Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers Pirate Party Self Release

Over the last few years Tom Mason has firmly nailed his colours to the mast with his Blue Buccaneers releases. The band name and title should give you a pretty good idea of where Tom Mason is coming from. It’s a pirate thing scallywags. In recent times Mason has released a pirate themed Christmas album Yo Ho Ho as well as The World Is Ablaze all of which, if you get in the mood, are entertaining, energetic and ebullient outings that will get anyone who is open to it in the party mood. 

Like the last album this set was produced by Thomm Jutz and the Buccaneers are a talented crew. Mason is the undisputed captain and handles the vocals, guitars, dobro, trombone, bouzouki and mandolin. Add to that violin, drums, bass, banjo and a whole lot of vocals and you have a fully realisied sound.

It’s interesting that after 4 such albums there are still songs that have you going with their infectious choruses. It must be all those pirate songs heard down through the years on film and TV. Bully In The Alley, Blow The Man Down, All For Me Grog, Haul Away Joe will be familiar to many. Mason and crew give them a good run for their money and display some fine playing and innovative arrangements (by Mason).Their take on Drunken Sailor for instance is given a twist by setting it to a Bo Diddley beat!

There are a number of original songs too that are written or co-written by Mason including the title song, Talk Like A Pirate (plenty of that here to give you a refresher course), Pirate Polka, In The Drink and Pirate Song (We’ll All Go Down With The Ship). A song that could easily be perceived as a forward thinking comment on the current state of affairs in the (dis)United States.

All in all, an album that while it may not be for everyone is full of life affirming spirit, tight playing and a sense of fun that is often lacking in these over-produced and over polished days. Long may Mason and his Blue Buccaneers rule the waves - as its likely in these programmed to death days that they won’t get to rule the airwaves. Still it’s never too late for a pirate party methinks.

Todd Snider Eastside Bulldog Aimless

Essentially this is a side project from Snider, a set of 10 songs that never outstay their welcome as the album clocks in at less than a half-hour. His Elmo Buzz pseudonym should be on the front cover but that may have confused things what with his other project the Hard Working Americans and all. It is a hard rocking album full of Snider lyrical asides and off beat, sometimes humorous observations. Snider has a distinctive voice that has gained in grain and grit over the years and is perfectly suited to this set of (assumingly) self-written songs. He also produced the album with Eric McConnell. They assembled a bunch of like-minded individuals including Snider on vocals and take-off guitar, McConnell on bass, Denis Taylor on some very upfront sax, Mark Horn on drums and Jen Gunderman on keys and vocals. These players all recorded their parts in the Sound Emporium in Nashville. While another set of players including Aaron Lee Tasjan, Paul Griffith and Keith Christopher (drums and bass respectively) were tracked in the Cash Cabin.

The title track, Hey Pretty Boy, Are You With Me? are all stand-outs but then the whole album rocks along at a pace. Those who enjoy the work of Barrence Whitfield and The Savages would do well to check this dog out. Rooted in rockin’ 60s sounds the album combines Snider voice and lyric with some off the leash riffing and energy. What’s not to like? 

AJ Hobbs Too Much Us Never Enough Booker

Hobbs is a classically trained musician who got hooked on country music (the good stuff) and his first show in the country mould was opening for Shooter Jennings. He met Ted Russell Kamp there playing bass for Jennings and they subsequently worked together with Kamp producing a previous e.p. and now this debut long playing album. The song Waylon & Merle may give you an idea of where Hobb’s heart really lies. He also includes a version of The Bottle Let Me Down that is in the spirit of its author, while also giving it some of the singer’s own style.

Aside from that, the songs are all originals from Hobbs with the exception of a Kamp song and two co-writes. All songs are taken from the storytelling tradition of using your own life as a source for the material. Hobbs admits to having problems in the past with drink and related issues. This is revealed in the opening title track. After that the song titles pretty much reveal their content in instances such as Life Without You, Daddy Loved The Lord, a song that displays a solid country/gospel theme that runs through the album with strong soulful backing vocals and organ playing a major role in many of the songs. That country/soul combination is one that has been currently explored in recent times. However, Hobbs seems to get the balance right so that it is overall a country album with an undercurrent of soul.

The production and playing are right behind Hobbs who has a strong voice much suited to the musical style he has chosen. His songs are about getting to the heart of some real life situations and experiences that are told with clarity and conviction. AJ Hobbs is not taking this music to places it hasn’t been before but, rather, he is adding to a tradition with some humour alongside the more harder hitting truths. Hobbs is a welcome addition to those exponents of California country music we know and love.

Lynne Hanson & The Good Intentions 7 Deadly Spins Self Release

Another engaging work from the Canadian singer/songwriter. Murder Ballads & Reckoning Songs it says on the sleeve and indeed these songs have a darker, edgier, rockier sound. Fellow singer/songwriter Lynn Miles brings out the rust and corrosion inherent in the seven songs here like Gravedigger, Water’s Edge and Black Widow.

Hanson plays acoustic and electric guitars and sings in a deathly clear voice on a set of original songs written solo or with co-writers Al Wood, Fraser Holmes and Miles. The accompanying musicians add tension and texture to the seven songs.  Songs that let you know where they are coming from “No hope for redemption … that’s what my Momma said” (My Mama Said), I’m digging in the dark ... digging to hide what I done” (Water’s Edge) or “Got a bible near my bed … and a shotgun by my head” (Cecil Hotel). These excerpts leave you in no doubt that these songs are a little different than the up-tempo, upbeat songs that are beloved by mainstream radio. This runs much closer to the bone(s).

Lynne Hanson has made strong albums in the past and this may be something of a diversion from the main path in terms of content and sound but this is a set of songs with a purpose and an opinion that makes it a pretty compelling listen. Just make sure to leave the lights on when you listen.

Tom Shed Davey’s Cornet Curly Maple

This songwriter has a number of albums under his belt. They are a mix of folky songs that tell stories of people and places. Shed and Nathan Smith produced the album in Nashville where they utilised the services of players like Steve Hinson (steel and dobro), Dave Pomeroy (bass) along with a selection of brass, keyboard and harmony vocals. The sound is warm and pleasant as is Shed’s voice.

These songs tell stories, for instance Bolita Sam about a murder in 1953, Ole Hickey’s Town about the rebirth of a town after a fire. As well as his own songs Shed includes three from Dave Grooms, one from Will McLean plus Stan Jones’s often recorded Riders In The Sky and the title song about the effects that war often has on a man (or woman) when they return home. The song was co-written by Shed and Janet Goodman. There is a mix of styles here from the more stripped back arrangements to the fuller sound songs, like the aforementioned title track Davey’s Cornet, which naturally features, understandably, that particular instrument. This gives a variety to the listening process. Just A Soft Echo is largely voice and guitar which perfectly suits the mood of the song. Conversely the arrangement of Riders In The Sky has a fuler sound with drums, pedal steel and a lead acoustic guitar break. The final track Groove, an instrumental, by way of complete contrast exemplifies that variety as it’s a brass and keyboard workout that closes the album on quite a different note to all that went before it, like it somehow strayed in from another album.

Shed is the sort of artist who will have fans who love his work and a ready audience that wants to hear them it, but for a number or reasons may find it hard to break outside of that particular audience. Those who are attuned to him will always want to hear more while the larger listening public will, which is true of many such artists, never take the time to find him or come across his music by accident. Those that do will know a good story when they hear it.

The Stray Birds Magic Fire YepRoc

Something of a change for The Stray Birds as they decided to bring in an outside producer. That choice was the notable producer Larry Campbell with whom they recorded the album over a ten-day period. They took the elements that had served them well through their previous albums such as the tight, lush sounding three part harmonies of the trio and their developing song writing skills which they opened to a wider approach to the process and subject matter. 

Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven, and Charles Muench all brought their A-Game to the sessions where they added to their own multi instrumental skills to those of Campbell, alongside drummer Shane Leonard, Kai Welch and Marco Benevento on keyboards. The end result is another step forward for the band and a step closer to wider public recognition.

For example, the percussion behind Where You Come From has a philosophical viewpoint aligned to a catchy chorus. The final song When I Die has an equally dark thread running through it. While, by way of contrast, Somehow steps back in time to stand close to what the Everly Brothers were doing at a certain period of their career. It’s soft harmonies and fiddle and steel guitar backing has a sweetness and instant likability. It is those harmonies throughout that are integral to what The Stray Birds have done since their inception. This time out they have added a much bigger sound and some fire and magic to the way they have conceived the album. It shows how a band can develop while fundamentally losing what was good about them in the beginning.