Reviews by Paul McGee

Aaron Watson Vaquero Big Label

Sixteen songs and over 60 minutes of new music from this independent Texan who continues to blaze an impressive trail in celebration of his artistic talents and entrepreneurial vision. This represents CD release number 13 and highlights a career spanning 18 years that includes countless live performances across America and into Europe in recent years.

His last release, The Underdog, acted as a statement of defiance against the music machine of Nashville, where his style of Texas Outlaw Country is not given much official recognition. However, this was not the first time that the big record labels came calling for Watson’s signature on a contract; only to be turned down at every point of asking. Instead, The Underdog made history when it made Watson the first independent male artist to debut at number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart with a self-released, independently distributed and promoted album.

No pressure then on this follow-up, only 2 years later, but Watson comes through with a very self-assured and confident project that does not sag at any time across the many tracks included here. There are love songs (Take You Home Tonight, Be My Girl, Big Love in a Small Town, Rolling Stone), heartland songs about pride in living quiet and honest lives (These Old Boots Have Roots, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To), story songs such as the tile track which references the solitary life of the old independent ranch hands and the sage advice of years spent riding the rural countryside farms – “He said don't live your life like a sad country song, A fool on a stool is still a fool right or wrong”.

Texas Lullaby examines the simple wish to serve one’s country and make it back alive – a politically tinged song with a small-town twist that makes it all the more honest. Outta Style is a fine band workout and the celebratory groove of the arrangement has radio hit written all over it. Run Wild Horses is a song of passion and desire that really rocks out with guitar and fiddle playing off each other in style. There is some timely social commentary in the song Clear Isabel, which looks at the subject of illegal immigrants and the hope of making a better life across the border.

Amen Amigo has an addictive beat with some excellent fiddle parts as local town fun spills out into the weekend and partying with the boys in tow! The strongest track is The Arrow which gives a life lesson to the sense of living with kindness and love. Diamonds & Daughters is a heart-felt song to his little girl and will long endure as a fan favourite with its sweet sentiment.

Aaron Watson is a very authentic country artist who delivers on all fronts; an insightful and strong song-writer who plays from the belief that he can make a difference in the lives of people who look to music as a means of coping in their daily lives. The abiding message is to live life with a belief and confidence in yourself. This release takes top spot in my country music releases so far, this year.

Stevieray Latham Winter in London At the Helm

This collection of 10 songs was released at the end of 2016 and arrived into our offices for review this month. There is no detail or information on the promo copy I received, but the following was sufficient endorsement ‘mixed and produced by Peter Bruntnell at Domestico Studios in North Devon’. This is the home studio of the multi-talented Mr Bruntnell and any connection with such a revered artist/producer should be sufficient to highlight any young artist to the media.

Steveray Latham released his debut record in 2014 and this follow up is a quiet affair with stripped down arrangements and a vocal that delivers with a sense of reflection and wistful longing. Latham sings these personal songs that have relevance to his years spent living in London. West Hendon Incident deals with a shooting on an estate. Kristina looks at a friend who has issues in communicating in the real world. Never Go Back is a lament to times passed by and the reflection that you can never return. The strings used on This is The Love are gently haunting against a backdrop of a failed relationship while House On The Corner tells of a past girlfriend who has travelled away. Plenty to enjoy here and a strong release from this young talent.

Adriana Spina Let Out the Dark Ragged Road

This singer-songwriter is based in Scotland and her second release, following on from her debut in 2011, is quite an interesting collection of songs. Her band comprise of Stuart MacLeod, who not only produced and mixed the ten songs here, but also weighs in with guitar, bass, keyboards & percussion. Ross McFarlane plays drums and there are backing vocals from Caitlin MacLeod and Francesco Spina (keeping it in the family). Adriana plays acoustic guitar and sings with a sweet voice and clear delivery.

The songs are based around relationships in the main (Home, The Same Drum, Sparkle, Where You Are), affairs & infidelity (The Fall, Hear It From You), the challenge of being away from home and unfilled dreams (Don’t Recognise Me, Two Steps, Disappear) and there is a poignant reflection on the immigrant crisis (See Another Day).

Regret is the abiding theme in the relationship songs with the author cast as the villain in breaking-away and avoiding intimacy. A restless soul looking for a true home should not look back in anger.

A fine collection of contemporary Folk songs that will appeal to many and attract media attention for this new artist.

Scotch Hollow Little Tortuga Self Release.

Scotch Hollow is an acoustic roots band that play in a country-blues style that is both timeless and modern. Mark Verbeck met Carley Martin at College where their mutual love for the blues, traditional country and roots music brought them together. The band line-up is completed by JD Linn on upright bass, Benjamin Scholz on drums, percussion Brody Buster on harmonica and Joel Schuman on piano.

This collection of 11 songs represents their third release, following a debut 5-track EP in 2014 and their debut full length album in 2015. The band produce a fine groove with harmonica and guitar high in the mix. Verbeck produces the project with Linn also acting as producer and sound engineer, so it is very much an in-house affair. The blues playing on the 3 opening songs Hocus Pocus/Kansas City Pepper/Drop in the Bucket is immediate and bright and the pace does not let up throughout.

There are cover versions of Nobody But You (Little Walter), Moaning at Midnight (Howlin' Wolf/Big Willie Dixon) and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed & Burning (Blind Willie Johnson). It is a measure of the playing prowess on display that all three tracks stand very much in their own style with strong performances in the interpretations ... The vocal talents of Carley are very much to the fore throughout this enjoyable release.

Cranford Hollow Color/Sound/Renew/Revive Swampfire

Cranford Hollow describe their sound as a blended mix of Southern Rock, Appalachian Fiddle Music and American Rock and Roll. Well, the evidence on this, their fifth record, is more that of a roots/country sound with the fine violin playing of Eric Matthew Reid colouring the arrangements at every turn. He is ably assisted by John Cranford on guitars, piano and sound manipulation; Jan Reynecke on electric guitar, Randy Looman on drums and Philip Sirmans on bass. Special guest/honorary member John Wilkins also features on guitar and the 8 tracks here are a testament to this excellent band of musicians who blend the influences of the Band and the Allman Brothers into a composite whole that is both addictive and unique in sound. Reid and Cranford handle the vocals with great aplomb and the tired, worldly wise delivery in the voices comes over as fully authentic in the song settings. And You Brutus, Songfield, North and Swing are really strong tracks but the whole project makes for a great listening experience. Good to discover new music such as this and to recommend it to a wider audience.

New Road Stone Walls & Street Lights Self Release

What an unexpected surprise! This collection of 13 tunes is a real joy from start to finish with playing that sweeps the listener along with a real energy and flourish. The band comprise of Rick Epping (harmonica, concertina, 5-string banjo, jaw harp, vocals); Seamie O'Dowd (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, vocals); Leonard Barry (uilleann pipes, whistles) and Andy Morrow (fiddle). The combo playing is just superb and the blend of fiddle, jaw harp & uileann pipes on the song Greasy Coat is a fine example of the great arrangements that deliver little twists along the way to keep the listener fully engaged.

Formed in 2013 and featuring this interesting blend of instruments, New Road are very aptly named and explore roots music that includes Irish traditional, Appalachian old-time, blues and more. An eclectic mix of traditional airs, tunes, jigs, reels, songs, stories are sewn together across a tapestry of melody and rhythm that is both engaging and full of rich colour. Guests include bodhrán legend Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, Cathy Jordan and Sligo guitarist Shane McGowan. The songs are sung by Rick Epping and include the aforementioned Greasy Coat, Saturday Night My Wife Died and Down In The Old Home Town.

Fellow Pynins Hunter & the Hunted Self Release

This debut release was recorded live in Ashland, Oregon and the band is made up of duo Ian Van Ornum on guitar, mandolin, hurdy gurdy and vocals with Dani Aubert on banjo, bouzouki, vocals, plus voice sung into the banjo. All 10 songs are created by Fellow Pynins and their website describes them as “a tender duo, birthed out of years of travelling, farming, childrearing and touring with a 6-piece orchestra called Patchy Sanders”.

Their songs contain an old-world feel in the words and speak of love stories and the untamed nature of both man and sea. Folk tales and fables that tell of sheep and sugar beets, kings and queens; echoes of a time since passed and one where many may still wish to reside.

Finely tuned harmonies and sympathetic musical arrangements flow easily and the simple strum and intimacy of My Adventures With Jack As Sheepherders is a real joy. Instrumental Henry’s Got Freckles (In The Summertime) is a pleasant jaunt on a buggy in the countryside on a sunny day before Dear Ones unfolds with a salutary tale of death and the depths that could easily fit into an Irish session of traditional singing. The duo did tour Ireland in 2016 as part of a European tour and their music is quaintly appropriate to the sense of a return to simpler ways. A fine release for those who enjoy traditional folk music played with an understated charm.  

Shake Russell Little Bright Band of Light Howlin’ Dog

Thirteen songs in 49 minutes and the project was funded by way of a pre-order campaign. The players who support Shake are Michael Hearne on acoustic guitar & harmony vocal; James Doyle on drums; Jimmy Stadler on piano and guitar (4 tracks, all parts recorded at his home studio) and Don Richmond, who plays a cornucopia of instruments, in addition to production duties.

For more than three decades, this Texas singer-songwriter has been creating his folk-rock compositions, some of which have been recorded by artists such as artists as Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Ricky Skaggs, Clint Black, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. He has been recording since the 1970’s and has a broad body of work to his name.

Quality playing throughout and a fine way with a lyric make this experienced singer-songwriter one to celebrate and songs like Pure and Shadow Man are reminiscent of JJ Cale in the arrangement and rhythm. Letters, Songs And Photographs is a look back at old memories while The King of the Honky-Tonk Is Gone is a fine tribute to the great George Jones. In early 2016, Shake RusselI was honoured and inducted in the Songwriters Texas Legends Hall of Fame and this latest release gives plenty of reasons as to why such an award was merited.

Jen Gloeckner Vine Spinning Head 

The music industry often works in bazaar and unexpected ways. Not always with the results anticipated or intended. Labels sign artists, distribution deals are struck for product reach and then promotion/PR companies get involved with product air-play, placement and media reviews. It all leads to a big machine spinning its wheels, ever in different directions, and not always aiming the energy at the original targets intended.

In this context, I am contacted by the Jen Gloeckner promotion team who tell me that this artist has just released her third CD and that she is placed, as a reference point, in the category of; Massive Attack, Radiohead, Bjork, Portishead, Julee Cruise, Patsy Cline, Simon and Garfunkel and others.

Well, as Lonesome Highway is focused mainly on Americana, Country, Folk & Roots music, I am interested to understand just how Patsy Cline made it onto this list of artists, but I am prepared to suspend judgement and just listen to the music on its merits…

Some days later I receive a package that contains all three of Jen’s releases; Miles Away (2005), Mouth of Mars (2010) and Vine (2017). Asked to review the latest release, I am curious to track the progression made across all three records and so I settle into a few days of Jen Gloeckner taking up the greater part of my listening time.

The experience is not unpleasant and indeed I am very taken with the singular talents of this Dubuque, Iowa artist who recorded the new release in her bedroom before having the tracks mixed and mastered in Philadelphia.

The latest release Vine is a further jump in creative control and expression as Jen delves further into the use of loops, pulses, rhythms, treatments and voice atmospherics. These are lavish soundscapes and the ambient quality of the tracks is augmented by the sweet vocal delivery and use of Cello, Flute and EBow. The lyrics are not always clear but add to the overall effect of floating along the breeze of life with destination unknown. Song titles such as Blowing Through, Firefly (War Dance), Counting Sheep, Row With The Flow and Breathe give an indication of the musical colour on display here. A very talented artist who is worthy of greater media attention for her creative gifts. Jen Gloeckner is not easily placed in any specific genre, which can only be a positive when everyone is eager to pigeonhole creative talent into various boxes.

I am still looking for Patsy Cline howeve … A small complaint!



Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tim Houlihan   ‘Another Orion’   Self Release

This Minneapolis, Minnesota based artist has released a debut album that has shades of The Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash in the overall feel. Though it is released under Houlihan’s name, he is joined by his band throughout, who bring a more organic sound to the proceedings. They are featured in a group photo on the cover and are Todd Lester on drums, Paul Madsen on bass and guitarist Jon James Benson. They are joined by some guests, notably producer Kevin Bowe who is a interesting artist in his own right, recording with his band the Okemah Prophets.  Other guests include vocalists Sarah Morris and keyboard player Charlie Peterson. All in all they deliver a full, warm sounding, non-edgy, easy-to-like set of original songs.

Houlihan has composed all the songs, with a couple of co-writes, and they cover a range of tempos and moods to good effect. Producer Bowe also plays guitar and does programming on a number of tracks and generally makes sure to get the best from the songs. There is the melodic drive of the 12 string electric guitar driven Beneath The Surface Of The Well, together with the rockier takes of What’s Gonna Happen To Me and Fair Retreat. Guitars are fairly fundamental to the overall sound along with Houlihan’s confident lead vocals and the vocal harmonies which support him. All are executed with an understanding of the songs and give them their heart and soul.

There isn’t a duff track among the ten featured and while there is no one immediate stand-out there is a constancy to the album that makes it largely work in context. Nothing you have not heard before but equally for the same reasons, one that is comfortable without ever being bland. An album where the songs grow with greater familiarity and soon sound like some old friends.

John Moreland   ‘High On Tulsa Heat’   Thirty Tigers

A writer whose songs have some real depth and (broken) heart. This is Moreland’s second album after his debut, In The Throes. Moreland has again produced this set of songs and there is little gloss or application of the ‘big sound’ to the recording. Many of the songs are stripped back in instrumentation which brings them down to the essence of Moreland’s words, guitar and voice. With his leaden grey sky of a voice for the ages these songs seem filled with hardship and hard luck. That voice however is a deep and resonant vehicle, one that changes little from song to song. The arrangements are equally simple and direct - yet effective. Having said that its appeal may be limited by a certain sameness of the tempo and mood. There is little relief over the ten songs.

But like the blues there are those who will find solace and reward in these songs. It is a compelling enough album to hold your attention if you let the crafted wordsmith’s lyrics sink in and the CD has a lyric booklet that makes for a compelling read. They are opaque at times but, as such, allow one to draw subjective meaning from them.

“Baby Lay down your price break poems, while I sit and mumble at your feet. Am I a stone or a stoned kid dreaming up a closet full of crumbled teeth.” These are the opening lines of Sad Baptist Rain and are indicative of his poetic writing style. Yet, as with all the best lyricists, they make perfect sense delivered on the album either in a stripped down setting or with a full band behind him. American Flags In Black & White, another song here, tells of a reminiscence of a favoured person captured in an old photograph. Here Moreland plays all the instruments involved - guitars, bass and drums. Elsewhere he brings in upright bass, pedal steel, guitar and dobro. The latter played by Jared Tyler who also plays with another highly individual and uncompromising songwriter Malcolm Holcombe.

There is no doubt that John Moreland has his advocates as well as those who would dismiss this music out of hand. The title track and final song shows that Moreland can be musically more adventurous (there is a synth included on one track, for instance, that broadens the sonic scope of the song) and that his music is well capable of developing in different ways.

It all depends largely where John Moreland wants to take his music and what he might be comfortable with. In the meantime both his albums are rewarding excursions into an inner soul and a truthful reading of what can be found there and how a listener can find the empathy to enjoy Moreland’s personal take on life.

Aaron Watson  ‘The Underdog’  Big Label

This Texas musician has made numerous albums largely for his fan-base in the States who appreciate his take on country music. Something more rooted in the country music of the 80s and 90s than that of today’s charts. So it was interesting that this album went to the top of the Billboard country charts on its release. This is his 12th album and he is not likely to be going to change his essence at this point. Veteran producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson) is at the helm here with Watson and they give the album an upbeat and full on production. It was recorded in Nashville with some of the A-team players like Eddie Byers, Paul Franklin and Brent Mason.

Watson has had a hand in most of the songs either on his own or with a number of other co-writers. Names like Stegall, Troy Olsen or Jim Beavers may be familiar to some. These are songs that Watson can relate to in his life such as Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song) written his deceased child. Perhaps though the final song Fence Post can be said to sum up his whole raison d'être. It deals with his rejection by Music Row and the music they wanted him to perform. “I’d rather sing my own songs than be a puppet on a string … I’d rather be an old fence post in Texas than the king of Tennessee”.

He tells of his return to Texas where it took him a mere ten years to be an overnight sensation. Watson has stuck to his guns (or guitar) and created something he feels comfortable playing and singing. It’s country music for sure. Not the most edgy or adventurous you might find nor is it outlaw orientated but it is solid, dependable, enjoyable and versatile.

Songs like The Prayer, That’s Why God Loves Cowboys, That’s Gonna Leave A Mark and Rodeo Queen all make an impression as standouts. Real country music made for Texas dancehall and for country fans worldwide. Aaron Watson probably has enough work to keep him busy in the States but would doubtless find many fans on this side of the water too. His album equally would be well received by those who still see country music as a genre in its own right not adulterated by rap, pop and hair rock. Every underdog should have its day.

 Vince Gill  'Down To My Last Bad Habit'  MCA Nashville

I looked forward to this album. Gill’s Dublin date a while back was an exercise in how to play country music live rather than heavy rock disguised as such that we had witnessed from other Nashville big label artists. One quick listen will make you realise that this is really not just a country album, rather it is a mature take on a R’n’B sound that sees Gill give his usual customary performance as both a guitarist and singer. But, in truth, it is a far cry from some of his earlier work. It is smooth, soulful and sincere; just not the country of his previous work such as his last Bakersfield tribute album with Paul Franklin.

But Gill sounds comfortable here and listening to the songs you can see that they easily could be shifted down the dial to a more countrified setting. But as producer (with Justin Niebank) this is what Gill wanted the album to sound like. The rhythm section of Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan is bound to set the foundation for the sound. Over that you have his friend and country player Paul Franklin mixing his pedal steel with other less obvious players like Dean Parks on guitar, among others.

Vocally Gill gives a sterling vocal performance that is totally suited to his range and delivery. Perhaps one of his best in years. The songs, as mentioned, could have been tracked in several ways but here he has taken the blue-eyed soul route. A sound that he has touched on before but never to the degree he uses it as a foundation, as witnessed here. It is mature, accomplished and perfectly acceptable music that will please many of his fans with an open mind to what he places before them. At this point in his career he is perfectly entitled to engage himself with his music in any way he pleases. It will still doubtless register on the country charts but be warned that, good as it is, The Time Jumpers it ain’t.

Brothers Osborne  'Pawn Shop'  EMI Nashville

These brothers have been working and playing in Nashville for some time before getting signed to EMI Nashville. A big deal you may think but despite touring with label mate Eric Church it has taken some time for this debut album to get released. That was on the back of some success with the single Stay A Little Longer. Which itself took a long time to register in the upper reaches of the charts. Now comes the album which may best be described as more rootsy rock that country. Something that Jay Joyce’s production places (delete) emphasises. There are a lot of loud guitar breaks from brother John while J.T. is the lead vocalist. Both have presence and deliver in their own right as well as a duo. There are quite a few clips of them playing on You Tube as a duo and acoustically from which you can judge them, prior to all the studio and production shine, has taken them to a much bigger place - music wise at least.

Joined in the studio by a full band that includes guest vocals from Lee Ann Womack. These players are not the usual A-team whose names you see on most releases but a set of musicians who none-the-less deliver the necessary goods over the eleven songs. The brothers have written all the songs with a large variety of co-writers and some work better than others. Rum is another fairly typical drinking song while American Crazy is a little generic in its depiction of a common man ethos.

But in context these songs fit with the overall sound and some standout from the rest such as Stay A Little Longer with its long guitar coda at the end, something that was edited on the single version. The title track opens with acoustic instruments before kicking it up a notch or two and has a bluesy feel built around the repeat title refrain.

Loving Me Back contrasts J.T’s deep baritone with Womack’s sweeter harmony. There is more than a touch of 80s country with Greener Pastures which also works well. The penultimate song Heart Shaped Locket has a more generic structure with both brothers singing and the acoustic instruments too the fore. It is the only song other than Rum not produced by Joyce and may give some idea of how the album may have sounded in the brothers hands.

With the success the Zac Brown Band and more recently Chris Stapleton it might just be the right time for Brothers Osborne to gain some more consistent radio play and to be viewed in a more open minded way by a wider audience. While overall, though it can’t really be classified as a country album in the classic sense, it will be seen as such by many; but there is no doubt that some of these songs, with the duos musical and vocal talent, could have easily been cut that way in a different time. For now this is an album that, on its own terms, is not without its accessibility and pleasures.

Courtney Yasmineh 'Red Letter Day (Unplugged)'  Stupid Bitch

Taking the unusual step of releasing two albums of the same title this New York based singer/songwriter offers two perspectives on the same songs. It is the 5 track mini unplugged version of the songs that has gained the most attention here. The expanded 9 track full band version is not without its merits in its slightly roots, more indie rock setting, but while some the players common to both full and the unplugged versions. It is the latter that seems to give the songs more space to breathe.

It opens with Stupid With Your Love which despite lacking amplification doesn’t lack power. Something that is true of the rest of the songs here. Recorded in Minneapolis and produced by fellow player Rob Genadek the four players do Yasmineh’s self and co-written songs justice. There is percussion, bass and some electric guitar as well as acoustic guitars behind Yasmineh’s convincing and expressive voice.

I assume that it is Casey Smith adding the harmony vocals as she is not listen on the full band album. The songs are built around some solid melodies and the words are memorable enough to make an impression. These are observational songs that take love, life and travel as an axis to build the words around. Stupid With Your Love and Friend Of Mine are immediately memorable here and the other three titles are not far behind, all of which have made me return to this version many times. However if you want all more electricity and drive in the delivery also check out the far more rollicking takes on the main album too.

Yasmineh could well appeal to a wide audience with either of these two albums as her songs and expressive voice have the potential to appeal across the board in different settings. Whether you're keen on the likes of Lucinda Williams or Liz Phair or somewhere in between, then throw an ear her way.