Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Leslie Tom Ain’t It Something, Hank Williams Coastal Bend

Perhaps using the life and songs of Hank Williams as a roadmap may seem like an odd direction to follow given how that turned out for him. However, here, Texas born singer Leslie Tom has taken the spirit of Williams’ template of love, heartbreak and loss as the heartbeat of her latest release, a 10 track tribute to Hank that combines 6 original songs with covers of William's originals - Hey Good Lookin’, Honky Tonkin’, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the somewhat lesser known Angel Of Death. All are delivered with a passion that makes them worthy of attention despite the fact that they have been, in the main, recorded many times before. Part of that is due to the skill of Tom’s assembled band and John Macy’s production. Both are respectful while also rejuvenating the songs and sound in a style that is fluent and fresh. Those who like to read credits and have done so through the years will recognise the names of steel guitarist Lloyd Green and guitarist Chris Leuzinger among the talented players involved (who also included Andy Hall on dobro - for Angel Of Death - from the Infamous Stringdusters). The album was recorded in Nashville’s Cinderella Sound Studios but is a far cry of from much that emerges from via the studios of Music City these days.

The original songs are both lyrically clever and emotionally concise and incorporate some of Williams’ spirit and synergy, but do so from a defiantly female perspective. Still Love You (Audrey’s Song) is written from the perspective of Hank’s wife and their troubled relationship that was still imbued with an underlying love for each other. Born Too Late offers the “if only” theory that he was born too late and she was born too soon. Mr Williams is a precis of his life and relationship with Audrey that uses some of Hank’s lyrics intertwined with Tom’s own incisive writing. The final track Hank You Very Much (listed as a “bonus track” as it appeared on a previous release) takes this even further by using many of Williams’ song lines in its verses. It features vocals from Larry Nix who adds harmony throughout the album. Another guest on a song he co-writes with Tom is Dean Miller and  their Are You Ready For Some Hanky Panky? is a joyful and up tempo realisation that we are all ready for some of the music of Mr. Williams.

Although Tom is a multi-instrumentalist here she concentrates on delivering some powerful and impassioned vocals that do justice to all the material on the album. An album that covers a range of moods, tempos and tempestuousness that places here in the forefront of traditionally-minded singers who don’t feel the need to court the temptation of crossover commerciality. Leslie Tom has combined her considerable talents and those of her players to produce a statement of intent that surely points to some equally potent (and likely original) music in the future. Ain’t that something to look forward to?

Sir Canyon Ventura Skies Self Release

Singer and writer Noah Lamberth is the central figure being behind Sir Canyon. He is a part of the revived and resolute California country music scene. He uses d his music as means to deal with some emotional hurt and loss that he had encountered in his life. He is a film and documentary maker in his other life and previously played in a band, Hank Floyd. He also played steel guitar for the likes of Katy Perry. Lamberth played some of his home demos to his friend, producer Andy Davis, who was impressed enough to begin recording the songs with a serious intent to bring his self described country/surf/mariachi/desert rock sound to another level

Indeed, even though there is pedal steel, twanging guitars and more, the end result is neither traditional country nor mainstream crossover country pop/rock. Rather, it evokes some earlier exponents of California country, without ever sounding like such icons as Glen Campbell, Gram Parsons or the many exponents of the Bakersfield Sound; as well as that of those who made their home and music there - like Neil Young - another influence on these sounds. Even though there are elements of all of these in Sir Canyon’s music there is also the cinematic aura of the soundtracks that are part and parcel of the music inherent in California’s film industry, especially those that deal with the landscape of the American West.

The opening track (and video) Angeleno Daydream looks to the sense of mythology that is central to Los Angeles as a city of dream and reality. The good and the bad that both draws people in looking for fame and fortune as much as it is a catalyst to move out and on. The song opens with three music components that are pivotal to the overall sound. They are strummed acoustic guitar, deep baritone guitar and ethereal pedal steel guitar. These three elements are soon enhanced by the full band utilising an understated rhythm section and Lamberth’s considered indie styled vocals. There is a dream-like quality at times that befits their self-described “cosmic Americana” sound. It is a blend of influences that takes some of the principles that Gram Parsons based his musical ideology on without sounding like a rehash of that man’s oeuvre.

Crucial to the album is the input of producer Andy Davis and mixer John Rausch who have worked with Lamberth’s song writing to bring a quality to the overall project that makes for an end to end listening experience that works on a number of levels. As band leader Lamberth not only is vocalist but also plays pedal steel and guitar on the album. Joey Esquibel and John Moreau are the rhythm section. Producer Davis plays keyboards and adds background vocals. Martin Saavedra plays effective trumpet on Cindy Come Over. This team took it’s time to produce and album that they were proud of. It shows and while if you’re a hard-core honky-tonk fan it may not appeal, it is an album that is a welcome addition to the cannon of recent work from L.A. based artists, such as Sam Outlaw, that is a worthy antidote to much of the output from Nashville.

Michael McDermott Out From Under Pauper Sky

As the title suggest this is an album about taking hold of your life and looking toward the better things. Things that really mean something. His story is one of excess and extremes. Being signed to a major label at an age where nothing else seems to matter and when that falters and fails resorting to finding things to blot out that lack of self worth. McDermott has now, over his last few albums, both solo and with The Westies found himself dedicating his life to creating work that he can be proud of as well as realising the strengths and support that his wife and daughter bring to his life.

However, it is also true that these negative tendencies have given him the opportunity to look at the good and the bad things that life has to offer. The songs here look at both sides, but end up being imbued with positivity and understanding that sees the cycles of life, death and everything in between as an opportunity to learn and grow as a human being. Given also that McDermott is a dynamic and riveting live performer as well as an accomplished artist in the studio his music is underrated and worthy of greater attention. He has already been praised, in the past, by Stephen King, amongst others, for his song writing ability. This album brings his work to a whole other level. His experiences have galvanised him to create something with a more resonant meaning that in the past.

McDermott produced the album and in doing so has delivered an album that he is central to, as a player contributing guitar, bass and keyboards. His wife Heather sang back-up and played fiddle on the album (she is a performer in her own right and recently released a fine album). He also included some of The Westies (such a long-time bass player Lex Price) and other players who either came to the studio or contributed remotely. His studio is in Willow Springs, Illinois and working there gives him the freedom to create in his own time. He even added one song The World Will Break Your Heart when the album was ostensibly done. It was a song he felt needed to be on the record as it in some ways serves as a cautionary tale for less worldly artists. The eleven songs here clock in with a time of over 45 minutes allowing the songs the time they need to tell their stories. God Help Us is an ambiguous plea for the understanding of faith. Lack of faith in one’s self is apparent in the opening Cal-Sar Road. A location where one might score and then try removing pain through narcotics. He is well placed to tell this fictional tale of murder and mayhem. As he is in many of the other songs on the album. Sad Songs is a full-blooded rock song that sees him wanting to move away from that subject to something more positive.

In overall terms this is an album that should appeal to his hard core fans as well as those who like their songwriters to be able to deal in truth in a musically varied and interesting setting. One that allows the layers to emerge slowly with each listen. McDermott has clearly come out from under and emerged into the light with an album that is arguably the best of his career and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Sam Morrow Concrete And Mud Forty Below

This album opens with Morrow giving a deep soulful vocal over a strong full sounding track with edgy guitar. Heartbreak Man has a little of Waylon in its DNA (as do many of the other tracks) and it is a good start to what is an album that fits in well with the current idea of what outlaw is right now. His is a blend of Texas dance floor country, some Southern Rock and a soupcon of Memphis country funk. His deep baritone voice sits atop a live, in the studio, sound that producer Eric Corne captured on a vintage Neve desk. From then on, the playing adds much to the overall feel with Hammond styling, mixed with bluesy slide, twanging’ Telecaster and layered vocals. San Fernando Sunshine exemplifies this. While the up tempo Good Ole Days moves along at a pace with some nods to his native Texas and some fine guitar playing which again blends with the swirling full bodied keyboards.

Skinny Elvis features duet vocals from his label mate Jamie Wyatt (as do two other tracks where she joins him on backing vocals). It also features a notable turn from Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel. An instrument that is also central to the equally effective Coming Home. The guitar and keyboard blend is prominent on the standout ballad Weight Of A Stone which has a compelling and telling vocal from Morrow. One that should easily find him favour with Chris Stapelton fans and marks Morrow out as a real contender. Cigarettes has a touch of Little Feet in its loose, rootsy funkiness and bolstered by some judicious Moog bass. There is some fiddle that works well on the closing song Mississippi River.

Morrow is the assumed writer of the songs here, working with Eric Corne (individual writing details are not credited on the promo sleeve). The latter is also the label owner and has played a large part in bring some diversity to Morrow’s country funk amalgamation. Something off an abiding trend these days but one that Morrow and Corne have pulled off with style giving the listener an album that works on many levels. Never quite fitting easily in either the country rock or country soul categories but rather offering a blurring of the lines that makes Concrete And Mud, as the title might suggest, both hard edged and loose. So, while it may not be everyone’s side of a honky-toning night out, it is music that the 27 year old Texan can put out there knowing that he’s tried to make the best album he can at this time - and it is an album for these times.

The Lynnes Heartbreak Song For The Radio Self Release

These two Canadian artists have worked together previously but this is the first album that Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles have released together. They have written all the songs together (with one being a co-write) and co-produced the album. Miles plays acoustic and electric guitar and piano while Hanson also adds acoustic and electric guitars. They are joined by a full band that includes Kevin Breit on guitars, Dave Draves on keyboards Keith Glass plays baritone guitar and Don Cummings plays the B3. The rhythm section is Peter Von Althen and Steve Clark. The all do a great job as this is an excellent album on all levels - great vocals, memorable songs and engaging playing.

Most of the songs are song by both vocalists together or with one thing taking the lead and the other adding harmony. Either way the vocals are a foremost part of the overall presence of the album. Those songs, as the title suggests, deal with failed and unresolved relationships. The closet to positivity is Halfway To Happy (well as a title at least). Other than that, these titles tell a story in themselves: Cost So Much, Recipe For Disaster, Dark Waltz, Blame It On The Devil and Heavy Lifting. The thing is, despite the lyrically directions, this is an energetic, uplifting and rewarding recording.

They each have a strong turn of phrase and the lyrics are well written; being emotive, gritty and revealing as befits artists who have had life experiences and lived to tell the tales. It has been said that individually there are both compelling but together they excel. Heartbreak Song For The Radio is ready testament to that. The songs are not without balls. These are not delicate folk songs but rather move from the more reflective tone of Blue Tattoo to at the harder edges of Halfway To Happy. Throughout, the harmonies are enchantingand it is an example of two artist totally in synch with each other, their band and the songs. One could only wish to hear more of their brand of patented heartbreak on the radio.

Mojo Monkeys Swerve On Medikull

A California based trio who have lent their considerable talents to a great number of musical endeavours not least acting as sidemen to such luminaries as Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Richard Thompson, Keith Richards and Eric Burden. They are bassist/vocalist Taras Prodaniuk, drummer and vocalist David Raven and guitarist/vocalist Billy Watts. This new album, their third, displays their individual and collective skills on 10 self written songs and one cover; Allen Toussaint’s Ride Your Pony. The opening song Tuscaloosa Maybe has a Western Swing feel and features some alluring pedal steel from Marty Rifkin. Rifkin also joins them for the next song, Two Shots. Both are somewhat different in style from what follows on with nods to soul, rock and blues - a California filtered selection of roots oriented moods – giving both diversity and dance floor vibes throughout. If I Were Gone, All The Wrong Things and Beat Bus Driver are just three of the titles that show why these three work so well together.

There are hooks a-plenty that these guys can play, as well as write and they appear to be having fun throughout. They have been compared to ZZ Top and that comparison is understandable but these monkeys have their own tales and their collective experiences on display here and it shows you why they are in demand as players. There’s nothing particularly new on offer on Swerve On, other than good music that is easy to enjoy and get in the groove to.