Ben Hunter/Phil Wiggins/Joe Seamons A Black & Tan Ball Self Release
Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter are a fascinating duo who are at the forefront of the recent emergence of a musical subgenre that they themselves have dubbed Black Americana. Other exponents are artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Cedric Watson. What they all have in common is a deep regard for, and knowledge of, the musical traditions of the Appalachians, the Ozarks and the American South, the African-American stringband traditions, folk-blues and country-jazz.
Hunter and Seamons have a particular interest in the pre-war era song tradition ie the ballads, blues and folk songs of 19th century America. Their mission is to “revive obscure stuff” and this they have done in spades in this fantastic collection of thirteen classics from the Great American Songbook. Here they are joined by the truly legendary blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, who continues the Piedmont blues tradition.
In an album of superb tracks, it’s difficult to single out any particular highlight. The opener Do You Call That A Buddy is a blackly humourous (no pun intended!) tale of treachery sung in Phil’s rich baritone, with lots of call and response hollering from the boys. Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me is given a lovely languorous treatment again by Phil, and it interestingly features Bens’ mandolin playing. It’s quite unusual to hear a mandolin used in the blues tradition but it works really well here. Both Ben or Joe take lead vocals on many of the songs.
Ben, who is particularly known for his fiddle playing (in fact he’s classically trained) has revived the fiddle in the blues genre - apparently it played a significant role in early blues but then fell out of favour. Joe switches easily between guitar and clawhammer banjo, his banjo featuring on a stunning extended version of John Henry. Rory Gallagher fans will be surprised by the almost unrecognisable rendition of Bullfrog Blues, which is closer to the original version written and released by William Harris in 1928.
The three instrumentals are as impressive as the songs, especially the breakneck Shanghai Rooster. In addition to playing gigs, Seamons and Hunter have dedicated themselves to educating communities and especially the younger generations by conducting workshops and community events across the US, not just in their Seattle base.
Edwyn & The Borrowed Band High Fences Dead Records Collective
Glasgow based but heavily influenced by Americana, James and his band release their second album of original material, ably self produced and recorded in their hometown. The result is an impressive collection of strong songs, catchy melodies and superb playing with a country rock flavour. The opener San Ysidro sounds like it has come straight out of California, with its jangly guitar riffs, and pounding rhythms. James, who takes lead vocals throughout and writes or cowrites everything, has a strong voice, reminiscent of Ryan Adams at times. Emma Joyce’s harmony vocals are particularly impressive, being superbly complementary to James’s. Scott Keenan completes the trio of harmony vocalists, which contributes to the band’s lush full sound.
The bluesy/funky Get Back Up has a real Southern Rock feel, with it’s fabulous electric guitar breaks and Emma’s soaring vocals. Pushing Statues uses a quartet of brass players who add a subtle backdrop to the full sound, also boosted by guest pedal steel player Tim Davidson and the ever present rocking and rolling keyboards of the aforementioned Scott Keenan.
Other highlights are: Quoting Sagan, a catchy ballad that builds slowly from a quiet acoustic guitar intro into a luscious dramatic electric guitar driven climax; Taking Liberties co-written by Ronnie Gilmour and featuring his inventive electric guitar work; and the closing song Doubts, another slow burner which builds on layered electric guitar and piano interludes, ending in a gorgeous finale of soaring lush instrumentation and echoing vocal harmonies.
The CD package is well designed and the album is also available on vinyl. My one gripe is that I’d like to hear some of the band’s Scottish origins peeking through the project - perhaps this will happen on the next album, one which I very much look forward to.
Foghorn Leghorn All At Sea Self Release
Probably one of longest running bluegrass band in England, Foghorn Leghorn release only their third album in over 25 years of existence. Best known on the London scene, where they have a regular residency in the Betsey Trotwood, the band are known for their lively irreverence and tongue-in-cheek attitude to their music. They readily delve into their wide musical influences to broaden their bluegrass sound with large dollops of folk and country. While they may not be the tightest band you’ll ever hear, they make up for it with enthusiastic abandon!
It’s refreshing to review an album in this genre that is packed with all original material. The majority of the songs are written by mandolinist Eamonn Flynn. His songs range from uptempo love songs like Spanish Champagne to my personal favourite, Beginning to Hurt - a tender ballad of unrequited love. But he’s also adept at writing insightful commentaries on current social ills. No prizes for guessing the subject of He’s Got The Whole World (in his tiny little hands).
Fundamental Breakdown is a welcome instrumental interlude written by banjoist Tim Kent. Whale Bone is a truly chilling exploration of the well known scandal of corporal punishment in certain religious institutions in these islands, and demonstrates Eamonn Flynn’s songwriting acumen again.
Danny George Wilson joins in on the closer Moving Along - ending on a positive note despite the personal and sociopolitical strife explored in earlier songs. The excellent cover art is a cartoonish depiction of the band and various political world figures who are on a boat washed up onshore during a storm - survivors despite the chaos around them - very fitting!
Sarah Morris Hearts In Need Of Repair Self Release
Having spent some years in Nashville pursuing her songwriting career, Sarah Morris is now back in her native Minnesota, where she performs regularly with her longtime band. She also uses these excellent musicians on this her third album, which she coproduced with Eric Blomquist. Sarah has been blessed with a pure and sweet voice and the sparse tasteful production allows her voice to shine on the eleven self penned songs. Packaged in pink, the album art gives a hint as to what lies beneath.
The Nashville songwriting machine experience is to the fore in most of the songs on the collection, so if you like pop country, music that won’t rock the boat, then this might just be your thang. Songs like Good at Goodbye, Course Correction and Helium detail heartbreak and heartache but you might just feel like you’ve heard it all before. Confetti is a well overdue plea to all to get our heads out of our phones and ‘spread love like confetti’ - a worthy sentiment indeed, but one likely to fall on deaf ears!
Nothing Compares is a whole other deal. This is a touching love song written from the heart, to her husband of 15 years. Backed just by an acoustic and an electric guitar accompaniment, Sarah convincingly conveys the vulnerability and the trust implicit in such a longterm relationship. It’s an exquisite track. The two other standout songs are Falling Over and Shelter or The Storm - the soulful bluesy production on these catchy songs allows Sarah to let go and indulge a gutsier side to her voice, one I’d really have liked to have heard more of. On A Stone, an exploration of steadfastness, is another strong song on which Sarah’s voice soars, beautifully backed by guest musician Jillian Rae’s violin.
SIDELINE Front and Center Mountain Home
This is a solid fourth album from a much awarded and admired group of ‘sidemen’, who, along with a few younger additions, have now become a permanent band. They excel at the hard driving Carolina-Grass style of bluegrass, and all six band members are comfortable taking lead vocals.
From the pen of Milan Miller comes Lysander Hayes, the dark tale of the classic ‘bad boy’, driven by the pulsating claw hammer banjo of Skip Cherryholmes (Cherryholmes, Lou Reid and Carolina). Another founding member Jason Moore contributes exciting bass lines here and he ably anchors the whole album with his playing - something he has done for years touring with James King and then with Mountain Heart.
Another strong song and radio hit is the opening Thunder Dan, featuring the lead vocals of mandolinist Troy Boone, a recent addition to the band and a graduate of ETSU’s Bluegrass programme. Steve Dilling’s classic driving banjo style is one of the delights of this recording, but he also takes lead vocals and contributes outstanding harmonies on many of the songs.
Generally the songs here are chosen for their traditional style, for example the sentimental ballad Frozen in Time, Bluefield WV Mtn Girl and Something Out of Nothing. However, there are also welcome contrasts, for example Gordon Lightfoot’s Song For A Winter’s Night (covered by Tony Rice) which here is given a quiet laid back feel, thanks to Skip’s outstanding guitar work and his rich vocals. Or the lovely slow version of Dudley Connell’s Memories That We Shared, with guitarist Bailey Coe on lead vocal duties. Don’t worry, there are the inevitable gospel songs - I Long To See His Face and Satan’s Charms give free rein to these guys to show off their sweet four part harmonies. An exhilarating version of the traditional Cotton Eyed Joe instrumental closes out the collection.
One reservation is that there are no original songs here, which is a bit surprising considering the wealth of talent in the band. The second is the uninspiring design of the packaging - a far too busy mosaic of photos and some poor graphics could so easily have been improved upon.
EJ Ouellette Conjure Man, Conjure Man Self Release
Boston based Renaissance man EJ Ouellette has released his first solo album, on which he played most of the instruments, wrote most of the songs and also produced, engineered and mixed it. Phew! It’s essentially an album of three halves. Ouellette excels at creating brooding atmospheric story songs, as he does on the title track. His ‘Conjure Man’ character is a sort of hoodoo man - suggesting danger, black magic and witchcraft. In fact, his creator hopes to turn this character into the subject of a film and has already made a pilot video to expand on the idea. Ouellette’s experience as a film maker is also evident in Charming The Snake and Hey Jonah. In the former he continues to effectively evoke the dark theme of the opening track with his moody banjo, menacing bass line and the inspired choice of Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on percussion.
There are three instrumental tracks. Jenny’s Jam is a traditional Irish reel, given a Celtic rock feel here with drum and bass and EJ’s manic fiddle playing. Campbells’ Farewell To Red Gap is a Scottish traditional tune, again given the rock treatment. Much more successful is the hauntingly beautiful self penned slow air Gideon’s Lament, where EJ shows his fine playing by laying down harmonising twin fiddles.
The remaining seven songs are essentially power ballads in a distinctly Springsteenesque style. This is probably due in part to the prominence of the saxophone as one of the lead instruments. Heck - he even manages to make Steve Earle’s I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet sound like it was written by Bruce!