Reviews by Declan Culliton

Carol Markstrom Desert Rose Desert Rose

Awarded 2018 Country & Western Album of The Year by the Rural Roots Music Commission, Desert Rose is the third album release by Carol Markstrom. It’s a particularly ‘easy on the ear’ listen, a combination of folk and country ballads. Named after the flowering desert plant that survives and blossoms against all the odds, a similar resilience exposes itself on many of the songs included on the album. Bandida tells a tale of a fleeing escapee from an abusive relationship, having killed her abuser in self-defence and Where Did You Go hails the spirit and fortitude of the left behind partner, working menial jobs for a mere existence. It’s one of five co-writes with multiple Grammy Award winner Bil VornDick who also produced the album at Mountainside Audio Labs in Nashville and features a number of Music City big hitters including Andy Reese (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle, mandolin), Charlie McCoy (harmonica), Mark Fain (bass), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Paul Franklin (pedal steel).

A research psychologist and university professor in a previous life, Markstrom specialised in Native American cultures and has written extensively on the subject. Recent years have found her pursuing a professional career as a musician. It’s not surprising therefore that she includes songs such as Medicine Bottle, inspired by the execution of the Dakota Sioux leader of the same name and many of his warriors in the U.S.- Dakota War and Seminole Wind, another reminder of the colonisation of Native Americans’ lands.

Impressively packaged and very much delivered from the heart, Desert Rose is a body of work from an artist every bit as passionate about her writing as she is in delivering her messages in the live setting. 

Dillon Carmichael Hell On An Angel Riser House

Chris Stapleton’s somewhat unexpected rise to fame in modern country music circles has created ripples for like minded artists, whose previous opportunities to be played on country music radio amounted to zero. 

The young Kentucky native Dillon Carmichael ticks all the right boxes on his Dave Cobb produced debut album Hell On An Angel, from the astute selection of ‘go to’ guy Cobb as producer and engaging crack musicians Leroy Powell (guitars), Brian Allen (bass), Chris Powell (drums) and Robby Turner (pedal steel). Arresting artwork and packaging also impress, but the big winner is the selection of material, a combination of self writes, co-writes and well selected covers. Blending traditional and 90’s country, southern rock and a few weepies, is the perfect jumble to gain far reaching attention and each are well represented across the ten tracks on the album.

Natural Disaster kicks off the album with a tornado siren warning, preceded by six minutes plus of regret and reflection on a lifetime of travels down best avoided paths. Setting the scene for what follows, it’s one of two covers on the album, the other being a raunchy cover of Jon Pardi’s Country Women, which name checks Merle Haggard. 

Title track Hell On An Angel is standard southern rock fare as is the impressive bluesy Dixie Again. Hard On A Hangover is a slow classic country tune, What Would Hank Do may not be particularly original, penned by three writers it’s predictable enough, but still manages to sound good. Dancing Away With My Heart, the albums first single release, hits the spot on first spin, a big earthy sound. Might Be a Cowboy is catchy as hell, melodies and hooks that would work equally well in a stadium or barroom. Old Flame follows a similar pattern, big sounds and slick guitar breaks.

Dave Cobbs production works well throughout with Carmichael’s impressive baritone vocal always out front. Over a dozen co-writers are featured across the eight original songs on the album and the whole package is a box ticking exercise in what the industry considers marketable by a new and younger breed of Outlaws. Recorded at Nashville’s RCA Studio A and with Cobb at the controls it’s a fair indication of the potential the industry places in the young man from Burgin, Kentucky. All in all this is fair enough, as it certainly beats the dreadful crossover pop/country dirges that dominate much of country music radio at present. Carmichael has all the credentials to move from honky tonks to arenas in jig time and with this album he has climbed the first few rungs on the ladder.

Hayes Carll What It Is Dualtone

The sixth album from the Texan troubadour with the golden pen and it’s business as usual, sticking to his effective, non-cryptic and to the point song writing.  No surprises, simply another trademark album that ebbs and flows across its twelve tracks and finds Carll tackling issues close to his heart, both personal and social. 

Brad Jones, who produced Carll’s award-winning albums Trouble In Mind (2008) and KMAG YOYO (2011), is at the controls once more, alongside Carll’s partner Allison Moorer, who is also credited as co-writer on the opening track None ‘ya. The song tells the tale of a less than attentive partner – misunderstood in his own callow eyes – and similar to much of Carll’s writing, it’s laced with caustic humour. Times Like These, which follows, wipes the smile from your face and blows off the cobwebs in rockabilly fashion. Scratching his head at the often baffling present day political mess, he poses the question, ‘In times like these do I really need a billionaire just taking up my time, trying to tell me how he’s treated unfair’. If I May Be So Bold is a twangy joyride, an appeal for people to take back control of their lives despite the constant negativity at play. The Dylanesque Things You Don’t Wanna Know bemoans a dead in the water relationship and on the opposite side of the coin Beautiful Thing is a moving ode to a lover. Reading like a Valentine Card, it rocks along to a Stonesy beat, complete with tingling piano and slick guitar riffs. The powerful Jesus And Elvis mourns the unnecessary loss of life, the tale of the bar owner’s son not returning from war and his memory remaining some years later by a hanging picture of Jesus and Elvis behind the bar. The title track, with its toe tapping bluegrass rhythm, advises fulfilment and contentment and Wild Pointy Finger speaks to the judgemental, whether it be politicians, spin doctors or indeed ourselves. ‘I’ve got ten digits like most other people, I can build the church, but I can’t hold the steeple Nine of them stand up and do exactly what I say, but the one by the thumb it just points all day’.

Fittingly, the album closes with an eloquent love song, the charming I Will Stay, presumably dedicated to his partner.It’s the perfect bookend to another chapter of exceptional songs by an artist continuing the legacy of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine as one of the insightful pen smiths of his generation.  

Josh Peters Pages Of My Heart Memramcook 

An award-winning tattooist is not one who immediately springs to mind as a creator of a very traditional and classic country recording. Enter Josh Peters from New Brunswick, Canada.  A member of the High Tides Tattoo company, he has been inking the locals and not so locals for the best part of a decade. Pages Of My Heart, his debut recording, has been cooking for several years, as a tribute by Peters to his love of straight down the middle country music, the type performed by artists such as Charley Pride and Ray Price to name but two. One glance at the album cover, before even removing the disc, and you instantly get a flavour of where he’s coming from. Everything about the artwork – not unlike the images used by Colter Wall in his recent releases – suggest ‘country’ and very much without the word ‘rock’ following it.

The eleven-track album is made up of nine self-written songs, one co-write and his take on the traditional ballad Hesitation Blues. Titles such as Who Closed The Honky Tonks, Prison Of My Mind and The Working Man follow the classic country themes, but the quality of the material elevates Peters above that of a pretender. A close observer of traditional country, I expect Peter’s spent quite a while rooting in the bargain bins seeking out old classics to inspire him. 

 In some ways Peters may be accused of attempting to pay tribute to a greater range of artists than necessary. His accented vocals do vary considerably on a few tracks, to the extent that you could be forgiven for assuming different vocalists delivering them. However, this is a minor quibble which should not distract from the overall quality of the album.  Pages Of My Heart may or may not be a one-off project by a musician captivated by the time honoured sound of yesterday, or possibly the first instalment by an artist following a similar path to Joshua Hedley, Zephaniah OHora and Jason James, carrying the torch for real country as it should be heard. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Joshua Ray Walker Wish You Were Here State Fair 

 Maybe I’ve just hit a purple patch, but only three weeks into 2019 and I’ve already come across three or four albums that are most likely to feature in my favourites of 2019. The latest of the batch is this gem from a young man from Dallas, Texas named Joshua Ray Walker.

Not too many albums impress on first spin to the extent that it remains in the cd drawer on rotation for multiple spins, but that was the case with Wish You Were Here, the debut album from Walker. Initially drawn to Walker’s crystal-clear rich vocals and killer musicianship by his players, it’s only when you combine these with the quality of his storytelling that the whole picture emerges. And some picture it is! 

Walker has a lot to say across the ten tracks on the album, all self writes, and it’s fair to say he doesn’t waste too many words getting his stories across. Only one track, Lot Lizard breaks the four-minute mark and most of the others barely last more than three minutes. That track Lot Lizard finds Walker hitting notes yodel style that are octaves over most singer’s ranges. It’s a delightful Texan love ballad enhanced by some dreamy accordion playing by Ginny Mac. Burn It raises the temperature – pardon the pun – rocking along in top gear like a young Dwight Yoakam on speed. Keep is a Joe Ely style two stepper with Walker sharing vocals and Love Songs would sit pretty on any Mavericks recording. Trouble recalls Steve Earle back in his debut Guitar Town days, a lush melody enriched by perfectly timed piano and a killer guitar break with just about the perfect dosage of twang. 

I also love the album cover, a simple yet evocative Texas honky tonk shot, with Walker propping up the bar, beer in hand. The young man from East Dallas has recorded an album with the maturity of someone that has decades of life’s experiences under his belt. There is competition at present among several talented young men making waves outside the dreaded commercial country music drivel. The vast majority of them are targeting the outlaw side of things, given the success in recent years of Chris Stapleton, and more power to them. However, this young man is coming from a different direction entirely. Nothing outlaw about him at all, simply a country singer that can write and deliver strikingly impressive country songs. He has produced a treasure of a debut album with Wish You Were Here! 

Lula Wiles What Will We Do Smithsonian Folkways

Long before forming the three-piece Lula Wiles, Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin sang and played instruments together at Berklee College of Music in Boston and around the many folk clubs in that city. The natural progression of their combined talents lead to the creation of the band and the release of their self titled debut in 2016, an album featuring all original material.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institution of the USA, is the perfect label to host the trio, alongside other treasures that continue to keep the flame burning for traditional folk music such as Don Flemons, Kaia Kater and Los Texmaniacs.  Smithsonian Folkways are supporters and champions of artists that create what they simply describe as ‘people’s music’ - passionate writing and playing, reflecting political and environmental everyday occurrences, whether by way of protest or mere reflection. 

What Will We Do most certainly does just that, with reflections on their birthplace of Maine on Hometown, to romantic hopelessness on Nashville, Man. An album honouring the past as much as the future demands a murder ballad of sorts and Bad Guy ticks that box. However, unlike many of its predecessors, the perpetrator is the sister of an abused wife, who disposes of the offender in time honoured fashion ‘I followed her husband down to the glade, I drew my dagger across his chest, And the wound I dug deeply as his grave’.  A cover of Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s classic The Pain Of Loving You also impresses. The national opioid epidemic is the motivation behind Morphine, the painful progression from a wide eyed and innocent child to the anguish and despair of the adult addict. The closing and title track What Will We Do is credited to Irish ballad singer Mary Delaney and fittingly bookends the album as a reflection on the themes and threads across the previous eleven songs. 

 Most notable is the forty-page coloured booklet accompanying the album, complete with attractive artwork and particularly informative liner notes. However, the real winner is the quality of the musical content across the twelve tracks on the album, stunning lead and harmony vocals and flawlessly understated guitar, bass and fiddle by the trio with the addition of drums on several the tracks courtesy of Sean Trischka. 

A joy from start to finish with vocals that call to mind Nanci Griffith at her peak and stands shoulder to shoulder with their fellow sisters Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins on their similar journey with side project I’m With Her. Take my word for it, this is seriously good!

River Whyless Kindness, A Rebel RollCall 

Asheville North Carolina quartet River Whyless follow their impressive 2016 release We All The Light with a more experimental and dynamic sound under the guidance of progressive producer Paul Butler (Bees, The Dawn Chorus, Devendra Banhart, Michael Kiwanuka). Formed while all students at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, the band have matured from their alt-folk beginnings to a more adventurous and imposing outfit with Kindness, A Rebel. Four songwriters in a band can create hurdles, whether it be competing egos or attempting to be overly diplomatic by allowing each member a free hand to include their individual compositions. The decision to give Butler a relatively free hand with their third album has resulted in an entirely more mature and compelling recording. It’s also very much an album of its time, exploring political and environmental landscapes. Born In The Right Country – with a melody not unlike Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark - addresses the privileged white classes, The Feeling Of Freedom laments the two-job minimum wage culture. Falling Farm and Darkness In Mind – both recalling Talking Heads – particularly benefit from Butler’s input, as does the powerful opening track All Of My Friends. New Beliefs enters The Decemberists territory, impressively it must be said. 

Kindness, A Rebel heads in directions that River Whyless could hardly have anticipated when they formed a decade ago. Sounding better and better on each listen, abandoning their folky overtones for a more expansive, dynamic and edgier sound has elevated them to another level which should introduce them to a wider audience. 

Willard Grant Conspiracy Untethered Loose

A posthumous release and a reminder of the virtuosity that the music industry lost at the untimely passing of Robert Fisher from cancer in 2017. At the forefront of what we now label Americana, Fisher had been the front man in Willard Grant Conspiracy since their formation in 1995. The band survived until his passing – albeit with numerous personal changes - despite never gaining the industry recognition his unique brand of gothic roots richly deserved. Up to thirty band members came and left during the lifespan of WGC, but their distinctiveness remained unchanged, with Fischer cavernous baritone vocals instantly recognisable.  He often performed as a duo in later years with long-time collaborator and violin supremo David Michael Curry. Their amalgamation fitted like hand and glove, Fischer’s prowling voice and Curry’s stylish and atmospheric strings adding the perfect effects to uncompromising and searching lyrics. Curry is on record describing how WGC’s final album was originally a fun time weekend project, in parallel to both their busy schedules prior to Fischer’s diagnoses.  It’s very much to Curry’s credit that he ensured that Fisher’s final works were not packed off to the archives, unlikely to see the light of day.

Notwithstanding that thirteen of the fourteen tracks were written prior to his diagnoses, an atmosphere of impending doom dominates throughout, from the Nick Cave echoing opener Hideous Beast to the ghostly and prognostic closer Trail’s End. The latter dipping and soaring gloriously with free fall instrumentation, confusion, distortion and indiscipline.  The albums title track was composed by Fisher after he became aware of his fate and it’s an honest, open hearted and plainspoken commentary on his impending death, not unlike Lazarus from David Bowie’s farewell album. Love You Apart has echoes of an outtake from the Lou Reed/John Cale tribute album Songs For Drella, it’s delivered semi spoken and aches and rejoices in equal measures, concluding with magical viola playing. Likewise, Saturday Night With Jane recalls mid-career Lou Reed. The chaotic Let The Storm Be You’re Your Pilot implies anxiety and agitation, Fischer’s drifting whispered vocals intensifying the sense of misgiving.

A poignant and fitting farewell that sits alongside Regard The End (2003) as a career highlight from an artist whose body of work, if there is any justice, will be uncovered, recognised and valued by generations going forward.