James Steinle South Texas Homecoming Self-Release
Less than a minute into the opening track of James Steinle’s maiden album and his cards are laid squarely on the table. The accented drawled vocal and stinging pedal steel have an undisputable Texas ring about them. These benchmarks are firmly stamped across the twelve tracks on the album. It’s a direct statement of where he’s coming from musically. Although he’s uncomfortable being simply branded with the ‘country artist’ tag, the album is a throwback to what was once labelled ‘Texan Country’. There is a new generation of artists emerging from the Lone Star State keeping that flame burning and Steinle’s name can undoubtedly be added to that checklist. The driving forces that inspire these enthusiasts are often fellow statesmen such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen and adopted Texans Steve Earle and Chris Knight.
South Texas Homecoming pays homage to them all, both in the structure of the material and the quality of the playing throughout. A number of the songs had me head scratching, wondering had I come across them before. Finding Out Who I Always Shoulda Been may be a statement of Steinle’s musical vocation. ‘’I’ve been known to spread myself thin and I’ve gone back time and time again. These wheels have taken me for a spin, now I’m finding out who I always shoulda been’’. Plucked out of Robert Earl Keen’s styling it boasts slick lyrics, flowing vocals, neat fiddling and lots of gilt-edged pedal steel. More than just a copycat track, it could nestle proudly beside the best of Earl Keen’s work. Pictures slows things down a notch or two, a gentle acoustic ballad with a story to tell of loneliness and separateness. The eerie Give Some More is vintage Earle, Copperhead Road era.
Western Swing gets an outing with the jazzy South Texas Way: you can nearly feel the burning sun and see the fish jumping in the midday heat as Steinle rejoices “Y’all city slickers been living alright, but when’s the last time you saw stars at night? That’s why I’m sticking to the sticks. Outta sight!”. Zancudo (Mosquito) Blues plays out like it’s dressed up in old-time hillbilly attire. However, far from tongue in cheek, its lyrics insinuate unimaginable pain from a persecuted soul, racked by loss. Look Out Below Mama follows an autobiographical tale of returning to Texas from the Middle East after a seemingly lifetime away from home. Confessional to the bone, it tells of a privileged upbringing abroad and a difficult rehabilitation both psychologically and socially, on returning to Texas. The old timey delight Sticky Nickels hints at personal recovery and comeback. It features another emerging Austin talent Carson Mc Hone on harmony vocals and a pledge by Steinle - “Because the way I’m living it’s quite unorthodox, got a busted compass and holy socks. I never quit moving, don’t mean I can’t stop’’.
For this writer, South Texas Homecoming is one that nearly got away. Released in mid-2018 it only came to my attention recently. A couple of plays in and it feels like a collection of songs I’ve been listening to for an age. John Ross Silva, who previously worked with Kris Kristofferson, Hayes Carll, Hal Ketchum and Jamie Lin Wilson, handled the production duties and got the mix spot on, helped enormously by the quality of the playing throughout.
There is great music still coming out of Texas, although sometimes you just have to do a bit of digging to uncover it. With the calibre of Steinle, Carson Mc Hone, Kayla Ray, Jamie Lin Wilson and Jason James representing the newer generation of Texan songsmiths, it’s safe to say the future is in safe hands. Let’s hope they bring their generation of music lovers and punters along with them to support them on the journey. South Texas Homecoming arrived over a month ago and a lot of other albums have landed since. Having said that, I’m still finding myself wading through the pile to play this one time and time again. It’s discoveries like this that make this reviewing lark so worthwhile!
Review by Declan Culliton
Massy Ferguson Great Divides North & Left
Seattle grinding alt-rockers Massy Ferguson’s reputation as a storming live act is well established. Occupying the same space as The Bottle Rockets, Lucero, The Hold Steady and to a slightly lesser degree Son Volt, the four piece’s music concoction of high energy grunge, cowpunk and rock excels on Great Divides. The album follows their 2017 release Run Right Into The Wall. It’s musically on the same page but creates a more lasting impression of a band shifting into top gear and delivering their beefiest collection of songs to date.
I often feel that slotting bands like Massy Ferguson into the Americana genre, however well meaning, does not do them favours, or justice for that matter. I’m eagerly waiting the re-emergence of a simple tag called ‘rock’, and giving acts like them and others a larger and more appreciative listenership.
The four-piece band features founding members and songwriters Ethan Anderson (vocals and bass) and Adam Monda (vocals and guitars). Dave Goedde (drums) and Fred Slater (keyboards) complete the foursome. Adra Boo, one half of the now defunct electric funk duo Fly Moon Royalty, adds bluesy vocals on the albums first single - the Stonesy Maybe The Gods. Drop An Atom Bomb On Me rocks along full tempo with a wily Sweet Home Alabama riff. Echoed guitar and keyboards open the full-on belter Rerun. It’s not all full throttle though - Saying You Were There and Wolf Man prove that Anderson and Monda are no slouches, penning and delivering killer torch ballads as well as rampant rockers. The album’s highlight is Momma’s In The Backseat, bringing to mind The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. The song communicates directly with the listener, catching your attention and holding it. Its spoken delivery of adolescent misadventure is instantly addictive. The song narrative tells of teenagers out at night, cruising and looking for action. It all ends in tears as they are sent packing by kids with a similar motive, with the scribe relieved to get home to Momma and his comfort zone; “what I wanted to do was wrap myself in that old Star Wars blanket and go to sleep’’.
Massy Ferguson are yet another band from the US that have earned a growing fan base in Europe where they tour regularly, playing festivals and headline shows. Lovers of the previously mentioned The Hold Steady’s music will recognise the similarities and qualities of Great Divide and love it. A killer rock album, simple as that!
Review by Declan Culliton
Steel Blossoms Self-Title Billy Jam
First impressions can often be deceptive. On my initial spin of Steel Blossoms second full length release my first impressions were of gorgeous harmonies, tight playing and some slick songs. The liner notes with the album open with the following acknowledgment “First, we want to thank our heavenly father for giving us the gift of music and blessing us with the opportunity to share it with others for a living’’. On further spins and having read that I was surprised, but not disappointed, by the subject matter of many of the songs, which contradict the girl next door images of the duo that adorn the impressive album packaging. Topics including domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, infidelity and murder are visited across the albums ten tracks, giving the album an unexpected quirky edge.
Sarah Zebley and Hayley Prosser are childhood friends raised in small town Pittsburgh. Relocating to Nashville, the duo initially made their mark performing in bars and honky tonks in Music City before spreading their wings with bookings at festivals across the US. They were the first signing to award winning songwriter Jerry Salley’s Billy Jam record label. Salley also undertook production duties and co-wrote five of the tracks on this album.
You’re The Reason I Drink is a modern day take on a familiar country song theme. “I was feeling kinda cautious when you brought me two Beroccas, you were thinking this would set me free’’. I don’t recall any other classic country song that name checks an energy drink but it’s tongue in cheek and catchy as hell. Trailer Neighbour is equally light hearted, playful and easy on the ear. Revenge is an altogether different story, a dark tale of domestic abuse narrated by the slayed partner as she plots to haunt her killer. Killed A Man revisits the controlling relationship issue, unremorseful and matter of fact: “I didn’t want to do but he would have beat me to it’’. Pick Me Up is classic country - alcohol enslavement and escapism from the mundane nine to five job at its core. Innocent laments the loss of childhood simplicity and the often hard knocks that real life delivers. The rousing You Ain’t Sleeping Over is full on Route One honky tonk: “ Put that ring on my finger or don’t come knocking on my door’’. Kentucky’s Never Been This Far closes the album in style - abandoning the booze, pills and marauding of the preceding tracks, it’s a simple country love ballad, the only cover on the album and a fitting bookend to the album.
Steel Blossoms should appeal to fans of Kacy Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and particularly The Secret Sisters. Their formula of polished country songs, flawless musicianship and production, together with divine vocal delivery and spikey harmonies should get them a lot of industry attention. The album is loaded with radio friendly songs without crossing over to the dreaded pop/country that dominates radio playlists at present. With the benefit of a few breaks and with the correct exposure, this album should establish Steel Blossoms as serious players in the mainstream country market.
Review by Declan Culliton
Eric Brace, Peter Cooper, Thomm Jutz Riverland Red Beet
Concept albums don’t always work, but this Nashville trio of friends have blown that concept right out of the water with this superlative collection of songs themed around the Mississippi River. Seldom does an album come along that impresses this much on first listen and then continues to improve exponentially with each play.
In fact, it’s not surprising, given the pedigree of the artists involved, that there was a bit of a fight here in Lonesome Highway when the album came up for review! I’m just lucky that I was in the right place at the right time..
German born multi-instrumentalist songwriter Thomm Jutz is rarely out of the bluegrass charts these days, either as a songwriter or as a producer. This collaboration is the second album from the trio and was recorded and mixed in Thomm’s studio. Renaissance man Peter Cooper is renowned as a music journalist with The Tennessean and a lecturer in Vanderbilt University, as well as being a consummate songwriter and performer. Co-founder of Red Beet Records, Eric Brace formerly worked as a journalist in DC before moving to East Nashville and falling into the company of fellow musicians and songwriters.
Most of the songs are written by one or other of the trio either solo or collaboratively, but they are also joined by regular co-writer John Hadley for a couple of songs. Mainly recorded on acoustic instruments, they are bolstered by the presence of Mark Fain on bass, Mike Compton on mandolin, Lynn Williams on drums and Tammy Rogers (The Steeldrivers) on fiddle.
The historical context of the river is explored in two songs: Down Along The River details the taking of Vicksburg in 1863 by General Grant after a four month siege; and Drowned And Washed Away is a sombre retelling of the horrors of the flood of 1927 - here Thomm’s melancholy playing on resonator guitar sets the mood most beautifully. Mike Compton’s mastery of the mandolin shines in the story of a keelboat man (half wild horse and half swamp gator!) who was effectively made redundant by the arrival of the steamboat - all explained in King Of The Keelboat Men.
In The Presence Of The River mentions many of the literary and musical geniuses that the famous river has spawned, but it stands out as a demonstration of the heavenly three part harmonies that the three close friends are capable of. Civil right and civil wrongs are raised in Mississippi Magic from Peter Cooper, where he is inspired by the life of the late Rev Will D. Campbell. Campbell was a well known white preacher and civil rights activist, friend and supporter of Martin Luther King and also a close friend of songwriter Tom T. Hall. The pair were known to make whiskey and drink it together - find out all about it in Tom T. And Brother Will.
Lastly, the album is accompanied by a detailed booklet with notes and superb historical photographs of the people and places chronically so lovingly in the project.
Review by Eiliís Boland
The Lonesome Ace String Band When The Sun Comes Up Self Release
Canadian trio and stalwarts of the Ontario folk/bluegrass/old time scene for many years, Chris Coole, John Showman and Max Heineman have released an absolute tour de force of an album. Although steeped in the Old Time tradition, there’s a distinctively progressive feel to this third album, with many new tunes and songs contributed individually by the talented three, as well as a few covers. Refreshingly there are no cliches here, either in the playing or in the compositions.
Each of the band are comfortable delivering lead vocals and the playing is tight - honed over years of playing together both in their hometown gigs in Toronto and on the road together.
Clawhammer banjo player Chris Coole is respected as one of the best in the business. His original instrumental composition American Refugee (inspired by the huge flood of enquiries to Canadian immigration authorities after a recent US Presidential election) is simply haunting. But he’s also got a knack for songwriting, like in his murder ballad Joe Puckett and his Loving Mother wherein one of them comes to a sticky end. I won’t spoil the surprise, but just remember that “you know there ain’t a mother alive, can’t tell when her son is lyin.’’
O’Grady Road was written by bass player Max Heineman in response to the tearing down of his ancestral home. This event prompted a poignant retelling of his family’s history (his mother’s Irish antecedents were road builders) but it ends on a positive note - ‘I’m not certain now about the why or when, but I know Lord, I know we’ll build again’.
Self produced, the production sparkles and the arrangements are fresh - none more so than on fiddle player John Showman’s retelling of the last hours of the infamous bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd. Deft songwriting and a catchy fiddle riff transports the listener right into the scene, described in graphic and gory detail, and Pretty Boy delivers his last words over the back drop of cleverly arranged backing vocals. John also contributes a gorgeous instrumental tune Sweetberry Wine, a homage to the W Virginian fiddle tradition.
And if all the above wasn’t enough, the whole album is beautifully packaged - the jacket is based on a traditional letterpress design in hues of orange and yellow.
Review by Eilís Boland
Carl Solomon Simple Things Self Release
This is the third release from a singer songwriter who resides in Portland, Oregon. He is involved in a local chapter of a national organization, Soldier Songs & Voices; a valuable service which gives a creative outlet to War Vets by teaching them music, guitar & song writing skills.
Solomon writes all his own material and included in the ten tracks here are four co-writes, which shows his collaborative side. Just Like You is a song about the struggles that war veterans face in trying to fit back into society. Whistle of the Train and Ticket to Nowhere deal with the pain of lost love while Come What May tells of lost souls on the road looking for a meaningful destination.
Produced by Solomon, the songs are very pleasant without ever getting into a different gear – nice playing from the studio musicians and an easy laid-back style.
Review by Paul McGee
The Jake Bartley Band Brotherhood Bonfire
If you like a blend of rock, country, soul, jazz and blues, then this band are right up your street. From the opening smooth soul groove of Slippin’ to the country sound of This One’s For the Highway; this 6-piece band cover all the bases with consummate ease. Cannonball features Vince Gill on vocals, so you know that a certain standard has already been reached in attracting such a named artist to this project.
Jake Bartley has a fine voice and sings all the lead parts, as well as contributing on rhythm guitar. The saxophone of Bill Christmas brings plenty of gifts across the 12 tracks featured and his interplay with Steven Cathcart on pedal steel is a real standout. Bartley contributes 5 songs, including 2 co-writes, and other band members also get credits across a further 6 tracks.
The extended jam on One Way Out (Elmore James/Sonny Boy Williamson/Marshall E. Schorn), features an excellent interchange between guests Randy Kohrs on resophonic guitar and Robby Turner on pedal steel. Another cover, Where Rainbows Never Die (Chris Stapleton/ Mike Henderson), is given a fine arrangement with the superb voice of Bartley really kicking into gear.
Stephen Hudson features on fiddle and Andrew Crawford, on various guitars, is also excellent throughout. Tracks like Too Sad to Sing the Blues, Wild and Free, The Miles and Music Life, highlight the fine production of band members Jake Bartley, Matt Miller (bass, 3 song credits) and Andrew Crawford (guitars, vocals, 5 song credits). A very enjoyable listen.
Review by Paul McGee
The Lowdown Drifters Last Call For Dreamers Self Release
The Lowdown Drifters are a Country band from Stanwood, Washington State and were formed in 2015. They released a debut in 2016 (Wood & Water) and with this new release they build upon their local reputation as a band on the rise.
With Big John Cannon (Vocals), Ryan Klein (Acoustic Guitar), Richard Williams (Electric Guitar), Tim Fernley (Bass) and Galen Bailey (Drums) comprising the core band, the sleeve notes credit an additional 12 musicians who contributed to this album. There is no breakdown of who plays what among the additional players but there are fiddles & steel guitar sounds on a number of tracks that fill out the production by Malcolm Springer. Ryan Klein has credits on 6 songs, with John Cannon chipping in on a further 7 tracks (4 co-writes included).
There are road songs about paying your dues; Barstools, Last Night In Denver, Diesel Smoke and The Road. The radio friendly, We Three Kings, scores with a fine tempo, backed by a driving beat and many of the songs on this collection come with a quality in the playing and an authenticity that convinces these guys are the real deal.
Red Rock, This Old House and Black Hat are songs about lost love and fractured relationships while drinking away the pain and sinking towards the dark side are topics that get an airing in Empty Bottles and Between the Bottom and the Bottle …. Diamonds and Rust has an interesting guitar refrain that repeats as the melody builds into a powerful tempo and Won’t Find Me Anymore is reminiscent of early Skynyrd with a smoky, gravely tone in the delivery by John Cannon. Indeed, his rich vocals lead from the front throughout. Highly recommended.
Review by Paul McGee