The Steel Wheels Over The Trees Big Ring
Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, The Steel Wheels are a five-piece roots band consisting of Kevin Garcia (percussion, keyboards), Brian Dickel (vocals, bass), Trent Wagler (vocals, guitar, banjo), Eric Brubaker (vocals, fiddle) and Jay Lapp (vocals, mandolin, guitar). Now in their tenth year, the band have recorded six previous albums showcasing their roots sound that has resulted in repeated invitations to play various prestigious festivals across America and further afield. The band have also hosted their own annual three-day Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mt. Solon Virginia for the past seven years. The timely release of Over The Trees coincides with this year’s event.
For this recording the band travelled 1200 miles north to Maine where they worked with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Lake Street Dive, Langhorn Slim).
Climate change or indeed political climate inferences could be drawn from the funky opener Rain Come. Road Never Ends treads a similar sounding path, seductive percussion driving the sound along. The recurring themes of exodus and moving to pastures new feature on the rocked up Keep On. Classic love themes emerge on I’ll Be Ready, an impressive and easy on the ear listen that could very well be raided by a ‘big name’ in the future, given its radio friendly vibe. Get To Work, which follows, also impresses, not necessarily by its lyrical content but more so by its addictive backbeat and melody. This Year is the album closer, an impressive acapella prayer of hope for reconciliation and compassion.
Review by Declan Culliton
Christopher Lockett Between The Dark And The Light Gritbiscuit
As a film director, photographer, cinematographer and singer songwriter, it should come as no surprise that Los Angeles based Christopher Lockett is a lover of a story. His travels across all continents working on documentaries has given him ample ammunition to translate his observations into songs and the opportunity to develop these stories into albums. Between The Dark And The Light is his third studio recording.
Whereas his two previous recordings were self-produced, Lockett engaged multi-instrumentalist and producer Fernando Perdomo (Todd Rundgren, Andy Pratt, Jennifer Kaiser) this time around. An individual renowned for his ability to operate at breakneck speed and maximum efficiency, Perdomo also contributes percussion, bass and keyboards. He and Lockett also managed to piece the whole album together in two days.
Conscious that he normally performs solo, Lockett was intent on creating material that he could perform on the road. Therefore, the instrumentation is sparse yet well placed to give the material depth, but also allowing the vocals to be the main instrument. Jacarandas, named after a flowering plant common to Southern California and Shake It both recall Warren Zevon. The former is enriched by violin courtesy of Kaitlin Wolfberg and backing vocals by Trevi Fligg. The latter is a souped up harmonica driven bluesy toe tapper. Old December is a reflective slow burner and the album closes in style with There Is A Darkness, a grippingly melodic song that considers unexpected mood change.
The album is no doubt a labour of love for the multiskilled Lockett and a welcomed deviation from his other career pursuits. More than that, it’s an impressive late-night listen from a talented storyteller.
Review by Declan Culliton
Paddy Godfrey Doin’ Just Fine Oldflattop
The debut four track EP from Belfast’s Paddy Godfrey is an impressive introduction to a young artist whose core inspiration is drawn from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. His deep baritone delivery brings to mind Canadian Colter Wall, an artist with comparable musical idols and one who has made a significant industry advancement over the past few years. Recorded and produced by Percy Robinson at Newhills Sound Studios, Ramelton, it features Godfrey on vocals and guitar accompanied by Robinson on dobro on the track The One. Opener So Far and the bluesy Doin’ Just Fine impress most.
Godfrey is a maturing artist with considerable potential and hopefully doin’ just fine is a stepping stone to establish himself firmly in the Irish market and further afield.
Review by Declan Culliton
Shawn Fenner Bad Decisions Self-Release
The third album release from Shawn Fenner never strays too far from his blueprint of pure and unadulterated traditional country music. Also sticking closely to the country song rule book, the album features lots of drinking, bar room fighting, loving and leaving, despair and misbehaving across the twelve tracks.
After spending several years playing barrooms and honky tonks in Nashville, Fenner relocated to Chester, Virginia where he currently resides. Winner of Richmond’s Voice, a competition sponsored by WKHK-K95 Radio, he has opened for Willie Nelson, ZZ Top and Hank Williams Jnr.
Fiddle and twangy guitar set the scene for the opener and title track Bad Decisions (“chasing the wrong gal, crossing the wrong guy”). A tale of wrong turns and choices, it’s saterical and catchy as hell. Tales From The Barside follows the same path with beers and brawls in dive bars. Late Nights is the morning after the night before, with hangovers, black eyes and crashed trucks. Too Late For Coffee (Too Early For Beer) is holiday midday crisis, time off and decisions to be made. Until You takes a more serious turn, the regret of a self-imposed broken marriage. Sad, Lonesome, Brokenhearted is the same story, remorsefully retold. House Always Wins closes the album on a sober note, with Fenner reminiscing over indiscretions and flings in a previous life, but rejecting the bar stool these days for the comforts of home bliss. I’m not sure that the inclusion of covers Ring Of Fire and Misery And Gin add to the listening pleasure. In fairness, he does them both justice and they would work well in his live setlists but the original material on the album is strong enough in its own right.
The album is simple and predictable in the best possible sense. The common denominators on all the tracks are Fenner’s deep melodic vocals, the cracking playing throughout and the strength of the songs.
Fenner is unlikely to have the major record labels knocking on his door, given what sells as country music these days. It’s unlikely to faze him. He’s more inclined to unapologetically continue to write, record and perform good old country tunes and keep the music of his heroes Haggard, Cash and Jennings alive and kicking. Bad Decisions does just that and more. Hats off to him for that.
Review by Declan Culliton
Dan Webster Devil Sky Paper Plane Records
Kicking off with the rousing drinking song of good cheer, Playing Cards & Late Night Bars, the prominent violin of Emily Lawler highlights the tempo and the guitar of Webster also features in the song progression. Home Again is a slow tune, again featuring some fine violin playing, plus the mandolin of Polly Bolton and a song about leaving a dead relationship and packing for home. The celebratory nature of Bo is a real delight with the full band in overdrive, great rhythm provided by Mark Waters on bass and Yom Hardy on drums, driving the beat; mandolin and violin taking turns in lifting the song arrangement to greater heights.
Webster has been described as ‘Anglicana’ but I must say that he moves very much in a contemporary Folk direction for me. Haul Away is a gentle acoustic number with Danni Nicholls on backing vocals and the understated cello of Rachel Brown adding colour to the melody. Mary Ann is a song that balances life on the road as a travelling musician against the more stable reality of a steady routine; restless natures build their own prisons. Again, the playing is superb as violin and mandolin circle around the easy beat.
Sand has a Celtic feel to the arrangement and the electric guitar of Stuart Allan is a nice counter point to the excellent keyboard sound of Joshua Burnell. Again, a song about lost love. The lost opportunity of Nothing At All references the title of the album and sums up the angst in many of these tracks at a failure to connect and find real meaning in relationships. The final track, Anyway, is a standout and brings everything to a sweet, if sad, conclusion. The studio players are excellent throughout and serve these songs well. A very pleasant listen overall.
Review by Paul McGee
Allah Las LAHS Mexican Summer
Guitar driven band who formed in 2008 and who made their reputation in the Los Angeles area playing a combination of Psychedelic/Folk Rock that mirrored the west coast sounds of 60’s bands such as Love, Jefferson Airplane and early Traffic. Lots of retro sounding arrangements with simple beats, terrific harmonies and a jangle to the guitars. These musicians are all excellent players and guitarists Pedrum Siadatian and Miles Michaud play off one another with a series of electric weavings that are well rooted by Spencer Durham on bass and Matt Correia on drums.
There is a timeless quality to tracks like Star and the instrumentals Roco One and Houston build into lovely slices of dreamy pop rock that stays in the memory. There are keyboards throughout that echo and the distant groove on Electricity and Pleasure are also very striking. Prazer Em Te Conhecer and Holding Pattern are subtly simple and yet fully formed in their interesting rhythms.
Understated and gently geared to lull the listener into a sweet state of somnambulance. Thirteen tracks that will help you to put the world to rights as you surrender to the insistent rhythm and melody of this interesting band
Review by Paul McGee
Maureen Toth Blur Self Release
This name is new to me but on doing some research it appears that Maureen Toth is very much a D.I.Y. artist/entrepreneur in every sense. When she isn’t writing her own songs and performing them, she runs a successful talent agency that concentrates on film and television placements. She has a Psychology degree from Boston University and has plenty of experience in what makes a successful career from both sides of the fence.
This 5-track EP clocks in at under 25 minutes and is a very pleasant listen. There is plenty of variety across the songs included, with production from Carlos Calvo who also contributes guitar and vocals. Dave Sutton plays bass with Marc Slutsky on drums and backing vocals from Nicole Washington. Paul Smith also contributes as engineer/co-producer.
The opening (title) track addresses the unbreakable bond of love that stretches beyond our worldly confines and endures, despite the veil of death. The slow tempo of Fundamental is a sad look at the many problems facing our way of life right now and the need to survive in the face of hatred and violence.
Deep Dark is another plea to cease the endless fear and suspicion of what we don’t understand. The tragedies suffered in the name of extremism are so many and the need to shed some light is always there. Great bluesy delivery from Toth and a fine guitar solo from Calvo give the song added dimension.
Siren is a shout for independence and the need to be free to live your life, including another great guitar break from Calvo who plays with economy and feeling. The closing song, Island, is a love song that raises hope for the future and the power of individuals to rise above the constraints of daily living.
With two previous releases, this artist is certainly a breath of fresh air and delivers a confident statement of her talents that should certainly gain her increasing recognition.
Review by Paul McGee
Katie Dahl Wildwood Leaky Boat
This artist is from Wisconsin and has been releasing music since 2009. Her Folk sound is very organic and traditional with the superb playing of Kristin Weber on fiddle weaving through these songs of love, life, loss and many other road signs along the way. Steve Dawson also features strongly and plays a range of instruments as always; a musician of the highest quality who never fails to deliver.
From family history (Wildwood Girl) and immigration (Good Northern Ground), breaking free from small town constraints (Helen), childhood friendships (Braver Than Me) and those already passed away, yet still present (Anna Lee); the wistful sense of something lost is never far away.
The light touch on drums and percussion from Jamie Dick and the considered bass playing of Rich Higdon, serve these songs well and colour just enough to lift the arrangements beyond the ordinary. The backing vocals of both Larissa Maestro (5 tracks) and Allison Russell (4 tracks) are perfectly delivered in the sense of the emotion displayed by these vignettes into simple lives, lived with dignity.
Oh Minnesota is a look back to growing up and a tribute to the state. In the Dark is a standout song with such delicate touch that it resonates long after the record has finished. Valmy is a cover of a Pat MacDonald song and producer JT Nero (Birds of Chicago), has two co-writes among the eleven songs featured.
Two songs are taken from “The Fisherman’s Daughters,” a musical set in 1908 and based on the true story of two sisters who fought the state of Wisconsin’s attempt to take possession of their homestead in order to create a state park. Breathing Room, from the perspective of one daughter who moved to the city, and The Fisherman’s Daughter, a sorry tale of the sister who stayed behind and perhaps, sacrificed her dreams.
Production by JT Nero is very sympathetic to Dahl’s rural leanings and sound with plenty of space for the players to add texture and tone to the song arrangements. I have the strong feeling of something special here and a real contender for album of the year. Just buy it.
Review by Paul McGee