaBLAST!

On their Facebook page it says that this Minneapolis band are akin to a fusion of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and The Jayhawks. So old school Americana then! Of course, you can pinpoint these elements in the songs but that doesn’t mean that were looking at a mere copyist. For their third album David and the band pulls these overall influences, and there are others, into a cohesive album that veers more towards the rockier end of things but there are moments like the reflective Swedish Dream that is more ambient and atmospheric with distant vocals, acoustic guitar and random sound. I’ll Die Of Grief rocks harder and again the vocals are mixed into the overall sound making it difficult to decipher the words, though perhaps the title is a pretty good clue to the overall direction. As is I Only Want Your Love which has pedal steel and a driving beat that makes it hit the spot.

David and his guitarist Jerrick Jenson and the engineer Zachary Hollander produced the album which has a layered muscular sound. Less so is Must We Break which features the steel guitar and David’s vocal and guitar. After such full-on tracks like the brass bolstered Every Little Road gives the listener a moment to hear David in a more stripped-down context and one that shows his high register voice off as an important part of the overall sound. Friend Like You closes the album in a high-speed indie rock throw down mood. Maybe this album isn’t for everyone but it is the sound of a band and singer pulling tighter to create their own take on any number of strands that they want to knit into something they can call their own.

Malcolm Holcombe Come Hell Or High Water Proper

What can be said of Malcolm Holcombe that hasn’t already been said. He is either an expressive, earthy singer or dismissed as an also ran. A man whose voice grates on some listeners. I favour the former thinking. Over the last few albums he has found a group of players who are supportive of Holcombe’s talent. This include producers Marco Giovino and Jared Tayler as well as his two harmony and backing vocalist Greg Brown and Iris Dement. The latter is a perfect contrast vocally to Holcombe. It is a pairing that works. Both producers are also players and are the nucleus of these sessions. A couple of players join in on guitar and accordion. It is however Tyler’s Dobro which seems most suited to the occasion when it appears.

The songs are chronicles of people on the fringes of society. The Vietnam vet living in isolation in Left Alone or the opening verse of Legal Tender sets out a scene that encompasses an certain lifestyle “my cousin’s in and out of jail, more times than I can count, bad habits run in the family, Marshall still grows pot.” Merry Christmas alludes to a time that was anything but merry. Another 13 songs in this latest instalment that has seen around 10 albums by Holcombe since 2006 up to this release. That’s quite a productive output for an artist who is not exactly a household name - he is no Seasick Steve. Malcolm Holcombe is no one else other than Malcolm Holcombe but what helps Come Hell Or High Water stand out from his recent work is perhaps the contribution of Brown and Dement. The counter balance they provide to his vocals add an extra layer of attraction. On the cover under the disc is a graphic entitled “Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing” which, even if only 6 are visible, make for interesting reading and perhaps show another of Malcolm Holcombe’s influences.