Reviews by Paul McGee

The Burns Sisters 'Looking Back' - Self Release

The Burns Sisters are an American folk music group from Ithaca, New York who have released a number of albums over their many years in the music industry. The group currently comprises sisters Marie and Annie and their sibling harmonies are a joy to experience on this latest release of 12 thoughtful and gently arranged tunes.

This new collection is inspired by their Irish roots and influenced by American Folk song interpretations. With song arrangements that are restrained and full of excellent playing, Jim Kimball (Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw,  Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Wynonna Judd, Lee Ann Womack, Tricia Yearwood, Shelby Lynn, LeAnn Rimes, Carol King) oversees the project as engineer, mixing and mastering and also playing beautiful guitar parts across the tracks here.

The Irish influence of Uilean Pipes and flutes and whistles is provided with calm assurance by Blackie O’Connell, Joanie Madden and Seamus Egan. Violin and mandolin are played by Stuart Duncan and Don Kerse (bass) and Daryl Burgess (drums, percussion) provide a steady pulse to the arrangements.

Clare to Here (Ralph McTell) and Oh Danny Boy (Frederick Weatherly) are examples of the quality on display here with soaring performances and Kilkelly (Peter Jones) plus Free Born Man (Ewan McColl) touch on the forgotten history of people forced to compromise their local customs.

Both sisters are no slouches when it comes to song-writing and produce some impressive examples in Mothers’ Ode, Workhouse and To Live Again.

Far From My Home has a touch of the Corrs about the up-tempo arrangement and is the most commercial track here and the beautiful I Would, written by Daryl Burgess and Liz Hengher, is a real stand-out among what is a sublime collection of musical highlights. Recommended.

The Mulligan Brothers - 'Self-Titled' - Southern Roots

This is the debut album released in June 2013 by the Mulligan Brothers and one that created an instant market of enthusiastic fans across the country. The media exposure has led to greater opportunity for his four-piece who are neither related or indeed named ‘Mulligan’- a strange fact and one which leads to questions about how exactly they came up with such a band name ...?

Earlier this year they released their second album, Via Portland, which has been reviewed elsewhere on this site. It was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame and has confirmed their growing status as real contenders.

Ross Newell (lead vocals, guitar and songwriter); Gram Rea (fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and vocals); Ben Leininger (bass and vocals) and Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals) make up the band and their playing is really compelling with a blend of alt-country, blues, and folk that sounds wonderfully loose, yet tight and spontaneous at the same time.

Ross Newell has been blessed with a superb voice, with great tone and a languid quality that gives an added edge to the words that deal with stories of the rural towns across America and the lives that inhabit the farms, factories and streets. These songs evoke plenty of images of common folk just trying to get a foothold on life’s ladder.

Thrift Store Suitcase and Momma Gets My Soul and two wonderful examples of song-writing at its finest while Sensible Shoes is a reflection of city life and the alienation suffered in the effort to keep running the race. Kaleidoscope is a stand out song of heartbreak and self-doubt and Come To Me is a melancholic song of longing. Well worth a visit and a debut to enhance any music collection.   

Norma MacDonald 'Burn the Tapes'- Self Release

From the opening strains of Company and the easy pedal steel refrain the listener is invited into the magical world of Norma MacDonald. She has been blessed with a voice that is sweetly seductive and filled with restrained yearning. This is her fourth solo album and each release bears the mark of a developing artist of the highest quality.

This is the first time that Norma takes control as sole producer and the results are a testament to her insight and her keen ability to identify just the right balance in the song arrangements and the sparse feel of the production.  Her words explore relationships and the loneliness of lives lived on the edge (Blue as a Jay  & You Can’t Carry It Around).

Before We Say Goodnight is a song that visits a couple who stand at an uneasy  threshold while Lighten Up, a duet with Gabe Minnikin, speaks to a lover in terms of heavy hearts and the weight of experience. Daysleeper is a soft tempo shuffle with some lovely dobro parts and a failed  attempt to real commitment at the core of the song.

Springsteen is visited in the song To Nebraska which has a haunting quality and reflects on a night of quiet examination and a hope for the future. Accidental Guest has a slow groove and looks at living life with no expectations or ambition. The closing track Hard To Get Back sings of trying to return home - but perhaps the only way is forward into the light and it is the momentum that keeps us going.

Atmospheric, understated and quietly self-assured in all that it delivers, this is a release which deserves great praise and should help to bring Norma MacDonald to greater media attention

The Paperboys 'At Peace With One’s Ghosts' - Self Release

This is the seventh release from Canadian band the Paperboys who formed in 1991 and have had a very fluid history of members coming and going over the years. The current line- up includes original founding member Tom Landa (vocals, Guitar, Jarana, Bass, Percussion, Ukulele) who also co-produced the project with Bill Buckingham.

The other musicians in the band are Kareem Kandi (sax), Kalissa Landau (fiddle, vocals), Sam Esecson (drums, percussion) Geoffrey Kelly (flute, whistle) and Brad Gillard (bass, banjo). There are also a healthy number of guest musicians, 12 in all, who add greatly to the excellent song arrangements and give the overall production a compelling sound.

Credited with playing a Folk Rock influenced music they really defy any such category and slot more easily into  World Music with a blend of Celtic folk, bluegrass, Mexican, Eastern European, African, zydeco, soul and country influences. A truly eclectic ensemble and a musical sound that is celebratory and full of exemplary playing and performance.

Labels can be so constraining and the only barometer you need for a Paperboys record is a finely tuned set of ears and plenty of room in your listening area to dance in. Infectious and exhilarating, the band burst into life with Mexican Son Jarocho music blended with Irish jigs and reels and Ska, Reggae grooves and African rhythms mix with bluegrass and country.

The fiddle based groove of Back To You, a song of returning home to a child kicks things off in fine style and there is a joyful feel to Spanish songs Mismo Latido and Nunca Jamas, while the one cover song, Don’t Want to Know (John Martyn) is given a polished Latino groove that works really well.

Better Than the Last is a song which reflects on the New Year and hopes for a better future, while Rest of my Days is a moving tribute to a close relation who is close to death. Fake It sings about the need to be honest with yourself in a relationship and acknowledging real feelings and The Monarch Set (trad) mixes an Irish/Latino groove complete with driving Horn section. The set finishes with The Pugilist, an instrumental that has a real mini Riverdance groove.

The band describe it well when they say they are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-instrumental, genre bending, co-ed band. Long may his collective continue to make such wonderful sounds.

Mandolin’ Brothers 'Far Out' - Ultra Sound

This Italian band has been playing roots rock music since 1979 and has a number of previous releases in their portfolio. The six musicians integrate really well and play up a storm on tracks like Someone Else which has an Allman Brothers groove to it. 

Confident players across a range of instruments including guitars, slide & steel, organ, accordion, piano, double bass, drums, harp and mandolin; the easy pace of Circus is a fine song that highlights the talent on display. I don’t know what the local scene is like for country music in Italy but this band would not be out of place were they to relocate to the southern States and play a residency in a city that would take them to their hearts. 

Nightmare in Alamo is another fine tune that drives along to an acoustic/electric guitar riff that highlights the vocals of Jimmy Ragazzon. Thirteen songs including titles such as Bad Liver Blues, Black Oil and Ask the Devil – and they sound as good as their titles. Stirring stuff and a great listen.

Brad Absher & Swamp Royale 'Lucky Dog' - Montrose

This is the 5th release from Brad Absher, a singer- songwriter who dishes up a fine combo of blues, soul and gospel influenced music with his band, Swamp Royale, across the 12 tracks included here.

Some tasty slide guitar kicks off proceedings on Woman Who Loves Me and is followed by the excellent brass section playing on I Need a Drink. Hammond organ duels with electric guitar on several tracks and the musical expertise of the players can be heard to best effect on covers of Same Love (Bill Withers), Miss Your Water (William Bell) and Rather Be Blind (Leon Russell).

Over the course of 20 years this musician has gained a respect among his peers and his sound resembles the best of soulful, swamp blues with a groove that keeps the arrangements dynamic and heartfelt. With 6 covers I think that Brad would benefit by including more of his own songs; Wanna Be Your Man, Not Tonight and Memphis On the Way are great self-penned tracks, but this is a small gripe as the entire recording sits together effortlessly with gritty vocals augmented by sweet backing singers and the swell of organ, brass section and inventive backline playing all add up to an impressive release. 

Hardin Burns 'Down the Deep Well' - Ithica

This musical duo consists of guitarist Andrew Hardin and vocalist Jeannie Burns and this is their second release since they met in 2009. Self released debut, Lounge, appeared in 2012 and included nine original songs and a cover of George Harrison’s Beware of Darkness. This release is along similar tracks with ten songs all co- written with the exception of a cover of Richard Thompson’s Walking on a Wire. Co-produced by Gabe Rhodes, who also adds accordion, guitar and keyboards; the sound is acoustic based with fine vocal harmonies and excellent interplay among the musicians.

Andrew Hardin has had a long association with songwriter Tom Russell and has also recorded with artists Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Malcolm Holcombe among others. He has also recorded a number of solo projects. 

Jeannie Burns performed as one of the Burns Sisters for over twenty years and they released eight albums in addition to touring as back- up singers for Arlo Guthrie. She released an excellent solo album Coming Up Close in 2000.Their traditional style combines folk and country with a blend that is easy on the ear with Jeannie’s bluesy vocals complimented by Andrew’s sensitive guitar playing.

Gentle Rain, Get Back Home and Wave of your Hand are all examples of the restrained playing on display and with an easy groove, the entire recording sails along on a wave of quiet calm.

Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer 'Martitime' - Self Release

This duo initially met in Flagstaff, Arizona during 2010 before relocating to the Pacific Northwest and released their debut, Seed of a Pine, in 2012. Dave McGraw had previously spent a decade as a wildlife biologist and has released a number of albums both solo and with band, Crow Wing. Mandy Fer travelled in Spain, where she studied music, language and local culture. Her first release was in 2010 after years of paying her dues. 

This collection of 12 songs has most credits going to McGraw with 6 tacks and 3 co-writes with Fer, who chips in with 3 songs of her own. The project was recorded over 8 days in North-West Washington in a quiet forest, located on an island. Maritime has a gentle folk lilt to the songs with restrained playing from the ensemble of 6 musicians and contains great vocal harmonies from Dave & Mandy. Just like a snapshot of rural life, you get a sense and feel of their surroundings where the recording took place. Hushed and simple, the arrangements are coloured with Fer’s soulful delivery adding character to the songs. 

How the Sea is a fine example of this with some nice electric guitar lines from this talented lady. Dark Dark Woods carries on a similar theme of enduring love and the passing of time. The lyrics are quite obscure but paint images of nature, both human and wild, where the invisible is just as important as what the eye can see and the heart feel. Silence and Conspiracy of Ravens are songs that feel like we have been given a peek into a secret world of lonely reflection. Lots of imagery with sea, rain, birds and the moon featuring and overall, an interesting listen.

Millpond Moon 'Time to Turn the Tide' -Tikopia

This duo from Norway has one previous release, Broke in Brooklyn, which was greeted with much critical acclaim in 2012. The talents of Kjersti  Misje, guitar & vocals, blend seamlessly with  Rune Hauge also on guitars and vocals and the supporting players are very expressive and inventive in the subtle sounds and colour they bring to the arrangements. The production is very warm and the music blends light jazz with country and folk leanings. 

Both vocalists are excellent as they trade lyric lines, never more so than on the salutary race tale of Lena Baker and the opening cover of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.  There is also a great cover of Robbie Robertson’s All La Glory and a gentle working of the traditional song Wayfaring Stranger

In between, we have seven songs penned by singer/songwriter Rune Hauge and his words are very well crafted on songs like Wind of Plenty, in memory of a deceased friend, No Man’s Land, a tale of the restless wanderer and My Father Used to Say, a moving tribute to his father and his words of wisdom. 

The backing players add some wonderful touches on fiddle, mandolin, piano and the strings on selected tracks are really embracing and add character. A real joy from start to finish and a collection that is highly recommended.

Jack Tempchin 'Room to Run' - Blue Élan

This artist is a legend in US music circles having penned many hit songs for artists as wide ranging as the Eagles, Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Glen Campbell and Patty Loveless among others. He has released eight solo records since the 1970’s and this is a four-song EP to promote the soon to be released Learning to Dance. With a pedigree over 40 years of working with the top artists in Country music you expect a high standard and that is what is delivered with the title track visiting the perspective of a parent giving his children room to become independent and discover themselves.

Jesus & Mohammad is a very clever lyric that visits the imagined conversation both deities might have concerning the deeds that are done in their respective names on today’s planet. High Cost of Hate comments on the state of marital breakdown and points a finger at the legal profession that makes a fortune from the misery of others. The final song, Summertime Bum is a wry look at ambition and the lack thereof.

Old Man Luedecke 'Domestic Eccentric' - True North

This is the seventh release from Canadian singer-songwriter and banjo player Chris Luedecke. His 2008 album, Proof of Love, won a 2009 Juno Award for traditional folk album of the year and in 2011, Luedecke won the same award for My Hands are on Fire and Other Love Songs. Tender is the Night, was released in 2012 and picked up a Juno nomination as well as “Folk Album of the Year” from Music Nova Scotia.

Domestic Eccentric contains fourteen songs, all written by Chris himself and he is joined by multi Grammy award winner Tim O’Brien, playing an array of instruments. They are supported by Jennah Barry on vocals and Samson Grisman on bass with Nick Halley adding percussion and vocals also.

 This is folk and roots music, played at a level that is quite simply enchanting. Old Man Luedecke’s songs of love (The Briar & the Rose, The Early Days, Now We Got a Kitchen) and life reflection (Chester Boat Song, Brightest on the Heart, Old Highway of Love) are delivered with compelling old-time banjo rhythm, with Tim O’Brien on guitars, mandolin, bouzouki, and fiddle, making for a heady mix.

This is a record about time, travel and the warm glow of a home fire. Early Days contains the wisdom of; “You got to hold on, it goes so fast, these early days they don’t last”. Contrast this advice with the lines in Now We Got a Kitchen; “Time goes so fast, I rested for a moment and it pulled out to pass”. Perspective and wisdom combined with wonderful musicianship – what’s not to like..?

Katie Garibaldi 'Follow Your Heart' - Living Dream

Thirteen tracks written by Katie Garibaldi, a singer-songwriter based in San Francisco and a talent to be taken seriously. With six albums to her credit already, this lady plays guitar and sings in a clear and compelling tone that is both emotional and soulful. 

Country based folk songs that are melodic and radio friendly must bode well for the future and the optimism of Follow Your Heart, Holding On and Make Them Go Away swing into gear in a confident style. There are a coterie of fine musicians used on the arrangements and the presence of violin and cello dovetail with pedal steel, mandolin, ukulele, flute, trumpet, trombone, clarinets and saxophones, to augment the electric guitars and solid backline to the songs. 

The recording is in memory of Melody and on White Roses her spirit is honoured with a beautiful reflection on the short time we are given on this magical journey; cello and acoustic guitar playing in unison and with understated grace against an emotional vocal.

Vegas charts the troubled path of a relationship and Wedding Day Song is one that captures the magic of new love and the promise of the future. This is an assured and confident statement from a talent that is worth a second look.

Broken Boat 'Small Defeats' - Self Release

Broken Boat are a contemporary English band that play and write music that is engaging, melodic and full of interesting lyrical reflections in the arrangements.

Songwriter Daniel Bahrami, multi-instrumentalists Brendan Kearney and Jess Hart and Jerome Maree on drums create a colourful sound that mixes strings, horns, accordions, keyboards and percussion. The songs bounce out of the speakers from the opening Small Defeats that reflects on the blows that life deals us and a somewhat cynical take on the enduring power of relationships.

Pencil Memories is a lament to old friends that slip away and the somewhat fatalistic conclusion that time teaches us nothing as we repeat ourselves from our early experiences of life. Water & Wine is a love song in tribute to a partner who is a saviour to the “bent and broken half of a better whole”.

There are some fine vocal harmonies, like on Morning Rain and the optimistic Two Balloons. Basement Days has a groove that reminds me of the Eels at their ironic best. This is Folk music for the 21st Century and very refreshing too.

Ben Reel '7th.' - B. Reel

This Northern Ireland artist has been releasing excellent music for the last 15 years and on this, his 7th record, he comes out of the gate on full throttle with the Springsteen influenced Lucky Streak. Followed by One of these Days, we swing into the territory of radio-friendly hitsville with Brad Paisley hooks and a melodic arrangement. Recorded and produced by Ben Reel in his home studio in Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, the influences are varied across the 14 tracks here from rock, soul, blues and country. 

Say has a Johnny Cash inflection in the vocal and God’s World has a guest appearance from the great David Olney that lifts the song to a higher place. Reflection of the Blues has a lazy swing that highlights the fine vocal harmonies of Julieanne Black Reel and the excellent guitar of Sergio Webb. 

There are many musicians featured on this recording (15 in all) and the breath of the project is what will give it mass appeal. There is a track here for everyone, whether country or rock oriented, but perhaps the lack of a real central focus takes a little from the overall impression. Still, an experienced artist who keeps maturing and making entertaining music.    

Simon Murphy 'Let It Be' - Self Release

Belfast artist Simon Murphy delivers his debut record with 12 self-written songs and a pop/rock style that is a perfect fit for radio. Once Upon a Time is a fine example with a great sound and powerful chorus hook. Meet Me on the Other Side follows in a similar vein with a summer beat that lifts the song arrangement.

There are plenty of strong melodies across the songs and some fine acoustic highlights like My Baby, The Idiot and Not in my Name, one of the best moments here. The use of strings also works well and the production by Michael McCluskey, who also contributes guitar and vocals, is very bright and full.  

Lone Star Heart is country tinged and I Have a Voice is a shared vocal with Kaz Hawkins that works really well with plenty of attack and attitude. 2 Ghosts finishes the album with a slow strum and a fine backing vocal from Charlene Law to complement the violin and cello of Colin Elliott and Gwyneth Reid. This is contemporary Irish music of high quality and a very promising debut.


Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer 'Seed Of A Pine' Self-Release

Two singers and songwriters who have joined forces for the first time on this folk-infused set. Each takes the lead vocal on their own songs with Fer delivering a sultry voice and the lead electric and acoustic guitar lead work in a subtle and impressive style. McGraw, by way of contrast, has a deeper baritone voice that provides effective harmony when the two voices blend together.  McGraw has written six songs and Fer five. The songs are interesting in that the two writers both have slightly opaque, poetic styles that are given depth by the arrangements that use the additional textures of bass, drums, cello, violin, keyboards and dobro to enhance the quiet melodies of these tales, given a light touch production by Zach Goheen. The wistfulness of the title song that tells of an older person who "needs to ride to Portland but she dreams of Rome". The lyric booklet allows you to read the lyrics but this is an album that connects on an overall level of voice, music and lyric. It is an album rather than just a collection of songs and the collective experience will draw you in if you are prepared to give these two partners the time and space to allow their collective efforts to settle in. These are not instant pop songs or hard-bitten country tales, rather they are impressions of of someone's life and hopes "you glance over your sore shoulder, it's too dark to turn back but the fire by your campsite keeps you warm enough to dream" (Comin' Down) or "Like a distant violin playing, "Wash away my sins" he searches the sky for something, for someone... (Grow). This is music that is washed with the watercolour tones of the cover artwork - soft brushes strokes that bleed their colours together into a pleasing whole.