Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Moot Davis Hierarchy Of Crows Self Release

This is the fifth Moot Davis album release since his Pete Anderson produced debut in 2004 (not counting an album he put out prior to that to sell at gigs). It is another link in the chain of work from an artist who always delivers something special through his work. At least it is special to me. His combination of traditional country influences blended with the better moments of hard rock and vintage rockabilly always manages to entertain and excite. Doing so in a way that the majority of mainstream country doesn’t. Even when he rocks out the music never loses sight of the roots from which it sprung. Like any artist who’s been around awhile Moot Davis is constantly adapting and realising his overall sound.

This album was recorded in California over a period of time and was produced by Davis with Jody Sappington and Blake Oswald. His previous albums were produced by renowned guitarist/producers Kenny Vaughan and the aforementioned Pete Anderson. This time out Storm Rhodes IV is the noted string bender who can deliver some tight twang as easily as some telling tones of distortion - as the songs and mood requires. Other players here include Ted Russell Kamp on bass, Skip Edwards on keyboards and guitar, Gary Morse on dobro and pedal steel and co-producer Blake Oswald on drums, so there’s no doubting the talent involved.

Moot Davis has always been an interesting writer taking what are the universal themes of love and its manifestations as the subject matter of many of these songs. The album opens in a hard rock mode with hard guitar and heavy drums and a distorted vocal. Here Comes The Destroyer is centered on a man who is out to wreak havoc. This is followed by a song with a strong incisive guitar riff. Quite As Well As You Lie takes a similar hard man attitude. While Shot Down In Flames has a loose Stones-ish Exile groove.

What’s The Matter With Me and You’re Gonna Win (I’m Gonna Cry) are a link back to the Davis of yore with pedal steel guitar and twang guitar reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam's early output and these diverse moods are all held together by a strong vocal presence and attitude. The title track takes a moodier path with dobro and an oblique lyric. Another stand-out is the closing Hemophiliac Of Love. Is back to where we came in with a hard rocking Zeppelin-style riff and intense vocal refrain of “blood clots, love stops.”

It is natural that an artist will grow and change their music. Sometimes this is welcome other times not. With this artist I’m on board as the core of the music is coming from a similar place and seems a natural diversity that works in the hierarchy of things.

Jeremy Pinnell Ties Of Blood And Affection Sofaburn

There has been a lot of anticipation for this new album from Jeremy Pinnell following on from the much acclaimed debut OH/KY. The Cincinnati singer has seen a fair amount of blood on the floor while looking to find the kind of affection that everyone needs and seeks. This album affirms Pinnell as a genuine contender, and in truth, more honest to goodness traditional country music minded that either Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell. Nothing against those two gentlemen who are producing great music themselves.

These songs ring with truth and a sense that they come from within. Feel This Right is a testament to how way that love sometimes sneaks up on us and brings us to a place that just feels right. Different Kind Of Love is a reaffirmation of finding that there is a deeper, different kind of love that has the potential to be worth the fight to keep holding onto. These songs are not superficial love songs but ones that feel true. 

Best I Could Do is about being true to oneself and when standing before one’s maker declaring that the way you lived was honestly the best you could do. However Ain’t Nothing Wrong considers a lifestyle that might possibly point you in the opposite direction. Contemplation of afterlife and the consequences of the way one took life’s paths is the also the theme of the closing song The Way We See Heaven. It includes the telling line that in “19 hundred and seventy seven my Mama thought I came from Heaven … later in life she knew I came from Hell.” Affirmation of a life that has taken Pinnell through many situations that have informed these songs with no little grit and gravel.

What is central to the whole album is Pinnell’s contribution as songwriter, singer and co-producer - all of which are excellent. Mention also must be made of the players involved from steel player Cameron Cochran’s vital input alongside Brad Myers guitar and bass and Adam Nurre drumming and Bob Nave’s keyboards. Mike Montgomery co-produced the album which was recorded in Dayton, Kentucky. Far away from the prying eyes of any music executives who might have been present if the album was a major label project. Though it would be great to see Pinnell receive the kind of promotion that that position would bring. No doubt a contender for one of the albums of the year.

Amber Cross Savage On The Downhill Self Release

The title of the album is not an Irish opinion of one’s ability to ride a bike down a steep slope but rather a reference to how you would hold a rifle, Savage is a brand of hunting rifle, so as not to drag the barrel in the dirt. It is an indication of Cross’ affinity with land and lifestyle (as well as hunting). Something that informs the album’s songs as well as its title. Cross lives in Northern California but grew up in Maine so place and landscape inevitably seep in the songs. Those songs are a mix of folk and country. Storytelling that encompasses a direct form as well as, at times, a more poetic vision. Looking at the lives of those who may have drifted apart as in Leaving Again or the lifestyle of Tracy Joe in the windblown song of that name.

At the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko Nevada she met Chuck Hawthorne who in turn introduced her to Ray Bonneville who ended up producing this album in Austin. That location gave her access to a number of notable players such as Tim O’Brien, Gurf Morlix, Mike Hardwick and Dave Carroll. Seasoned and expressive players who do much to add a texture that has enhanced the songs greatly. But it is Cross’s voice (and songs) that are the heart of the album. She has a distinctive raw-boned voice that has distinctive phrasing and clear diction. There have been references to Iris DeMent as a vocal comparison and that is valid though Cross’ is less dividing in terms of liking and disliking her vocal presence.

There are a number of story songs on the album which opens with Pack Of Lies. A song that has a strong melody and a hardened sense of living “… I pray life is going to get easier” but qualifying that view with something more open “wish I could heal your broken heart.” The sense of troubled relationship is again highlighted in the line “did you think I’d stay here in your nightmare dream” from the title song. In Echoes that despair is central to the relationship of the couple who had raised two kids to find “Tell me again just why are we still together. Lying next to you I never felt so alone.” These snippets of the songs may suggest an album that is unrelentingly dark but overall though the lyrics are taken from some hard places the music has a sense of life and is upbeat overall. Cross has written these songs mainly solo. The title was co-written with her producer who also provided Lone Freighter’s Wall 

This is Cross’ third album and places her among the best independent women making roots music today. Making real music for real people. 

Rick Shea & The Losin’ End The Town Where I Live Tres Pescadores

It is good to hear a new release from Rick Shea. He is a distinctive singer, solid songwriter as a well as talented producer and skilled player. He is joined by his band of multi-instrumentalist Stephen Patt on guitars and keyboards, Bassist Dave Hall and drummer Steve Mugalian as well as some other guests. The songs have the feel of traditional storytelling. For instance, The Road To Jericho, The Starkville Blues or The Angel Mary and The Rounder Jim feel like they are the synopsis of some gritty, low-life B movie.

As with most of Shea’s albums there is a mix of blues, roots and country on offer. It is Shea’s warm, life-experienced vocal that provides much of the album’s individuality. The songs are all originals bar a Holleyesque/Bo Diddley rhythm underpinned upbeat version of Cowboy Jack Clement’s Guess Things Happen That Way which also features Shea’s pedal steel playing. He also plays dobro, mandolin, baritone as well as acoustic and electric guitars. Instruments he has played with a range of artists including the likes of Dave Alvin. Further showing, along with the rest of the band, an understanding of the music and traditions used in the creation of their own music.

Shea has been a part of the California country scene for some years where he continues to reside and perform. He does so with an ease that belies his talent as a conceptual all rounder. This is an understand master class in how to play roots music that, while it conforms to set parameters, manages to entertain and enlighten you in a way that feels good. Something that shows you the ethos and value of the music you’re listening to.  

My Darling Clementine Still Testifying CRS

Still testifying to the power of the music made by husband and wife duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish under the My Darling Clementine banner. This time out they have added a soupçon of soul to the classic country stylings. What immediately stands out is the subtlety and certainty of their vocals. Better here arguably than on any previous albums. They have now reached a place where the male/female interaction could easily be listed with the best duos of the past. 

They have co-produced this album with Neil Brockbank, who worked closely with Nick Lowe and recently with Jim Lauderdale on his London Southern album. He sadly passed away recently and will be greatly missed by both the musicians who he worked with as well as those who were the beneficiaries of the music he produced. They gathered together a fine crew of players to give, excuse the pun, it’s soul.  They included guitarist Martin Belmont, Alan Cook on pedal steel, Kevin Foster on bass, Bob Loveday on violin and Geraint Watkins on keyboards among a host of brass players as well as being joined by their daughter Mabel Dalgleish-King. 

The songs, which again mix humour and pathos, deal with fictional relationships of married and unmarried couples. These are written with a skill and sensitivity that gives them a lasting and meaningful resonance. Indeed those who have followed King’s solo career will know he is a seasoned writer who has made some outstanding albums in the past (as has Dalgleish). There are songs here from both, including Dalgleish’s Eugene - a song that is about the town in Oregon as well as a person. She also penned a song that lyrically relates to another point of view to that of the central figure in Dolly Parton’s classic in Jolene’s Story. Another stand-out that takes a hard look from a feminine perspective is Just A WomanFriday Night, Tulip Hotel is a King song that was previously featured in their collaboration with Mark Billingham. The Other Half is a great example of the cheating song that used to be a big part of the county music cannon way back.  Tear Stained Smile has an underlying darkness about a dying relationship. “A heart of marble, a face of stone, That’s what I’ve come to own” are lines that could have come from any renowned real country songwriter in the past. 

That this album was produced and played in the UK is, in itself, a testament to the fact that world class roots music is being made in these Isles and so should not be simply seen as a good album from this side of the pond but a great album period.

Mo Pitney Behind This Guitar Curb

Something of a throwback to the new traditionalist country movement of the late 80s and early 90s Mo Pitney is no outlaw. Rather he is a fairly clean-cut straight-up country singer and songwriter who writes largely about love. Love of place (Come Do A Little Life), of a special girl (Clean Up On Aisle Five), of country music and its sensibilities (Country)and of Merle Haggard (I Met Merle Haggard Today). This album was a long time waiting to come out but was finally released last year and is getting a push gain now as Pitney is playing dates in the UK. Although the has been no news of a new product if you go to his site it lists the album as sold out!

But back to the music, this is undoubtedly country music and as solid as pretty much anyone would recognise. The production by veteran Tony Brown (for the most part) is entirely in sympathy with the overall mood of the album. The songwriting is a selection of co-writes between Pitney and such notable scribes as Bill Anderson, Dean Dillon, David Lee Murphy and Don Sampson. There are two tracks that Pitney had no hand in. The closing Give Me Jesus - which has an obvious sentiment from its totally non-ironic title and Behind This Guitar which is a story of many a seeker looking for his chance to get behind a microphone and make the music they might love.

The musicians involved are equally well chosen to emulate a sound that is part early George Strait with a little Randy Travis thrown in. Chris Leuzunger, Richard Bennett, Glenn Worf, Aubrey Haynie and Gary Morse (among others) fully understand what is required and deliver. It is not though something that will surprise or excite in the way that some may. But I feel that’s not quite the point of the process. It was an album made to remind people of what country music should sound like from an artist who also loved his influences and the music he grew up with. It is solid, safe and satisfying. The real question is where Pitney will go from here. Unfortunately he didn’t make the impact that some hoped but in doing what he does he has made some fans who would be more than happy for him to repeat the process - to stand behind his guitar again and sing.

Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine ‘The Other Half’ - Hachette Audio

More of an audio short story than a musical CD. This is the physical version of what Mark Billingham and My Darling Clementine have been performing and touring in a live setting. It is inspired by Billingham’s (and his fictional detective Tom Thorne’s) love of traditional country songs and themes. A story of love, loss and murder it says on the cover and what could be more of a country song subject than that?

For the recorded version the additional voices of Graham Parker and David Morrissey (who plays Thorne in the T.V. series based on Billingham’s books) add character to the reading. It is the short story of Marcia, a former show girl in Las Vegas, now working in a run down bar. Marcia considers her life, her loves and the choices she has in later life. Add to the spoken voices are the songs and powerful voices of Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King. As My Darling Clementine they attracted the attention and friendship of Billingham and began to work together on this successful combination of words and music. 

There is an excerpt from the song By A Thread from My Darling Clementine's album How Do You Plead? Other than that the songs featured are newly recorded versions of perviously released or new songs (Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel, As Precious As The Flame) that fit the overall story arc. These version are essentially as they are done live, stripped back to voice and guitar but with some judicious bass, guitar and piano accompaniment added for the recording. The Brodsky Quartet also add strings to the new version of No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him). The tracks are sequenced for those who wish to access the songs on their own for repeated listening; but the recording works best as a piece.

I have listen through and enjoyed The Other Half several times now and one can pick up different nuances of the tale the more you listen. Billingham’s reading and voice has an attraction in itself that makes it very listenable. The songs are equally good and the whole thing comes in a nice package with a booklet that includes the text of the whole story. Any fan of either party will enjoy this innovative storytelling. Others may find one listen enough but either way it should be experienced - either live or in this repeated listening format.

My Darling Clementine 'How Do You Plead?' Drumfire

That this album has taken so long to get released, it was recorded over two years ago, is surprising. On the other hand I can see the reaction to an album of newly written classic-style country songs written by two English singer-songwriters might be a hard sell. However it shouldn't be as this is superb. From the singing, through the songs and the exemplary playing through to the solid, warm production. This must rank as one of the best country music albums to come out of the UK and that's not to damn it with feint praise as it also stands tall against similar albums released in the US and elsewhere. The assembled players are Martin Belmont on guitar, Alan cook on pedal steel, Bob Loveday on violin, Geraint Watkins on keyboards and Bobby Irwin and Jim Russell on drums and Kevin Foster on bass. All deserve praise for the way they deliver a classic country setting for the songs of Michael Weston King and his real life partner Lou Dalgleish. While Weston King has written the majority of the songs Dalgleish is equally adept at getting the mood right. Witness her song The Other Half wherein she delivers what might be her best vocal performance here and both vocalists deliver emotional and expressive singing throughout. That both writers have absorbed their obvious love and understanding of the genre shouldn't be a surprise given their track record. This is an album that is immersed in the golden age of country music as well as having an ear to contemporary takes on the form like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. At the heart of these duets is an understanding of the human condition and the interaction between couples when love can go wrong and be twisted into something more malevolent and spiteful. There's also regret and recognition of weakness. But in the end it's the sound that counts and even if you don't listen too closely to the lyrics the sound here is uplifting and entertaining. It is an album that repays repeated listen and one I will return to often. I plead guilty to loving this album. All involved should be justly proud and let's hope the undoubted praise it will receive will turn into more substantial sales for this fine, well-packaged album and its accompanying lyric booklet.