Reviews by Declan Culliton

Courtney Marie Andrews May Your Kindness Remain Loose

Honest Life, released in 2017 by Courtney Marie Andrews, was considered by many as one of the stand out albums of the year, remarkably the sixth release in the career for the 26-year-old Arizona born artist.

Having toured continuously from January through to August last year, the material that makes up the ten tracks on May Your Kindness Remain, unlike its predecessor, was essentially written while on the road and shifts to a wider lens perspective than the it’s more personal predecessor. Its overriding themes are in the main observations of ordinary people struggling to survive, reflecting the plight and disintegration of the working and middle classes in America and the resultant pressures on the individual in an ever-changing materialistic world. They read as real-life tales, the bones of which may have been overheard and conceived by Andrews in coffee shops, bars and motel lobbies on her travels across small town America. Much of the material was performed live by Andrews during the latter half of her tour last year, revealing a fuller sound than the more acoustic feel of her previous album.

Having self-produced Honest Life, on this occasion Andrews sought out producer Mark Howard, whose previous employers included Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Marianne Faithfull. Heading straight from her tour to California with her band, the album was completed in eight days in a rented house converted into a studio in Los Angeles. Given that much of the material had been performed on tour the recording reflects in the main ‘first takes’ (‘recorded in a circle without a click or fancy programs, looking into my bands eyes’) or at most just one overdub. Andrews, a most accomplished guitarist in her own right, was joined in the studio by her trusted band members Dillon Warnek on guitar, Daniel Walter and Charles Wicklander on keyboards, Alex Sabel on bass and William Mapp on drums. The addition of Gospel soul singer C.C. White, who provides backing vocals on a number of tracks, appears to have led Andrews own vocals in a more soulful and dynamic direction, no doubt also influenced by her immersion in Motown and Soul music while on the road.

If How Quickly Your Heart Mends was the standout song from Honest Life and the track that generated much of the interest for that album, it’s more than matched here by the excellent Kindness of Strangers with powerful layered vocals by Andrews and White together with some wicked guitar breaks by Warnek. The dying American dream and gentrification is the spark for Two Cold Nights In Buffalo (‘What happened to the middle-class, Mom and Pop, Five and Dimes’). The title track is a plea to a failing friend blinded by materialism and avarice (‘And if your money runs out and your good looks fade, may your kindness remain’). I’ve Hurt Worse may be sly humour but more likely a tale of resignation and acceptance of a mundane relationship (‘I like you honey, you don't listen to a word I say, I like you honey, when you interrupt me anyway’). Rough Around The Edges reflects on mental illness and personal trauma that often goes unnoticed and the difficulty in keeping a relationship on the rails in the circumstance (‘Don’t feel like picking up the damn phone today’). Border, representing a topical concern in America and further afield at present, is the wild card on the album, a punchy organ driven rocker.

May Your Kindness Remain is a brave departure from a fearless and assured young artist willing to take challenging career risks in support of her art. It’s not Honest Life Part 2 but another chapter in the wide ranging musical template of one of America’s most talented young female singer songwriters. Intoxicating and highly recommended.

Hans Chew Open Sea At The Helm

I've a fond memory -and damaged hearing- from a gig by Hans Chew in the back room of Ryan’s in Kilkenny some a few years ago. The venue comfortably accommodates around forty punters but the sound engineer- on Chew's direction - had the volume at what seemed like stadium levels. Pre-warned by the most engaging and likeable Tennessee born piano player, what followed was an ear bleeding but more than entertaining introduction to a talented young man. 

A native of Chattanooga in Tennessee, Chew’s splendid 2010 debut album Tennessee and Other Songs turned a lot of heads and found him a slot in the growing Americana genre at that time. Influenced by his mother’s tastes in Hendrix and The Stones and his father’s passion for classical music he's quoted as making the point that he knew Beethoven's 5th before Led Zeppelins Fourth! 

His latest album Open Sea sounds like it was recorded somewhere between 1968 and 1972. Featuring his regular guitar player Dave Cavallo, Chew has also drawn on the services of Jimy SeiTang and Rob Smith of New York band Rhyton to add bass and drums. It contains only six tracks but collectively they stretch to over forty minutes. The epic second track Cruikshank, at eight minutes long and with more than one extended guitar solo, could be from a lost Blind Faith or Allman Brothers album or indeed a Led Zeppelin demo that was  considered just not quite heavy enough to make Houses Of The Holy. The title track at seven minutes is no slacker either, even if dangerously close in content and melody to Blind Faith’s Can't Find My Way Home. Whom Am Your Love follows a similar path with an addictive groove that pays homage to Traffic. Freely is steeped in Brit Folk, Chew’s slick piano work duelling with Dave Cavallo’s guitar pickings in the style of Richard Thompson.

Open Sea may not be fashionable in today's often overly controlled markets. I mean, who would consider recording an album forty one minutes long featuring only six tracks with pounding drums, ripping guitar breaks, thumping bass lines and sounding like it was put down in one take? Hans Chew would and more power to him, it's a complete blast! 

Dean Owens Southern Wind At The Helm

Another under the radar artist that continues to release quality music, Edinburgh singer songwriter Dean Owens is typically a ‘musicians / musician’, highly regarded by his peers for both his creative writing ability and versatility. Southern Wind, his first release on At The Helm Records, is his seventh studio recording and was recorded in Nashville under the watchful eye of in demand producer Neilson Hubbard who also worked with Owens on his 2015 release Into The Sea. Much of the writing was in collaboration with his close friend Will Kimbrough, a superb musician in his own right and an artist very much on the same page as Owens. Their combined lyrics capture the moments beautifully across the thirteen songs on the fifty-six minutes that make up the album.

The rocking opener The Last Song, complete with yelps and whoops, is followed by the storming title track Southern Wind, currently on release as a single. The album especially excels where Owens recalls and reminisces on youthful and more innocent times. Elvis Was My Brother evokes memories of a childhood friend whose fascination with Elvis compensated for his absent father. Louisville Lip pays homage to his own childhood hero Muhammad Ali and Madeira Street, where Owens grew up, recalls his childhood, influenced no doubt by the untimely passing of his sister a few years ago.  The plight of the homeless is considered on Anything Helps and the bittersweet Famous Last Words brings to mind mid-career Elvis Costello at his most sentimental. However, the real highlight of the album is the stunner Bad News, it’s not the first time its theme -the lover to be avoided-has been visited and Owen’s interpretation is as good as any of its predecessors.

All in all, a cracking album that I’ll be often revisiting in the coming months by one of the standout Americana artists dwelling this side of the pond.

Clara Rose The Offering Self Release

It’s a particularly busy time for Irelands premier blues singer Clara Rose. Her recent Ladies In The Blues tour, accompanied by Flo MciSweeney, Emma Nicolai and Jhil Quinn, is followed by her third album release titled The Offering, in the wake of her debut A Portfolio (2010) and EP Queen Of The Late Night Radio (2012).

A Bachelor of Music holder from N.U.I. Maynooth and an All-Ireland Medal winner for Sen-Nos singing, Rose can also boast a Music Therapy Masters from The University of Limerick.  She has toured with a host of household names including Jack L, The Waterboys, Horslips and Eleanor Mc Evoy. She has also collaborated with harmonica and blues legend Don Baker, the perfect musically suited partnership, recording Baker and Rose in 2016.

Very much in her comfort zone when blasting out the blues, The Offering is evidence that Rose is anything but a one trick pony, with the material also straying seamlessly into modern folk and soft soul vibes over the ten tracks that feature on the album. Cardboard City Blues has jazzy overtones with hints of Sade in evidence and Tightrope Walkers is catchy, poppy, radio friendly fare. 

However, the stand out tracks feature Rose doing what she does best in belting out the blues. The Queen Of The Late Night Radio, Love Sweet Love and her cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball And Chain all showcase her exceptional vocal range. 

Recorded under the eagle eye of producer Gavin Glass in his Orphan Studio over a seven-day period, the album features Rose’s regular band members Sean Beatty, Tony Mc Manus and Michael Black. Additional vocals were provided by Elizabeth Monahan, Claire Mc Laughlin and Paula Higgins. 

A lady that can most definitely can sing the blues, delivering an album that further establishes her as one of Ireland’s finest female vocalists. An album well worth checking out and don’t miss out on the chance to catch her live given the opportunity.

Jerry Leger Nonsense and Heartaches Latent 

Four years after recording his debut album Early Riser, Canadian artist Jerry Ledger has released Nonsense and Heartaches on Latent Recordings, the label headed by Michael Timmons (Cowboy Junkies, Natalie Merchant, Mary Gauthier, June Tabor), who also produced the double album at The Hanger, Toronto.

It’s actually more accurately described as two separate albums as the raucous Nonsense has little in common with the more acoustic laid-back feel of Heartaches – with the exception that the same musicians contributed to both recordings. The musicians in question are James McKie (lap steel, fiddle, guitars), Dan Mock (bass, vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums, vocals) and songwriter Jerry Leger who provides vocals, guitar and piano.

Michael Timmons could never be accused of over production and Nonsense delivers raw ‘first take’ bluesy tones which works particularly well on the Frankie Millar sounding opener Coat On The RackForged Check has a Johnny Kidd and The Pirates vibe and shades of Pancho & Lefty can be heard on Wedding Dress. On The Fishing Line is unapologetic blues recalling Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster.

Heartaches heads in an entirely different direction, its countrified folk sound working best on Things Are Changing Around Here and Another Dead Radio Star. Leger’s impressive vocals and piano dominate on Lucy And Little Billy The Kid and Pawn Shop Piano, the latter a reflection of the day to day existence of many a musician which benefits from the combined vocals of Leger and Angie Hilts.

Well worth investigating with Nonsense perfect for the car CD player and Heartache more suited for a feet up, end of the day nightcap. 

Jesse Terry Natural Jackson Beach

A graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Natural is Jesse Terry’s fifth album release, his previous recording Stargazer having only been released six months ago. Natural is an album that features many of the female vocalists particularly admired by him, some being personal friends, others being artists he previously worked with. Included are Dar Williams, Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope, Liz Longley, Annie Clements, Erin Rae, Sarah Darling, and Kim Richey. The album contains eleven self-written songs together with the inclusion of Jeff Lynne’s Mr. Blue Sky, a track which Liz Longley contributes backing vocals. Produced by Josh Kaler at EastSide Manor Studios in Nashville (Kaler also adds drums, bass, guitar and ukulele), the songs are stripped right back with the vocals being the main focus at all times.

It’s a most impressive body of work that not only highlights Terry’s own talents but also that of the wonderful, in the main Nashville based, female vocalists who contribute. Much of the material could be compared to Sufjan Stevens at his most melodic. Music and song writing has given Terry the tools to deal with and overcome a turbulent childhood which included spells in reform school and recovery from a drug overdose at the age of eighteen. The album suggests a young man at peace with himself and nowhere more so than on I Was An Island written on The Aran Islands and one of two tracks that feature Kim Richey on vocals. Beautiful Way To Get Home is unhurried and patient with dreamy cello playing by Larissa Maestro and gorgeous harmonies by Terry and Erin Rae. Other highlights are Stargazer featuring Dar Williams and the closing title track, an evocative love song containing only guitar and vocals by Terry, perfectly bookending the album.

Natural scores on many fronts, from the delightful packaging to the musical content. It’s a welcome introduction to Jesse Terry and listeners should be also encouraged to visit his back catalogue, together with the work of all the female contributors, many of who are indeed well known and admired by Lonesome Highway.