Peter Bruntnell King Of Madrid Domestico
I’ve always failed to understand why Peter Bruntnell is not a household name in the industry. His latest offering King Of Madrid, had me head scratching on that very point after just a couple of spins. In a similar vein as the excellent Nos Da Comrade, released by him in 2016, it includes both explosive and heartrending material in equal measures. Again, there is nothing approaching a filler or weak track on the album. The only distinguishing factors this time around, are a lot more jangly guitars and gloriously slick pedal steel. Once more the listener is presented with a cracking collection of songs, that land somewhere between Son Volt and The Byrds, with a pinch of Teenage Fanclub on the side.
The beefy opener Broken Wing at over six minutes isn’t a second too long. The subject matters of liberation and healing are visited. Like so much of Bruntnell’s material, the lyrics are often only considered after a few plays, such is the addictive impact of the melodies and hooks, that initially hit you right between the eyes. His distinctive vocals alongside twangy guitars and competing pedal steel are a joy. A striking guitar break, courtesy of Bruntnell, closes the track in fine style. Mr. Sunshine, the opening track from his previous album, aimed fire and brimstones at a political showman across the pond. This time around the shambolic political quagmire closer to home surfaces on Dinosaur (‘‘Greed just follows you around …..how could you know that public opinion never counted for much ‘’). Its edgy lyrics are the perfect match to the equally edgy and psychedelic sonics. Thief of Joy follows a similar thread (‘’You had the people’s fate in your hands, talking about the promised land … you can’t even tell me the truth but you don’t know why’’), directed at the monstrous political figureheads dominating the U.K. political landscape at present. Its infectious melody disguises the sordid message within. National Library the albums closer, has a similar sentiment (‘’Do what you want it’s up to you, I know that you really don’t care, don’t want to change your point of view, you wouldn’t know what is fair’’). Bruntnell’s clever mid song inclusion of politicians squabbling childishly in the background enhances the songs message perfectly.
The title track heads in an entirely alternative direction, giving the listener time to pause for breath. It reads and sounds like an apology written to a lover for, perhaps, a minor misdemeanour. It’s a more relaxed lounge lizard offering than the majority of other tracks alongside it. The boxing gloves are removed, replaced temporarily, by a tuxedo and bow tie. London Clay is vintage Bruntnell, bright and bouncy, loaded with more hooks than a fisherman’s tackle bag.
Taking control of the production duties this time around, Bruntnell surrounded himself with trusted musicians and friends, all of who have performed with him on stage at some point. Mick Clews play drums, Peter Noone bass, Dave Little guitar and James Walbourne adds keyboards on the track Snow Queen. The icing on the cake is the addition of B.J. Cole and Iain Sloan on pedal steel guitar, which elevates much of the material to an altogether higher level.
Mention must also be made of the impressive packaging and the messaging contained within. A lovely touch in mentioning our Kilkenny friends Clive Barnes, Garrett Kehoe, Gerard Moloney and in particular the late great Willie Meighan, all of whom have been enthusiastically supportive of Bruntnell on his many visits to Ireland, both on and off stage
In simple terms, the album is yet another collection of strikingly and evocative songs from Bruntnell. It once more showcases his talent at writing, arranging and delivering lasting music. I hope to hear a better album this year, but seriously I doubt that I will.
Review by Declan Culliton
Caroline Spence Mint Condition Rounder
Spades & Roses, recorded in 2017, was my initial introduction to the music of Nashville resident Caroline Spence. Magical and dreamy and laced with tales of personal disarray, the album drew comparisons to Patty Griffin in both its song structure and vocal delivery. Mint Condition, her third release, is further evidence of Spence’s ability to blend impassioned lyrics and engrossing melodies. It also demonstrates a growing maturity and confidence from Spence, even if much of the material ventilates the frustrations of personal relationships and the strife of survival and personal fulfilment in a gruelling and often unforgiving industry.
Sometimes a Woman Is An Island, Who Are You and the title track, which features Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, are all beautiful tunes. However, the stand out material comes to the surface when she lets rip on the Kathleen Edwards sounding What You Don’t Know and the equally muscular Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes. It’s unfair to always compare an album with its predecessor. Nevertheless, Mint Condition is a giant step forward by an artist coming out of her shell, growing in confidence and striking another homerun for the seemingly endless list of female artists that are dominating the business end of Americana at present.
Spence appears to be opening up more and gathering strength on each successive album. While her earlier albums traded in traditionally melodic country folk, she has the skill set to challenge herself outside her comfort zone. Parts of this album are confirmation of this, so hopefully she might take a leaf out of Margo Price’s book, play less safe and push out the boundaries a bit more going forward. The results could be well worth the gamble.
Review by Declan Culliton
Orville Peck Pony Sub Pop
Who is that masked man? Orville Peck (alias Daniel Pitout) is the drummer from Vancouver indie band Nu Sensae. He’s also the proud owner of no fewer than fifteen handmade fringed masks, which he wears on stage. His sonically experimental debut solo album is a left of centre throwback to what was once labelled ‘country and western’ music. The album plays out like a Western movie score, more Gothic than Spaghetti, brilliant in parts, even if it does stray well wide of conventional at times. With a booming vocal range that lands somewhere between Marlon Williams and Daniel Romano, Peck's lyrics and vocal delivery create stunning imagery across the twelve tracks on the album. Fading light, blood red skies, rodeo queens, outlaw gamblers, wide uncrossable rivers, desert winds, marauding and careering cattle, all entered my subconscious a couple of plays in.
The material ranges from easy on the ear tours de force Dead Of Night, Winds Change, Roses Are Falling, Hope To Die and Take You Back (The Iron Hoof Cattle Call) to the more challenging and mythical Kansas (Remembers Me) and Old River. The common denominator in them all is Peck’s full-toned vocals, equally impressive playing, arrangements and killer melodies. Peck contributes the bulk of the instrumentation of guitars, banjo and keyboards. Additional guitar and keyboards are courtesy of Duncan Hay Jennings, with Lucas Savatti adding bass guitar. Recorded at The Noise Floor Studios in Gabriola Island in the Strait of Georgia in British Colombia, the tracks were recorded and mixed by Jordan Koop.
Credit to the Sub Pop label for giving Peck the exposure to a wider audience than would have been the case had the album been self-released. It will be interesting to follow whether it’s an attention seeker to launch his career, or whether Peck lets the mask slip and gallops off in a different musical direction next time around. Either way, although it may not be to everyone’s taste, personally I found it to be enthralling in the most part.
Review by Declan Culliton
Frankie Lee Stillwater Loose
There is currently no shortage of bearded male singer songwriters taking shade under the Americana umbrella. Many appear to have been indoctrinated on a musical diet of Neil Young (1969 to 1976). Frankie Lee could be accused of being a member of this mushrooming household. If you played Stillwater and Young’s Harvest Moon back to back, you would pick up the likenesses. The dissimilarity between Lee and other such artists is that these resemblances are more a compliment to the strength of the material on the album than any copycat suggestion. In the same vein as his Loose label mate Israel Nash, the quality of his music outshines the majority of his peers.
Signed to Loose in 2015, Lee’s impressive album American Dreams - named debut album of the year by Rolling Stone - was a pointer to the potential and talent of the Minnesota born artist. Stillwater raises the bar further, offering delicate and intimate grooves, alongside some more rock tinged songs.
The album’s title namechecks the small town in middle America where Lee was born. It is also where the album was recorded over three days. Setting up studio in the small house where he grew up and under the watchful eye of co-producer Jacob Hanson, all nine tracks were either first or second takes. Given that he returned to his home town to record, it’s not surprising that much of the album’s direction focuses on reflections on his past, possibly seeking final closure on unsettling personal issues. Given these origins, themes of lost lovers, land repossessions and dwindling local employment all feature. Gentrification and the ill effects of unrestrained commercialism are visited on Downtown Lights, the first single from the album. The song is derived from a dream he had of walking with actress Jessica Lange down Stillwater’s Main Street. The ex-resident Lange, on leaving Stillwater, lamented how the town had lost its soul when the condos and tourist shops arrived, a sentiment also close to Lee’s heart.
The albums opener Speakeasy is a delight, acoustic and electric guitar wrapping around Lee’s silky vocal, unexpectedly but atmospherically joined by wind instruments at the songs climax. The slower paced In the Blue also impresses, echoed vocals and tingling piano complimenting each other. Desperation and actuality are the themes on (I Don’t Want To Know) John, the innocence of bygone days traded against the harsh reality of small town America. The albums final track Ventura is stripped back to the bare bones, only piano and harmonica accompanying Lee’s vocal.
Thoughtful song constructions, unhurried and patient, all contribute to another very satisfying album from Lee. Surprisingly he still remains slightly under the radar. If there’s any justice at all, Stillwater should raise his profile. Do seek it out, I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy every bit as much as I am
Review by Declan Culliton
Silver Lake 66 Ragged Heart Self Release
Album two from the Portland, Oregon based duo of Maria Francis and Jeff Overbo. It continues from where their debut album left off, with a slew of self-written songs that mix classic and country rock with a solid energy and enthusiasm that is forward looking rather than retro in outlook. The majority of the songs come from Overbo with four contributions from Francis. They write solo, which offers an individual viewpoint yet a similar outlook. The songs mix lead vocals, with one or the other normally taking that role, ably backed by the other. Although some songs, like the opening Blue Earth Country, feature both handling the lead together. They are both very capable of delivering in that department and they do so throughout.
The duo produced the album with Bryan Daste, who plays pedal steel and alto sax and prepared the string and horn arrangements on the album. They are joined by Toupee Zehr and Chaz Holmes on bass and drums as a string and brass section on certain tracks (the trumpet player is one time Richmond Fontaine member Paul Brainard. This all makes for a sound that is varied and emphasises the melodic nature of the songs that are written, largely, from an honest, personal perspective. Hard Things To Do has an impassioned vocal from Francis on the Overbo written song, evoking the difficult nature of relationships.
There are a number of songs that are taken at a slower tempo that allows the pedal steel to underline the mood of the song as in Check Out To Cash (which in these parts that would be Cheque). The song has a slow intensity, underscored by steel, strings and guitar. Francis’ Broken Dreams And Cigarettes follows a similar pattern and features what may be Francis’ best vocal that perfectly fits the meditative melancholy of the lyrics. The album closes with something of a back-handed love song in Such A Mess. Ragged Heart is a show case for Silver Lake 66, one which will be well received, marking the continuing development of their music.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Kelly Hunt Even The Sparrow Rare Bird
On the cover of this album, Hunt in a tintype photograph, is pictured holding a banjo. Both suggest an earlier place and time and, indeed, the music here possesses a timeless quality. Kelly is credited with the songs which are tales of bygone eras that have a resonance in the present. This is particularly evident in Men Of The Blue & Grey (a song about a American Civil War photographer), Back To Dixie and Across The Great Divide (a love song, although one that may not be necessarily be reciprocated).
That banjo on the cover was a discovery of a case that contained an instrument which produced an altogether different sound than expected, softer and more soulful. It was once owned by a player named Ira Tamm back in the early years of the 20th century. It has a softer less harsh tone, but offers a perfect accompaniment to her fluid, folk flavoured voice. To fill the sound, she adds as required, upright bass, fiddle, organ and pedal steel as well as background vocals. Stas Heaney who (with others) plays most of these instruments, is the album’s co-producer. The sound throughout is subtle and effectively sparse, allowing the voice to tell the stories with conviction.
The album took time to record and is Hunt’s debut. She wanted to get it right and detect a way for these songs to find their own voice. It marks the start of what is likely to be a noted career. Hunt joins the ranks of those who embrace an older time and order, but do so in a way that is redolent of the modern traditionalist movement. Hunt not only involved herself in every aspect of the music, but also designed the evocative cover. A complete package that stands out by being true to itself.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Jeffery Halford and the Healers West Towards South Floating
A heavy and life hardened sound that is full of grit and gavel with tales entirely suited to a country-noir visual setting. There is evidence of some dirty blues and heartland rock, setting the perfect tone for these tales of dead men’s hands, gallows and suffocating small towns. Each song reads like a brief scenario for a gritty realism and retribution. Aside from Halford and his Healers, there are a number of additional players bringing their skills to create this elemental sound. Halford produced together with Healer Adam Rossi and engineer Dion Zimmer, who also co-wrote several of the songs with Halford.
The album opens with the title track, a tale of Cyrus and Ambrose, who also feature in the final track Ballad Of Ambrose And Cyrus. They are a part of the story elsewhere too. It’s Halford voice that is the focus of these songs, an instrument of depth and dynamism, that draws you into the maelstrom of ragged guitars and swirling keyboards. A sound of hard-worn Americana that could easily have come along twenty years ago, but is as welcomed now as it would have been then. This cycle of songs tells its own tale of two brothers and their paths, offering a glimpse into a place that many would not physically want to go, but are happy to ride along with these musicians as guides. Deeper The Hell, Dead Man’s Hand, A Town Called Slow, Sea Of Cortez, The Gallows and Geronimo all sounds like episodes of a gritty TV series - one filled with atmosphere and abrasion.
After eight albums, the sound that Halford has been forging has now been honed to a sharp edge. Strong arrangements that are a distillation of certain aspects of Americana may spark comparisons with some contemporaries, but he has made this album in a way that does not always come together in other cases as well as it does here. West Towards South should be on your musical compass if you like some roots rock and roll that is a hard as it is real.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Sean Whiting High Expectations Eastwood
The image of a large truck on the album’s front cover is backed up by the full throttle voice and music of Sean Whiting and his band. They play a Southern Rock orientated selection of songs, that sound like they could easily have been around a few decades ago. Whiting grew up in Eastern Kentucky listening to ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers, Free and Hank Williams Jr. All of who are detectable in the DNA of this album. His demeanour is that of a man of the South, something that is clearly in his soul and in the way he sings. His hometown also was the birthplace of Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle as well as Chris Stapleton. It is with the latter that he would have the most affinity. A big sound behind a big voice.
The players here have been previously associated with Whiting and include guitarist David Prince, Chris Justice on bass and drummer Hayden Miles. They are all players capable of delivering a ballad as well as hot for the highway gear shifting grooves. The songs are ones that are reflections of Whiting’s life and times, either lived, observed or understood. His voice is flexible, one that can be reflective as in Melody or be tender as in the ode to his wife that is The Happy Song. The ten self written songs were co-produced by Whiting and Wesley Allen and by using the three players mentioned, they produce a full and expensive sound that is in keeping with the overall intent of his musical direction. Stop Crazy has a solid riff that reminds of U.K. rockers Free amongst others, with Whiting’s voice powering the music along. SOB finds Whiting alone with his guitar and performing the song, with as much conviction (and honesty) as the full band tracks.
This is an album that shows how wide the spread of Americana/Roots music spans. Some few years ago it would have been classified as rock, pure and simple. Whiting grew up with music, playing drums at an early age and later playing guitar in a covers band, before he began to write his own material. Finally The Beginning, his previous and first album, was released a couple of years back and this second album is a consolidation of what he learned from that experience and from countless gigs. His possesses a sound that is now as current as it was back when his influences were regulars in the charts. A place, that given the right breaks, Whiting might just find himself in the future with high expectations.
Review by Stephen Rapid