Nathan Evans Fox Texas Dust Self Release
The title track of this outstanding second album from folk/Americana artist Nathan Evans Fox chronicles the tragic story of his grandfather, which Nathan discovered quite recently and which inspired the whole collection of songs here. His grandfather was a migrant Tennessean worker who ended up in Texas, volunteered for the army and was posted into conflict abroad. After a family tragedy, he was granted a compassionate discharge and returned home to try to pick up the pieces. The universal theme of the struggle of soldiers to return to civilian life and family after the horrors of war is explored with stark imagery -‘I can’t change all my ways, I can’t change the laws of grief’ - and with some fine fiddle playing and echoes of military snare drum from Nathan himself.
Displacement - from family, from friends and from familiar landscapes - is the other overriding theme in most of the songs. A North Carolina native, where he was immersed in country, rock, bluegrass and gospel music growing up, Nathan spent a year working in the Texas flatlands. On the evidence of the melancholy songs that were inspired there, one can safely assume that it didn’t go very well.
Texas Blues No.7 deals with that time, when he struggled with his faith and had somewhat of a meltdown. ‘Lost my taste for poetry, picked up my taste for gin’. Simple accompaniment by Nathan on acoustic guitar and some subtle Hammond organ are all that are needed as a backdrop to his gritty vocals.
St Louis is another song wherein the temptations of wanderlust are tempered by the worry of being away from ageing loved ones, this time bookended by Nathan’s superb mandolin playing. It’s not all melancholic, thankfully. There are some memorable love songs here too.
Despite what one would expect from the title, Grief Song is a beautiful love song accompanied by Nathan’s piano and fiddle, atmospheric upright bass from Mike Conners and enhanced further by gorgeous backing vocals from Lindsay Foote. She is a revelation throughout the album, but particularly on another love song, (the inappropriately titled) Texas Blues No.4, where she sings a duet with Nathan.
Corn Whiskey is a gentle country ballad about an Appalachian couple’s adventures in evading the law, which comes to the inevitable gruesome end. The staying power of love in a long-term relationship is explored in Quicksand, where more sweet piano playing from Nathan is perfectly enhanced by claw hammer banjo from Mike Conners. Seek out this excellent album and enjoy.
Montana Tunesmith Dream Catch Self Release
‘Never judge a book by the cover’ goes the old adage and I certainly learned this lesson when I first played this album. My expectations had been low - I didn’t particularly take to the stylised cover painting of the salmon leaping out of the lilac tinted lake (apologies to acclaimed Montana artist Monte Dolack) - I had speculated that this would be another collection of mediocre songs with a New Age sensibility. How wrong I was! From the very first chords I knew this was something special.
Brothers Tim and Mike Nordstrom make up the band - Tim is the main songwriter and instrumentalist while Mike contributes vocals. For this their third album they have returned to Texas to work again with maestro producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines in The Zone studio, where everybody who’s anybody in Texas music has recorded at one time or another.
I suspect Lloyd Maines had a simple task, however, along with his bunch of seasoned session musicians, because the material brought to him by this little known duo from Montana was indeed much better than average.
This is true Americana music. Tim Nordstrom is justifiably proud of his home state and this pride permeates all the songs here, either overtly or covertly. The musical style is a combination of folk, rock and country. As well as Lloyd Maines playing his signature pedal steel and dobro etc, he is joined by Pat Manske (Joe Ely, Alexandra Escovedo) on drums and Dennis Ludiker (Asleep At The Wheel) on fiddle and mandolin.
It’s difficult to single out a favourite song, but title track Dream Catch is particularly memorable - inspired by the death bed story told by an elderly grandmother who once caught a 21lb fish and then let it go. They are joined on this song by renowned fiddle player Tracey Grammer, who contributes vocals as well as a gorgeous fiddle instrumental interlude.
There are many story songs - Beatnik Son, Hillbilly Storm Chaser and Death of a Salesman are outstanding. 31 Flavors bemoans the decline of culture as a price for the rise of convenience and mass production. Destination Desolation is a rollicking country road song.
Unusually for a record, there’s a three song epilogue, ‘dedicated to Montanans who have protected the natural environment’. The first of these is overly sentimental, but it’s saved by some searing pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. Full Moon On The Missions and One Montana are truly beautiful and moving.
Tim and Mike’s vocals are clear throughout the album, and their sibling harmonies are as sublime as one would expect. If this album doesn’t make you want to go visit Montana, nothing ever will.
PK Gregory Honkabilly Blues Genuine Butter
Some very funny songs from one-man-band PK Gregory which will whet your appetite to see him live. PK manages to inject humour into every situation - so much so that I found myself smiling through almost every song here. As well as being possessed of an irreverent sense of humour, he’s an excellent composer of melodies. He plays mainly electric guitar, which is punctuated by bluesy harmonica and percussion from a foot drum.
There are love songs (of sorts!) like She Showed Me A Picture Of Her Cat and Beat Me Senseless With Your Love. Then there are more conventional love songs like She’s Not My Type (She’s Not You) and Let’s Not Fight - which is a plea to a long term partner to hang up the gloves (although this one is not for the easily offended either).
He excels at evoking the gothic in the black humour of My Soul Is A Wasteland Of Pain And Death and The Executioner’s Song, both of which are delivered at lively ditty pace. By contrast, Heck Of A Deal delivers a serious message about bullying. Kelly Got The Stomach Flu is just hilarious. Best of all is the opening song The Jesus Cure in which PK details his Catholic schoolboy obsession with a young female teacher who happened to have been a nun!
The overall musical direction is country blues with folk and honkytonk thrown in. It was all recorded live in his home studio so there’s nothing fancy here, but I expect it’s a good indication of how he sounds in a live gig situation.Based in Arizona, I don’t expect he’ll be touring Europe anytime soon, more’s the pity.
The Mallett Brothers Band Vive L’Acadie Self Release
If you like your rock on the heavy side, with a touch of country, blues and southern thrown in, then this could be the album for you. This is their fifth recording since the brothers Luke and Will Mallett formed their band in 2009. They’ve been playing in their native Maine and up and down the East coast and Mid-West of the US ever since.
The title track Vive L’Acadie is a nod towards the Acadia region, which stretches from the north east corner of Maine right up into Quebec. However, apart from a Cajun feel to this opening celebratory song of all things French-Canadian (with superb fiddle playing from Andrew Martell) the rest of the album has a more conventional country rock feel.
There are story songs - Onawa tells the tragic true story of a head-on train collision in 1919, when 23 newly arrived Scottish and English emigrants lost their lives. There are trucking songs - the metal heavy Headed Home starts at a gentle pace as the long distance trucker bemoans his lot, only to build into a frenzy that even ZZ Top would be proud of. Then there are the songs of the ordinary working class heroes from every small town in America - Too Much Trouble is a musical contrast to most of the album with acoustic guitar and fiddle dominating.
But of course there are also the love songs. In Few More Dozen Roses the said flowers end up ‘on the side of the road’, allowing Wally’s steel guitar to get a peek in (it is otherwise drowned out in the mix throughout the album, as is the mandolin and banjo, unfortunately).
The album is attractively packaged in a trifold digipak with a lyric book (essential as Luke Mallett’s growly vocals are difficult to decipher!) and with lovely illustrations by Nyla Smith-Lachman.