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.

Ryan Bingham 'Fear And Saturday Night' - Humphead

          After his Oscar award winning song The Weary Kind from the film Crazy Heart many listeners have wondered if Ryan Bingham would return to that understated and reflective mode that contrasted with the full-on band sound of his live shows and of his last album. For them the good news is that, in part, there are songs here that stand alongside that acclaimed song. The opening Nobody Knows My Trouble has a great mix of acoustic and electric guitar over a subtle brushed rhythm under Bingham’s older than his years seasoned and gritty voice. It's a telling song about a man who carries troubles with him through life. It has an believable autobiographical feel that makes it a great opener and an album highlight. Broken Heart Tattoos continues the theme with another top notch song that speaks of what can lie before you in life and end up marking you.
         Things get heavier on Top Shelf Drug a “love is the drug” song that highlights its addictive nature. Islands In The Sky offers hope with a mid tempo song laced with harmonica and features another strong vocal performance. There is a border feel to the accordion-led rocker Adventures Of You And Men, it gives a call out to Flaco Jiminez and the Texas Tornados. it’s a further album highlight and a instant toe-tapper. Next up we’re back in that contemplative mode with the title song. It is a reflection of a life lived as best one can under what would be a set of adverse circumstances. My Diamond Is Too Rough is a fairly self explanatory title for how the world treats and outsider and underdog. It incorporates some subtle organ and maraca playing before the electric guitar cuts an emotive shard into the song.
          A in-car radio is causing some static for a man driving to or from his girl in Radio. Next up, Snow Falls In June, seeks solace in love and offers true love if reciprocated. Darlin’ is a pure declaration of love and need. this is again give a soulful underplayed backing, perfectly reflective of the song's mood. Hands Of Time kicks up the dirt again with a Bo Diddley styled beat and a guitar driven lively bedrock. The album’s final track is Gun Fightin’ Man a tale that underlines a “live by the sword die by the sword” ethos of the title. A brooding mid-tempo song it closes what is a powerful and primal album.
         Produced by Bingham and Jim Scott it is arguably the best album from Bingham yet. It’s cast of players include guitarists Daniel Sproul and Jedd Hughes and a rhythm section of Nate Barnes and Shawn Davis. By making changes and bring in this new set of players Bingham has found a sound that is both rewarding and relevant. His voice is his own and his songs tell tales of hard worn lives and tainted love.


Ryan Bingham 'Tomorrowland' - Axster Bingham

Those expecting that Ryan Bingham may move in the direction of his CRAZY HEART song The Weary Kind with his new album may be surprised its full on nature of much of the new album. It's all change for Tomorrowland , the first album for his own label Axster Bingham,  a label he formed with his wife after leaving Lost Highway.

Bingham has co-produced the album with Justin Stanley, who also recorded and mixed the album. Ryan has also disbanded The Dead Horses and put together a smaller unit with just drummer Matt Sherrod and bassist Shawn Davis. Bingham plays electric guitar and provides the shredded rust-hued vocals that sound older that his years but which are very much his trademark since his first independent album, 2002’s Wishbone Saloon.

Here the music is sharp and angular with Ryan’s guitar taking centre stage and providing much of the tension in the songs. He also beings some heart into the songs that often are directed attacks on the negativity that surrounds the many lost souls and struggling lives he has surveyed.Bingham does this on the restrained No Help From God with brushed drums and minimal electric guitar. It is a potent song that conveys it's meaning well. It is in contrast with the attack of Guess Who's Knocking with it's expletive vocal refrain. This is a man who sees his country on a road to moral bankruptcy,  where the real money is only for the rich.

His anger is translated into these thirteen songs that, in many ways, are more aligned with his live shows where there is a deal of energy and electricity running like a live current through the music. If you know Ryan Bingham from his previous albums you will know what to expect but TOMORROWLAND switches the notion of country-rock around to give the latter more scope than the former which is fine by me.

Extended listening reveals a beating heart that tells his story and displays his passions. Bingham has taken control of his music and his destiny and, as he says on Neverending Show,   "I don't need no marquee sign, I don't need my name in lights" and he tells us of other's expectation and that he "don't need the rhinestone suit, someone else can hang it on the wall",  rather a real love is what he seeks and he hopes he won't run out of gas traveling to the never ending show to find it. On the strength of this there are many miles and many roads that Ryan Bingham can travel to his Tomorrowland and many will be happy to travel with him