New Album Reviews

Danny Schmidt Standard Deviation Live Once

The first thing you notice and the thing that draws you into this record is the warmth and intimacy of Schmidt’s voice. His songwriter is mature and poetic dealing with the kind of things that really matter to someone who has a few years behind them. This is essentially a broadstroke folk album but one where the assembled players round out the sound with subtle but essential touches and song-serving restraint. Producer Will Robertson crew of Fats Kaplan, Colin Agnew and Robertson himself handle the instrumentation in the main. The harmony vocals also play an important part with Schmidt’s wife Carrie Elkin joining Mira Stanley Costa, Chuck Costa and Cara May Gorman adding their voices to Schmidt’s voice and acoustic guitar. The sound they create has a wonderful all encompassing feel that has had me returning to the album more often that happens usually.

There is a strong sense of love (and gratitude) on the album which is dedicated to his wife and baby daughter. Something to welcome when so many albums rail against the woes of the world this album largely celebrates the more positive sides of life. Songs like Just Wait ’Til They See You, Blue Eyed Hole In Time, Bones Of Emotion and The Longest Way. One song Newport ’65 reflects on and quotes from Bob Dylan but does so in a non-obvious way that makes it an interesting observation in its own right. The final song is intensely personal yet universal and deals with the grief and trauma of miscarriage and the need to treat the experience in a more compassionate way. We Need A Better Word closes an album that is a career high and one that places Schmidt among the best songwriters of his generation.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Pete Berwick Island Self Release

Delivering what may be according to himself his last album Peter Berwick makes sure that it counts. It is a forceful album built around Berwick’s hard-scrabble voice and guitar. His music has been described as punk infused alternative country which about sums him up in the past through these days, he is well capable of a less forceful, more reflective set of slower-paced rock songs like the “love the one your” with sentiment of Just Make It You And Me Tonight or the yearning love of the title track. That as opposed to the full on opening salvo of I’m Getting Tired Of This Place. He is, as his song says, getting through One Setback At A Time maybe arriving at a place where he can look both backwards and forward and see that he is not afraid to face either view.

He recorded his album with producer Jason Botka (who plays keyboards and guitars) and the band The Mugshot Saints who include Jennifer Botka on baking vocals. It has a certain grit and grief in his outlook on a country that both gives and takes away. However, there is hope in his outlook as They Gave Love A Chance testifies though their other side of the coin is spun out with I’m Really Not That Kind. This mix of styles places him on the fringes of what might be termed outlaw. Berwick is never going to compromise his music and as such Island is a continuation of the path he has trodden since his first album was released in 1996. Berwick has made a journey to get to this point which is why these songs seem to be real slices of heartland rock drawn from real life.

Review by Stephen Rapid

Luke Spehar The Pilgrim Self Release

There is a sense of deeply held faith in this elevated folk album from the Minnesota singer/songwriter who now lies in St. Paul with his wife and children. Here he has penned a set of songs that encompass a sense of love, life and a lasting and enduring sense of hope. Spehar has a gentle but rewarding voice that sits above these quiet and largely acoustic bass songs that are not, though, without some occasional up-tempo moments. Otherwise he speaks softly of his travel as a pilgrim wherein he has brought together his experience from traveling about the US and further afield in his search for spiritual honesty.

Spehar produced the album with Matt Patrick in his home state and employs light touches of percussion, keyboards, bass, banjo and fiddle to give some weight to these songs which move through tempo and mood. They can vary from the drive and accessibility of the bonus track Joshua which has a big and encompassing chorus that make it an immediate stand out. This mini album contains 7 tracks so acts as an introduction to the artist who had previously released 3 previous full length albums. His work is maybe a little too pure for some but the opening songs The Farmer and America And Me offer a sense of place and of spirituality that offers a peace that will appeal to those looking for something that offers a lighter perspective without becoming lightweight. Spehar brings this thoughtfulness to this album and it something that is sure to find its followers.

Review by Stephen Rapid

William The Conqueror Bleeding On The Soundtrack Loose

Newquay based U.K. three-piece William The Conqueror have raised the bar quite a number of notches with their second album, the Ethan Johns produced Bleeding On The Soundtrack. The band comprise Ruarri Joseph on vocals and guitar, Harry Harding on drums and Naomi Holmes on bass. Glasgow born Joseph formed the band following a solo career that delivered four solo albums. Their debut album Proud Disturber Of The Peace was released in 2017 and their reputation has grown steadily as a dynamic live act bleeding grungy folk and hard edge blues and rock, a throw back to a sound often excelled by Brit bands in the late 60’s / early 70’s. If their debut album created a few ripples in the industry, Bleeding On The Soundtrack is more akin to a tsunami, with Ethan Johns the consummate producer to channel Joseph’s forthright, enraged and exasperated storytelling into a powerful and rugged piece of music. John’s equally manages to capture the dynamic of the band’s live shows on the album, from the rocky opener Path Of The Crow, to the beautifully paced and exceptional closer Within Your Spell. Following on from their debut album, it’s a further retrospective by Joseph into a traumatic and troubled journey from adolescence to adulthood. Tales of family alcoholism, drug addiction, self-loathing and remorse feature in the autobiographical writing by Joseph, reflecting on his early adulthood. However, the content is delivered more by way of cleansing and healing than contrition. There’s no lack of humour also, Sensitive Side recalls adolescence and confused signals as Joseph revisits an unfulfilled teenage crush (‘’ What a scene, I was only fifteen the world was a thorn in my side’’). Madness On The Line has a thumping bass line and harmonica riffs straight out of Canvey Island courtesy of Dr. Feelgood and Be So Kind could be an outtake from Van Morrison’s Into The Music. Crashing bass chords, brisk drumming and rumbustious guitar breaks are what define the band and no more so than on title track Bleeding On The Soundtrack - a hypnotic blues burner which explodes into a rip-roaring finale – and the equally impressive The Curse Of Friends.

William The Conqueror’s growing reputation as one of the U.K’s most dynamic emerging live acts can only be enhanced by BOTS. Ethan Johns has managed to capture their live high-powered energy and faultlessly transfer it to the studio. I’m loving this and looking forward to seeing them live once more at Kilkenny Roots in May. Crank up the volume to max and enjoy!

Review by Declan Culliton

Jamie Lin Wilson Jumping Over Rocks Self-Release

They don’t come much more authentic ‘country’ than D’Hanis South Texas (population 550) resident Jamie Lin Wilson. The former Gougers and Trisha’s band member may have arrived late to her calling - picking up her first guitar at the age of 19 - but she has certainly made up for lost time. The writing on her solo albums Holidays and Wedding Rings (2015) and her latest album Jumping Over Rocks, harks back to yesteryear, when many country writers were in

spired by simple everyday occurrences and observations. She also balances her musical career with motherhood, often overcoming the impediment of touring and providing for her family by bringing her four children on tour with her. She doesn’t hang around either, this album was recorded live in four days at Arlen Studios in Austin Texas, with no overdubs or vocal auto tunes. The production duties were handled by Steve Christensen and the album in many ways benefits from the accelerated recording giving it a sense of a live recording.

Five of the songs are self written, four are co-writes and one is a cover of Guy Clark’s Instant CoffeeBlues. Some covers work particularly well, if the artists put their own slant on the song, others less so. Electing to include the Guy Clark classic had me scratching my head prior to playing it. Fortunately, Wilson’s recording of the song sticks very close to the original. It’s a duet with Jack Ingram (whose vocal contribution sounds remarkably like John Prine) and they simply nail it, to the extent that I had the track on repeat several times. The choice of co-writers is also impressive and an indication of the regard Wilson is held by her peers. Ingram, Brian Wright, Mike Ethan Messick and Evan Felker all contribute. Opener song Faithful and True, co-written with Jack Ingram, is beautifully paced with Wilson’s disciplined vocal delivery entering Emmylou territory. In fact, the album as a whole recalls the sound Emmylou Harris created on her mid 70’s Reprise Label albums, the idyllic blend of country and roots music. Wilson’s Hot Band for the recording include a formidable gathering of quality players in Charlie Sexton on guitar, Scott Davis on bass, Richard Millsap on drums, Trevor Norton on keyboards and Cody Angel on pedal steel and dobro. Oklahoma Stars, written with Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, is a sweet country ballad, the added vocals by Felker and weeping pedal steel by Angel adding depth to the song. The strength of her own songwriting comes to bear on the stunning Death & Life, a widow’s reflection on the early passing of her husband (‘’it’s been three years in November, she still ain’t bought a stone, I used to be a lover and I still feel like a wife, that’s the way that it goes in the game of death and life’’). Run, grappling with a relationship gone sour, is possibly the most radio friendly inclusion, a richly textured sound complementing Wilson’s soaring vocals.

Jamie Lin Wilson is yet another name to add to the growing list of Independent female artists writing and recording outstanding material, yet remaining somewhat below the radar. She’s certainly pushed out the boundaries this time around, so do check this album out. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy it every bit as much as myself. 

Review by Declan Culliton

Buffalo Blood Self-Titled Eel Pie

Neilson Hubbard has been a busy man of late. Three artists, whose albums he produced, Mary Gauthier, Ben Glover and Dean Owens, won awards at the recent AmericanaFest U.K. He also recorded his last solo album Cumberland Island in 2018 and continues to perform with three-piece band The Orphan Brigade. His latest collaboration Buffalo Blood, is a blend of Celtic and Southern American roots folk, inspired by a desire by Hubbard and his musical associates, Dean Owens, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman, to consider and reflect on the landscape and environment previously occupied by the Native Americans. The recording voyage for their self-titled album brought them across The Trail Of Tears, the journey enforced on the natives as they were driven from their ancestral lands to what was designated as Indian Territory, across The Mississippi River. The album was recorded in locations from the New Mexico Desert to La Plaza Blanca in Abiquiu and atmospherically captures much of those environs and habitat including real life sounds of birds, animals and winds. 

The concept album consists of fifteen tracks, intended as a double vinyl release, with the song writing duties shared by Hubbard, Owens and Britt, some of which is fictional, others based on real life events. Instrumentation includes guitars, percussion, bass, keyboards and mandolin. Ghostly whistling and chanting  are also included, but the real winner are the gorgeous harmonies they create across the exceptionally well written narratives. Sadness, wrath and regret understandably surface, particularly on tracks Comanche Moon, Vanishing World and Reservations which deal directly with the banishment of communities from their lands, but there’s also positiveness and pride on I’m Alive and Carry The Feather.

The album is an ambitious and brave project, tackling a topic often ignored musically, with the possible exception of Buffy Sainte - Marie. To their credit, Buffalo Blood have managed to bring to pass an exceptionally well researched, written and vocalised work, which would pass with flying colours as a soundtrack to a movie on the same subject. 

Review by Declan Culliton

Great Peacock Gran Pavo Real Self Release

Nashville based Great Peacock release their second album and all songs are written by Andrew Nelson (guitars, electric piano & vocals) and Blount Floyd (guitars, harmonica & vocals). They open with Hideaway, a track that rocks with organ swells and a bright guitar tone. Following with the slow tempo and loose groove of One Way Ticket, this is alt country music that resonates. The soulful sound of Begging To Stay is balanced by the bar room feel of Heartbreak Comin’ Down and the slow blues of Take Me Down displays a different band dynamic as they build the arrangement into guitar driven territory. 

Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, the album was produced by Dexter Green (Jason Isbell, Elizabeth Cooke), who also contributes electric guitar, organ and bass to the record. Tom Blankenship (My Morning Jacket) also plays bass and Ralph Lofton plays organ and piano across the ten tracks. Nick Recio (drums, percussion & acoustic guitar) completes the line-up.

Oh Deep Water is a chilled, relaxed sound with pedal steel by Carl Broemel floating across the melody. Rattlesnake has an up-tempo rhythm with nice guitar lines while the acoustic sound of All I Really Want Is You suggests a more commercial direction. The final track, Miss You Honey, is a slow tempo melody and a wistful vocal about lost love. The band produce an impressive sound that channels Americana at its best.

Review by Paul McGee

Ben Fisher Does The Land Remember Me? Self Release

It’s always about Land – the conflicts of this World, dividing Nations and causing untold suffering upon so many populations… Land to be conquered, to be claimed, to be annexed, to be granted by Political favour, to be controlled by Governments and armies.

Ben Fisher has a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and he moved to Israel in 2014 in order to gain first-hand knowledge of the conflict between the Israel and Palestinian people. He wanted to present both sides of the argument that surrounds the daily focus of survival and the right to live a life in service to deep-seated beliefs.

He asked celebrated singer-songwriter Damien Jurado to produce the project, which runs to 17-tracks and clocks in at just shy of 56 minutes. The uncluttered approach and stripped-down use of instrumentation bring great focus and resonance. All songs are written by Ben Fisher apart from one cover, Why We Build The Wall, by Anais Mitchell. The sequence jumps around in terms of time and history while some songs are written from a personal, modern-day perspective (Brave New World, Horses and Helpers). The last song, Take A Look Around, is referenced by the comment that “The making of the modern state of Israel was a miracle...” 

Well, my understanding of history thinks that the United Nations Special Commission examined the Palestinian question and recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Despite growing conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews, United States President, Harry S. Truman ultimately decided to recognize the state of Israel. Great Britain had opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine, as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. 

The holocaust of WW2 caused the immigration of millions of Jewish people to Palestine and this is covered in songs like Exodus. The title track refers to the mass emigration of Arabs from Palestine having lost the 1948 war with the new Israel, a pivotal moment in all this conflict, and Yallah To Abdullah also covers this period with Jordan taking many thousands of fleeing families into the country. 

The inclusion of Why We Build the Wall is perfectly legitimised, given the fear, hatred and paranoia that exists on both sides of the divide. It also gives a wry nod to the utter chaos and absurdity of the USA situation where Mexico is considered less than human and a place where inhabitants must be corralled against leaving for greener pastures and opportunity. Had Palestine the power to take a similar stance, then would the current situation have developed - one can only ponder?

Gaza is addressed in terms of a jump between 1956 and 2014; the murder of a Jewish boy is set against the airstrikes and rocket launches where thousands of Palestinians died against 76 Israelis in terrible atrocities. Fathers and Sons lives repeat across the decades and the heartbreak of 1948 is balanced with the moments captured by, If I Have To Go, and the sense that everything is transient.

In the World where war torn reality invades our easy lives in TV land, a release like this is a wake-up call to realise the suffering of part of our human race on a scale that rarely impacts upon our comfortable way of life in the Western World. Credit to Ben Fisher (Vocals, Piano, Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Mellotron, Harmonica), Faustine Hudson (Percussion), Micah Simler (Bass), Steve Norman (Pedal Steel), John Northey (Flugelhorn, Trumpet), Noah Gundersen (Electric Guitar, Vocals), Shelby Earl (Vocals) and Damien Jurado (Vocals) for a work of some substance and most worthy of investigation.

Review by Paul McGee

Danny Schmidt 'Owls' - Live Once

Although he has released some seven previous solo albums, this is my first encounter with Danny Schmidt and if Owls is anything to go by that is my loss. It is a song that the writer says explores the myriad of relationships but more in a more non-direct  existential way. His site has commentary for each song for those who wish to explore further. For now let’s consider the music on offer here.  The album was produced by David Goodrich, who, with Schmidt has given these songs both depth and worth. Recorded in Texas, it employs some skillfull players who included Goodrich himself on guitars and piano as well Lloyd Maines on pedal steel and trio of harmony vocalists, among them Carrie Elkin, with whom Schmidt has previously recorded an album. 

As is often the case with an artist with a proven track record, the album was funded via Kickstarter and all can feel that their money was well spent. The immediate standout is Faith Will Always Rise, a song that tries to have an understanding of something powerful but intangible. It is the sort of song that could find a wide audience if it was placed before them. Girl with Lantern Eyes opens the album in a understated way with a beautiful interplay between the male and female vocal on a song that considers the one who opens to reach out but inevitably reaches inwards instead. There is a subtly to the music with it losing any of its inherent grit and gleam. Recorded, for the most part, live in the studio it has the energy that that process allows. That is then tempered with a sensitivity and lightness of touch that highlights the lyrical and studied nature of Schmidt’s writing. These are songs that more between indie folk and a more robust Americana. 

In the end it comes down to the sound that emerges from the speakers and this is one that encompasses the whole room and draws you into its centre. It reveals a more with each play and familiarity makes it an album to which you can return often. Danny Schmidt is a singer/songwriter who should be making inroads into the consciousness that embraced the likes of Josh Ritter. This is music that has been made for the man himself and those who his music has touched, and if it remains well under the radar it is nonetheless a success on its own terms regardless of sales. It is the full package and hopefully the album that could take Schmidt up to another level. There is not a weak track here. Check it out - that would be a wise decision.