Reviews by Paul McGee

The Novel Ideas Self-Titled  Self Release

I love the surprise of playing an unknown CD and from the first moment, you are hooked! This is one such moment and has me returning to hit the repeat-play button more than anything I have heard recently.

The Novel Ideas are a country-folk quartet of friends hailing from Massachusetts and comprise Sarah Grella (vocals), Danny Hoshino (guitar, pedal steel, vocals), James Parkington (bass, vocals) and Daniel Radin (guitar, vocals). Their 4-part harmony vocals are an absolute joy and there is not a weak track on this debut release. 

Produced by Rick Parker (Lord Huron) and mixed by Ryan Freeland (Ray LaMontagne, Bonnie Raitt), the arrangements are full of space and warmth with some superb interplay between the musicians and intricate vocals that colour everything in a bright hue. Sarah Grella has one of those voices that captivates and lifts the spirit and the addition of Elena Bonomo (drums/percussion), Eva Walsh (fiddle) and John Waynelovich (piano/organ) give the arrangements just the right amount of texture.

Broken Glass is a stand-out track, with such restraint in the build-up and such sweet surrender in the coda. Lost On The Road is melancholic sweet-release and The Blue Between Us is a wistful reflection on relationships tested by the distance borne of travelling. 

Dena is a song about forgiveness and features some fine pedal steel playing. The final track, I Was Not Around, ends the journey with the plaintive tone of the words; "You asked me to save you from yourself, but I can’t help you now." Such beautiful heartbreak and not very hard to make this my favourite release by an unknown band this year

Amelia White Rhythm Of The Rain  Self Release

Amelia White recorded this record in the four days between her Mother’s funeral and her own wedding. Her last release (Home Sweet Hotel) brought great praise and I read somewhere that she “illuminates the ordinary” - a fitting description of her creative muse. This is a really strong release with plenty of dramatic playing from the studio musicians that include Sergio Webb (guitars, banjo), Dave Coleman (guitars, organ, vocals), Dave Jacques (bass), Megan Jane (drums/percussion), Eamon McLoughlin (violin), as the core players supporting Amelia, who contributes guitar and lead vocals.

Comparisons with Lucinda Williams are somewhat inevitable given the tired, road-travelled, texture in the vocal delivery but there is also the sweet refrain of Eliza Gilkyson and if you wrap it all up in a pretty bow – guess what; you get the unique talent of Amelia White.

There are co-writes with Lori McKenna, The Worry Dolls, Annie McCue and Ben Glover, among others, and the quality never dips for a moment. There is compassion, understanding of living life on margins, trying to make sense of daily rush to feel relevant; words tumble down like “his friends are coming to drink their unemployment down on Friday night, American small town” (Little Cloud Over Little Rock); “the poor get poor and the rich get richer; war is stirring back home, the rain taps on my window” (Rhythm Of The Rain).

The final track, Let The Wind Blow, sums up the feeling of a love gone cold in the lines; “Fire went out and the bed went cold, and your eyes won’t meet mine anymore; I put good money on this one, I don't like to be wrong….” This artist is the real deal and running through her tough look at life is a steely resolve to always come out fighting and winning at the end of the day.

Hoodoo Operators Burning Churches Wide Mouth

Swamp Rock meets Country-Blues and all bets are off… Hoodoo Operators are a four-piece band from West Yorkshire and you would never guess from the earthy vocals and tunes that create this atmospheric music. Interesting that they perform without a drummer, which doesn’t detract from the overall groove of the band and their rhythmic drive. 

The line-up includes C.P.S Dover (vocals, acoustic guitar, kazoo); Mathew Birch (resonator guitar, lap-steel, backing vocals); Peter Hayward (electric guitar, backing vocals) and Gareth Bates (acoustic bass, backing vocals), with additional musician Kieran O’Malley on fiddle making a key contribution on tracks like Last Orders and I’ll Tell You When I’ve Had Enough

Date With The Dead and Follow Me Down (To The River) kick off proceedings in telling style and with a nod to Creedence, all loose and crackling with energy. Pills & Whisky slows down the pace, as does It Won’t Be Me; but the giddy stomp of End Up On The Dime Bar Floor has a Rockabilly tempo that really sparkles. Excellent arrangements and a band worth checking out.

Hunter/Wiggins/Seamons A Black & Tan Ball  Self Release

This album features a cross section of early jazz, string band tunes, ragtime and blues. The music duo, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, blend these styles together into a real gumbo of musical tastes across thirteen tracks. 

There is real history in these influences and if American roots music ever needed a modern twist then this is a fine example. Ben Hunter plays violin, mandolin and guitar; Joe Seamons plays guitar and banjo with Phil Wiggins on harmonica. It captures a time that has long since passed, classic tunes that remain with us and that are given a brand-new treatment by this talented trio.

Stop & Listen Blues, (Mississippi Sheiks, 1930), Hard Time Blues (Lane Hardin, 1935), Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me (Duke Ellington Orchestra}, Struttin’ With Some BBQ (Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five), Po’ Howard (Leadbelly) and Do You Call That A Buddy (Louis Jordan) are just a sample of the tunes included and the playing is excellent, with a very organic and rhythmic sound. 

Bruce Cockburn Bone On Bone  True North

An iconic singer-songwriter with 33 albums to his name since a debut release in 1970, Bruce Cockburn stands as a giant of Canadian music with a reach that spans not only different nations but has influenced political change through his brave stance in speaking out against global abuse of power, atrocities and the injustice of political regimes across his long career.

His 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, is a great read for anyone who is interested in bearing witness to a life that has tried to make a difference through his music but also as a humanist motivated by an unerring sense of equality in the World. Bone On Bone addresses spiritual concerns in the way we shape our World today.

Forty Years in the Wilderness is one of several songs that feature a number of singers from the church Cockburn frequents, the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus. Among other songs, they contribute call-and-response vocals to Stab At Matter, Looking And Waiting, Jesus Train and Twelve Gates To The City.

Produced by Colin Linden, Cockburn’s long-time collaborator, the album is built around the musicianship of Cockburn on guitar and the core accompaniment of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig. Also, very much part of the sound is the accordion playing of Cockburn’s nephew John Aaron Cockburn and the superb fluegelhorn player Ron Miles 

Cockburn remains very driven by the inequalities in the World and is focused on change. A consummate musician and a special talent when it comes to words on the page, this new album is compelling and relevant.  

Levi Cuss Just Below Radio  Self Release

Two EP’s that contain 4 tracks each and both produced, recorded and mixed by Steve Dawson. He has been releasing his own music for many years now and also producing such acts as The Deep Dark Woods, Kelly Joe Phelps, Christa Couture, Jim Byrnes and many others. Levi Cuss has also benefitted from previous collaborations and on this project Steve also contributes on acoustic and electric guitars, plus pedal steel. Levi has written all the songs and is joined by William Moore on bass, Chris Gestrin on organ & piano, with different drummers Justin Amaral and Geoff Hicks appearing.

The warm sound of the keys gets EP One off to a strong start on White Lies, while the rootsy guitar sound of One Night Stand carries a reminder of early Little Feat. Hardwood is a good Country sound and The Hunt slows everything down with a Bluesy groove.

With two previous albums under his belt, I’m not sure of the logic behind the release of separate EP’s as the second carries on very much from where the first left off; solid song arrangements and fine ensemble playing, with the slow Country vibe of Blew It All Away and the closing track, Alena, perhaps the highlights. Think of Steve Earle as a touchstone and you get the general idea.  

The Penny Black Remedy Maintaining Dignity In Awkward Situations  Mono Del Mundo

This band formed in 2004 and is based in London. Keith M Thomson is the main songwriter and fronts the band with singer/percussionist, Marijana Hajdarhodzic. The other band members include Paul Slack on bass; Jeremy Mendonca on acoustic guitar/vocals; Barbara Bartz on violin and Jamie Shaw on drums. They have a diverse history and all play in side projects, in addition to building a formidable reputation as a live act around the local venues of London. This is the third release and their sound is a heady mix of Americana, Folk and Ska. Production is shared by Thomson with Boz Boorer (Morrissey/The Polecats/Adam Ant), who together with a small group of additional studio musicians, deliver what is a very enjoyable listen.

Thomson is a very clever lyricist and songs like Trying To Be A Slightly Better Person and You Should Have Left Your Money At Home are perfect examples of the wickedly teasing wit in his writing. The irony of I’d Murder To Have You Back is another example of what Thomson says are songs “about death, lost love, living in a constant state of crippling paranoid fear and/or coping with the daily grind of everyday life”. Enough said! The playing is really excellent across these nine tracks and the overall impression is of a band that, above all else, are having great fun. 

Keegan McInroe A Good Old Fashioned Protest  Self Release

This is the fifth solo album from Keegan McInroe, a Texas singer-songwriter who delivers a mix of old country, blues and folk that pays tribute to the origins of American roots music. He has written and performed all nine songs here, in the company of Taylor Tatsch who also co-produced with Keegan. 

If Woody Guthrie was looking down from above then he has nothing but encouragement for the words and the righteous anger that is such a vital element of this artist’s creative muse. He is not afraid to tackle the key issues of these troubled times and political hypocrisy is exposed along with the disease of big money greed and the senseless waste of life to fuel war games. 

Songs like Talking Talking Head Blues, Bombing For Peace, The Ballad Of Tommy Johnsons Living Brother, Bastards & Bitches are all excellent and delivered with great perspective and conviction.

A poem, Nietzsche Wore Boots, speaks of the moral blindness within society, fuelled by religious dogma and the reflection that God could well be dead. A very insightful and rewarding work from an experienced and mature songwriter. Worthy of further investigation.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid


Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms Innocent Road West Sound

A musician based in the thriving Portland, Oregon roots music scene Caleb Klauder plays old-time and bluegrass music with Foghorn Stringband. He also has a deep seated love of traditional country music which he plays with a honky-tonk ensemble of like minded musicians. They include vocalist/guitarist Reeb Willms with whom he has released a previous album Oh, Do You Remember a set of close harmony duets written by the couple. Now some four years later they’re back with a new collection of songs that are a mix of original songs written by Klauder with a selection of covers like Buck Owens’ There Goes My Love, a George Jones co-write I’d Jump In The Mississippi as well as some more recent material like Paul Burch’s C’est Le Moment.

Again their two voices intertwine and weave the harmonic threads into something strong and colourful that blends elements of the front porch and the honky-tonk together. The musicians who accompany them are an important part of the overall picture; some have played with Klauder for some time. Ned Folkerth on drums and Jesse Emerson both also appeared on Klauder’s 2009 country album Western Country. Joining them also are Rusty Blake on pedal steel and guitar, Sam Weiss on fiddle and Jason Norris also on fiddle and harmony vocals for three tracks. Klauder is in the production chair and has delivered a bright and warm sound that is immediately captivating. The album was recorded by Mike Coykendall who along with Klauder and Blake mixed the album in Portland. The is a strong sense of music made for its own ends. There is no feeling that it is aimed at anyone in particular rather a group of musicians making music that they (and we) will enjoy for what it is. 

Klauder’s You’re the One is an a standout sounding like a song that should have come from several decades ago it is a plaintive love song. While rooted in past-times there is a hearty relevance to these songs. The themes are those that will always concern songwriters. Songs that chart the up and downs of relationships in a clear and unequivocal manner. Yet they do so in a way that’s uplifting and light on its feet. Montana Cowboy a song of yearning for home written by Jack Sutton that has Willms on lead vocal and she tells us of longing and loving. On songs like There Goes My Love (which shows clearly the blend of stringband and country influences) and Just A Little they sing together in close harmony that emphasises the idea of togetherness.  

Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms have delivered an album that is top notch in every respect (inclining the eco-friendly cover) and though they may not be a name as familiar as the likes of Wayne Hancock to many they are well deserving of reaching a wider audience with their truthful music. 

Joe Purdy Who Will Be Next? MC 

It’s always slightly alarming when you came across an artist whose music sparks interest and you check their website to find that they previously had 13 other releases without coming onto my radar. Joe Purdy is one such artist. Not being aware of the previous work this album is solidly in the protest song/aware folk singer section of the aisle. And maybe the time is just right for a singer to stand up and make his feelings known in the long tradition of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan up to more recent protagonists like Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Dan Bern or Tim Easton. Of course, many bands have released records that include songs that rally against the many ills that prevail today. But equally there are those who don’t want to know, who want the act to “just shut up and play the hits”. Those who may like the act but not the political viewpoints expressed. Witness the CSN & Y, or Bruce Springsteen as just a couple of examples. 

But back to the music and that is pretty damn good. The album opens with New Year’s Eve and some understated organ playing before Purdy expresses his wishes for his own life, his country and then for a world deep in inequality and self-destruction. A hope for something better and free from “all war”. A wish that is likely never going to be fulfilled but one that needs to be expressed. The title song asks that simple question regarding the ever mounting toll of gun deaths. Not a sentiment that will find favour with an ever growing section of the divided, entrenched polar opinions of many Americans. So it goes on to the point where you can’t really separate Purdy’s opinions and worldview from his music. You will either be agreeing with his stance or you will want to listen to someone who has no obvious opinions or who holds the same viewpoint as yourself. There is a subtle accompaniment to the music which features an understated rhythm section, some B3 organ, pedal steel guitar and fiddle (from Scarlet Rivera). The latter in fact reinforces some of the abundant Dylanesque music references throughout.

In the end though it is Purdy’s lyrics, voice and worldview that are central to the album. Purdy with an acoustic guitar is likely to be as compelling live as he is here on record. There’s no doubt that voices are need to counter balance the corporate propaganda and fear that is prevalent today. Purdy is one of those voices and his songs are heartfelt and necessary - as well as working in a purely musical context too.

Sean McConnell Self-Titled Rounder

A Nashville based songwriter with a neat turn in melodic and emotionally sustained songs. This is his debut release for Rounder after a series of self-released recordings. McConnell grew up wanted to be a songwriter and toured around the States performing and honing his craft which has resulted in this album. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Ian Fitchuk and Lason Lehning it has a big, sculpted sound that falls somewhere between the mainstream and something more suitable for the fringes. These are songs that were started in isolation and were developed to where they are now. As their is noe specific title other than the artist’s names these songs take on something of an autobiographical  honesty. Queen Of Saint Mary’s Choir being a case in point.

With a tight studio band behind him that included both Fitchuk and Lehning as well as guitarist and banjo player Danny Radar and bassist Tony Lucido they have together delivered a set of songs that should have a wide appeal. McConnell has previously had success with his songs being recorded by the diverse likes of country singers Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Wade Bowen, pop singer Christina Aguilera and rock singer Meat Loaf. All going to show that McConnell’s songs are broad enough in category to fit any genre.

There is a smoothness to the songs and singing that has none of the outlaw grit that some may seek. Rather there is an immediacy and likability that rewards returning to the songs. That is not to say that there aren’t some more complex ideas to hand like the religious current that runs through Running Under Water. In One Acre Of Land he tells of this piece of property as against the travels of a musician. A ballad that has an honesty and sense of hope that is the central tenet of McConnell’s music. McConnell is a songwriter, that is who he is and who he wants to be; whether writing for other or for himself he does the best he can to make what he does have some sense of belief. Others can share that belief too on this fine album.

John Prine For Better, Or Worse Oh Boy

No real surprises here then. As the follow up to the acclaimed 1999 release In Spite Of Ourselves this is another instalment of John Prine singing with a variety of female duet partners in the style of the classic country duets albums of the past (and present). Some wish for an album of new self-penned Prine songs - something that may be in the pipeline (as a teaser the final song Just Waitin’ is sung by Prine solo) is but for now this is a pleasure to hear. John Prine, even in his prime, would never be consider a vocalist’s vocalist. Not that that matters I’d rather hear Prine’s expressive voice really get to the heart of a song over a faultless but emotionless delivery any time. 

Producers Jim Rooney and Prine have given the album an understated setting and a warmth that serves the songs well and players such as Al Perkins, David Jacques, Lloyd Green, Shad Cobb, Ken Blevins and Susan Tedeschi all bring their individual and group skills together to make the backings work in such an unobtrusive but oh-so-right way. It is however the selection of vocalists that Prine duets with that make it an interesting collection. They are, big breath, Iris Dement, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Holly Williams, Kathy Mattea, Morgane Stapleton, Amanda Shires, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Susan Tedeschi and Fiona Prine.

Now everyone will pick their own favourite female voice and how well it works with Prine on their chosen song (or songs). Songs that are lessons in classic country storytelling from the pen of such writes as Allen Reynolds, Hank Williams Snr, Buck Owens, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Sammy Lerner, George Jones, Vince Gill and The Dixie Chicks. in some cases such as Mental Cruelty the male/female perspective adds a new  dimension to a song normally sung from the male viewpoint. All the component parts of the album come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable collection. Definitely for the better.

Cody Jinks I’m Not The Devil Thirty Tigers

Another contender for outlaw of the year. Cody Jerks is a country artist who arrived there via a time spent playing heavy metal but who grew up listening to the country music his father loved and so he has returned to that. His songs, voice and approach are undoubtedly much closer to Texas than they are to Nashville. These are songs that speak of hard times, hard work and hardened attitudes and hard country. It is an album shot through with conviction and trying to convince that he is neither the devil or a saint. The majority of the songs are self-written odes to a chosen lifestyle, there are three co-writes and two covers. Both Sonny Throckmorton’s The Way I Am, the Billy Don Burns song Church At Gaylor Creek fit the overall patina of the album. 

Recorded at the Sonic Ranch in Texas it was produced by Joshua Thompson with a set of players who understand the songs and how they should sound. However, it is Jinks voice that is the centrepiece of these largely mid-tempo songs. it has the kind of depth that is important to give the album a feel that is right and ragged. The thirteen songs are chosen to give an idea of who and why Cody Jinks is who is at this time. Like artists like JP Harris or Jamey Johnson you don’t feel he will tire of playing country music in the long term even if he chooses to explore the possibilities of his music and where he could take it. So, it’s not without possibility that one of his songs (or albums) could connect in the way that either Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapelton has you still get the feeling he will be more in the Haggard mode by remaining in the country mode while considers it’s potential.

The fact that so much of the material here is of similar tempo and mood actually gives the overall album a setting that builds on the continuity of its themes. There are many individual songs here that are worthy of special mention from the title track to Grey, Church At Gaylor Creek, The Same or the more up-tempo Chase The Song to the Waylon-ish No Guarantees. On their own any of these songs speak of the concerns that would be real to any hardcore country fan. With enough twang and steel to satisfy I’m Not The Devil is a worthy of passage to a country music heaven’s gate.

The Mavericks All Night Live Mono Mundo

Have departed from the watchful eye of Valory/Big Machine The Mavericks are now in control of their own destiny in terms of the recorded output. The first fruit if that is this 16 track live document that concentrates on their more recent material rather than on the better know “hits” of yore. Though they may surface later as this album is subtitled Volume 1. In the end this is a recording that sounds fully live in the best sense with a band firing on all cylinders. The four main men are all superlative players and it is good to see suited and booted keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden a fully paid up member of the band. He has had a long involvement with The Mavericks in the past as a sideman and has been a major addition to their sound for some time. There are, of course, as usual a number of other players who join the band onstage: Michael Guerra, Max Abrams are both long serving sidemen while Matt Cappy and Ed Friesland are more recent additions to the brass, accordion and percussion section of the touring band.

However, the focus is on founding member Raul Malo whose vocals are the focal point of the show. But you can’t deny the power and drive of Paul Deakin’s drumming or the sonic thrust of Eddie Perez’s lead guitar playing. But as already stated this is a unit, a band playing as one but also having fun with it. They have been called the best party band around (or in some case wedding band) this is to overlook the skill and ease with which the deliver there sets. There may not be a whole lot, in the live set, that can be said to be pushing musical boundaries. That however is not really the point they are  there to entertain and be enjoyed on their own terms. 

The majority of the songs are written by Malo either solo or with other co-writers and as such are perfectly suited to his overall musical muse. The one exception is his comparatively laid back rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest. But aside from the occasional breather this set is an ‘up and at them’  full energy set that has highlights such as the closing song Waiting For The World To End, the reggae tinged What You Do To Me and Summertime, the piano boogie of As Long As There’s Lovin’ Tonight or the thrust of I Said I Love You with some tight guitar from Perez. The Mavericks mix and blend a variety of musical influences that include latin, country and pop. They do it well as this recording is a testament to. They emerged as country act but have now moved beyond any simple genre classification to become band equally at home in the studio as on the stage. Doing it their way they live up to their name. 

The Handsome Family Unseen Loose

The spotlight was briefly turned on The Handsome Family when their song Far From Any Road was used in True Detective. How that has effected the band in the long term may be something that is open to debate. For now they are now back with their latest collection which continues to explore their unique sound. It shows the duo’s contained development as recording artists and the creative input of the husband and wife duo. From the always interesting lyrics of Rennie Sparks to Brett’s more distinctive vocal presence along with his expanding skills as a producer/engineer recording largely in his home studio.

There is a subtlety now with the arrangements that along with Brett’s multi-instrumental skills sees the inclusion of a range of guest players on mandolin, dobro, drums, guitar and pedal steel. Other than that Brett played or simulated all the other instruments. Rennie adds banjo and autoharp as well as supporting vocals. It is this division of labours that gives their recording work its distinctive and memorable sound. One that is often quite different in a live setting which has gone from the duo plus backing tape to a sometimes-full band. 

But it is the music that we are looking at here and that, for long-time fans, continues to reward. They have rarely deviated from a core sound since their inception rather they have honed and crafted it to give the listener a more textured and layers sound that comes from experience and a continuing wish to make music on their own terms. On this set of songs the immediate songs that infiltrate my consciousness are Gentlemen, Back In The Day, Underneath The Falls, The Sea Rose with it’s dueted female vocals. A song that seems charming but has a siren call to death as it’s theme. This again underlines the important input Rennie’s words are in making these songs so ‘handsome’.  

Whether this album will find itself in a wider public consciousness or not is somewhat beside the point (expect in terms of sales or audience attendance). What matters is what’s in the grooves and Unseen is a complete an album as The Handsome Family have recorded so far. It is music that loosely falls under the Americana banner but in truth is influenced and inspired by all the music Brett has heard and all the imagination for storytelling that Rennie conceives. They may remain unseen in a larger context but they should not be unheard. 

Keegan McInroe Uncouth Pilgrims Self Release

This album does not sound the way I expected from it’s cover. It is an album that from the first song seems rooted in country music’s storied past. The opening song Country Music Outlaws talks of those very fellows, whilst declaring that he is not one of those but their influence is none-the-less strong throughout. Roger Ray plays pedal steel (a role he he’d down with Jason Boland for a good few years). This instrument has a lot to do with the traditional leanings of the sound. McInroe is also joined by Ginny Mac on accordion, Derrin Kobetich on mandolin, Austin Smith on fiddle and harmonicaist Gary Grammar among a number of other guests. The latter features prominently on many of the songs. The album was produced by McInroe and engineer and mixer Ben Napier in a studio in Fort Worth. The people and place are the reason it sounds the way it does.  

Uncouth Pilgrim is McInroe’s fourth under his own name. It combines his own song with a couple of outside songs and it further lays out his blend of country, folk, rock and blues in various mixes using his full band to tell his stories. The singer has a gritty and heartfelt voice that is completely suited to the song’s delivery. Begona and Verona are both solid standout tracks of love under difficult circumstances. Again, the supporting players add just the right sense of atmosphere to the songs. Woody & Ruth is folkish tale of traveling down life’s uncharted highways and how the titular persons met. I Got Trouble has some dirty guitar riffing that emphasises the fact that the singer has indeed got that very thing with a capital T. It features effective female backing vocals and soulful organ interludes. Sonically it is more left field but it works a treat. Also, adding variety to the mix is Nikolina with a deeper more gravely vocal that is piano based and from the Wait’s school of rendering. With a distorted jazz brass arrangement that shows that McInroe can turn his hand to a number of different musical modes to best suit a song.

The album clocks in at over an hour but such is the diverse nature of the production and of the writing that there is enough variety throughout to sustain interest. On second thought given all that has gone into the album maybe the cover is exactly right. It would be uncouth to admit otherwise.