Reviews by Declan Culliton

Samantha Crain You Had Me At Goodbye Ramseur Records

Samantha Crain’s last visit to Ireland in 2015 featured an appearance on national television where she performed Big Rock from her then current album Under Branch And Thorn And Tree on The Late Late Show. That album featured highly in Lonesome Highway’s Best of 2015 and was a career best for the Oklahoma resident. Not one to stand on ceremony, Crain freely admitted that after that tour it was back to bread and butter issues with the prospect of working shifts at a pizza parlour to earn cash to finance her next recording and subsequent tour. The result of her toils is You Had Me At Goodbye, the fifth full album by Crain and a worthy successor to its predecessor.

Engaging the same production team of John Vanderslice (The Mountain Goats, Strand of Oaks) and Jacob Winik (The Magnetic Fields, Hot Buttered Rum) and recorded at Tiny Telephone Studio in San Francisco the album finds Crain in a more experimental and relaxed mood than on previous recordings. A recent quote from the young Shawnee Oklahoma resident noted "With this album, I just wanted to have some fun. I’ve spent the majority of my young adulthood taking myself and my music very seriously."’

Well, it is indeed fun but certainly not throwaway. Crain may have felt more carefree than on her previous recordings but her gift as a prolific and passionate songwriter continues to glow as she considers sincerity, self-respect, grieving, mental illness and relationships over the ten songs that make up the album. The album kicks off with the upbeat and hooky Antiseptic Greeting which agonises about the pressure on people to continually put a brave face on, when sometimes it should be ok and acceptable to be in bad form and not under pressure to be expected to mask it. The Loneliest Handsome Man deals with lost friendship and is delivered with an almost sleepwalking vocal and delightful piano and strings. Crain employs her ancestors native Choctaw language on Red Sky, Blue Mountain a melodic and hypnotic song and possibly the stand out track on the album. Grieving and loss are visited on Betty’s Eulogy which deals with a widow’s loss. Interestingly the album includes Crain’s first recorded cover song When The Roses Bloom Again from the Mermaid Avenue Sessions. Its appearance on that album featured music by Jeff Tweedy to lyrics that were discovered in Woody Guthrie’s journals but which had been written by the composer Will D. Cobb.

This album is a slight departure from Crain’s previous work but captures the lyrical beauty that has permeated all her output to date and fits snugly in a back catalogue that should be included in every serious listener’s collection.

Holly Macve Golden Eagle Bella Union

‘I looked at the world with different eyes’ announces Holly Macve in White Bridge, the opening track from her debut album Golden Eagle. In a certain context these words could well describe the direction the twenty one year old Galway born artist has taken her musical inspirations to create a most impressive and individualistic recording.

Possessing a quite unparalleled vocal which dips and soars throughout the ten tracks on the album, Macve excels in the art of storytelling with a maturity well beyond her years. Produced by Paul Gregory of Lanterns On The Lake, the album was written when Macve was, by her own admission, going through a difficult period emotionally. Often the motivation for creativity, her dark moments have delivered some wonderful stark stories depicting lost love (Heartbreak Blues), the comfort of childhood innocence (Sycamore Tree/Timbuktu), isolation (Shell) and loved ones departed (All Of It’s Glory), often delivered with minimal instrumentation and Macve’s  luscious vocal always out front. 

Make no mistake, her warbling, yodelling vocal will not be to everyone’s taste. It is quite distinctive and it did take a few listens to fully connect with but the time invested and particularly with the lyric sheet in hand certainly reaps rich rewards.

While heavily influenced by old time country, one is constantly reminded of Hank Williams, comparisons could also be made with Angel Olsen and no doubt Macve has the talent and potential like Olsen, to make a major industry breakthrough on the strength of Golden Eagle.

Country noir at its finest and highly recommended indeed.

The Black Sorrows Faithful Satellite Rootsy

Listening to Cold Grey Moon, the opening track on The Black Sorrows latest album, you could be forgiven for assuming it was an outtake from Elvis Costello’s 1999 album Painted From Memory, the album he recorded in collaboration with Burt Bacharach. Glorious vocal, horns and strings combine to give the song a full and rich delivery. No coincidence possibly as Costello was instrumental in a process that elevated The Black Sorrows from a covers band to big hitters. Frontman Joe Camilleri had raised the finance to record the band’s first album by playing birthday parties and weddings, the resulting album Sonola was recorded for a mere $1300. Costello happened upon the album when visiting Gaslight Records while playing in Australia and plugged them on the national airwaves and TV, creating a wave of interest in the band.  Costello in fact went on to cover Joe Camilleri’s So Young on his 1987 compilation album Out Of Our Idiot.  

Camilleri has since been at the forefront of Australian music culture for decades and was inducted into The Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2007. Under his stewardship, The Black Sorrows have recorded seventeen albums to date and continue to be one of Australia’s most loved live acts. 

Faithfull Satellite is an album that packs a hefty punch from start to finish with the artists that excited and influenced Camilleri well represented. Costello’s trademark is all over the opening track and is revisited on Love Is On It’s Way, with a reggae beat Watching The Detectives style. It Ain’t Ever Gonna Happen comes across as time honoured Cohen with accompanying backing vocals and Winter Rose recalls a classic Van Morrison sound. Not content with merely paying homage to their peers they also dust down their banjos and fiddles for the country (ish) Fix My Bell and move more up tempo with a classic power pop melody with Carolina.

The album was recorded at Woodstock Studio in Melbourne with production duties shared by Camilleri and keyboard player John Mc All. The twelve songs were written by Camilleri and executive producer Nick Smith.

Conor O’Donnell Come On In Self Release

Conor O’Donnell’s father Al was very much part of the mid 60’s flourishing folk scene in London, rubbing shoulders with household names such as Peggy Seegar, Billy Connolly, Martin Carthy and Ewan Mc Coll. In Dublin he performed alongside The Dubliners and for a brief period  was a member of the traditional folk group Sweeney’s Men. He sadly passed away in 2015 and Come On In, Conor O’ Donnell’s debut album, is dedicated to his late father.

Featuring eleven self-penned songs, the albums stand out track is the haunting ballad Trouble I’m In and embraces the full range of roots music with nods to rockabilly (T Minus 20), country (Trucks A Gonna Roll) and two songs (Bobby Cole and Come On In) that recall the work of Simone Felice.

Recorded at Orphan Recording in Dublin the album was co-produced by Garvan Gallagher who also plays bass and keyboards and guest musician Gavin Glass who contributes keyboards and slide guitar. Also guesting on the album on violin is Leo O’Kelly with regular band members Kieran Mc Evoy (guitar, Duesenberg, vocals) and Sean Devitt (drums, vocals) completing the line up.

Donald Byron Wheatley Moondogs And Madogs Maiden Voyage

A number of the music magazines we subscribe to include in their review sections ‘Rediscovered’ features, reminding us or introducing us to forgotten or little known acts that released quality music back in the day but for some reason did not reach a market or were unappreciated at the time. Listening to  set me thinking that this album may feature in a similar scenario twenty years down the road as an extraordinary recording that did not get its due recognition when released. It’s an excellent album to say the least and exceptional in that the artist has never played onstage to a live audience. 

The title Donald Byron Wheatley conjures up an image of an aristocratic public schooled English gent most likely dressed in tweeds from head to toes and clad in hand made Barker Alderney brogues. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Wheatley spent his childhood in the family’s travelling business erecting and dismantling helter-skelters at various carnivals and fairgrounds up and down the country. His introduction to music was through his father’s love of the blues, regularly playing Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and eventually progressing to the early classic Dylan recordings. Both his father and grandfather were musical, playing the guitar and accordion but purely as a pass time.

Wheatley had notions of becoming a professional musician in his youngers years and wrote some songs which he intended to include in an album at some stage. However, life moved on with family responsibilities a priority and the idea of stardom soon faded into the background. Some years after his fathers passing and difficult times encountered by some close friends, he felt inspired to write again and with the encouragement of his cousin John Wheatley put the songs down on tape at Reservoir Recording Studio in North London.

The resulting album was produced by Chris Clarke (Danny & The Champions of The World) and John Wheatley (Suburban Discs) and features members The Champions, Chris Clarke, Steve Brookes, Andy Fairclough together with Siobhain Parr and UK pedal steel supremo BJ Cole.

The musical influences on the album are obvious, Wheatley wears his heart on his sleeve in this regard, but the quality of the material from first to twelfth track is staggering. On second listens I was convinced that some of the tracks were cover versions that I had previously heard such was the impact they made.

Opener Life’s A Beach is a semi rap type delivery in the style of Aaron Lee Tasjan and uncharacteristic of what follows. Smoking Gun and Hand Me Down Leopard Skin Hat recall mid 60’s Dylan and Not Tonight Josephine explores similar territory with its Band like driving rhythm, hammond organ solo and layered backing vocals. Nothing is the stand out track on the album, of a standard that would sit comfortably alongside anything on John Lennon’s Imagine.

There’s no doubt that Wheatley could be accused of raiding Dylans piggy band for much of the material but the same could be said of numerous other artists. Fans of the Felice Brothers and The Band will lap this up and rightly so. 

Osborne Jones Only Now Continental Song City

Unapologetically inspired by Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers and the classic country sound of the 60’s, you could be forgiven for assuming that Osborne Jones was a Nashville country crooner. They are in fact David-Gwyn Jones and David Osborne, UK born and bred who have assembled a team of musicians to produce an album that delightfully recalls the traditional sound of both Bakersfield and Nashville. Featuring ten tracks, nine of which were written by them and one co-write with Nigel Osborne, the songs are punctuated in no small measure by the stunning playing by Rick Shea who contributes mandolin, acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar. A renowned artists in his own right, Shea also produced the album which was recorded by Mark Linett (Beach Boys, Los Lobos, Rikki Lee Jones, Randy Newman) at Your Place Or Mine Studios in Glendale, California. Also brought on board for the recording are David Jackson on bass, piano, organ and accordion, Shawn Nourse on drums and Cindy Wasserman and Gia Ciambotti on backing vocals.

The album is a fulfilment of a common love of the classic country sound between two long-time friends and part time musicians and though now residing in different continents they have managed to realise that ambition. As would be expected heartbreak and loving feature in large doses, no better than on Only Now with more than a nod to Elvis  and  Heartbreak and Six Strings and I Still Think She Cares both of which are soaked in pedal steel guitar.

Never intended as a project to attack the Billboard Country Music Charts it achieves precisely what it set out to do in accomplishing their ambition to create a body of well fashioned songs and particularly impressive musicianship which they can justifiably be proud of.

Dave Desmelik Lifeboat Self Release

Lifeboat, similar to the other works in the back catalogue of Dave Desmelik, is not an album to pop in your cd player and start singing along with the choruses after one listen. The Brevard North Carolina resident’s albums fall into a similar category to the work of Jim White, John Dowd, Richard Buckner and possibly Vic Chestnutt, no compromise, from the heart and music that demands a considerable investment of your time to fully appreciate.

It’s his eleventh recording in a career that dates back to the late nineties when he was part of the Arizona band Onus B.Johnson. Not quite a one man show, though Desmelik does contributes vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, cigar box guitar, baritone ukulele, bass, piano, organ, drums and percussion together with recording and mixing duties. The cover artwork also features a sketch by Desmelik.

Despite employing many and varied instruments in the recording the eleven tracks are in the main raw, stripped back yet never fail to atmospherically create vivid imagery for the listener.

The delightful Surgery, Recovery and Love features only three spoken words by Desmelik and is basically an instrumental with the addition of sporadic words by children Holmes, Elena and Vince who, unaware that they are being recorded, reveal their innocent inner thoughts. 

A Strange Realization, the longest track on the album at over nine minutes and one of the highlights, is a dreamy kaleidoscope of sound that could be mistaken as a demo track for an early Pink Floyd album.

Battlefield is a more up-tempo inclusion on an album that often sounds desperate, intense, honest and hurting, yet when penetrated, grabs the listener from the outset and doesn’t let go.

Sophia Marshall The Paper Thin EP Self Release

In a previous life and as a teenager, Leicester born Sophia Marshall’s was part of The Havenots, a duo with Liam Dullaghan whose album Bad Pennies, released in 2004, was possibly a decade ahead of its time and combined luscious boy/girl harmonies in a manner that is certainly more hip today than it was then. The Mastersons, Shovels and Ropes and Whitehorse have perfected the approach and one is left to wonder what impact Bad Pennies would have in the burgeoning Americana scene were it to be released today.

In more recent times, 2015 to be precise, Marshall began concentrating on her solo career and this five track EP, her debut solo release, demonstrates not only her beautifully subtle vocal but also her ability to create songs that contain both melody and depth in equal measures.

Comparisons with Eddie Reader come to mind on both Wasted Days and Living  Things. Her vocals ebb and flow, layered delightfully on the closing track and tour da force The Devil and The Hollow. Produced by her band member and guitarist Andy Jenkinson, the emphasis is always on Marshalls perfectly paced voice.

In her former and current career Marshall has played support to Frazey Ford, Peter Bruntnell, The Sadies, Sam Outlaw and Tift Merrit. On the strength of this recording, given the exposure it deserves, there is little doubt that she has the potential and talent to make a lot of people stand up and take notice.


Reviews By Paul McGee

John Neilson  Tomorrow comes the Spring  Lounge Side 

On his two previous releases, If By Chance (2005) and 4TH Street Sessions (2011), John Neilson writes songs that are honest, pure, and from the heart. Neilson now lives in Austin, Texas and has quickly made a reputation as a singer-songwriter of real talent who has already had success with his songs finding their way to both TV & film soundtracks.

Jim Wirt produced this record and also plays a variety of instruments on the 11 tracks. The arrangements are varied, with the opener Fall coming out of the blocks at a real driving pace, only to be followed by Lights of Los Angeles, a slow burner that is full of atmosphere sung with a weary vocal delivery, reminiscent of early Steve Earle.

Shape I’m In, Coming Home and Take a Shot are all examples of Nielson’s impressive musical variety and the production is both sharp and full of colour. End of the Road and Walk Away point to a future that will continue to fast track this artist with an acoustic guitar and a hope for wider recognition.

Grant Dermody  Sun Might Shine On Me  Self Release

Harmonica virtuoso Grant Dermody is firmly based in the blues with two previous solo releases, Crossing That River (2003) and Lay Down My Burden (2010), plus numerous guest slots on other artists’ releases, including Jim Page and Eric Bibb.  As a lifelong student of the harmonica and acoustic blues, Grant’s latest release delivers 15 tracks that include traditional arrangements mixed with original songs and covers, all displaying his pioneering approach and a commitment to the timeless traditions of the blues.

Beyond the blues, Grant is also passionate about old-time music. He sees the harmonica as the most vibrant instrument connecting the mouth and the power of the breath in a pure way that no other musical instrument can achieve. Playing with five other musicians on drums, guitar, piano banjo, mandolin, Dobro and fiddle sees this release capture the true essence of organic music and the joys of self-expression.

It is unfair to single out any specific tracks, but the groove of Easy Down and the laid back tempo of Sun Might Shine take some beating. Traditional tunes, Reuben’s Train and Sail Away Ladies are wonderful examples of what can be achieved by this talented ensemble. At the end of the day it is the joy throughout the project that leaves you feeling uplifted. Compelling.

Vincent Cross A Town Called Normal  Self Release

 Cross was born in Dublin, raised in Australia and is now based in New York City. With one previous release, Home Away from Home (2008), he could not be accused of being prolific, but his second album has now been unveiled. On 12 tracks Vincent Cross displays a strong playing style on guitar, mandolin and harmonica, supported by a variety of musicians who colour the songs with a light touch on bass, banjo and occasional drums. His style is very much folk-based and the lyrics appear to be of a personal nature with many of the themes visiting the past (Childish Things), regrets (Cursed), lack of brotherhood (A Town Called Normal) and the need to keep personal demons down (Walking on the Outside).

Relationships are focussed on in tracks like Trouble Being There, that looks at a broken situation where one partner cannot commit. My Love and Wrack & Ruin display a questioning of the loyalty involved in staying together and the changing feelings that we all have. The closing track, Sometimes, asks whether it is better to take the road you are on or to go back again; perhaps the answer to the question lies in the knowledge that you can never really go back. This is a solid release that boasts strong arrangements and excellent musicianship.      

The Slocan Ramblers Coffee Creek Self Release

 This is a bluegrass band from Toronto, Canada that has been together for 4 years and made their debut, Shaking down the Acorns, in 2013. This new release was recorded in a live-in-the-studio setting and captures the energy of the band’s live performances. The four musicians are certainly very talented and display their dextrous abilities on banjos, guitars, mandolin and acoustic bass.

All music is arranged by the band and there is a sense of listening to old standards which speaks volumes for the craft and care taken in putting these 13 tracks together into a cohesive whole.  The singing style of Frank Evans adds to this sense of tradition and sounds like it comes from a body much older than his. Pastures of Plenty/Honey Babe and Galilee are instantly rewarding with Elk River and Angeline close on their heels. The instrumentals Lone Pine, The Back 40 and April’s Waltz are a delight; however all the songs bounce out of the speakers and leave a smile as they finish.

Harmonies are vital in bluegrass and the music is elevated by these four voices in unison. If you are a fan of this genre, then the Slocan Ramblers are a welcome addition to the new ranks of musicians who are breaking through.

Dave Desmelik We Don’t Want a Dying Flame Self Release

This is the ninth solo release from Desmelik, an independent artist who performs, records and writes for the genuine love of the song-writing craft and the therapeutic value that it brings. Based in North Carolina, this fine singer-songwriter/ instrumentalist has produced a collection of heartfelt songs, full of emotion, from the opening instrumental Hyper Fatigue to the rueful warning of Destruction and the fear that we ‘are digging our own graves’ in the way we abuse the environment.  

L-I-F-E is another instrumental that has a background of children laughing and talking and the impact is really effective against the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar.  Red Collar and Two Gifts are both further examples of this seasoned musician’s excellent guitar virtuosity.

On the 13 tracks included here, the gentle arrangements (Sand Toe) are followed by insightful perspective;  ‘drown yourself in drinking and wait for what comes next’ / ‘you make your excuses, you make your own bed’ in On the Clock . Desmelik is a prime example of the endless stream of talent that is creating vibrant and vital music that needs greater exposure. 

Paper Moon Shiners Self-titled Self Release

This duo from Austin, Texas specialize in vintage songs and originals inspired by American music from the early twentieth century. Their old time sensibility and vaudeville arrangements command attention and the 12 songs included on this debut release come alive with  blues, vintage jazz, swing, ragtime, Americana roots and folk.

Elena Antinelli sings like she means every last vocal inflection and trill, while her musical and life partner, Frank Meyer, adds plenty of character with his gravel voice and easy playing style on guitar, Dobro, ukulele and steel body resonator guitar. Their music is a step back in time to the days of Prohibition and juke joints with plenty of character and colourful delivery in Who’s that Knockin’? (Trad), Come on in My Kitchen (Robert Johnson) and Carolina Moon (Joe Burke & Benny Davis) stealing the spotlight. However the seven songs written by this unique duo can stand up against such competition with both Space and Same Thang particularly prominent. 

Brock Zeman Pulling Your Sword out of The Devil’s Back Busted Flat 

This is the 11th release from Ottawa Valley singer-songwriter Brock Zeman. His songs are very much in the contemporary country arena of storytelling narratives and a sound that is based on strong song hooks and great melody.  This is a self-produced effort and comes across with a swagger and a strut in the ten songs featured. The observations and words are the sure sign of a mature artist who has found his groove and the musicians that are employed here really play their part in what is a very impressive collection. Blair Hogan on guitar, organ, piano, and mandolin is a real virtuoso and fills out the sound in an understated manner but always right on the money. Brock Zeman is no slouch either when it comes to playing around the song tempos and his guitar work is supported by synth pads and sequencing. He sings with a voice that is full of character and personality.

The song-writing road is littered with lots of bodies, but this level of talent is on a fast-track to increased exposure, should he decide to start gigging outside of his Canadian territory. There are no weak tracks here and the subject matter shifts from relationship reflections (Don’t Think About You Anymore, Little Details) to musing on the lives we lead (Walking in the Dark, Some Things Stay). Many of the tunes are catchy enough to fit nicely on radio (Sweat, Drop Your Bucket, Dead Man’s Shoes) but an artist like this is too far under the radar to get that type of attention. More is the pity as the quality of music here deserves an international audience.

The track Ten Year Fight is a movie script all rolled up into five minutes of sublime storytelling, whether sourced from reality or imagination. It visits a broken relationship through the eyes of the writer who sees the father of his past lover and reflects on the bumps along their road which led to damage for all concerned. It is a wonderful song and beautifully constructed. The title song gives early notice of the talent at play here with lyrics such as ‘I live in a house of ghosts that just won’t let me be; I let them in myself and now they just won’t leave’. I cannot recommend this artist highly enough and wish I had been graced by his music long before now. 

Eight O’Five Jive  Too Many Men  Red Rudy Too Tunes

Jump blues and retro swing are alive and well as long as bands such as Eight O’Five Jive continue to hold a torch for the classic era of the late 1940s to the late 1950s, when jump jive defined an exciting era of music and dance. What defines the Eight O’Five Jive sound is the tight ensemble playing of Patrick Mosser (Sax), Duane Spencer (Drums), Andy Scheinman (Guitar), Bill Bois (Bass) and Lee Shropshire on vocals.

There are nine songs from the past that are reworked into the band’s sound, which is based around the great rhythm section and the duelling sax and guitar breaks that allow Lee Shropshire to sing on top of the arrangements with a strong vocal and plenty of wry humour. Titles such as Have Mercy Baby, You Was Right Baby, Market Place and Drunk give a sense of the ‘dust yourself down and get on with life’ attitude that prevails here. Misery Loves Company, written by Lee herself,  stands shoulder to shoulder with the timeless originals as does her second song, Young Enough To Be My Son.

Eight O’Five Jive redefines this essential genre and helps to keep it alive and vibrant. It stands as wonderful music for dinner and cocktails, eminently suitable for lively dance lovers and delightfully immune to passing time.