Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dallas Moore Mr. Honky Tonk Sol

For his latest album the Texas based singer/songwriter has honed his craft and produced an album of some substance. The eight tracks are concise and lean, coming in around the half-hour mark. He has brought in Dean Miller (who himself has delivered some fine country albums) to produce the album and the sound is as strong as you might expect or want, a step up indeed from some of the previous recordings which, as with a lot of independent artists, are done under tight financial constraints. The rougher and rowdier elements however have not been lost. This is an artist who is more or less on the road with his band constantly playing all the honky tonks and roadhouses around America. It is no major label stance but rather a genuine expression of a love and legacy for music that is solidly rooted in the outlaw music that, at the moment, pretty much defines real country music.

Outlaw meant and should mean artists who adhere to their own rules by remaining independent in terms of how they approach the writing, recording and production of their music rather than necessarily self-releasing their own albums. It would be healthy and fruitful to see an artist like Dallas Moore signed to a major label and being given the creative freedom he has here. Aside from long-time guitarist Chuck Morpurgo, Moore is joined by harmonica player Mickey Raphael (of Willie Nelson fame) and pedal steel guitarist Steve Hinson amongst others. All of this brings the best possible performance behind Moore’s songs from the slow waltz of Kisses From You to the “on the road” tails of Home Is Where The Highway Is (“the only home I’ve ever know”). A place where he has plenty of opportunity to observe the antics of the characters who feature in the title track. Shades of Pinto Bennett in that one.

Dallas Moore can be counted alongside Whitey Morgan, Jackson Taylor, Cody Jinks and others in terms of making the kind of music that many want to hear and that is all but banished from corporate radio stations. The beard and hat are in place and the attitude and grit are authentic, as is the passion for making music. Music that entertains, music that rocks and could easily find a bigger following if given its place alongside some of the more lauded major label performers out there. This is a good place to get acquainted with Moore’s music and it is also a good platform for Moore to build upon by adding more lyrical depth and musical nuances without sacrificing what it means to be Dallas Moore. We all need some more.

Mary Battiata & Little Pink The Heart, Regardless Self Release

A new name to me but one I’m very pleased to be acquainted with. Mary Battiata is a former Washington Post journalist with a passion for writing and performing traditionally orientated country music with folk, roots and pop overtones. Her band Little Pink (and guests) are equally adept in bringing these songs to fruition on record with particular sounds woven into each track as needed. Little Pink is a reference to the Band’s debut album and its formative influence, in terms of integrity, without sounding like that seminal album.

Mary Battiata has a crystal clear voice that has been compared, at times, to Margo Timmins and Linda Thompson among others. While I can see these comparisons Mary Battiata's voice has its own identity - one that is front and centre here. Battista is an equally adept writer penning all the songs here other than traditionalist Arty Hill’s Drive That Fast. Hill also sang harmony and played acoustic guitar as well as helping with the preproduction. Little Pink are Tim Pruitt (guitar), Alex Webber (bass), Ed Hough (drums) and Dave Hadley (steel). On the album the special guests include Ray Eicher on pedal Steel, Dudley Connell on harmony vocals as well as those bringing such additional instruments as banjo, fiddle, mandolin, accordion and saxophone. All these instruments add to the tonal range, within the context of the overall sonic direction and that allows these songs the room to move, depending on the song and its mood. 

There are a number of immediate stand-outs, including Things You Say And Things You Don’t, Disappearing Ink, Six Miles Out, Can’t Take My Mind Off You and 20 Words, among the 14 tracks; but in truth there is no filler here - it is all top notch and Battiata’s writing is emotive and takes a clear view of relationships, affairs of the heart, that fall on both sides of the divide that delineates the ones that work, the ones that don’t and the ones that could go either way.

Simply put, an album that stands up to a lot of the independent, thoughtful, creative contemporary female voices that are making some of the standout Americana music being made today. Battista and Little Pink are not from Nashville or Austin but rather hail from Arlington in Virginia and they are proof that a there is a lot going on, in terms of good music, outside those more well known cities. This may be regional but it is also international and Battista comes with a recommendation from the noted writer George Pelecanos.

Ryan Bingham Live Humphead

This show was recorded at the Whitewater Amphitheatre in Texas in 2016 and is getting a European release now. It was recorded in front of a vocal and vibrant partisan audience. In truth on some tracks this is a little distracting but overall it shows that his audience is right behind (as well as in front) of him. The band here is not a variation of his Dead Horses band but rather a set of seasoned players like Jedd Hughes and Daniel Sprout on electric guitars and Richard Bowden on fiddle alongside a sturdy rhythm section. These players were part of the band that recorded his last album (Fear And Saturday Night). Bingham is on acoustic guitar and harmonica and he is well up there in the sound. Some of the songs are virtually stripped back to his voice and guitar. And his gravel hardened voice is as distinctive as ever.

The songs came from different albums and parts of his career but two albums in particular are the source of many of the chosen songs in the set. They are Mescalito (his major label debut) and Fear And Saturday Night. The band, over the albums 14 songs 79 minute duration, cover a lot of ground from bluesy rock, ragged folk and toughened roots. These are in keeping with the nature of many of the songs which take a darker view of life with titles like Top Shelf Drug, Depression, The Weary Kind, Hard Times and Nobody Knows My Troubles expressing inner turmoil and trepidation.   

The songs are obviously familiar to many of the audience who sing along at times and cheer to particular phases and words. But as a summation of a career and a starting point for getting acquainted with Bingham’s music this may not be the best album to start with. That album may be Mescalito which came out on Lost Highway in 2007. There was at least one self-released album before that which never made it beyond local sales. But for Bingham fans there is much to enjoy in different and extended versions of the songs than appear on the previous albums.     

Brett Perkins and the Pawn Shop Preachers Put A Fork In Me, I’m Done Works Of Heart

An American abroad, Brett Perkins now resides in Copenhagen in Denmark and fronts his band (in various combinations) The Pawn Shop Preachers. The play (they say) “Americana for middle-aged music lovers.” Ones with a good sense of humour too it looks like. Perkins is no stranger to recording and touring and has a number of other albums under his belt. Although the cover doesn’t make it clear I assume that these are all original songs that are featured on the album. There are 12 songs that, unusually for these days, all come in under the three-minute mark. They are all short, sharp and satisfying.

The titles give you some clue to the nature of the content, as in: She’s Got Champagne Tastes On My Beer Budget, She Loves My Belly And My Bald Spot and I’m Longin’ For A Short Term Relationship. Just Like Jesus has a chorus that runs “ I like water with my wine, just like Jesus  … I don’t think I’ll be coming round again.” Get Me Outta’ Nashville is about dealing with a heartbreak in Music City and how every song reminds him of his predicament!

The album was produced and mixed by Troels Alsted, along with the band (who all have alter egos such as Friar Klaus and Pastor Zat; all clearly have a love and understanding for classic country stylings and mix a bit of other swinging rootsy elements in there too with their up tempo Americana. Fun and frowzy.

Alpha Mule Peripheral Vision Giant Meteor

This duo has a background in the visual arts and music. They describe their music as being influenced by such diverse but compatible elements as rock, blues, bluegrass, folk and traditional country - the basic ingredients of Americana then. Joe Forkan grew up in Tucson and Eric Stoner is from California - where they are now based. The album however was recorded at the renowned Wavelab Studio in Tucson, Arizona. They joined forces to play music five years ago and this is their debut album.

They produced the album working with Chris Schultz (recording) and Craig Schumacher (mixing). Schumacher also contributed keyboards alongside a selection of well chosen musicians including Calexico’s Joey Burns on bass and Jacob Valenzuela playing trumpet. Conor Gallaher contributed pedal steel guitar and Fen Ikner was the drummer. The cover image would suggest an old-time string band direction with banjo and guitar the featured photographic instruments. Indeed, those are equally prominent in the overall sound but with the skills of the other players involved, it has a wider musical focus while being built around the core of that earthy set-up. There is also something of that Tucson/Wavelab spacious soundscape to be taken into account.

They open (and close) with Corpus Christi a track that highlights these two elements well. After that, the main 10 tracks explore a mix of melody and metamorphosis. There are also an additional 5 tracks described as “bonus tracks” one of which is a version of Joe Henry’s Short Man’s Room. It also has three versions of the album songs stripped right back to the duo’s bare bones which also prove effective. On The Moon features the voice of Apollo 8 astronaut Commander Frank Borman which adds to its slightly unworldly quality. The title track again uses the pedal steel to good effect.

Much of the music has a cinematic sense that would make it a good source for use in a film or a TV series but aside from that potential it is a captivating sound that repays repeated listening in its own right. That they have added these layers to what could have been a more directly bare bones affair makes the album work on another level from that of perhaps seeing the duo play live. Their peripheral vision has insight. 

Melanie Dekker Secret Spot Self Release

A folk/pop/country styled singer from British Columbia in Canada who writes her songs and releases her albums to a growing audience in North America and in Europe. Dekker has produced this latest collection of songs with Sheldon Zaharko. They cover different bases and given that she credits the influence as such diverse artists as Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga, Tracy Chapman, Etta James and Tom Petty that’s not surprising. They are all held together by her confident and versatile vocal presence.

The songs are mostly written solo with a couple of co-writes and with one track, the title, written by Allan Rodger. Roger also plays bass on several tracks as well as drums, keyboards (all three on one track). Elsewhere the musicians add banjo, mandolin and accordion to add the rootsier sounds to the electric guitars, keyboards and trumpet that feature. There are several songs that have an immediate likability including the song written for her father (Te Amo Mucho) which has a Mexican element in the accordion and Spanish guitar, Memories of You, Ginned Up and Always Gonna Be which takes the sensible proposition that in life there is always gaining to be someone “faster, faster smarter, prettier” and to be as her Mother advised “the best you can be with what you’ve been given.” Good advice and something that Dekker has taken to heart to produce music that feels true to her vision and talent.

On Dekker’s website there are some 10 albums available so it’s obvious she has grown with her music and her fanbase along with her. With her writing talent and voice Dekker could compete with many of the current crop of crossover artists. She has opened for Diana Krall and Faith Hill which attests to the fact that her music can fit into a number of formats. She does this by believing in herself and her music and finding the secret spot where that works.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Krista Detor 'Barely' -Tightrope

Krista Detor is one of the great unheralded American songwriters of the last decade. If we look for a sense of grace in the world and a considered, reflective view of the human condition then there is much to recommend a secretive liaison with her wonderful, literary recordings.

Produced by David Weber and wrapped in understated song arrangements and melodies, Barely is a very brave record in its stripped bare beauty and gentle warmth. Hers is a voice that breathes a seductive, melancholic tone; worldly wise and always open to the possibility of enduring hope. Her ability to capture the appropriate mood is impressive and the insight and vulnerable nature of these songs quite haunting.

Can I Come Over tells of a repentant lover who wants to make up with her partner having broken a bond of trust. Box of Clouds speaks of a former lover who is left behind in the rush of living. Castle in Wales is a lovely memo to a partner to go back and relive a special memory. Barely is a knowing look at a broken relationship but yet a belief that love may endure. From the Pedestal is a song about regret and hurt caused to another while trying to look forward to the future and forget past memories.

For All I Know is a beautiful keepsake in time from a parent to a child and the hope of infinite possibility held in the future of a young life. Too Fast is a superb reflection of lives in motion and the decisions that shape us. The Coming Winter, a duet with Mary Dillon, boasts a beautiful duet that takes sides between two lovers in a fight to have their man return from the war to one or the other. 

Recorded with mainly piano and guitars with guest vocals from Amanda Biggs, Moira Smiley and Mary Dillon and cello from Anne Hurley; this is a quiet, reflective, poignant, personal and honest release. This one is a real keeper and highly recommended.

Joel Plaskett 'The Park Avenue Sobriety Test' - Self Release

Born in Nova Scotia, Joel Plaskett has been making quite a successful career in his native Canada and further afield for the last 15 years now, producing a succession of always interesting releases to mark his musical journey and maturity as a songwriter of note.

His sound is very much in the contemporary singer songwriter arena if we must pick a signpost, but his reach is more than just this with an eclectic array of genres, from blues and folk to rock and country.

This new release is his sixth solo outing, when not playing as part of the more rock orientated Joel Plaskett Emergency. The songs here cover a range of subjects from a nostalgic look at growing up (On a Dime) to a random thoughts scattergun (Song for Jersey) and on to more serious topics such as corporate control (Captains of Industry) and a plea to his nation (For Your Consideration).

The production is shared by Joel and Ian McGettigan and the musicians are drawn from a wide range of players that have worked with Plaskett over the years. Broke sings of not giving up and having fortitude and resolve to endure no matter what the obstacle – ‘I’m broke, but I’m not broken’.

Alright/OK and Credits Roll are relationship songs that discuss the relative health of staying together too long or exiting too early – ‘Don’t you hang around til the credits roll’.

When I Close My Eyes is a fine song of passion and yearning for that special someone and the title track (P.A.S.T.) is a fun romp through our daily lives and the randomness of it all.

The one cover version, Hard Times, (Stephen Foster) is a barometer in many ways for the rest of the project as it pauses among the pleasure of these songs to reflect upon the tears and sorrow of the disenfranchised. It is a terrific version of a timeless classic and shows the mark of the man. This is a really enjoyable listen and recommended to fans, new and old alike.

Kip Moore 'Wild Ones' - MCA

This second release by MCA artist Kip Moore has plenty of label weight behind it. Clocking in at almost 50 minutes however, it strikes me as nothing more than an overproduced, arena-oriented, hit factory approach to being a modern ‘real’ country boy. Is this the future direction of Nashville country music and should we be afraid?

Opening track Wild Ones has a production that includes programmed beats and a slow groove, topped off by chants and hand claps – it could be stadium rock – it could be chart pop – it could be a number of things, but it is not easily slotted into any definition of the traditional country genre. Sure, the vocal is authentic southern boy, influenced by many other artists and the gloss of Come and Get It has airwave hit written all over it; but that is not the point; am I listening to Bon Jovi lite or a Garth Brooks wannabe?

Commercial sound (Magic), upbeat tempos (Girl of the Summer), heart on sleeve lyrics (That was Us), pseudo-anthem chant (Lipstick), Radio Friendly (What Ya Got on Tonight), slow and sensitive (Running for You), on it goes...

The one song that feels truly authentic is final track Comeback Kid which shows what this song writer could achieve if he were to get back to the source of it all, honest songs delivered in a style that strips away all the fluff, programming and junk. 

Melanie Dekker 'Live in Europe' - Self Release

This Canadian artist began recording solo in the late 1990’s and has built a solid career over the years. Live in Europe clocks in at around 50 minutes and the 13 tracks were recorded at 4 concerts in Germany and Holland. Dekker is joined by a group of 4 players on guitars, bass and keyboards as she delivers folk oriented songs that visit a wide range of topics from matters of the heart (Blush, Boomerang) the price of commitment (The Price You Pay, Meant to Be), loss of innocence (Distant Star, At the Junkyard), communication breakdown (Flowers, Stare at the Rain) and philosophical musings (Maybe We’re the Angels).

David Sinclair plays guitars with some aplomb and his reputation as a member of Sarah McLachlan’s band gives him due respect and gravitas. The overall playing is both sensitive and subtle in service of these quiet vignettes of life, but the lack of any audience presence takes away from the fact that it is essentially a live recording. Muted applause and a few clipped song intros, do not add to the feel of the project. However, Melanie sings with a beautifully clear voice and the songs are worth repeated plays.

Jack Tempchin 'Learning To Dance' - Blue Elan Records

A Californian singer-songwriter, Tempchin is best known for his contributions to the Eagles songbook and has also written for a number of other bands and artists including Tom Rush, George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Glen Campbell. Learning to Dance is produced, recorded and mixed by Joel Piper, who does a fine job, and adds the majority of instruments and background vocals.

There is an easy tempo to these 12 songs, as if you were to mix a James Taylor vibe with a sleepy Tim McGraw. Tempchin sings with an effortless, sweet delivery and the production keeps things at a medium pace throughout.

The End of the Affair has a smooth jazz groove and the title track is tailor-made for country artists to cover. The songs are mainly about love and relationship matters, with the slow strum of Ain’t Nobody like You the perfect example. You Can Go Home is a song that visits the past and what gets left behind; it is one of the stronger songs with the reflection that ‘you can go home, but you can’t go back’. 

Finally Found Me is a quiet acoustic strum that speaks of finding an inner peace and Room to Run closes the set with a message to let your children develop their character and identity with only a gentle guiding hand.

This is a fine collection of songs that will appeal to a broad cross section of music listeners.