Reviews by Declan Culliton

Amy Ray Holler Daemon

Indigo Girl Amy Ray possesses the musical and writing talents to effortlessly work folk, country, indie, gospel and blues like few others and her latest and sixth solo release, finds her at the top of her game. The album covers the emotional baggage of a lifetime spent in Georgia and is a reflection of personal struggles together with those of her fellow Southerners, across a range of topics including sexuality, racism, religion and addictions. It’s the third impassioned album of this year which follows a similar tread, the subject matter being the inspiration for two most impressive albums by younger female artists Kristina Murray (Southern Ambrosia) and H.C. Mc Entire (Lionheart).

Calling on the same production team and musicians as her 2014 album Goodnight Tender, the album includes guest performances by a host of musicians and has vocal contributions from Justin Vernon, The Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Vince Gill and Brandi Carlisle. Producer Brian Speiser also combines strings and horns this time around and with such a vast array of instrumentation it is to his credit that the sound mix is impeccable, each instrument crystal clear in the final mix.

The opening track Gracie’s Dawn (Prelude) lasts barely forty seconds before the stunning rocker Sure Feels Good Anyway kicks in. The song challenges racism head on and is a precursor for much of the compelling material which follows. Particularly moving are the final two tracks of the fourteen across the album. Bondsman (Evening in Missouri) inspired by the Debra Granik directed movie Winter’s Bone, paints a bleak picture of poverty and desperation ("Oh Lord, let me sleep through the thunder, Let me sleep through the rain, One more night before the bondsman comes, And takes it all away’’). Didn’t Know A Damn Thing, dedicated to the African – American author and social  activist Toni Cade Bambara, reflects on the  racial inhumanities and horrors inflicted on her people while she was a baby and young girl, oblivious to what occurring in her home State ( "Bodies were hanging, bodies were burning, And my Mama and Daddy, they were earning, I was rocking the cradle, while in that Tertile Black Bell, They were taking the blows for every toll of that Liberty Bell, I didn’t know a damn thing’’). Given the subject matter of much of the material, the album is also not without humour. Tonight, I’m Paying The Rent is an upbeat reality check about the toils of the industry, the hard-earned cash and the hardship often endured for that hard-earned cash. ("If it don’t feed the soul, it’s still heaven sent, Tonight I’m paying the rent!’’).

Holler is a reminder of exactly how gifted Ray is, as both a songwriter and storyteller, and her ability to translate personal emotional baggage in a compelling manner. It reads like chapters of a book by an artist that remains proud of her heritage having never abandoned her religion, while reflecting on being born during the civil rights protests in the 60’s, the horrors inflicted by her people on their neighbours, touring for over thirty years and the conflict of being a left wing and gay Southern woman. It’s a worthy successor to Goodnight Tender and one that will no doubt feature in my 'Best of 2018' listings.

 Whitey Morgan & The 78’s Hard Times & White Lines Self-Release

One of the caretakers of what many of us consider to be authentic country music, Whitey Morgan has been firing up audiences for a dozen years or more with his ass kickin’ and full on live shows. His studio output may be relatively sparse but always manages to recreate the hell for leather stage shows, that he and his trusty honky tonk brothers, The 78’s, continue to deliver.

Hard Times & White Lines sticks to his trusted formula of songs about drinking, drugging, suffering, self-destruction, surviving and carrying on, both from a personal and third person perspective. Don’t expect particularly deep thought-provoking lyrics to explore, that’s not what’s on offer here. Instead, we’re treated to full on straight-talking assault of hardcore country, kicking off with the opener and first single from the album Honky Tonk Hell ("The doors are always open and you're welcome inside, The whiskey and women or whatever you like, You’ll never check out of this heartbreak hotel, A man can get caught up down in this honky tonk Hell") – possibly a homage to a dodgy dive bar or maybe a state of mind. Raging guitars and pedal steel introduce Morgan’s raw baritone drawl on that first track and the ignition is finally turned off over forty minutes later, with the more traditional barroom country closer Wild And Reckless. ("Guitar on my shoulder, a drink in my hand, one keeps me from falling, one helps me to stand, I’ve been wild and reckless, a little insane, and there's a crowd just inside here calling my name"). The eight tracks that make up the balance of the album don’t stray from similar territory, though a cover of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid drifts somewhat into straight rock. It is one of three non-originals on the album, the others being Dale Watson’s Carryin’ On and Don Dupre’s What Am I Supposed To Do

Steel guitar always earns pride of place with Morgan and three peddlers are name checked on the sleeve notes - regular 78’er Brett Robinson and guests Larry Campbell (who also played on Morgan’s self-titled 2010 album) and Austin Tripp.  Also adding muscle to the guitar sound is Jesse Dayton alongside Joey Spina, Kevin Key, Tony Martinez and Dylan Dunbar. Bass and drums contributions are courtesy of Alex Lyon and Tony Dicello and Jim (Moose) Brown and Drew Harakal play keys. 

Morgan’s pace of life, by his own admission, has slowed down somewhat since becoming a parent and relocating to rural California and the aforementioned Carryin’ On -alarmingly similar to Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind! -  though written by Dale Watson, could be autobiographical, reflecting Morgan’s present predicament.  Hard To Get High, with its instantly catchy melody possibly refers to an earlier career chapter ("I put the lid on these pills, gave away that cocaine, I couldn't drink another whiskey to kill all this pain, your leaving left me damned down in this hole, and it's hard to get high when you're feeling this low").

There does appear to be an industry driven change in recent times – even if it’s at a snail’s pace – in respect of country music of the classic and outlaw kind. It seems to be slowly grinding its way back into favour with artists like Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson earning warranted exposure. Let’s hope the resurgence filters it’s way down to Whitey Morgan, there’s little doubt that it’s entirely deserved and anyone giving Hard Times and White Lines a listen, will no doubt concur.

John Blek Thistle & Thorn Self-Release

John Blek’s last album Catharsis Vol.1, released this time last year, was written while he was hospitalised having contracted a mysterious illness that side lined him for a number of months. Thistle & Thorn, his third solo release in as many years, was not inspired by such unorthodox leanings but still manages to improve on the lofty fineness of its predecessor. Recorded in both Wavefield Recordings, Clonakilty, Co. Cork and Louisville, Kentucky, the album contains ten songs written by Blek over a twelve-month period.

Whereas his last album flitted between folk and trad, his latest offering remains steadfastly in the former camp, a genre that Blek particularly excels in, both in his writing and vocal delivery. It’s a solid collection of folk ballads punctuated by some sumptuous vocal contribution’s courtesy of Kentuckian Joan Shelley and guitar work from her artistic partner and Grammy Nominated Nathan Salsburg. The production duties are by Blek and Brian Casey who also adds guitar, bass, piano, organ and mandolin. 

Conflicted emotions are addressed on The Body, the inevitable parting of former lovers driven by waywardness and neglect ("I’ve grown weary of you, the late nights and the drink too. Your foolish sense of duty, it means nothing to me"). It’s delivered delightfully in a call and response fashion by Blek and Joan Shelley.  Merrier euphoric times in (possibly) the same relationship are referred to the Colours Rising ("O my lover lay back down, I see the colours rising when you’re around"). Subtle strings courtesy of Lea Miklody and Dolcie Ross Keogh assist in creating a dream like ambiance to the song. IF I is an uncomplicated poem put to music. The Blackwater opens the album in an unhurried and patient manner, paving the way for what is to follow. Simplicity has always been one of Blek’s finest points and in a similar manner to his previous solo work, Blek’s vocals are out in front on Thistle & Thorn, but fleshed out more dramatically on this occasion by some wonderful instrumental arrangements. In Your Likeness considers existence and continuity, an ode to a fallen brother. Self-control, longing and mental well-being are present on the closing track All The Night. It’s an impressive closer to an album that once more reinforces Blek as one of the premier singer songwriters in the folk genre in Ireland and indeed beyond, where his talents were formally recognised in 2017 with his nomination for Song of The Year by The International Folk Alliance. 

With tours of Ireland, U.K, Germany and further afield programmed for 2019, Thistle & Thorn is a powerful statement to have to offer from an artist that pays homage to writers from previous decades such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Nick Drake as well as his modern day peers Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley and Alela Diane.

Daniel Romano Finally Free New West

You certainly cannot accuse Daniel Romano of being predictable or unproductive for that matter. Never idle or dwelling in one musical location, his output of eight albums in eight years have covered traditional country, folk, rock and roll, desert and ‘in your face’ rock. His latest release creates a late 60’s early 70’s ‘back to basics’ feel across the mainly acoustic recordings. In essence it’s a one man show, with the only contribution being that of Kay Berkel, who plays piano on Between The Blades of Grass and There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form.  Vocals, writing, instruments, production and engineering are all by Romano, with the album being taped on a four track Tascam cassette recorder from one microphone, which remained in a single position throughout the recording, picking up the various instruments from their locations in the room.

Finally Free may be a head scratcher on first listen and does demand repeated and undisturbed plays to appreciate, but it’s well worth the time invested. Romano admits that "A lot of it is intentionally out-of-tune and not sung obsessively, but I just felt like that's how it needed to be." Though the album may appear to be ‘mind changing substance induced’,Romano actually confesses that the lyrics came to him while driving across the Prairies and suggests that he does not necessarily totally comprehend them himself and therefore the lack of a lyric sheet is no handicap. It’s as equally challenging to interpret the albums title as it is the lyrics. The discerning listener may draw his own assessment from the streams of consciousness, but in real terms the charm of the album lays in the melodies and harmonies throughout.

Empty Husk, opens with gentle harmony vocals and guitar strumming before erupting mid-section and closing as calmly as it started. All The Reaching Trims is a beautiful ballad with languid vocals and acoustic guitar dancing from speaker to speaker. Both these tracks together with Gleaming Sects of Aniram recall early career Roy Harper, possibly played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm. The Long Mirror Of Time stands out, the most conventional and up-tempo offering, Romano’s vocals dip, soar and wail impressively aided by some delightful organ contributions. Celestial Manis is distorted, ghostly and searching, its trippy melodies recall Bowie at his most experimental, the sound of lost souls in purgatory seeking liberty. There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form bookends the album, mischievously distorted vocals, guitar and percussion combining seductively.

Followers may not necessarily have seen this coming but Finally Free is very much the sum of its parts, an album to be savoured in one sitting, preferably alone and in a dark room. Romano continues to challenge the listener as much as he challenges himself and this new album is yet another essential instalment from an incomparable craftsperson.

Bill & The Belles Dreamsongs, Etc. Jalopy 

Four-piece Johnson City Tennessee band Bill & The Belles signature sound is a throwback to popular music in America back as far as the 1920’s when Ragtime was the flavour of the day, soon to be overtaken by Jazz, Swing and eventually merging with country music as the preferred choice for many radio listeners. Bill & The Belles manage to recreate all these styles with their amalgamation of the various genre across the thirteen tracks that comprise Dreamsongs, Etc. Five of the inclusions were penned by lead vocalist Kris Truelsen.  

Reflecting a sound that is also closely aligned to bluegrass, it’s no surprise that they were nominated in 2017 for four IBMA Awards, though it hardly does them justice to pigeon hole them to one single genre. Banjo, fiddle, clarinet and guitar are provided by Truelsen, Kalia Yeagle and Grant Van’t Hoff respectfully, the trio also contributing harmony vocals, with fourth member Karl Zerfas adding bass. The musical arrangements, production and performances throughout are impressive and stylish.

Hum Your Troubles Away starts the ball rolling in simple Ragtime style, followed by the Hank Williams sounding - both in title and musical content - Lonesome Blues. A similar melancholy is visited in Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues – complete with yodelling – one of two Jimmie Rodgers songs covered, the other being the broody My Carolina Sunshine Girl. The self-written material compares favourably, in particular the timeless Wedding Bells Chimes and Good Gal I’ll Be Okay, both of which could have been borrowed from The Great American Songbook. 

The Jalopy Theatre and School of music, located in Redhook, Brooklyn, NY is a grassroots cultural centre preserving traditional music from The States and further afield, with an inhouse record label. Bill & The Belles debut recording is their latest offering and fits perfectly into Jalopy’s ethos. Anyone with an awareness and appreciation of old-time music should explore their impressive catalogue of artists.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown have developed a very successful touring and recording career presenting a similar approach to music of bygone eras as did the Manhattan Transfer some decades back. Here’s hoping Bill & The Belles can also continue the tradition.

J.R. Harbidge First Ray Of Light Absolute Label Services

You could be forgiven for assuming that First Ray Of Light was a recording by an artist hailing from Long Island or the like, given its Americana singer songwriter feel. In fact Harbidge hails from the Black Country and has been present in the Birmingham rock music scene for over two decades. Currently residing in Derby, First Ray Of Light finds Harbridge somewhat abandoning his rock and grunge background for a more polished and considered collection of songs. Included are some impressive weepies (When You Don’t Love Your Man, Learn To Love The Rain, A Side Of You That Cares) alongside more up-tempo songs including opener – and very much a song for our turbulent political times -  Turn The Screw, a damning commentary on political and financial institutions. The albums highlight and closing track I Know You Know I Know, which kicks in at nearly seven minutes, follows a similar upbeat and rattling sound. I Won’t Support Your Wars continues the political overtones of the opening track and the title track First Ray Of Light optimistically visits a sense of possible rehabilitation from darker times.

Nine tracks on the album are self-penned by Harbidge and one track is a co-write. He also contributes vocals, guitar, bass, harmonica and mandolin together with production, recording and mixing duties. The album delivers a collection of thoughtful and honest song constructions, easy on the ear and well worth investigating.