Reviews by Eilis Boland

Mules & Men Thinking Sideways Self Release 

An exciting debut album from a new Irish band who are turning the bluegrass genre on its head.

Firmly rooted in bluegrass, Mules & Men are doing to the genre what The Pogues did to folk music - and they call it Acid Celtgrass!

Luke Coffey, who wrote the majority of the songs, shows that he has a good ear for constructing a melody as well as being one of the best young banjo players in the country at the moment. 

Wonder/Wander is a gentle paced ballad of yearning for a lost love where Luke’s vocals are superbly complemented by Lily Sheehan’s harmonies, all beautifully enveloped in Luke’s inventive banjo lines - definitely the strongest song on the album.

Mark Corry shows that he is not just a pretty mullet wearing bass player by contributing three original songs, all of which tend towards the manic, but are very funny too. Procrastination Blues aptly kicks off the collection at a searing pace as it describes an alcohol fuelled encounter with the devil. Donegal recounts a hilarious trip to that county that didn’t end well (I hear that Ardara may have been the end destination). ‘Pope John Paul upon the wall’ and ‘a red haired girl with a bad tattoo’ should give you an idea of the session that ensued.

Accomplished guitar player Lily Sheehan gets to shine on her own song Meet Me, a gentle love song which showcases her delicate vocals and is complemented superbly by guest violin player Camille Champarnaud.

Ballybough Breakdown is a banjo-driven mid paced instrumental where Luke gets to show that he can bend those strings with the best of them.

John Denby on mandolin is the band’s secret weapon - he lurks in the background playing solid rhythm and then every so often he gets an opportunity to unleash some killer licks. He’s credited in the sleeve notes with ‘vocals’ also, but rumour has it that no one has actually ever heard him sing ...

Luke also contributes several good mid-paced songs written in a traditional country style.

The album’s attractive artwork hints at the band’s punk sensibility - it’s a curious mash up of medieval meets 21st century, for which Mark Corry is responsible.

I can’t wait to see this band develop and build on their undoubted talents. Hopefully next time they will use a producer (this recording is self-produced) who will help them iron out a few issues like vocal projection. We’ll be hearing more from Mules & Men.

Caroline Wickberg  I’m Not Mad  Self Release 

Swedish sound engineer Caroline Wickberg comes out from behind the mixing console to deliver an accomplished EP of lush folk pop compositions.

The themes are the age-old ones of relationships - either heartbreak or desire - but the songs are as much about creating a soundscape to convey those emotions as they are about the lyrics.

December opens the collection with hypnotic percussion, then heavy bass drum is added in, then a catchy guitar riff - all serving as an ever building backdrop allowing Caroline’s sweet and ethereal vocals to send a sensual message to an illicit love.

On the title track I’m Not Mad, a tale of the insomnia and catatonia of despair following a break up, layers of echoing vocals are used over the mainly acoustic strings, while Caroline reassures us  that she’s ok.

Wedding Crasher is another great slow burner, building from acoustic guitar, adding violins, then cello and the ever prominent upright bass to evoke the darkness of a potentially dangerous brooding relationship.

Not surprisingly Caroline has successfully co-produced and also played guitars and synths. Special mention must go to drummer Max Sjoberg.

The several references to summer & winter and light & dark lead me to wonder if Swedes are as obsessed with the weather as we Irish are?!

Anyway, the five songs on here add up to a healthy 22 minutes and are we.

Dave Richardson Carry Me Along Branch & Thorn 

A charming folk album that will definitely be in my end of year ‘best of’ list.

Dave Richardson opens his third album with a tribute to a dead giant squid. Seriously. Bear with me here. On first listen I assumed Squid was a tongue-in-cheek song, but subsequent listens convinced me that I was wrong. The song was inspired by seeing this rare specimen in the Smithsonian and Dave responded by writing what is actually a touching ballad speculating on the life of this unfortunate mollusc. The gorgeous Waiting For The Sunlight describes the simple pleasure of getting up early and tiptoeing out to see/feel/enjoy the dawn - it would almost convince this inveterate night owl to get up very early (just once!). Liv Baxter lends her beautiful vocals to this and several other songs here. More simple pleasures are celebrated in Front Porch Time - a beautiful evocation of retreating from the stresses of a busy day to relax with loved ones at the dimming of the day.

Most of the album is recorded with acoustic instruments- Dave on acoustic guitar, Ariel Bernstein on ‘barely there’ percussion, and Mali Obomsawin on upright bass and vocals.

Fellow New Englander Jefferson Hamer (Anais Mitchell, The Murphy Beds), who is quite familiar in this part of the world, guests as a backing vocalist on several tracks and also plays electric guitar on another original song Goodbye Baltimore, which is the rockiest track on the album. Traveling So Far movingly recounts the story, from a daughter’s perspective, of a road trip to her estranged father’s funeral and all the feelings that this drags up - Emily Mure’s backing vocals are perfect here. Another stand out track is Rise And Play (The Fox) - another simple arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, glockenspiel and other subtle percussion allows Dave’s strong voice to convey the fox’s night time antics delightfully. There are also covers of three traditional ballads from the Child Ballad collection, including a version of Polly’s Ghost (aka Pretty Polly).

Co-produced with Dan Cardinal (Josh Ritter, Darlingside) Dave Richardson has indeed created a must-have album.

Mike O’Donovan  No Time Like The Present  Self Release 

Limerick man Mike O’Donovan waited 65 years to get lots of living under his belt before he got around to recording his first collection of excellent original songs. Calling in many of his local musician friends, some well known on the national scene, he turned to his friend Dave Keary to help him produce this accomplished collection.

Various musical styles are used in the recording, reflecting Mike’s many influences over the years.

It Was On A Night Like This uses accordion and trumpet to evoke a mariachi feel in this nostalgic love song, while See You Once Again recalls the roots rock of The Band.

Keyboard genius James Delaney lends his magic touch to the latter and several other tracks. There’s a long tradition of brass bands in Limerick, and this is continued here with lots of brass contributions from saxophonist Michael Buckley and others. Trombone player Alistair White adds to the jazz inflections of The Dancer, and Gemma Sugrue’s backing vocals lend this and many other songs a relaxed laid back vibe.

Refreshingly, Mike hasn’t fallen into the (unintended) trap of singing in a fake American drawl - the vocals are pure Limericana!

The Billy Shinbone Show  Self Titled Tiny Dog 

Former member of Flipron, Jesse Budd releases a smasher of a debut solo album as his alter ego The Billy Shinbone Show.

In a scintillating smorgasbord of styles it’s impossible to categorise exactly what this recording sounds like, but Billy successfully melds influences from skiffle, rockabilly, punk, country, blues, rock and psychedelic pop. He plays practically all of the instruments here, sings all the songs and  co-produced with James Wilkes and Charlotte Worthy-Jarvis in his native Somerset.

If You Think You’ll Get Away With It, You’re Wrong, in what might be a first, finds clawhammer banjo trading licks with sitar in a delightful tirade against a haughty opponent, all sealed with the kiss of a howling harmonica. Rockabilly guitar and lots of bendy electric guitar chords duel with banjo in Temptation’s Got The Good Stuff. Day Of The Dangerous finds accordion, sitar, electric guitar and handclaps vying for attention in a psychedelic maze - and what the song is actually  about has defeated me so far! Billy’s vocals over a simple jazz guitar accompaniment tells the story of a nightmarish dream of hospitals and death in A Bunch Of Flowers, but he cleverly lifts the mood with the introduction of the chimes of a toy xylophone. Billy’s black sense of humour pervades the whole album, not least on the closer Thanks But No Thanks, Baby where a former lover is rejected with tongue-in-cheek bitterness - “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wash my own dishes and polish my own brown shoes”.

The appropriately chaotic and psychedelic cover art completes the unforgettable experience that is the Billy ShinBone Show- go experience it for yourself (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).