Reviews by Paul McGee

Hat Check Girl Cold Smoke Gallway Bay

This is the seventh release from a duo who have quite a track record in the music business, including numerous albums as solo performers, namely, Peter Gallway and Annie Gallup. Their sound is essentially Contemporary Folk with subtle Jazz leanings in the sparse arrangements. Annie can sound somewhat like Joni Mitchell in places, while Peter reminds me of Eric Taylor in his delivery on occasion. Of course, any such similarities are purely in the mind of this reviewer and my subjective thoughts and the entire listening experience across some 53 minutes is quite a lesson in song craft and expansive lyrical ideas. 

I have always found the music of Hat Check Girl both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Not for them the simple love song or whimsical throw-away line; rather they build their story songs from historical context or imagined characters, placed in all kinds of straitened circumstances…

So, the soldier posted to the Army Air Corps in WW2 finds himself on an island where the Enola Gay lands, just before carrying out its fateful mission of dropping the Atomic Bomb in 1945.The lament for humanity is palpable in the narrative of the soldier as he helplessly witnesses the catastrophic build-up.

Andersonville is a song that relays the stark story of a Confederate prison of war camp during the American Civil War, told from the perspective of Newell Burch, the longest held prisoner at 661 days, in conditions that were dominated by infectious disease and severe overcrowding. The stockade commandant, Henry Wirz, was later tried and hanged for carrying out war crimes that were held to be the reason why quite a number of the 13,000 prisoners died.  Another Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater, recorded the names and numbers of the dead and his diaries were key to the eventual trial verdict. All these characters are interwoven into the song, making it almost like a short story or a movie script.

The story in Highway Of Tears refers to the British Columbia section of the Yellowhead Highway, a stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert where numerous women have gone missing over the years. It has been reported that eighteen women went missing, presumed murdered, but speculation puts that number into the forties… This tale is narrated by a chief of one of the indigenous, or first, people - an aboriginal, ethnic group who were the original settlers.

Thirteen Cents An Hour tells of the great industrial fire of New York in 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men. It is told through the eyes of a young Irish immigrant girl who worked and perished alongside her Mother.

And on it goes; a song about righteous objectors and the conviction to take action (I Broke The Law); a song about a family pet who gets recruited into the canine corps during the war (Liza Blue); another that tells the story of a runaway, single mother who makes a living by performing songs (Songbird Of Cincinnati) and the wife who seeks redemption in the company of a soldier returned from the war, risking her own marriage and thinking that her husband never knew (Cobalt Blue).

Towards the end of the project there is a duet between Annie and Peter that takes the form of letters received and sent between two young lovers during the Vietnam War and it is both poignant and heart rending in its description of the futility of battle and the longing to return to more innocent times.

A long review indeed but well merited and a release of some substance that will invigorate and involve the listener in all aspects of the creative process. 

Deer Tick Mayonnaise Partisan

Following the commercial and critical success of their dual release albums, Deer Tick Vol. 1 & Deer Tick Vol.2 in 2017 and the subsequent Twice Is Nice tour in support of the music, the band from Rhode Island are back to prove that their punk-roots rock leanings are a sharp as ever.

They have always walked a line between the light and the loud in terms of their musical output and this dual approach has won them many admirers over a career that began in 2007 with their debut release. With band members John McCauley (lead vocals, guitar), Christopher Ryan (bass, upright bass, backing vocals), Dennis Ryan (drums, backing vocals) and Ian O'Neil (guitar, backing vocals), this new release is a mixed bag of cover versions performed on tour, alternate versions of songs from Vol.1 and five new songs.

White City (The Pogues) works really well, with all its raw energy, both in a live setting and on this record. Run Of The Mill (George Harrison) has a slow groove, understated accordion mixed with jangly guitars, while Too Sensitive For This World (Ben Vaughn) has a very laid back, cool vibe. 

The 7-minute version of Velvet Underground song, Pale Blue Eyes, is given an acoustic Country treatment and new songs Strange, Awful Feeling and the instrumental, Memphis Chair, follow a similar sound. From Vol.1 we are given alternative versions of Limp Right Back, End Of The World, Doomed From The Start, and Cocktail, a song about drinking exploits that is rooted in the past memories and younger days of McCauley.

The loose electric attack of Spirals, another new song, kicks everything off in fine style and Old Lady is quite the opposite with a slow country tempo. Something for all tastes then and plenty to keep existing fans happy, while attracting new admirers to their eclectic musical world.

Jess Klein Back To My Green Blue Rose

This is the first release in four years from a singer songwriter who has been producing a consistently interesting body of work since her debut release in the late 1990’s. Now living in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her husband Mike June, she has put together a collection of songs that range from the commercial pop sound of opening track, In Dreams, to the blues tinged gospel arrangement of Gates Of Hell. 

However, it is her folk leanings that show her at her most natural as a contemporary singer songwriter of real depth and maturity. A strong sense of this is evident on songs like New Thanksgiving Feast and I Hear Love, two of the strongest statements on the album. With simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, New Thanksgiving Feast is a reflection of modern life in America and holds up a mirror against the injustice, prejudice and hatred that boils beneath the surface and all too often erupts. I Hear Love is an appropriate song to end with, as the sentiment captures the overall message of the project, which is one of healing and redemption.

Blair Mountain tells of the largest labour uprising in United States history where 100 people were killed and many more arrested in seeking to improve Mine Workers conditions. It has a fine rock arrangement and has an anger in the delivery that is reflected in the distorted guitar attack of the song. Kid is a song that offers sage advice to the young from the perspective of someone who has learned a few life lessons along the way. 

Tougher Than The Rest and Mammal are personal manifestos to believe in yourself and live life to the full, while Back To My Green has a similar theme with a prayer to leave all our burdens down and just breathe in the air, feel free and celebrate Nature.

Along with Jess, producer Mark Simonsen and engineer Thom Canova brought everything to life at Studio M in Durham and Hondo Creek Studio, North Carolina. Both contribute as musicians, with Canova (bass, electric guitars, percussion) and Simonsen (piano, organ, keyboards, electric guitars, drums, vibes, glockenspiel, percussion, vocals) adding greatly to the overall sound. Other guests include Mike Grigoni (pedal steel, lap steel), Laura Thomas (violin), Aubrey Keisel (viola), Leah Gibson (cello), Gaelynn Lea and Jonathan Byrd (vocals)… Another excellent release from an artist that should have a place in any discerning music collector’s library.

Peter Rogan Still Tryin’ To Believe Self Release

Debut release from an artist who lives near Philadelphia and who delivers twelve songs of real quality which resonate in the memory. He’s not afraid to mix the overall feel and sound with a diversity in the song structures that is impressive. From the southern rock of the title track to the country feel of The Only One and the blues funk of Kickin’ The Can, there is a confidence and swagger about this release. Beautiful Honey has a slow and easy groove while Big Green Rambler channels an Allman Bros feel and very enjoyable it is too. 

Rogan has a hand in all the songs (7 co-writes), which include two instrumentals and has assembled an impressive group of studio players in Will Kimbrough (guitars, dobro, pedals), Phil Madeira (guitars, organ, piano, lap steel), Chris Donohue (acoustic & electric bass), Dennis Holt (drums, percussion) and a selection of seven backing singers across the tracks. There are also additional players on selected songs that add to the colour of the arrangements. Produced by Rogan in Nashville, the sound is bright and clear which adds greatly to the enjoyment; no clutter, just straight down the middle arrangements laced with fine melody and rhythm. 

Rolling Mill Blues gives the ensemble a chance to really stretch out and the results are very compelling with a Stones vibe very evident. The slow blues of River Man is particularly appealing and the gospel rock refrain in Mercy is only topped by a searing guitar solo by Rogan that lifts everything to a new level.  

The jazz instrumental, Song For Keith, is beautifully delivered by a coterie of players who don’t appear on any other tracks, so it must have been created elsewhere – Rogan on jazzy guitar runs and the flugelhorn playing of Bob Meashey blend with the understated piano of Ron Stabinsky and the gentle rhythm of John Riley (drums) and Steve Varner (bass) – quite superb and so different to anything else here.

Working as a professional guitarist for many years and also holding down a day job as an electrician, this is the profile of the modern-day musician who tries to balance a lifetime passion with the everyday reality of paying the bills. The songs were written over a 4-year period and the old adage that ‘patience is a virtue’ has never rung truer. A highly recommended release.

Jesse Matas Tamarock Self Release

Jesse Matas is one third of The Crooked Brothers, a trio that hail from Winnipeg, Canada. They have released three albums and are recognised for their blend of country, back porch blues and folk sounds. On his solo debut, Matas does not veer too far away from this template and delivers music that is very easy on the ear and full of variety. There seems to be a Nature theme running through the project and the songs were written over a period of years outside of urban life and using the simple joys in Nature as a touchstone.  

Recorded in Winnipeg and Waterloo, Canada and produced by Matas and John Paul Peters, who also plays violin on the tracks; this is an understated sound that kicks off with a slow acoustic song, Tamarack, augmented with a brushed drum sound. The sweet instrumental, Sleep, is followed by the spoken word, jazzy, free-form arrangement of Monarch, a song about collecting butterflies no less.  Peace River Song has a country twang with banjo and harmonica setting the mood. Walking Human and Rock & Sound are two songs with a slow build and a rhythm that brings Neil Young to mind as the fluid and loose guitar lines give a great feel to both. 

The slow strum of Hardline and the easy groove of Before, We are both superb examples of the otherworldly quality that this project has. The Myth Of Forests is all jangly guitar, violin and spoken word and full of atmosphere. Overall, a fine release and one that comes highly recommended to fans of laid-back Americana.

Trent Miller Time Between Us Bucketfull Of Brains

This fourth release was recorded at Reservoir Studios in North London and co-produced by Miller with Graham Knight. The album also features renowned session guitarist Paul Cuddeford, violinist Barbara Bartz, cellist Bethany Porter and drummer Patrick Degenhardt. Miller was born in Italy before moving to London in search of a career in music and his road to this point has not always been an easy one. However, he has endured and made his way through to a point where his song craft is gaining greater recognition.

There is a big Rock sound on the title track and the closing She’s Leaving This Place For Good with electric guitar and harmonica winding around the rhythms and How Soon Is Never has a big strings sound to augment the arrangement. Moonlight Café has a strong keyboard/synth melody running alongside the plaintive vocal of Miller and the more acoustic arrangements of Motel Rooms Of Ocean Blue, Lament Of The Sea and Bonfires Of Navarino Road show another change of direction. A big, bright production and lots of good moments across the twelve tracks here.

Kaz Murphy Ride Out The Storm Self Release

An experienced singer-songwriter who has shared the stage with many noted artists and who released his debut album back in 1997 to critical acclaim. This is the fourth solo album and is produced by Scrappy Jud Newcomb (Patty Griffin, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard). Newcomb also contributes on various guitars, both acoustic and electric, in addition to playing mandolin, bass and singing. Pat Manske plays drums and percussion.

Eleven songs based around a folk/blues sound with fine ensemble playing and a focus around varied relationships in the song-writing; Blue Devil Sky has a deserted family story while Soft Heart has a message of helping out others less fortunate. When People Come Together is a song of hope for society and our ability to endure.

Where You Come From is a song about having a strong identity with your roots and where you were born and raised, with a driving bass line and a great melody running through it. Forget About The World Tonight is a fine sentiment and one that is best enjoyed by a night fire with a slow glass of wine. The final song, Rise Me Up, with Penny Jo Pullus on backing vocals has a celebratory message and an appropriate end to proceedings. 

Dirk & The Truth Along The Road Self Release

This band are based in Annapolis and this debut is a 5-track EP produced by Matt Ascione and engineered by Bob Dawson. There are a lot of players on the song credits, with the core 4-piece band augmented by a further seven musicians across the tracks. 

Dirk Schwenk writes all songs and Table Set For Two is a cheating song while The River celebrates nature and the feeling of revival. I Am Graced is a love song with a nice melody and tempo and the following song, Along The Road She Comes has a similar theme, with the message of feeling lucky in life. 

The final song, Flag On A Hill, is a patriotic statement of defending the land of the free in the USA. Whereas the sentiment is perfectly fine, I’m somewhat troubled by the evidence to the contrary, every day, in the media. Professing to adhere to the words in the declaration of independence is one thing but the words of George Washington sound a clear warning; “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”.

Overall, this is a country rock sound that bodes well for future projects.