Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Amy McCarley Meco Meco Records

I have to admit the production credit of Kenny Vaughan and George Bradfute was the reason my interest was sparked by this artist’s latest album. I had not come across her work previously and it is something I will explore on the strength of this album. A release that is already going to be, for me, one of the best albums of 2019. Okay I know it’s only January but I doubt I will feel any different about it later in the year given the number of times I have gone back to it since the first listen. It is superb.

As well as the two gentlemen mentioned above, if you add the names of Chris Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Harry Stinson, Kenny Lovelace and Pat Alger, you know you are going hear something rather special. Those names however shouldn’t overshadow McCarley’s contribution as singer and songwriter. She possesses a strong and expressive voice that can display presentiment and positivity equally. The songs, McCarley writes in her sleeve notes, are about her life since leaving her role in NASA. The title is an acronym for “Main Engines Cut Off” something that occurred when the main engines had completed their task of getting the craft into orbit. This was a metaphor McCarley used to describe her life and for her musical career. 

She met Pat Alger, the noted songwriter and began to co-write with him in Nashville. One of their songs, Days, is an album highlight, an observational insight into the ordinary moments that she observed about her family. It is a deeply moving song. Alger co-wrote four more of the ten songs on the album. His input has no doubt helped McCarley as a writer but the other five songs show that she is a very capable writer in her own right. Such as, Never Can Tell, which looks at the unknown quantity that life is but that in the end, it’s your friends that count. This is done to a more acoustic setting with Marty Stuart on mandolin. How You Do is another reflection on life that shows off the versatility of McCarley’s voice and delivery. The lyrics question another’s role in her life. Elsewhere the songs take a more upbeat tack, such as the questioning Happy or the comment of Ain’t Life Funny.

Vaughan and Bradfut’s production is spot on, never overwhelming the vocal or getting in the way of the song. The playing throughout is supportive and inventive and shows the understated skill of all those involved. It is a shame that this album many never go into orbit in terms of sales and recognition. None the less, everyone involved can feel justifiably proud of what they have achieved with MECO. It features everything that is lacking in the majority of the mainstream right now. Ain’t life funny!

 Jason Ringenberg Stand Tall  Courageous Chicken

There is a line from an old song that says that ‘you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.’ In that light you don’t know you miss Jason Ringenberg until a new album arrives on your desk. Ringenberg says himself, in the sleeve notes, that he didn’t think there was an “internal drive or external demand to maintain a recording career.” Yet here he is and it’s great to have him back. The impetus for this venture was when he was made an artist in residence at Sequoia National Park. Spending a month in a mountain cabin, the location proved inspirational and he wrote several of songs that form the core of this album. 

This is prime Ringenberg, writing songs that are often humorous as well as heartfelt. To bring the album to fruition he co-produced with Mike Lescelius and decided to record in Misunderstudio in Illinois. He brought in two members of one of his college bands Tom Miller and Gary Gibula as the rhythm section and he then added players to fit the songs, such as George Bradfute, Fats Kaplan, Steve Fishell and guitarists Robbie Stokes, Andrew Staff and Richard Bennett amongst others. This set of musicians perfectly realise what is one of Ringenberg’s most enjoyable and diverse albums. The funding for the recording came from friends and fans who knew that Jason Ringenberg’s mission was not yet done.

The album opens with a strong, rounded and evocative instrumental, Stand Tall, which he notes took longer to get the right atmosphere than any other track he has recorded. From there on we get songs about The Ramones, John The Baptist (in which he notes that Baptist was a real humdinger), a Civil War story and a disenchanted soldier in I’m Walking Home. Here In The Sequoias is a song about the overall experience of being surrounded in such all-purpose environment. John Muir Stood Here is a more folk-based song that again is evocative of this special location. 

While the majority of the songs are written by Ringenberg with one Looking’ Back Blues written with his old friend Arty Hill. There are two songs that were added to the project when they turned out so well in the studio; they are Many Happy Hangovers To You (a Jean Shepard classic written by Johnny McCrae) which is delivered with tongue firmly in place. It also features some vibrant steel and electric guitar playing that is testament to the band enjoying themselves. The final track is his take on the old Bob Dylan song Farewell Angelina and it closes the album on a quiet note but on that is equally redolent of a revived spirit and passion.

Ringenberg, like fellow Nashville resident Jim Lauderdale, should be now be considered icons of determination with careers that have gone through ups and downs but now care only to make the kind of music that they feel in their souls. Both are decent men doing the very best they can to make the world a better place (musically at least). Take a bow and stand tall Jason. 

The Ponderosa Aces No Particular Way Mad Duck

This is a solid honky tonk five-piece band from Long Beach, California who after a previous album and ep are releasing their second full length album. The eleven songs on the album appear to be originals but there are no writing credits on the album! The band is fronted by Mike Maddux, who has the kind of voice that you want and expect from a hard-core honky tonk band. That is to say it has some gravel and depth without being totally unique. it serves as focal point of the band’s overall sound that is further enhanced by Marty Beal’s sterling guitar and Steve Meister pedal steel and the robust driving rhythms of Arthur Rodriguez and Jonny Bottoms on drums and bass respectively. 

The song titles fit with the overall notion of a honky tonk bar band and include If You Think I’ve Got A Drinkin’ Problem, Lots Of Ways To Be An Outlaw, Raising Hell In Honky Tonks and Gotta Keep Truckin’. Perennial themes for a band who trade in hardcore country and who were nominated in the Best Outlaw Band category in Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards in 2017 and Maddux certainly has the beard that goes with the overall image! 

However, these guys have it down and deliver an album that works on many levels and while it may not be totally different from a number of other bands ploughing a similar furrow, they do what they do with enough panache to make it easy to see why they have built a strong following in the US and also in Europe. No Particular Way, produced by Maddux and Beal, has a real affinity with grass roots, hardwood floor country music made for dancing and the album finds the Ponderosa Aces playing a winning hand.

Dave Rosewoood Gravel And Gold Self Release

This is another example of the fine, homegrown music that is coming from Scandinavia these days. Rosewood lives and works in Sweden after emigrating from the States.

He has a voice well suited to these Americana focused songs that recall any number of different influences and directions that are held together by Rosewoods voice and songs. He is ably backed by his Swedish backing musicians who sound as if they all work full time in a Nashville studio.

Oh No More is full of twanging guitar and vocal harmonies on a tale of returning to the place of growing up only without any troubles as he is now residing in a pine box!  While 20 Years is a song that opens with a distorted voice that sounds like it’s coming off an old scratchy 78. Before it boogies along with a roots groove. Blowin’ Round is about the preciousness of time. Back When features Rosewood on harmonica on a more acoustic based take on looking back at one’s past. Ozark Mountain Jam is a jaunty instrumental. Elsewhere Rosewood also touches on Southern Rock (In These Halls) and the music he grew up with so there are elements of folk, bluegrass, Bakersfield country, Allman Brothers blues and Gospel music on this first album, even though he has been playing music for some 20 years.

Settling in Sweden has doubtless, given him a perspective on his own country and a focus on the roots music that provided the impetus to make this a reality. Rosewood recorded the album in Aula Studios in Mariannelind where he co-produced the album (with Björn Holm) with a set of like-minded musicians to capture the essence of this Americana sound. Rosewood may well be making a name for himself in Sweden but could garner a wider audience on the strength of this, bringing together his many years on the road (gravel) and the songs that have come from those experiences (gold).

David Olney This Side Or The Other Black Hen

A renowned but underrated singer/songwriter David Olney has always released records that are full of literate storytelling delivered in a voice that is redolent with the understanding of age and what can be learned from surviving in a troubled world. Olney has lost none of his desire to continue to observe and offer his songs as testament to these times and to his world view.

This time out he is co-producing with Steve Dawson and they have gathered some musicians that infuse these songs with a depth and dexterity. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Dawson there is some atmospheric harmonica playing from Charlie McCoy, Fats Kaplan on oud and accordion and background vocals from Anne McCue and the McCrary sisters. The end result is a textured sound that is topped by a nuanced vocal performance from Olney. The songs themselves consider the peculiar nature of love and relationships in Death Will Not Divide Us, Open Your Heart (And Let Me In) and Running From Love as well as the sense of being that encompasses an outsider in Always The Stranger. Mortality seems central to biding one’s time in Border Town. Some of the songs are co-writes with John Hadley and on occasion a couple of other writers. The final track might seem a surprising choice with his take on Rod Argent’s Zombie classic She’s Not There. However, it fits completely within the context of the album.

Olney’s songs have been recorded by a lot of different artists and he has himself recorded many albums through the years. He delivers songs that are always contemplative and even when sometimes opaque they are open to individual interpretation. A new album from Olney is always worth exploring and that is true of this fine collection which will further enhance his reputation.

Doug Collins & The Receptionists Good Sad News Self Release

An album rooted somewhere between mid-sixties Beatles and Buck Owens. Collins writes some pretty meaty and beaty rootsy, pop songs. For his third album Collins brings his band into a couple of studios in Minneapolis to record these 10 tracks that sound like a lot of good pop songs should. Concise, fresh and memorable. The whole album clocks in just under 30 minutes so nothing ever overstays its welcome. Produced by Collins and Rob Genadek, it sounds contemporary without losing sight off its influences.

Some of the songs take on a more country influence with the addition of Joe Savage’s pedal steel guitar. Little House, I Saw You Dancin’ and Halfway Through are enhanced by its smooth sound. The core band of Collins, Charlie Varley on bass and drummer Billy Dankert are also joined by Dan Newton for a Tex-Mex flavoured Hey Mary and Jeff Victor brings his piano sound to Please Don’t Let Me Leave You and Tomorrow. The songs largely trade in misplaced lust and misunderstood love though the final cut, Top Of The Watertower, is about escapism and finding a place where no one else can find you.

The rhythm section also add some rewarding vocal harmonies and Collins is no slouch on the guitar either. The overall effect is to bring a smile to the face and a beat to the feet as the Good Sad News fills your head with a selection of catchy riffs and capable choruses.

Surrender Hill Tore Down Fences Blue Betty

Third album for Surrender Hill which is a husband and wife duo of Afton and Robert Dean Salmon. I had previously encountered Salmon as a solo artist (he has some 10 albums under his own name) but this pairing adds another dimension as their two voices are a perfect match. The writing is shared as are the vocals. Each taking a lead or harmony. 

There is a solid group of players working on the album with them, including steel and dobro player Mike Daly, Mike Waldren on electric guitar, drummer Matt Crouse and Eric Fritsch on bass and Hammond B3. Fritsch also co-produced the album with Salmon. They have delivered a solid sound that fits the songs well. The duo, after their first two albums, decided to consider some of the darker aspects of their lives before their paths crossed and they started working together. There were challenges that both endured and together they have faced their own pasts and are able to reflect  them in songs. There are also songs that show how their partnership, both personal and professional, provided the platform to help that introspection. There are also some songs that deal with  positivity as they were able to tear down fences and face a future together. One song that has a sense of their long-time commitment is Misbehave, while the closing PBR & Cigarettes is a celebration of some of these crazier times.

Tore Fences Down is the sort of album that those who love their roots rock robustly delivered with strong vocals. It is one also that will reward numerous plays, whether as focused listening, or music to accompany a drive.

Bye Bye Banshee Deathfolk Magic Self Release

The voice of Jezebel Jones (for whom this is a side project from her other musical activities) is the key factor in this strangely compelling EP. The songs embody a sense of pagan magic, feminism and ancient folklore. On one of the songs, Psychopomps, we are told of the spirit guides who surround a dying person. If I Die In My Dreams draws on the fear of death that many view as an equal fear of the devil. Bye Bye Banshee, one of the songs as well as the artist name, takes the Irish spirit that is often portrayed as an evil one but here sees it as one that warns of an impending death. So, the music that accompanies these four songs is likewise a dark, sparse, atmospheric, ambient folk music.

In the music it is the voice that is the key figure, with the surrounding background voices, percussion and upright bass (which takes a prominent place in the mix) supported by lap steel, cello, electric guitar and Hammond organ. The overall effect is melancholic yet entirely listenable and memorable. The effect, despite the darker aspects of the subject, is oddly soothing and soundtrack like. Not a release that will be for everyone but if your interests lie in the direction of the “old ways” and some the arcane folk tales such as the folklore of the Appalachians and other areas, you might well find this appealing.