Reviews by Stephen Rapid

David Ramirez ‘Fables’ Thirty Tigers

The latest album from the troubadour is full of his rich baritone voice and sweet pedal steel guitar. A mix that emphasises his sense of aloneness and understanding of how the nature of his working life allows little in the way of a personal and private life. There is a certain romance in that life but it is one that creates a certain way of thinking (and acting). It also leads, in time, to a growth in terms of maturing and his understanding of himself and those he interacts with.

These ten songs need time to get truly acquainted with but reward that perseverance. The album opens with Communion, a song that hopes for the development of a relationship, which might end up with participants finding a space of mutual consent and closeness. Sonically you are immediately immersed in the textured guitar of producer Noah Gunderson (an artist in his own right who recently released his album Carry The Ghost) and the pedal steel guitar of either Greg Leisz or Brian Douglas Phillips. These sounds are played over the solid foundation of the rhythm section of Micah Simler and Jonny Gundersen. Abby Gunderson also joins the musician line-up on violin and cello. Something of a family affair for the Gunderson’s then.

The songs have a context that moves from track to track evoking a selection of feelings that are often melancholy or morose in attitude, while at the same time being uplifting by dint of the overall musical conviction in which they are rendered. Harder To Lie, Rock And A Hard Place and Ball & Chain - the latter considers the life of a traveling independent musician - are all titles that give clues to the lyrical themes being expressed. Despite these downbeat drifts, a song like That Ain’t Love has a positive musical spirit that centres around a memorable chorus that will soon have you singing along. There are other songs that are more up-tempo but still hold some hard thoughts like with Hold On where the subject seeks something, however small, to hold on as he walks the line between “cocaine and communion wine.”

This album will take time to bring out the best in these downbeat songs and dissolute attitudes but that does not take away from a sympathetic production, sterling playing and a voice that has the ring of truth. That, for many lives, is not easy as we create our own fables of existence and entertainment.

John Moreland ‘In The Throes’ At The Helm

This is Moreland’s debut album, now available in these parts, via At The Helm. It comes as his recentl (and reviewed here) U.S album High On Tulsa Heat, also hit the shelves. This album was also produced by Moreland himself and again features his talents as a multi-instrumentalist on many tracks. He is also joined on three tracks by an additional pianist, bass and drummer and pedal steel player. As with his current album this shows the strengths that Moreland has as a songwriter. One who bares his soul in a fairly relentless but open and honest description of emotional pain.

Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore has a pedal steel threaded through its melodic heart and a rumination of a songwriter existing on the fringes of indie land Americana. As a writer he is not about the simple verse and chorus patterns of many a chart chasing song. These songs are wordy and worthy and the simple setting of some, largely just guitar and voice based, like 3:59 AM or Blacklist, allows them to take centre stage. Many will find that they bear a similarity with the more stripped back songs of Bruce Springsteen in their depiction of life’s rougher edges and the characters who try to survive in such circumstances. Though, equally, he can up the tempo if not the honest brutality on a song as in Oh Julia.

In that respect, there is little of the light relief or band-backed big choruses that you would find in much of Springsteen’s more crowd pleasing music. But then again maybe Moreland isn’t looking for that kind of recognition at this point of time. He has played, produced and written these songs so presumably this is the way he wants them to sound. That is something you, as listener, will either find favour with or simply not particularly want to share space with.

John Moreland is from Tulsa and proud of the fact judging from the fact he has Oklahoma tattooed on his knuckles. He is no pretty boy with a pop upbringing, rather he came up through the punk and hard-core scenes. Something that, no doubt, is part of his no compromise approach to how he makes his music. That music has already appeared in shows like Sons Of Anarchy and it is easy to see how it fits that show. He is not without his fans and admirers and his most recent albums are testament to his talent. In The Throes is not for everyone and should be ignored by those who like their music light. For those who like more light and shade, who give a damn about songs, they should take John Moreland as seriously as he does.

Austin Lucas ‘Between The Moon And The Midwest’ At The Helm

Unbroken Hearts, the song that opens Austin Lucas’ third album, starts with some ambient sound before he sings the lines “I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album.” Given that this album was reportedly originally done for but rejected by his former label New West,underscores the tedious nature of making music either as an independent artist or one signed to a major label. The title of the album is a line from the song about how dreams and ambitions can be so easily crushed. About how Lucas feels beaten but has an unbroken heart for his music.

Lucas worked with Joey Kneiser on the album (who recently released his own album The Wildness) which has the feel of some of the new traditionalists of the late 80s. Sensible songs that are fuelled by steel guitar and a pinch of the psychedelic stylings associated with an even earlier decade of country-rock. The promo copy supplied has no credits for the musicians involved but from reading online it would seem that helping out are Cory Branan, John Moreland and Lydia Loveless dueting on Wrong Side Of The Dream and presumably on the other songs where female backing vocals also appear. There are many other strong songs here such as Pray For Rain, The Flame and Call The Doctor wherein the protagonist feels that the doctor, the preacher and even higher powers won’t be able help him.

Lucas is another artist who has a punk rock background and uses that platform and directness to inform his writing. The playing is strong with guitar, piano and steel over a solid and driving rhythm section on a set of songs that vary tempos and emotions. For instance, Next To You is a mid-paced song, while The Flame turns up the heat, contrasting again with the acoustic and stripped back essence of William. All of which make for a satisfying album. The latest in a long line of recordings that have won him fans and friends. That Lucas has not sustained his deal with one of the more established labels may mean that recognition in a wider context may be harder. Equally his music is perhaps better placed with a label that believes in him as much as he, obviously, believes in his music. Between The Moon And The Midwest is an album deserving of attention and is solidly within the boundaries of alt-country broader pastures. Lucas possesses a voice that is right for these times.

Cale Tyson ‘Careless Soul’ Clubhouse

Lauded as one of ten country stars you need to know by Rolling Stone the Nashville based, Texas-born singer/ songwriter is about to release his debut album Careless Soul, which was recorded  at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. He previously released two EPs in the States which were combined for release in the UK by Clubhouse Records. Fame Studios has lately attracted some contemporary country artists through its doors seeking to combine the essence of country storytelling with some soulful spiced ingredients.

Producer Michael Rinne has gathered together a selection of players from Nashville alongside renowned musician like Dave Hood, long associated with the Fame Studio. The Music City players include Skyler Wilson, Jeremy Fetzer from Steelism and some players who are set to accompany him on his upcoming tour of these isles - Smoking’ Brett Resnick on steel guitar alongside Peter Lindberg. Jordan Leaning was the man responsible for the string and horn arrangements

The music is imbued with a relaxed, southern vibe throughout but especially for the first three tracks with rolling brass and smooth backing vocals. Easy then kicks up the tempo and gets a bit more rowdy with some twangy guitar that leans towards a hint of funk too. Travelling Man is a steel guitar infused country ballad that highlights the expressive nature of Tyson’s voice. The addition of strings and horns adds a new dimension to his work and sounds like a big step forward in many ways. There are no writing credits on the promo pre-release so I assume that they are original songs though Pain In My Heart sounds not unlike the Otis Redding song of the same name. Things get more honky-tonk orientated then with Railroad Blues. Dark Dark sounds like a second cousin to the song Dark Moon while High Lonesome Hill has the feel of a traditional song that could work in a bluegrass treatment but is here inhabited by the soul of Hank Williams Sr.

Piano and brass then give Gonna Love A Woman a certain jaunty stance while Pain Reprise is a short instrumental version of Pain In My Heart. The album closes with another big ballad on which Tyson again shines with an emotive vocal performance. The song opens with strings then slowly builds with acoustic guitar and steel guitar. Like the other songs here the theme is of a love that is lost, found or strayed. Songs that are easy to understand and empathize with their universality and with the overall connnectiveness of the production and performances here; that further underscore why Cale Tyson is being picked as a name to watch for in country music circles in a way that makes the music thoroughly progressive with resorting to making it into with rap, pop or light weight faux metal. Tyson on this showing is packing a heavyweight punch.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tim Houlihan   ‘Another Orion’   Self Release

This Minneapolis, Minnesota based artist has released a debut album that has shades of The Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash in the overall feel. Though it is released under Houlihan’s name, he is joined by his band throughout, who bring a more organic sound to the proceedings. They are featured in a group photo on the cover and are Todd Lester on drums, Paul Madsen on bass and guitarist Jon James Benson. They are joined by some guests, notably producer Kevin Bowe who is a interesting artist in his own right, recording with his band the Okemah Prophets.  Other guests include vocalists Sarah Morris and keyboard player Charlie Peterson. All in all they deliver a full, warm sounding, non-edgy, easy-to-like set of original songs.

Houlihan has composed all the songs, with a couple of co-writes, and they cover a range of tempos and moods to good effect. Producer Bowe also plays guitar and does programming on a number of tracks and generally makes sure to get the best from the songs. There is the melodic drive of the 12 string electric guitar driven Beneath The Surface Of The Well, together with the rockier takes of What’s Gonna Happen To Me and Fair Retreat. Guitars are fairly fundamental to the overall sound along with Houlihan’s confident lead vocals and the vocal harmonies which support him. All are executed with an understanding of the songs and give them their heart and soul.

There isn’t a duff track among the ten featured and while there is no one immediate stand-out there is a constancy to the album that makes it largely work in context. Nothing you have not heard before but equally for the same reasons, one that is comfortable without ever being bland. An album where the songs grow with greater familiarity and soon sound like some old friends.

John Moreland   ‘High On Tulsa Heat’   Thirty Tigers

A writer whose songs have some real depth and (broken) heart. This is Moreland’s second album after his debut, In The Throes. Moreland has again produced this set of songs and there is little gloss or application of the ‘big sound’ to the recording. Many of the songs are stripped back in instrumentation which brings them down to the essence of Moreland’s words, guitar and voice. With his leaden grey sky of a voice for the ages these songs seem filled with hardship and hard luck. That voice however is a deep and resonant vehicle, one that changes little from song to song. The arrangements are equally simple and direct - yet effective. Having said that its appeal may be limited by a certain sameness of the tempo and mood. There is little relief over the ten songs.

But like the blues there are those who will find solace and reward in these songs. It is a compelling enough album to hold your attention if you let the crafted wordsmith’s lyrics sink in and the CD has a lyric booklet that makes for a compelling read. They are opaque at times but, as such, allow one to draw subjective meaning from them.

“Baby Lay down your price break poems, while I sit and mumble at your feet. Am I a stone or a stoned kid dreaming up a closet full of crumbled teeth.” These are the opening lines of Sad Baptist Rain and are indicative of his poetic writing style. Yet, as with all the best lyricists, they make perfect sense delivered on the album either in a stripped down setting or with a full band behind him. American Flags In Black & White, another song here, tells of a reminiscence of a favoured person captured in an old photograph. Here Moreland plays all the instruments involved - guitars, bass and drums. Elsewhere he brings in upright bass, pedal steel, guitar and dobro. The latter played by Jared Tyler who also plays with another highly individual and uncompromising songwriter Malcolm Holcombe.

There is no doubt that John Moreland has his advocates as well as those who would dismiss this music out of hand. The title track and final song shows that Moreland can be musically more adventurous (there is a synth included on one track, for instance, that broadens the sonic scope of the song) and that his music is well capable of developing in different ways.

It all depends largely where John Moreland wants to take his music and what he might be comfortable with. In the meantime both his albums are rewarding excursions into an inner soul and a truthful reading of what can be found there and how a listener can find the empathy to enjoy Moreland’s personal take on life.

Aaron Watson  ‘The Underdog’  Big Label

This Texas musician has made numerous albums largely for his fan-base in the States who appreciate his take on country music. Something more rooted in the country music of the 80s and 90s than that of today’s charts. So it was interesting that this album went to the top of the Billboard country charts on its release. This is his 12th album and he is not likely to be going to change his essence at this point. Veteran producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson) is at the helm here with Watson and they give the album an upbeat and full on production. It was recorded in Nashville with some of the A-team players like Eddie Byers, Paul Franklin and Brent Mason.

Watson has had a hand in most of the songs either on his own or with a number of other co-writers. Names like Stegall, Troy Olsen or Jim Beavers may be familiar to some. These are songs that Watson can relate to in his life such as Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song) written his deceased child. Perhaps though the final song Fence Post can be said to sum up his whole raison d'être. It deals with his rejection by Music Row and the music they wanted him to perform. “I’d rather sing my own songs than be a puppet on a string … I’d rather be an old fence post in Texas than the king of Tennessee”.

He tells of his return to Texas where it took him a mere ten years to be an overnight sensation. Watson has stuck to his guns (or guitar) and created something he feels comfortable playing and singing. It’s country music for sure. Not the most edgy or adventurous you might find nor is it outlaw orientated but it is solid, dependable, enjoyable and versatile.

Songs like The Prayer, That’s Why God Loves Cowboys, That’s Gonna Leave A Mark and Rodeo Queen all make an impression as standouts. Real country music made for Texas dancehall and for country fans worldwide. Aaron Watson probably has enough work to keep him busy in the States but would doubtless find many fans on this side of the water too. His album equally would be well received by those who still see country music as a genre in its own right not adulterated by rap, pop and hair rock. Every underdog should have its day.

 Vince Gill  'Down To My Last Bad Habit'  MCA Nashville

I looked forward to this album. Gill’s Dublin date a while back was an exercise in how to play country music live rather than heavy rock disguised as such that we had witnessed from other Nashville big label artists. One quick listen will make you realise that this is really not just a country album, rather it is a mature take on a R’n’B sound that sees Gill give his usual customary performance as both a guitarist and singer. But, in truth, it is a far cry from some of his earlier work. It is smooth, soulful and sincere; just not the country of his previous work such as his last Bakersfield tribute album with Paul Franklin.

But Gill sounds comfortable here and listening to the songs you can see that they easily could be shifted down the dial to a more countrified setting. But as producer (with Justin Niebank) this is what Gill wanted the album to sound like. The rhythm section of Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan is bound to set the foundation for the sound. Over that you have his friend and country player Paul Franklin mixing his pedal steel with other less obvious players like Dean Parks on guitar, among others.

Vocally Gill gives a sterling vocal performance that is totally suited to his range and delivery. Perhaps one of his best in years. The songs, as mentioned, could have been tracked in several ways but here he has taken the blue-eyed soul route. A sound that he has touched on before but never to the degree he uses it as a foundation, as witnessed here. It is mature, accomplished and perfectly acceptable music that will please many of his fans with an open mind to what he places before them. At this point in his career he is perfectly entitled to engage himself with his music in any way he pleases. It will still doubtless register on the country charts but be warned that, good as it is, The Time Jumpers it ain’t.

Brothers Osborne  'Pawn Shop'  EMI Nashville

These brothers have been working and playing in Nashville for some time before getting signed to EMI Nashville. A big deal you may think but despite touring with label mate Eric Church it has taken some time for this debut album to get released. That was on the back of some success with the single Stay A Little Longer. Which itself took a long time to register in the upper reaches of the charts. Now comes the album which may best be described as more rootsy rock that country. Something that Jay Joyce’s production places (delete) emphasises. There are a lot of loud guitar breaks from brother John while J.T. is the lead vocalist. Both have presence and deliver in their own right as well as a duo. There are quite a few clips of them playing on You Tube as a duo and acoustically from which you can judge them, prior to all the studio and production shine, has taken them to a much bigger place - music wise at least.

Joined in the studio by a full band that includes guest vocals from Lee Ann Womack. These players are not the usual A-team whose names you see on most releases but a set of musicians who none-the-less deliver the necessary goods over the eleven songs. The brothers have written all the songs with a large variety of co-writers and some work better than others. Rum is another fairly typical drinking song while American Crazy is a little generic in its depiction of a common man ethos.

But in context these songs fit with the overall sound and some standout from the rest such as Stay A Little Longer with its long guitar coda at the end, something that was edited on the single version. The title track opens with acoustic instruments before kicking it up a notch or two and has a bluesy feel built around the repeat title refrain.

Loving Me Back contrasts J.T’s deep baritone with Womack’s sweeter harmony. There is more than a touch of 80s country with Greener Pastures which also works well. The penultimate song Heart Shaped Locket has a more generic structure with both brothers singing and the acoustic instruments too the fore. It is the only song other than Rum not produced by Joyce and may give some idea of how the album may have sounded in the brothers hands.

With the success the Zac Brown Band and more recently Chris Stapleton it might just be the right time for Brothers Osborne to gain some more consistent radio play and to be viewed in a more open minded way by a wider audience. While overall, though it can’t really be classified as a country album in the classic sense, it will be seen as such by many; but there is no doubt that some of these songs, with the duos musical and vocal talent, could have easily been cut that way in a different time. For now this is an album that, on its own terms, is not without its accessibility and pleasures.

Courtney Yasmineh 'Red Letter Day (Unplugged)'  Stupid Bitch

Taking the unusual step of releasing two albums of the same title this New York based singer/songwriter offers two perspectives on the same songs. It is the 5 track mini unplugged version of the songs that has gained the most attention here. The expanded 9 track full band version is not without its merits in its slightly roots, more indie rock setting, but while some the players common to both full and the unplugged versions. It is the latter that seems to give the songs more space to breathe.

It opens with Stupid With Your Love which despite lacking amplification doesn’t lack power. Something that is true of the rest of the songs here. Recorded in Minneapolis and produced by fellow player Rob Genadek the four players do Yasmineh’s self and co-written songs justice. There is percussion, bass and some electric guitar as well as acoustic guitars behind Yasmineh’s convincing and expressive voice.

I assume that it is Casey Smith adding the harmony vocals as she is not listen on the full band album. The songs are built around some solid melodies and the words are memorable enough to make an impression. These are observational songs that take love, life and travel as an axis to build the words around. Stupid With Your Love and Friend Of Mine are immediately memorable here and the other three titles are not far behind, all of which have made me return to this version many times. However if you want all more electricity and drive in the delivery also check out the far more rollicking takes on the main album too.

Yasmineh could well appeal to a wide audience with either of these two albums as her songs and expressive voice have the potential to appeal across the board in different settings. Whether you're keen on the likes of Lucinda Williams or Liz Phair or somewhere in between, then throw an ear her way.