Reviews by Eilís Boland

Ben Hunter/Phil Wiggins/Joe Seamons A Black & Tan Ball Self Release

Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter are a fascinating duo who are at the forefront of the recent emergence of a musical subgenre that they themselves have dubbed Black Americana. Other exponents are artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Cedric Watson. What they all have in common is a deep regard for, and knowledge of, the musical traditions of the Appalachians, the Ozarks and the American South, the African-American stringband traditions, folk-blues and country-jazz. 

Hunter and Seamons have a particular interest in the pre-war era song tradition ie the ballads, blues and folk songs of 19th century America. Their mission is to “revive obscure stuff” and this they have done in spades in this fantastic collection of thirteen classics from the Great American Songbook. Here they are joined by the truly legendary blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, who continues the Piedmont blues tradition. 

In an album of superb tracks, it’s difficult to single out any particular highlight. The opener Do You Call That A Buddy is a blackly humourous (no pun intended!) tale of treachery sung in Phil’s rich baritone, with lots of call and response hollering from the boys. Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me is given a lovely languorous treatment again by Phil, and it interestingly features Bens’ mandolin playing. It’s quite unusual to hear a mandolin used in the blues tradition but it works really well here. Both Ben or Joe take lead vocals on many of the songs. 

Ben, who is particularly known for his fiddle playing (in fact he’s classically trained) has revived the fiddle in the blues genre - apparently it played a significant role in early blues but then fell out of favour. Joe switches easily between guitar and clawhammer banjo, his banjo featuring on a stunning extended version of John Henry. Rory Gallagher fans will be surprised by the almost unrecognisable rendition of Bullfrog Blues, which is closer to the original version written and released by William Harris in 1928.

The three instrumentals are as impressive as the songs, especially the breakneck Shanghai Rooster. In addition to playing gigs, Seamons and Hunter have dedicated themselves to educating communities and especially the younger generations by conducting workshops and community events across the US, not just in their Seattle base.

Edwyn & The Borrowed Band High Fences Dead Records Collective

Glasgow based but heavily influenced by Americana, James and his band release their second album of original material, ably self produced and recorded in their hometown. The result is an impressive collection of strong songs, catchy melodies and superb playing with a country rock flavour. The opener San Ysidro sounds like it has come straight out of California, with its jangly guitar riffs, and pounding rhythms. James, who takes lead vocals throughout and writes or cowrites everything, has a strong voice, reminiscent of Ryan Adams at times. Emma Joyce’s harmony vocals are particularly impressive, being superbly complementary to James’s. Scott Keenan completes the trio of harmony vocalists, which contributes to the band’s lush full sound.  

The bluesy/funky Get Back Up has a real Southern Rock feel, with it’s fabulous electric guitar breaks and Emma’s soaring vocals. Pushing Statues uses a quartet of brass players who add a subtle backdrop to the full sound, also boosted by guest pedal steel player Tim Davidson and the ever present rocking and rolling keyboards of the aforementioned Scott Keenan. 

Other highlights are: Quoting Sagan, a catchy ballad that builds slowly from a quiet acoustic guitar intro into a luscious dramatic electric guitar driven climax; Taking Liberties co-written by Ronnie Gilmour and featuring his inventive electric guitar work; and the closing song Doubts, another slow burner which builds on layered electric guitar and piano interludes, ending in a gorgeous finale of soaring lush instrumentation and echoing vocal harmonies. 

The CD package is well designed and the album is also available on vinyl. My one gripe is that I’d like to hear some of the band’s Scottish origins peeking through the project - perhaps this will happen on the next album, one which I very much look forward to.

Foghorn Leghorn All At Sea Self Release

Probably one of longest running bluegrass band in England, Foghorn Leghorn release only their third album in over 25 years of existence. Best known on the London scene, where they have a regular residency in the Betsey Trotwood, the band are known for their lively irreverence and tongue-in-cheek attitude to their music. They readily delve into their wide musical influences to broaden their bluegrass sound with large dollops of folk and country. While they may not be the tightest band you’ll ever hear, they make up for it with enthusiastic abandon!

It’s refreshing to review an album in this genre that is packed with all original material. The majority of the songs are written by mandolinist Eamonn Flynn. His songs range from  uptempo love songs like Spanish Champagne to my personal favourite, Beginning to Hurt - a tender ballad of unrequited love. But he’s also adept at writing insightful commentaries on current social ills. No prizes for guessing the subject of He’s Got The Whole World (in his tiny little hands). 

Fundamental Breakdown is a welcome instrumental interlude written by banjoist Tim Kent. Whale Bone is a truly chilling exploration of the well known scandal of corporal punishment in certain religious institutions in these islands, and demonstrates Eamonn Flynn’s songwriting acumen again. 

Danny George Wilson joins in on the closer Moving Along - ending on a positive note despite the personal and sociopolitical strife explored in earlier songs. The excellent cover art is a cartoonish depiction of the band and various political world figures who are on a boat washed up onshore during a storm - survivors despite the chaos around them - very fitting!

Sarah Morris Hearts In Need Of Repair Self Release

Having spent some years in Nashville pursuing her songwriting career, Sarah Morris is now back in her native Minnesota, where she performs regularly with her longtime band. She also uses these excellent musicians on this her third album, which she coproduced with Eric Blomquist. Sarah has been blessed with a pure and sweet voice and the sparse tasteful production allows her voice to shine on the eleven self penned songs. Packaged in pink, the album art gives a hint as to what lies beneath.

The Nashville songwriting machine experience is to the fore in most of the songs on the collection, so if you like pop country, music that won’t rock the boat, then this might just be your thang. Songs like Good at Goodbye, Course Correction and Helium detail heartbreak and heartache but you might just feel like you’ve heard it all before. Confetti is a well overdue plea to all to get our heads out of our phones and ‘spread love like confetti’ - a worthy sentiment indeed, but one likely to fall on deaf ears!

Nothing Compares is a whole other deal. This is a touching love song written from the heart, to her husband of 15 years. Backed just by an acoustic and an electric guitar accompaniment, Sarah convincingly conveys the vulnerability and the trust implicit in such a longterm relationship. It’s an exquisite track. The two other standout songs are Falling Over and Shelter or The Storm - the soulful bluesy production on these catchy songs allows Sarah to let go and indulge a gutsier side to her voice, one I’d really have liked to have heard more of. On A Stone, an exploration of steadfastness, is another strong song on which Sarah’s voice soars, beautifully backed by guest musician Jillian Rae’s violin.

SIDELINE Front and Center Mountain Home

This is a solid fourth album from a much awarded and admired group of ‘sidemen’, who, along with a few younger additions, have now become a permanent band. They excel at the hard driving Carolina-Grass style of bluegrass, and all six band members are comfortable taking lead vocals.

From the pen of Milan Miller comes Lysander Hayes, the dark tale of the classic ‘bad boy’, driven by the pulsating claw hammer banjo of Skip Cherryholmes (Cherryholmes, Lou Reid and Carolina). Another founding member Jason Moore contributes exciting bass lines here and he ably anchors the whole album with his playing - something he has done for years touring with James King and then with Mountain Heart.

Another strong song and radio hit is the opening Thunder Dan, featuring the lead vocals of mandolinist Troy Boone, a recent addition to the band and a graduate of ETSU’s Bluegrass programme. Steve Dilling’s classic driving banjo style is one of the delights of this recording, but he also takes lead vocals and contributes outstanding harmonies on many of the songs.

Generally the songs here are chosen for their traditional style, for example the sentimental ballad Frozen in Time, Bluefield WV Mtn Girl and Something Out of Nothing. However, there are also welcome contrasts, for example Gordon Lightfoot’s Song For A Winter’s Night (covered by Tony Rice) which here is given a quiet laid back feel, thanks to Skip’s outstanding guitar work and his rich vocals. Or the lovely slow version of Dudley Connell’s Memories That We Shared, with guitarist Bailey Coe on lead vocal duties. Don’t worry, there are the inevitable gospel songs - I Long To See His Face and Satan’s Charms give free rein to these guys to show off their sweet four part harmonies. An exhilarating version of the traditional Cotton Eyed Joe instrumental closes out the collection. 

One reservation is that there are no original songs here, which is a bit surprising considering the wealth of talent in the band. The second is the uninspiring design of the packaging - a far too busy mosaic of photos and some poor graphics could so easily have been improved upon.

EJ Ouellette Conjure Man, Conjure Man Self Release

Boston based Renaissance man EJ Ouellette has released his first solo album, on which he played most of the instruments, wrote most of the songs and also produced, engineered and mixed it. Phew! It’s essentially an album of three halves. Ouellette excels at creating brooding atmospheric story songs, as he does on the title track. His ‘Conjure Man’ character is a sort of hoodoo man - suggesting danger, black magic and witchcraft. In fact, his creator hopes to turn this character into the subject of a film and has already made a pilot video to expand on the idea. Ouellette’s experience as a film maker is also evident in Charming The Snake and Hey Jonah. In the former he continues to effectively evoke the dark theme of the opening track with his moody banjo, menacing bass line and the inspired choice of Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on percussion. 

There are three instrumental tracks. Jenny’s Jam is a traditional Irish reel, given a Celtic rock feel here with drum and bass and EJ’s manic fiddle playing. Campbells’ Farewell To Red Gap is a Scottish traditional tune, again given the rock treatment. Much more successful is the hauntingly beautiful self penned slow air Gideon’s Lament, where EJ shows his fine playing by laying down harmonising twin fiddles.

The remaining seven songs are essentially power ballads in a distinctly Springsteenesque style. This is probably due in part to the prominence of the saxophone as one of the lead instruments. Heck  - he even manages to make Steve Earle’s I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet sound like it was written by Bruce!

Reviews By Declan Culliton

Sarah Morris Ordinary Things Self Release

First listen to Ordinary Things brought to mind the Ohio singer Rachel Sweet, who’s blend of country infused pop was to the fore in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Not sure why she was released from my memory bank having not listened to her music for over thirty years but I did detect quite a number of similarities between her and Sarah Morris. Crystal clear voices, snappy country pop and simple but cleverly crafted songs mostly involving relationships, being the common tread between the two artists.

Following her previous two albums Grateful Moon (2011) and Lonely or Free (2012) Sarah Morris took time out from recording after the birth of her second child before returning to the studio earlier in spring 2015 to record the eleven tracks that feature on Ordinary Things. Recorded at River Rock Studios Minnesota with her band which includes Thomas Nordlund, a technically superb guitar player (whose solo album is coincidentally reviewed in this section), Andrew Foreman on bass and Zachary Schmidt on drums, percussion and keyboards, Morris also contributes acoustic guitar. Production duties were carried out by Eric Blomquist. 

The real winner on the album however is the heavenly quality of Morris’ soaring vocals that dip and soar throughout and leave a lasting impression with the listener.

No Memory is instantly catchy and hum a long, both Sway Me and Lie Here Tonight follow a similar path, delightfully mainstream and certainly radio friendly. Hope Sweet Hope fittingly closes Ordinary Things on a high note completing what is an upbeat and solid collection of songs delivered in some style.

Rachel Laven Love & Luccheses Self Release

I have Rebecca Roselly, who together with her husband Simon form the UK Roots band The Rosellys, to thank for the introduction to Rachel Laven, a 24 year old Texan singer-songwriter. Rachel guested at a show in Nashville that featured The Rosellys and certainly made a marked impression with her brief appearance.

A winner of the Texas Music Coalitions Artist of the Year while performing with her family band The Lavens she was also recently voted San Antonio’s Best Female Vocalist.

What places her ahead of many of her contemporaries, with ambitions of an industry breakthrough, is the possession of a quite luscious voice that recalls a young Carlene Carter and places Laven approaching the territory of the new breed of young gifted female songsters Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Munroe.

 Love & Luccheses features eleven songs, eight of which are written by Laven, three co-writes and one cover Something Like Heaven written by Walt Wilkins. It’s altogether a solid collection of songs ranging from ballads Each Other’s Shoes and Something Like Heaven with echoes of Patty Griffin and the beautiful title track to the ripping Do You Dare which is straight in your face 80’s Carlene Carter fun country at its finest. 

In summary the song writing and delivery on the album suggests a maturity way beyond Laven’s years and the potential for much bigger things going forward.

John Blek Cut The Light  Self Release

‘I would bleed myself dry, I would take the blows for you, I regret the day you went away, And the things I put you through’

The opening lyrics to the debut solo album from John Blek sets the scene for a collection of well-constructed songs often depicting tales of lost love, heartbreak, despair and sorrow.

The frontman of Cork roots outfit John Blek and The Rats abandons the more swashbuckling and high gloss style of his writing for the band and explores territories more familiar with recent outputs from artists such as Richard Thompson and Ryley Walker. The album as a whole leans towards a British / Irish folk sound with also a healthy nod towards more traditional Irish music in parts particularly on both Where Are You Tonight and Lightness vs Weight.

Often stripped to the bone the emphasis is always on the lyrics and the stories they reveal.  Rich in emotion and melody Ruby Blood, one of the albums strongest tracks, is achingly mournful and melancholy (Did you hear my heart, break in two, Ruby blood, Ruby blood that bled for you).

Little Sparrow certainly calls to mind Richard Thompson both in melody and style, The Northline speaks of unrequited love. The Night and the Liquor tells a tale of unrepentant, reckless over indulgence, weightless in its delivery and featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar. Recorded at Wakefield Recordings in West Cork the album was produced by John Blek and Brian Casey (who also contributes piano, Hammond organ and guitar).

Unlike Blek’s work with The Rats Cut The Light is not the album you’d choose to select to liven up the party instead it’s a consistent collection of ballads by one of the most impressive Irish songwriters to emerge in recent years.

Amanda Shires My Piece of Land BMG

Musically Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell are a marriage made in heaven and this latest offering from Shires speaks volumes of their compatibility also as partners and parents. 

Isbell has been since his early days a song writer of absolute talent whether it be his classic Drive By Truckers songs Decoration Day and Outfit or his work with his band The 100 Outfit which resulted in some equally impressive offerings such as Sunstroke and Streetlights. However memorable his early work was it has been surpassed by his output since his relationship with Shires began, her steadying influence and support instrumental in Isbell reaching a stage where he must be considered the leading singer songwriter of recent times.

In a similar vein based on My Piece of Land, the sixth album released by Shires, domestic bliss, motherhood and contentment seems to have had a positive creative influence resulting in the strongest album of her career to date.

Lubbock, Texas born Shires professional career started as a teenager as the violin player and member of Bob Wills backing band The Texas Playboys. Releasing her first album Being Brave in 2005 her fragile and sweet vocals, flawless violin skills and an ability to write heartfelt songs in the folk/country genre suggested a young lady with immense potential.

The quality of her debut album was equalled by her 2009 recording Sew Your Heart With Wires and possibly surpassed with the Carry Lighting (2011) and its successor Down Fell The Doves (2013). My Piece of Land, however, is a further step up from her previous work containing some beautiful songs both revealing, honest and personal.

Written while Shires was pregnant When You’re Gone reveals the loneliness of the house bound Shires while her husband is on tour ("I’ve learned exactly which of the floorboards groan and how the ac exhales when it kicks on"). My Love (The Storm), is one of two co-writes on the record with Isbell, the other being Pale Fire. Nursery Rhyme anticipates the birth of her first child ("My breath a prayer I’m holding in, I know you’re coming soon").

However it is the closing track You Are My Home that is the stand out song on the album. A seductive love ballad which features some glorious violin playing by Shires  and an equally impressive guitar break by Isbell, it’s a piece of music that having listened to a number of times will take some time to leave the listeners memory bank.  ("Your six one frame, my address is your name, high ceilings and walls, walls are just walls, and you are my home"). Production duties were undertaken by Dave Cobb with Isbell adding guitar and piano. Nashville session players Paul Griffith on drums and Paul Slivka on guitar also feature.

In an industry where heartbreak, failure and defeat more than often act as inspiration to song writers it’s a breath of fresh air to have a wonderful set of songs created by love, honesty and contentment. Highly recommended indeed.

Vicky Emerson Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down Self Release

Third outing from the Minneapolis resident Vicky Emerson and it’s an album that is immediately listenable from the word go. The opening track Under My Skin kicks the album off in fine style and what follows is a collection of quality songs that really work.

The sound throughout is a blend of folk, country with a splash of blues here and there. The song writing is strong, intimate, contemplative and matched by elegant playing throughout, mostly undertaken by Matt Patrick. 

The previously mentioned Under My Skin rocks along to a chunky guitar driven rhythm. Dance Me Into The Night, enhanced by some delightful fiddle playing, simply drifts along and tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen. Silhouette tells a tale of lost love and opportunity, delivered with a disciplined and soaring vocal. Runaway Train does its title justice, rolling along at speed and Save All My Cryin’ (For Sunday Afternoon) is as country as it comes, with shades of Emmylou Harris and including some smart guitar and pedal steel licks. September Midnight is a beautifully paced and immaculately sounding love song, possibly the albums strongest track. 

As was the case with her previous albums Long Ride (2009) and Dust & Echoes (2012), production duties were undertaken by the aforementioned singer – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matt Patrick who also co-wrote two tracks on the album.

Thomas Nordlund Divide Avenue Codesong

Stunningly atmospheric and technically superb Divide Avenue is an eight track instrumental album by Minneapolis based guitarist and composer Thomas Nordlund.

The album pays homage to the expansive landscapes of Baja, Mexico and was recorded live at The Hideaway in Minneapolis. The lead instrument is Nordlund’s electric baritone guitar and includes the input of six other musicians who contributed 6 string guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, wurlitzer, Rhodes, piano, bass and drums.

The result is quite stunning with the open desert and burning sun imagery being evoked not by a mariachi musical expression, as might be expected,  but by an intoxicating jazzy sound which often revisits some of the  jazz rock guitarists so popular of the 70’s such as Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell.

Instrumental albums can often be difficult listens and Nordlund’s debut album is no exception. They generally suit a certain mood and require more than couple of listens to digest. Divide Avenue is no exception but on repeated listens reveals itself as a wonderful body of work which would certainly work well as a film soundtrack. 

The Sawtooth Brothers One More Flight Self Release

Eight album in from the Minnesota band consisting of two sets of brothers, Ethan & Jesse Moravec and Clint & Luke Birtzer. It’s also their first album featuring all original material and was supported, as so many albums are these days, by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Named The Sawtooth Bluegrass Band in a former life, the band dropped the Bluegrass from their title and widened their musical horizons dipping into folk, country and a bit of pop together with their core old timey sound. The change in direction will no doubt appeal to a wider audience and avoid the band being pigeon holed into one particular genre, even if it may upset some of the purists. The end result is One More Flight which offers a rich mix of all these genres and creates a sound quite similar in style to their counterparts Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line. 

Lead vocals are shared on the eleven tracks between Jesse Moravec and Clint Birtzer, the other two members adding harmony vocals. The instrumentation, flawless throughout, consists of violin, mandolin, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and resonator guitar.

The album kicks off in fine style with the catchy and audacious Another Cliché giving a taste for what will follow. Next up is County Road X which features some heavenly violin breaks by Luke Birtzer. Summer All The Time is delightful, a combination of vocal harmony, bubbling violin and mandolin breaks that combine perfectly. The title track, possibly the albums standout, is the perfect mix of old and modern and sums up what the brothers do best. Take Me Away is an intoxicating and fitting closing track to a very impressive and cohesive collection of songs by a band certainly worth checking out.

Adam Levy Naubinway Self Release

Before listening to this album I was somewhat intrigued by the stark and rather disturbing imagery on the cover and inner sleeve and was interested as to how the artwork related to the album. I was aware of Adam Levy as band leader and singer-songwriter with Minnesota band The Honeydogs, but was completely unaware of the motivation and the event that lead to the recording of this solo effort.

Written in the memory of his son Daniel, who having battled with mental illness for a number of years, tragically took his own life in 2012, Naubinway is understandably anything but an easy listen. The lead up, event, aftermath and topic of suicide and mental illness are dealt with openly, honestly and was no doubt part of a grieving process surrounding such a painful ordeal. Understandably Levy found it impossible to write creatively for a couple of years after the loss of his son but was eventually inspired by Daniel’s artwork, having poured through the many sketchbooks he left behind. The album’s title Naubinway is the name of a small beach at Lake Michigan and is the last place that Daniel’s mother saw her son smile.

The lyrics are often pain staking to read and one can only imagine how difficult they must have been to compose and record. Tracks such as How I Let You Down ("Daniel, all your sketchbooks are a journey, the pain revealed…..We’re still learning how to be without you. Daniel, you ventured on to the thin ice. We threw you so many lifelines. You burned them to the quick") and Pitch Black Path ("It’s long and its dark. It’s a pitch black path lit by nothing but a spark and it won’t get any better till you move on") leave nothing to the imagination. 

The title and closing track, detailing the trip to dispose of Daniel’s ashes in Lake Michigan, would challenge any listener as would the accompanying photograph of the young man beside some of his striking artwork. ("A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway"). As with the opening track Take it as it Comes it features only vocal and acoustic guitar by Levy suggesting that the message was too personal to have an input by others.

However, beyond the despair and darkness the album reveals itself as a beautifully constructed, intelligently written set of songs, quite a few which recall a mid 60’s Beatles sound, How Your Well Runs Dry, This Friend and Atoms Never Die in particular. Marigold is a lovely honeyed ballad, I Wish You Well an equally upbeat love song both of which feature some dreamy steel guitar courtesy of Joe Savage.

Levy is on the record saying that the album was not about immortalising his son, which he would not have wished for anyway. It was primarily written by way of personally dealing with the loss. 

Produced by Adam Levy and Scott Miller and recorded at both their houses and at Essential Session Studios Naubinway is a striking body of work that deals honestly and compassionately with a particularly difficult subject matter. Well worth investigating.