Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Al Scorch Circle Round The Signs Bloodshot

This latest release from Al Scorch and his Country Soul Ensemble highlights a growing confidence and awareness of how best to develop his raw talent. Although there are nine players listed in the Ensemble many of the tracks are based on a smaller, tighter unit led by Scorch’s ever present banjo picking and strumming. He is a writer of songs that often focus on the kind of subjects that would be equally as appropriate for a raging punk band as for his current line-up. However there are equally moments that touch on more personal and individual stories. 

Poverty Draft is an example of a song that shows an understanding of the plight of the misfortunes of his fellow man. Scorch’s music is rooted in that sense of affinity and awareness of how society can often become something less than caring. However throughout the ten songs Scorch and band make sure that the music is never bleak or hard work. From the first bars of Pennsylvania Turnpike the banjo drives the energy and heart of the music in a way that is both powerful and affecting. Alongside the faster songs are a bunch of mid-tempo songs that are full of atmosphere - like the Lost At Sea a song that deals, as the title suggests, with a potential loss at sea. Insomnia is about that state of sleeplessness due to a particular predicament and not wanting to be an unrecognised cog in a machine. Lonesome Low is his take on rising above a sense of inertia but it does so with a strong sense of purpose and thinking about the things that can bring you down. How sometimes that innocence can bring that will often alleviate such attitudes. Woody Guthrie's song Slipknot ("Have you ever seen a hangman tie a slipknot”) fits the overall mood perfectly, as does the aforementioned Insomnia written by Gaylen Mohre.

Al Scorch co-produced the album with Neil Strauch in his native Chicago which makes Bloodshot the perfect label to bring this music to the world as it is indeed an extension of the insurgent country that the label introduced to the world back when they started releasing albums. A previous album was recorded live at The Spirit Store in Dundalk, Ireland so it is easy to see that while this album is dedicated to friends and family and the city of Chicago its music will fit in and work just as well in any location that takes good music to its heart. 

Western Centuries Weight Of The World Free Dirt

Cahalen Morrison’s last album The Flower Of Muscle Shoals was a damn good one. It was self-produced by Morrison and recorded with hi, then band, Country Hammer. Now he is back as a member of Western Centuries who also include guitarist and vocalist Jim Miller who survives from the previous line up. The band name is perhaps more fitting as both handle writing and the lead vocals duties. Not forgetting drummer Ethan Lawton who also takes the lead on the three songs he wrote. This gives the band some vocal diversity and some different writing perspectives from within its' ranks.

The songs largely look at the lives of those who struggle with a variety of personal and pertinent issues. Each vocalist has a distinctive but equally real voice. Lawson songs Double Or Nothing, In My Cups and Off The Shelf are largely songs that seek the upside of love despite its many travails. Miller views are not far behind in his songs Knocking ‘Em Down, The Long Game and Rock Salt (written with Morrison). Morrison, like his band mates, channels the disappointments as well as hopes that life tend to provide as fodder for the gifted songwriter. There is outright heartbreak in the pedal steel weep of Sadder Day, the hard thinking of Philosophers And Fools or the soul searching of Weight Of The World. What Will They Say About Us Now?, Hallucinations, The Old You complete Morrison’s exploration of subject that are lifeblood to real country music.

Of course listeners may well have their favourite vocalist but the album, produced by Bill Reynolds, is a cohesive work that also makes the best use of the harmony skills of all three of the lead vocalists. Alongside the aforementioned trio mention should be made of Rusty Blake on pedal steel and Dan Lowinger on bass as well as the welcome contribution of Rosie Newton on fiddle. Morrison plays electric, acoustic guitars as well as drumming on three tracks. Miller weighs in on acoustic and electric guitars and Lawson also adds occasional guitar as well as playing drums. The end result is twangy and time-shifting country music delivered by true believers that is well off the radar as regards what country radio currently considers fitting for the estranged format. How wrong they are as Weight Of The World testifies. A very fine album and undoubtedly a contender of the best of the year list.

Anders Westin House By The Lake Millhouse

This album emanates from Westin’s native Sweden where he primarily worked as a producer. One who also wrote songs and had a loose affinity for Americana. He was encouraged to make his demos a reality and with the help of a number of musicians who include, prominently, Nicke Widén on pedal steel as well as Peter Korhonen on drums alongside a range of featured instruments including keyboards, violin and Westin’s vocals, guitar and lap steel. 

There is a gentle, relaxed melancholy feel that befits the ambience of the title. There are 9 songs that complete a suite of songs that dovetail into each other. All are written and sung by Westin (with some added harmony vocals) and all are a world away from the frantic pace that a lot of music is delivered in a cluttered world over-filled with music. The songs largely appear to match the title of one of the songs Reminiscence in terms of theme. These are reflections on time and place tp a large degree. One song however, Tom Dowd, is a tribute to the four tack tape pioneer who worked as a producer for Atlantic Records and as pioneer of multi-track recording.

The album opens with Carpenter’s Daughter's Son a song that sets the tone with it’s subtlety and airy grace. It then takes a similar path through to the final song Long Way Back Home. All appear to focus on times and moods of days gone by and past relationships that are mirrored by the equally gauyzed sunshine of the music. Anders Westin did the right thing in getting his music from demo to this admirable destination.

The Western Flyers Wild Blue Yonder Versa-Tone

This guitar, bass and fiddle trio trail the same tries as The Hot Club of Cowtown and would doubtless appeal to a similar audience. In other words very fine musicianship from three acclaimed players who cover an intoxicating blend of western swing, jazz, cowboy songs and old time fiddle tunes. Joey McKenzie is the guitarist and vocalist, Katie Gassman is the fiddler and vocalist and they are completed by Gavin Kelso on upright bass and harmony vocals.

The songs include a slew off standards Along The Navajo Trail, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter, Tennessee Waltz, Old Fashioned Love and I’ll See You In My Dreams. So in the end Western Flyer aren’t the first and won’t be the last to take on the mantle of this music but the trio play the songs and instrumentals with such skill and love that there will always be room for performers dedicated to the revival and revitalising of any musical form that deserves to be heard outside the confines of memories and old releases or compilations.

Marty Stuart appears to think so too afrom his endorsement on the inner sleeve. The gender balance of the two vocalists works well giving different viewpoints to the songs while the instrumentals highlight the trio playing dexterity. Giving much to consider when you look into the wild blue yonder.

Freakwater Scheherazade Bloodshot

First album in some time from the band led by the duo of Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean. They released their self-titled debut album back in 1989. This time out they are joined by some ten other musicians this time out which gives their distinctive dark take on their particular blend of alternative country influences and sonic experimentation an added dimension that is at times akin to a (Nick) Cave-ian echo.

The writing and vocal delivery is largely split between the two. They have taken their specific sound and added layers of sonic exploration that takes their deeply rooted Carter Family sound into the contemporary arena. Some of the songs are relatively stripped down while others are shrouded in soundscapes that are a mix of diverse instrumentation from Moog to mandola, from banjo and bass to wah-wah guitar.  

The lyrics take on the more sinister side of life on songs like the opening What People Want which deals in rape and murder. The Asp and The Albatross tells of betrayal or Skinny Knee Bone which considers the fortunes of chance, of taking the opportunity to “bet it all on black.” Suffice it say that those acquainted with the music that Freakwater have made since their inception will hear a development of that distinctive voice. One centred around the voices and songs of Irwin and Bean (and their accomplices) which have variously been described as Southern and Appalachian Gothic as well as old-time country. These influences are undoubtedly a factor in the make-up of the music but as Scheherazade clearly shows Freakwater are not a band who are afraid to experiment and move forward by incorporating a myriad of sounds alongside more traditional sources. 

The end result works on many levels and stands alongside, if not above, any of their previous albums. Scheherazade makes for some compellingly haunted and haunting music that should please those who have listened in the past or those who are stepping into the water for the first time.

The Flyin’ A’s You Drive Me Crazy Self Release

This husband and wife duo describe their music as Americana with Texas grit which is not a bad summation of what they do. What makes the album that bit special is, along with the duo’s strong vocal and writing input, the solid production of veteran player and producer Chris Gage. He is credited here also with a variety of guitars, keyboards and harmony vocals. Anyone who caught him here in Dublin playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore will need no convincing of his abundant talent on all three. Not to take away from Hilary Claire Adamson and Stuart Adamson vital contribution on vocals with the latter on acoustic and electric guitars too. Both contribute songs either written solo, together or co-written with the likes of John Ims and Steve Brooks. 

There are a couple of other songwriters involved too with Billy Edd Wheeler’s Blistered, Claude Butch Morgan’s Mr. Blue and Ims’ The Other Side Of Lonely - all strong songs that fit in with the overall rootsy-sounding delivery that is emphasised by the inclusion of some of Austin’s favourites players. Names know to those who scan the credits on many an Austin album will be Paul Pearcy, Glenn Fukunaga and Lloyd Maines. But back to the focus of the album, Stuart sings with conviction on the stripped back song Blood And Bone that wrestles with the notion of a less than honest relationship. There's a slightly more positive attitude expressed in Ims’ The Other Side Of Lonely, a steel guitar infused ballad of stepping out from behind darker days and moving on. Hilary Claire gives a strong vocal on the more jazzy blues of Mr. Blue. In truth both are adept in the vocal deliveries with handling the lead vocals or harmonising together.

Roadwork Ahead is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of living together and maintaining a working relationship - on the road and off. As the title and some of the ad-libbed comments at the end of the song suggest making music as a duo is not always as easy as it might seems however good natured the banter is. What matters to the listener is that the music here holds the attention and it does that with a nice mix of moods, tempos and styles that would fit their description of their music. The album closes with Wild Texas Wind a plea for redemption “Wild Texas wind, won’t you heal me from within.” That wind has the Flyin’ A’s riding high.