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. 

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Bill Price I Can’t Stop Looking At The Sky – Grass Magoops

Inspired by the explorers Lewis and Clark, Bill Price took a lengthy trip around America and over a four year period wrote and recorded this extremely ambitious and hugely rewarding work. The journey covered over five thousand miles across the states of Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. His original intention was to compile a personal journal but the journey subsequently inspired him to put much of his thoughts and experiences to music. The end product includes two hours and twenty minutes of music, a one hundred and twenty page journal, a one hundred and sixty page book of essays and poems, posters and stickers. The album is Prices’ sixth release since his debut album in 2001.  

This review is based on a sixteen track sampler of music from the venture. The material featured on the album is hugely enjoyable and quite varied. I Don’t Want to Come Home is driving pacey rock, Makes Me Feel Better would sit proudly on Paul Simon’s Graceland while Heaven Collapse is all Tom Petty with predictable, yet wonderful, guitar riffs. If Simon, Petty and Jonathan Richman type 70’s rock is your cuppa, based on this sampler, you will embrace this enterprising product with open arms.

Daniel Romano Mosey – New West 

My abiding memory of Daniel Romano will always be seeing him exiting a taxi outside The Ryman in 2013 on his way to the Americana Awards Show. Resplendent in a colourful nudie suit, boots to match and a cowboy hat, flanked by two equally well attired cowgirls, he impressed as someone who when making a statement goes the whole hog. Mosey sees the enigmatic Romano moth ball the nudie suit and travel an altogether different highway than listeners to his previous albums would have anticipated. The Fifties/Sixties traditional country look on previous album covers has been replaced by a look closer to late 60’s Syd Barrett than Hank Williams on the album cover. Referring to his intention of exploring genres other than country Romano is on record recently stating “I’m trying to cover my ass so I don’t end up in some club I don’t want to be part of!”

A mere twelve months since the release of the excellent If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ the prolific Canadian has recorded most probably his strongest work to date, moving away from the Nashville and Bakersfield influences and exploring dustier border landscapes.  The addition of strings and horns often results in the material bearing a delightfully healthy relation to the work of Ennio Morricone. As was the case with If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ Romano plays all the instruments on the album with the exception of piano, horns and strings but  also managed to arrange the string and horn section. The album was self-produced by Romano and recorded in mono at his own studio in Fenwick, Ontario 

The opener Valerie Leon is a monster of a track, soaring gloriously from the word go with mariachi horns and strings a plenty and slick vocals. The rootsy Toulouse sees actress Rachel Mc Adams dueting effectively with Romano. Mr.E.ME is immediately catchy, humorous and again adorned beautifully by strings and horns. Sorrow (For Leonard and William) has a luscious flow with a vocal and lyric recalling Leonard Cohen. (Gone is) All But A Quarry Of Stone is the most ‘country’ offering including some pulsating keyboards. Equally striking is One Hundred Regrets Avenue, the albums longest track, a seductive piano ballad and an indication of Romano’s ability to be equally adept in penning a ballad as a swashbuckler. 

Echo Bloom Red (2016)/Blue (2013) - Self Release

Two very interesting offerings from an intriguing set of musicians recording under the name of Echo Bloom. The band/collectives title is a play on the phase Echo Boom which refers to the offspring of baby boomers and is a vehicle for multi-instrumentalist Kyle Evans who wrote and produced both albums. The albums form part of a ‘Colours’ triptych with each of the three albums experimenting an entirely different musical genre. The first album Blue represents chamber pop, the second and current album Red visits country(ish) rock and the final album of the trilogy Green will focus on classic pop.

The obvious comparison to Evans’ most ambitious project would be the work of Sufjan Stevens and lovers of Stevens’ work will find so much to enjoy in both these albums. Red features no fewer than ten musicians and describing the album as country rock probably does not do it justice. It often enters dark country-noir territory, no more so than the track Willingham which describes the execution of Cameron Willingham for the murder of his three daughters.  It’s beautifully atmospheric throughout, intense with delightful layered backing vocals adding to to Evan’s often whispered and strained vocal. Leaving Charlestown tells the tale of two lovers eloping from Charlestown in search of a new life. Evangeline recounts the writers failure to deliver on his promises to his lover. “The man you love so long ago‘s all torn and faded and there’s nothing left inside of him not full of hatred. Another Rose is straight down the middle honky tonk.

It’s quite interesting revisiting Blue in the context of reviewing Echo Bloom’s current album and certainly rewarding. The songs are more acoustic and highlight Evan’s seductive vocal often with sparse accompaniment of backing vocal and guitar. The description of chamber pop refers to the addition of viola, violin, French horns, cello and oboe which embellish some of the songs. Evan’s describes how the ideas for the songs on the album were larger and more symphonic than anything he had previously written and demanded absolute concentration and distraction free to complete them. As a result he relocated to Berlin which he considered the perfect location to finalise the album. 

Standout tracks are the quite stunning, minimalistic and haunting The Prostitute (Goodbye Savannah), The Flood, which has a definite nod in the direction of Sufjan Stevens and the equally delightful Fireworks. All in all two excellent albums by an artist that I have to admit passed under my radar but whom I will certainly eagerly wait for the release of the final album from the trilog 

Rachel Garlin Wink at July – Tactile 

This is the fifth album released by San Francisco based singer-songwriter Rachel Garlin.  Featuring twelve tracks, the album often brings to mind the earthy, happy work of Laura Veirs. The album is essentially a series of well written unconnected stories delivered by Garlin, both acoustically and with backing musicians, in a distinctive semi-conversational rather than powerful vocal. She plays guitar on all tracks with contributions from eighteen different musicians. 

Opening with Gwendolyn Said, possibly the albums stand out track, the song nostalgically recalls Garlin’s trips on the school bus and reading a quote from poet Gwendolyn Brooks “Exhaust the little moment, soon it dies.” The Winding Road breezes along, immediate and poppy. The Sea You See is an ode to Garlin’s mother who emigrated from Scotland. Colorado Rain is catchy and toe tapping and the reflective title track closes the album. All in all an uncomplicated, very listenable, enjoyable and particularly relaxing listen.

Rainey Qualley Turn Down The Lights – Cingle

Turn Down The Lights is the debut album from actress turned singer Rainey Qualley.  Daughter of actress Andie Mc Dowell and musician Justin Qualley, the 26 year old’s seven track release is firmly aimed at the country pop market. The material is likely to work with the current country radio listenership leaning heavily toward the commercial poppy end of the market. Qualley without doubt possesses a wonderful voice and considerable song writing ability, six of the seven tracks being co-writes with John Ramey. 

The opener Turn Me On Like The Radio is Kasey Musgraves territory, catchy, instant and radio friendly. Kiss Me Drunk recalls mid 90’s Alanis Morissette and Cool, Wild, Whatever closes the album in style, poppy, catchy and immediate. 

The album, recorded at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and recording Spa in Nashville, if anything suffers from over production in places with layered vocals and drum machines dominating but not particularly enhancing the songs. Qualley has unquestionably inherited her parent’s talents and ticks all the boxes to make an impression in the mainstream country market 

Erin Rae and The Meanwhiles Soon Enough – Clubhouse 

There appears to be an endless contingent of quality female singer/songwriters currently recording albums of exceptional quality. Nashville resident Erin Rae is the latest addition to a string of such artists that have made the first six months of 2016 particularly productive in terms of worthy releases. This debut album Soon Enough was recorded live in Nashville over a two day period and finds the Jackson-born Rae flirting between the Laurel Canyon country folk sound of yesteryear and the more current roots driven Americana. It’s a piece of work that seems to benefit from the short recording period, uncomplicated, stripped back, weightless and natural.

Regardless of classification the irresistible Clean Slate, the second of thirteen songs on the album, will certainly stand out with the writer as one of the finest songs of the year, enhanced by some glorious steel guitar it’s a song that seems to have been with the listener for ever.

The arrangements throughout are simple featuring Rae’s acoustic guitar playing often accompanied only by bass and drums, occasionally with the addition of pedal steel. Rae’s wonderful honeyed vocal stands out and there are delightful songs around in plenty from the unhurried title track to the aching melody of Owe You One.

She is a quality act signed to the Clubhouse UK label, here’s hoping we get the opportunity to hear this set of reflective songs performed live by an artist mature beyond her years. Most definitely for lovers of Laura Cantrell and Patsy Cline.

Daniel Romano 'If I’ve Only One Time Askin’' - New West

The Canadian singer/songwriter and producer returns with his best album to date. Romano uses country music as a basis for his songs, but draws from many sources to make his music contemporary and compelling. Once again this is far removed from the output of Nashville’s Music Row and so much more interesting because of it. Romano is a stylist and presents his music as a concept the he has conceived from writing, producing and performing through to photography and packaging. He is also a distinctive singer who breathes life into these songs of love.

This is love looked at in all it’s aspects from the disenchantment of Old Fires Die to the hope of The One That Got Away (Came Back Today). Strange Faces and All The Way Under the Hill are endowed with weeping pedal steel and twangy guitar.  There is a striking vocal intro to There’s a Hardship that is otherworldly, with Romano emoting the word “Mosey” before the song turns into a country lament with piano and accordion. Mosey is a key word here in that it defines his music and attitude. “A study in contrasts” he has called it. It is something that appears on the back of his leather jacket and in other aspects of his presentation and is used to sum up his eclectic approach to his personal take on country and sundry other musical traditions. Taking them and turning them, as he does here, into something very much his own.

His skill as a writer is matched by his skill as a producer in bringing these songs to life and in telling the stories that are relevant to an audience who can listen to such crafted music with an open mind. The old-school storytelling of Two Word Joe is done without artifice, telling the story of a two-time loser who can only sum up his feeling in two words. It’s country bed is enhanced by some judicious wah-wah guitar playing. This runs, as do all the songs, straight for one song into the next track and often linked by a short musical interlude that can sound like slipping across the radio dial from a country station to one playing something completely different. The way this is done, however, is pretty seamless and not the least bit incongruous. The final song is introduced by an old timer singing with an acoustic guitar in a what sound like a piece of found music before fading into a gentle and reflective song Let Me Sleep (At The End of a Dream) which is sung with an assured vocal and some smokey pedal steel guitar.

This promo CD comes without any credits, so I’m assuming that all the songs (bar his cover of a lesser know George Jones recording Learning To Do Without Me, written by Dennis Knutson, Buck Moore and Doodle Owens) are originals. Equally the playing throughout is spot on and, without access to credits, I’m also assuming that the music is provided largely by Romano himself with contributions from members of his band The Trilliums. Caitlin Rose is a welcome guest and sings on Strange Faces. In photographs Romano has appeared in a rhinestone suit and in a classic pinstripe suit as well as a cowboy hat and leather jacket. Visually as well as musically he draws on the past and adapts a multitude of sources to create his own music. The end result is pure Romano and the album is another contender for best of the year.