Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Ben Da La Cour The High Cost Of Living Strange FSCR

This is one of those albums that transcends all expectations because of the strength of the songs and performance. Da La Cour is a singer/songwriter in the roots/Americana mode but one who with this fourth release shows himself as a contender to join the likes of Rod Picott and Slaid Cleeves as contenders to the crown of Guy Clarke and other notable songsmiths. In the song Uncle Boudreaux Went To Texas he has written a couple of the best lines I have heard all year. “He swore he met Townes van Zandt outside a bar in Houston this one time, I always did believe him, my Daddy told me he was full of shit, he said the closest Boudreaux ever got to Texas was Willie’s Greatest Hits.” Although there are only 8 tracks on this mini-album all are strong and there’s variety in the mood and temposthat make for a consistently interesting listen.

Recorded in Nashville,itwas produced by De La Cour and Joe Lekkas and tight group of musicians who deliver their best shots. Fiddle and accordion join a bass, drum and guitar line up to deliver a warm and full sounding recording. De La Cour has a background in metal and rock but is now firmly ensconced in folk/roots story-telling. De La Cour has called this "Americanoir" - an appropriate description. One trackGuy Clark’s Fiddlesuggestthat he has absorbed some of the best writers around but these tracks are proof positive that his own writing is heading in the right direction. The themes may not be unique in the genre but they feature observations that are as true as any. Company Town is a look at the death of a town and the death of hope. Tupelo is a darker tale of escapism and endangerment. There is an acute sense of observation in the writing that is turned into memorable songs.

Da La Cour was raised in New York but moved to Los Angeles before settling in Nashville for the time being. He has couple of previous releases (A Wasted Moon and Ghost Light) before this current release which simply leaves you wantingmore from this engaging story teller. Hopefully in the not-to-distant future. He is expressing the need for humanity and the lack of it that exists in society at large. Something that has it cost in either living strange or in the strange aspects of living.

Thomas Gabriel Long Way Home Oxvision

On his recordings Thomas Gabriel sounds even more like his Grandfather Johnny Cash that even in the live setting. Gabriel himself has said he feels that he doesn’t have anything like the resonance and gravity that Cash had. Even so the casual listener may think that he is listening to tribute rather than a voice that respects and relates to such an icon. Once you get over the vocal affinity you are left with an album that in some ways has more in keeping with Cash’s later works than the earlier Sun styled recordings. This album, produced by Matthew Oxley, is centered around the voice but behind that is a forward looking set of arrangements that are full of atmospheric ambience.

In its favourit features 14 new original songs, some written by Gabriel, solo or with a writing partner Rick Scott or by executive producer Brian Oxley,for the most part. They are defiant statements of life as understood and realised by a man who had recently served several years in prison and had dealt with the demons of addiction. Cell is the most obvious of these but most of these songs have a darkness in their heart. In that light,Gabriel’svoice suits these tales of hardship and self awareness. However, there is a sense of redemption there also with a song like Come To Me song that offers a vision of a better place to lay your burdens down. Twangtown is a rebuke of those who have (always) favoured finance over heritage and real music in Music City.

Gabriel has said that this album represents and certain point in his life and recovery and that his next album will, likely, be coming from a better place. As it stands,musically,this is not intended as an easy listen. It is a recording that marks a scion of a legendary family trying to find his own path who sees no reason to try and change his voice to something different than it is. What it represents, is a living memory of an icon, while trying to find hisown identity andnever denying the lineage. It is a long way home for Gabriel but he is taking it one step at a time. Steps that in themselves are as strong as his voice. 

Carson McHone Carousel Loose

An artist with a back story that finds her playing a residency in an Austin nightspot at an age where she wouldn’t have legally been allowed to drink there. Now,after that live playing experience and with two previous releases behind herMcHone has sharpened her craft to include her past and her future. To encompass some traditional country influences that were part and parcel of her upbringing as well as to bring the music forward. This was done by bringing in producer Mike McCarthy who had worked with Spoon and Patty Griffin, to name but two. He has also gathered solid rhythm section over which fiddle, steel and electric guitar enhance and explore country’s perimeters without even losing sight of that musical core.

The themes of country music are here, the failed relationships (Sad And Gentle). Many come from an autographical background and some are revised and rerecorded form her earlier Goodluck Man release. Playing in bars from a tender age undoubtably will colour your viewpoint of life and relationships. Seen first-handthat experienceno doubt inspired some of these songs,which often have a melancholy undertow,that gives them a sense of confessional purpose. It is an album that is moving away from a strict traditional country base to something more contemporary and imbued with a wealth of other influences that are still aligned with a vision of where McHone might take this music in order to suit each song in its own right.

The upfront Drugs and Dram Shop Gal whose lines “But I still like to do my runnin’ round, so it couldn't be, I would not be bound” show that there is a determination to move on as a person and with her music. She is able to give each song on Carousel its own space and place allowing the songs their individual tempo and setting. There’s the piano and brushed drums mood of How ‘Bout it. That contact with the dance floor best of Good Time Daddy Blues. The overall mood of the album though is more plaintive without ever losingits energy and focus. McHone is exploring her options but has still created an album that manages to be considered country while moving beyond any restrictive boundaries. Life goes round and we wait to see which carousel horse McHone arrives on next.

Hunter Perrin Wild Card Self Release

It comes as no surprise that Hunter Perrin spent time as a member of John Fogerty’s band. He has distilled the elements of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll into a new album that delivers 10 songs in 23 minutesof American music that thrills and avoids and excess fat. It is a sound that some mayfind too sparse and stripped back but it’s one that this review revels in. The themes are classic and timeless and could have been recorded anytime since the 50s. 

Titles like A Tear From A Bloodshot Eye, Another Lonesome Night In A Lonesome Town and That’s You, That’s Me, That’s All cover some basic emotional modes of the heart with a strong sense of hook and melody that makes you think that these songs have been around for quite some time. They are all however written by Perrin and played with his band mates Christopher Allis on drums and Thomas Lorioux on upright bass. This duo lay a solid rhythm under which Perrin sings and plays a big Bigsby tremoloed guitar. One song, Gallup, NM (New Mexico) is a vibrant instrumental and is set in that particular location, as is California Is My Home; a song that details his previous and current home bases. He is equally well versed musically,having studied at Yale and the University of Texas,where he studied classical guitarist.  He played in a rock band in NewYork called Hi-Five and has subsequently started three other bands as well as releasing two solo albums.

Although this album is released under his own name it is more of a band album in overall sound. A sound that is obviously a deliberate one given his undoubted range and experience. Perrin’s wild card is his innate ability to produce an album that has no fat or filler and all of its ten songs are somemorable and deceptively simple in their recording that they feel fresh and fundamental.

Connie Smith My Part Of Forever (Vol.1) Humphead

There may be lot of singers in country music better known than Connie Smith but few are better vocalists. This is another collection by the (generally) reissue label Humphead who have a collection of double CDs that are mainly drawn from a particular time of an artist’scareer and from a label they can licence the tracks from. in this case Smith and husband Marty Stuart have made the selection of tracks that span her career. So CD1 runs from 1973 to 1985. Songs from when she was signed to Columbia that include a good half dozen albums. She worked with producers Ray Baker and George Richey during this period and the sound is steadfastly traditional country without ever getting stuck in a rut. The range of writers was equally varied from Hank Williams through Dallas Frazier to Steve Earle.

The second CD takes tracks from more recent albums and finds Smith’svoice if anything stronger and more authoritative. There aremany tracks from Long Line Of Heartaches that was released by Sugar Hill in 2011,as well as the Warner released self-titled album from 1998through to an album I wasn’t aware of entitled The Lost Tapes - Country Rewind 1972-2015 - which as it suggests is a collection of rare and unreleased recordings. Stuart acts as executive producer on these Scotty Moore produced tracks. The other tracks were produced by Stuart himself and the sound is balanced and undoubtably country and at odds with the move towards a more pop-oriented sound. One listen to My Part Of Forever and you hear a masterclass in country music as it should be.

One might readily assume that at least some of the recent tracks benefit from the playing of Smith’s band The Sundowners who included steel player Gary Carter as well as Robbie Turner. Steel guitar is very much in evidence and central to many of these tracks. As a career overview it is a well thought out selection that sees Smith at the top of her game after remaining vital for nearly half a century. Something that not many can say. Alan Cackett’s sleeve notes are informative and they complete the package. It leaves one looking forward to Volume 2.

Mike Blakely The Outside Circle Swing Rider

With the new Colter Wall album focusing on the Western side of country music this album from Blakely is welcome. Blakey isstoryteller and uses these ten tracks to paint a vivid picture of a time and way of living that is all but gone. He does so in the tradition of the original singing cowboys and exponents like Michael Martin Murphy, Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson. Blakey’s latest album is his 13th and a return to the C&W format that he featured on his first two albums. He is also the author of Western novels and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award and is steeped in the lores and motivations of those who love the feel of that time and those legends of the west, sung and unsung.

As a writer he has had his songs covered by the likes of Alan Jackson and Raul Malo among many others. Blakely is a native Texan who brings life to his songs of cowboys, round-ups and rodeos. His voice is ideal with a depth that is both warm and appropriately worn. The album was produced by Walt Wilkins and Ron Flynt and features a host of Austin players including Lloyd Maines on steel guitar, Rich Brotherton on mandolin and Kim Deschamps on resonator. The songs are originals written by Blakely solo or with Damon Rogersother than the traditional songThe Colorado Trail. The Ballad Of Josiah Wilbarger is a seven minute plus tale of the trials and tribulations of the rider and his encounter with a Comanche raiding party. It is a compelling story that does everything that is should over a simple and sparse backingfronted by Blakley’s captivating vocal.

This sub-genre of country may not be overtly popular but is one that still thrives and has many followers and exponents. If you are at all a follower of the Western ethos in movie, book or song then The Outside Circle is an album that you will want to explore and it is one I have returned to often since it arrived.