Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Hannah Johnson Shaken Wood Ville

This is a solo album from a member of the UK roots/bluegrass band The Toy Hearts which was recorded in Austin at the Amerpolitan Studios. Hannah,  her sister Sophia and Cris Burns produced this collection of original songs and covers and they were in the right place to pick up some excellent players to realise their vision. These include drummer Tom Lewis with Johnson’s father Stewart on electric and pedal steel guitars and a number of others. Throughout the playing is top notch and it is all topped by Hannah Johnson’s versatile and expressive voice.

The album opens with two original songs, Nowhere Train, a song that takes the notion of a train as that of a relationship and is followed by the more reflective bluesy Morning Cocktail which contrasts nicely and shows that her future as a writer is getting off to a good start. The other original is a co-write and has a humour in its tale of adverse relationships between woman. There’s some jazzy, swing playing with nice piano to enhance the mood. Your Girlfriend Hates Me completes that trio and the remaining covers come from a number of sources. 

Gotta Get You From That Crowd is a Skeets McDonald song with some effective vocal harmonies and fiddle. Three Days is the well know Willie Nelson song which has a slick 60’s feel that Johnson delivers with gusto. Never No More is a song recorded by Patsy Cline and her influence is here both musically and vocally. Sooner Or Later was a Bob Wills co-write and again has that period touch that is satisfying and shows that Johnson has a love and appreciation of some of the best names and musical directions in classic country. Not In Birmingham was written by Roger Miller, although he write it as Nottingham in the original (Johnson is from Birmingham so that explains the location change to make it more personal). It also has a nice guitar break in it. Gail Owen wrote West Texas Lullaby and it is a more recent song having first been recorded in the late 90s. Charlie Patton, the Delta blues singer wrote Shake It & Break It the song that close out this impressive album as a short uptempo song with a stripped back skiffle feel. An assured album from a musician who has a understanding of how to bring the past forward and give it a shake or two.

Ciara Sidine Unbroken Line Self Release

After a much praised debut album, the Dublin-based singer/songwriter returns with her second album. The standard has been kept up here too. Produced by noted guitarist Conor Brady and Sidine herself, it is a considered approach to her take on Americana, filtered back through an underlying Irish sensibility. The album opens in style with Finest Flower a brooding song with lots of atmosphere and an emotive vocal. The song’s harrowing lyric is based on the testimony of survivors of institutional abuse. Indeed the vocals throughout are impressive. Next is a take on a well know traditional song, Woman Of Constant Sorrow which features a new lyric and a Sidine arrangement. This is followed by 2 Hard 2 Get 2 Heaven which has a more soulful feel with keyboards a main feature. 

After that opening trio Sidine further explores a number of musical options like the late night jazz tinged Watching The Dark, and a rockabilly-fuelled Wooden Bridge. The sensual River Road complements the subtly of Take Me With You which tells of roads travelled together. The languid, longing of Lemme Drive Your Train is measured against the female perspective of Trouble Come Find Me. The title track and Let The Rain Fall again show the skill of the musicians creating a setting for Sidine’s often cautionary but crucial writing. The album ends with the more acoustic based Little Bird Song that has the sibling harmonies of Sidine and Michelle Considine.

That song closes the album as strongly as it began and places Sidine at the top of her game. It is no easy feat to produce an album these days. There is, more often than not, no well-oiled team pushing an independent artist’s release. It takes a belief and conviction in what one is producing, but when the end result proves itself worth of the effort than that is reward in itself. Unbroken Line should find  wider acceptance, a large audience and acclaim for its articulate and alluring music.

Kate Ellis Carve Me Out River Rose

This is the debut album from Louisiana born and now London based singer/songwriter.  Ellis’ smooth blend of country and folk pays off and heralds a new and rewarding talent. The thing about the broad based roots/Americana scene is that a lot of people are in and around the same formats. So in the end, it comes down, as it nearly always does in the genre, to the song and how it is delivered. Ellis has a number of songs that immediately hit home especially Ones You Love The Most which muses on how we always seems to hurt them. But the opening song Don’t Lie To Me tells of a heart-felt truth at the core of establishing a wild relationship. I Believe is a hopeful expression of belief in another person while in contrast Night Before Dawn looks at the darkest hours. Going Against The Grain has a male duet vocal from Bryan Miller which is effective and eloquent. 

There is a compassion for her fellow man (and woman) that is delivered with a melodic gentleness that is compelling and easy to like. The songs are never over sung or over produced, rather the playing is totally in sympathy with the nature of the sings. There are four producers credited as well as different set of players yet the vision set by the songs and Ellis’ voice has made the overall delivery consistent. One of the producers is Andy Hobsbawn who wrote Don’t Lie To Me and co-wrote two others with Ellis. The assembled players mix an understated rhythm section with violin, pedal steel, Dobro, melodica and piano on various tracks. All contribute to the warmth that the album exudes.

Like many similar artists Ellis has the potential to go on to surpass this initial statement of intent and one can only hope that the reaction she get here will help her sustain her music in order to progress and further reach to a wider audience so that it will become a ladder to greater heights. All the elements are here and Kate Ellis wants to carve herself a long lasting career. You can help with that by listening and purchasing.

Heather Lynne Horton Don’t Mess With Mrs.Murphy At The Helm

A member of The Westies with her husband Michael McDermott, this is Heather’s second solo album (following Postcard Saturdays) and it offers a wider sonic template than might be expected from her membership of The Westies. There is a certain ethereal feel and diffusion in her voice that is matched by the atmospherics in the music. The man in charge of pulling the whole thing together was Lex Price, a multi-instrumentalist who has worked as bassist with such artists as Miranda Lambert and Rodney Crowell. One track that sums the multi-layered approach is the immediately arresting Did You Feel That? Save The Rain express the wish to protect her daughter (Rain) from the darker forces that life tends to place in a person’s path. It also understands the vulnerability that that often engenders. 

As a writer, observer and advocate Horton looks at disability issues in the song Wheelchair Man. Elsewhere she looks at other issues but she does so in a way that is not the least preachy. It takes several listens before you get past the pure sound on a song, the layered use of voice, the reverb saturated instrumentation. But these can be no doubting her strength of character and her forthright opinions with a song like F.U., the lyrics of which contain some highly amusing but strategically melodic put-downs for a woman who seemed intent on making a move on her man! However there is also a strong sense of femininity throughout which is viewed from different angles from the person in Murphy’s Law who falls for the wrong man but, though knowing it, wants to be with that person. 

The album closes (almost) with a song that is a reflection of a fairly universal wish. It is a seven minute plus summation of all aspect of life, from love and longing to an overall statement of how a life is and what it might entail in the long-term. I Wanna Die In My Sleep signs off an album that reveals much as you get acquainted with its subtle intricacies and nuances. By way of contrast there is an unlisted track that follows, a duet between husband and wife, You’re The One That I Want, that is powerful in its simplicity and directness. Mrs Horton doesn’t mess about when it comes to her music. Neither should you. 

Lynn Jackson Follow That Fire Busted Flat

This is the ninth album released by Canadian singer/songwriter Jackson. For this collection of her songs she decided to hand over the reins to an outside person and choose Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies fame to produce. It was recorded in Timmins’ Hanger Studio in Toronto. The group of players includes drummer (and fellow Cowboy Junkie) Peter Timmins, steel player Aaron Goldstein and Aaron Comeau on lead guitar and keyboard who set about recording these dark and, at times, dreamy songs. These is a strong element of keyboards (both organ and piano) that are central to the sound, a layered folk-referencing sound that sits discreetly (for the most part) behind Jackson’s distinctive vocals.

The fourth song Alice is a scripted evocation of hard times and harder choices in a small town environment where there are “strength in numbers, and everyone knows everyone” and “everything that you do.” It is also a tale with a grim and fateful twist that has an unexpected end. It is largely sung over a sparse acoustic setting that reinforces the directness of the song. Meet Me In The City features a harmony vocal from Andy Maize (of The Skydiggers) on a song dedicated to Paul McLeod a friend and inspiration who had passed away. She tells him she will “hold you for all my days.” The delivery is compassionate and nuanced and there is some delicate guitar and keyboard playing that helps set the tone for the heartfelt tribute. Random Breakdowns, False Starts & New Beginnings is also for McLeod. 

Timming’ production bears something of his own band in its approach. Nothing is overplayed but the effect overall is peaceful. The album closes with a song that sums up an approach to life that sums up her attitude; No Regrets looks at divesting oneself of anything that helps to tie you down before you head out on “that long highway” while finding herself “finally free.” There are ten original songs featured that offer something of a new direction and sonic palette for Jackson. Perhaps a good place to start, if like me, this is your first encounter with her music. It will be an interesting journey from this point onward for her fans to follow.

Lesley Kernochan A Calm Sun Maple Syrup

Another exponent of roots music from Los Angeles Lesley Kernochan has just released her latest album of original songs. This time out however she has taken a less eclectic approach and delivered an album that balances her folk and country sides. The cover image may suggest the former but there is also plenty of the latter to be found in the songs. Songs like Tumbleweed and Old Fisherman’s Song are immediately memorable and genre variable. The pedal steel and guitar in Country In The City sees Kernochan at her closest to an overall country sound though a sense of Americana is prevalent throughout the album.

There is a sunny West Coast feel on many of the tracks which translates into a relaxed feel to  these songs. However there is also Dobro, lap and pedal steel guitar and mandolin all provided by one time Mavericks guitarist Ben Peeler who shares this task with another noted player in Dean Parks. Suffice it to say that this album is an easy and impressive listen. There are at times a jazzy/bluesy feel to some of Kernochan’s vocal delivery. She has a clear and concise voice that is able to be commanding in the context of the songs. Country In The City simply enthuses that there is nothing better than dancing with abandon to a zydeco band. While The Chocolate Tree notes that “life is bittersweet” which contrasts with the feeling that family is key and how her Mama “gave me a great start in the world.” Lyrically it is more folk than country; so less of the story-songwriting of the latter, rather more lyrical observation and allegory overall.

There have been some comparisons to other, mainly, West Coast female artists that show that Kernochan is being considered as being on similar ground vocally. All of which suggest that this album will be well received overall and that it may well be her best release to date. Kernochan has co-produced the album with John Scimpf and Scott Jacoby in a couple of studios in California and certainly A Calm Sun lives up to its title being both warm and peaceful. Who wouldn’t want to bask in some of that?