Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Kate Vargas For The Wolfish & Wandering Little Maniac

First up you notice the voice that has a rasp to it that makes it distinctive and individual. She is a songwriter who has written or co-written all the songs on this her third album. Producer Charles Newman has gathered around her, in a Brooklyn studio, a set of players who don’t play safe with this engaging take on Americana. The percussionist Granville Mullings Jr is central to the sound, using an array of junkyard objects that add a quirkiness to the direction the songs take. 

Some songs immediately draw you in like Common Creep, a sharp critique of an aquaintance, with its memorable chorus of “you’re a creep, you’re a creep … just like me” - showing that Vargas doesn’t exclude herself from criticism when considering life, love and logic. But there are many moments on this album that make you realise that Vargas is an artist who is pushing the limits of her personal vision to create music that is not simple or easy but rewards engagement. Her blend of folk orientated storytelling is placed in the middle of a sonic stream that washes over her voice, adding a dream like (or nightmarish) take on her songs that draw on literary sources to create the wolfish world she wanders.                                                    

She can strip the song right back to voice and guitar on Madeline (a song about a troubled patient in an asylum). Then Come Join The Show is set into a heavier palate that suits the song’s sense of unease. The songs are drawn from a personal journey that may not reveal their meaning on first listen, but if not then the nature of the setting gives a strong hint of the elemental inspiration behind these tales. Her upbringing in New Mexico undoubtedly influence her sense of intrigue and interest in folklore and supernatural instincts.

Kate Vargas is a performer who is likely to gain a growing audience for her musical stories and her third album is well placed to achieve that. She offers something in her music that is magnetic, menacing and meaningful. 

Benjamin Jason Douglas First World Blues Flour Sack Cape

From the get-go it’s easy to fall in love with this album. Sure the comparisons in terms of voice and writing style are pretty obvious and you can name your own names. The music touches on several roots orientated bases but is blended, like an old whisky, into something with a touch of bluesy woodsmoke and nocturnal deadly nightshade. It was distilled by Joe Lekkas and a team of like minded local musicians who understood the mission. Lekkas is also a player here, along with Ryan Dishen on guitar and Erin Nelson on drums. This trio are fronted by Douglas who is very much the big man with the big presence here. He also wrote all the songs on the album aside from Lekkas’ Tchoupitoulas.

The songs are largely life experiences that stem from the personal and the observed. The lyrics are good and worthy of attention. In Raggedy Andy Williams, about a marriage break-up, he tells his other half “you can have the records and the player too, ‘cause I can’t hear them now without thinking of you.” Tentpole has a gospel feel that relates to the teller wanting to be a “tentpole in the big tent revival.” The song opens with the voice of a revivalist preacher before becoming a jaunty, uplifting spiritual (including a verse of Amazing Grace). Walking Down The Grain is a chillin’ tale of the devil taking his Daddy’s hand and walkin’ him down the grain. There is a weight to this song that is palpable in its subtle menace. Lighter, musically, at least is the acoustic Doc Red Blues with guitar and mandolin behind a heartfelt vocal from Douglas. Street Preacher has also a tender heart, as does the album closer Gloria. Both show a more restrained and reflective delivery that work to highlight Douglas’ overall vocal ability and power.

The ten songs on the album sound like they should be part of some atmospheric HBO series, something like Carnivale. The songs are cinematic in both content and in the playing. The four musicians have produced something special that funnily enough is not that far from some successful artists who are currently riding high in the charts. The vocals are slightly grittier but the potential is there. These First World Blues are first class.

Letitia Van Sant Out In The Studs Self Release

The latest album from Baltimore based Letitia Van Sant is a beautifully laid back recording with simple, sparse and effective production by Alex Lacquement that places Van Sant’s voice, itself a versatile instrument, front and centre. Associate producer Don Goodwin also engineered and mixed the album. The songs are all folkish tales other than the one cover, a timely version of Stephen Stills’ protest song For What It’s Worth. Here Dan Ryan plays electric guitar, Dan Samuels plays drums and Lacquement the bass. But again this is an understated performance that makes the point of the song more poignant.

Elsewhere there are contributions from other musicians including guitarist David McKindley-Ward, Patrick McAvinue on upright bass and Laura Wortman adds harmony vocals on a couple of tracks. Overall this a tight knit unit that underplays the songs without ever short changing them in a way similar to the Cowboy Junkies’ production values on their Trinity Sessions album. This album stands alongside that in similarly allowing space in the songs. The lyrics (reproduced in the accompanying booklet) are clear, as is Van Sant’s voice which is able to portray the emotion of the songs without ever over delivering.

Where I’m Bound, the first track on the album, in timeless folk style opens with the lines “As my mother lay dying she called me to her side …” Her mother then advises her to follow the compass of her heart. This is something that Van Sant does through the rest of the album. In The Field she allows that her “soul is a field where her love may grow.” Nature and environment are also underlying influences on her work.

Van Sant was involved in environmental advocacy before she won the Kerrville New Folk Song Writing Competition. Previous winners include Nanci Griffiths and Lucinda Williams, which is a testament to her writing skills. She has released two previous albums (one as part of a band) but in many ways considers this something of a debut. There have been comparisons to Courtney Marie Andrews and certainly that can be seen if one considers Andrew’s earlier work. But Van Sant is quite different in her overall approach at this point. She sings in the title song “Am I wrong to want what I want?” The answer is “no” and in this set of songs she has produced a work that many may also want, as it is a striking and effective album from an artist with the vision, voice and songs to stand out. 

Speedbuggy USA Kick Out The Twang Wagon Wheel

An album to warm the heart of anyone missing the raucous rakishness of cowpunk. Speedbuggy USA are back with a thirteen track album of hardcore twang that announces its affiliation with the seminal debut of the MC5 with a similar attitude of no compromise. Not that it is without its airier moments such as the opening cover of the Monkees The Last Train To Clarksville. Then it’s largely a mix of hell-for-leather devil-may-care moments that recall the likes of Jason And The Scorchers and The Beat Farmers .... bands who understood where they were coming from and where they were going - which is more than some of the “country” bands lost in Hair Metal do today.

Opening with a vocal chorus Get Around leads to a solid rockin’ workout, while the next song Shaky Town puts more emphasis on the country side of what they do, with some steel underscoring the sense of movement that is prevalent in many of the songs. Between those two points of twang and fang they display their clear ability as musicians. Timbo and Seth Von Paulus trade tasty guitar riffs throughout the album, also notable for the talents of Brady Sloan on bass, drummer Jamie Dawson and Gregg McMullen playing pedal steel. These guys kick-ass as they tell the stories of tortured minds, devils inside and returning from the road.        

But they can also handle recriminations and regret as they do on the ballad Sorry. Long Gone shows they can strip it back when needed, with mandolin taking the lead. Honky Tonk Singer is another slow paced reflection of a wasted life. The song is laced with pedal steel again adding to its sense of loneliness. The album’s second cover is the Bobby Sharp written Unchain My Heart, first recorded by Ray Charles and given a impassioned and (lost) soul inflected delivery here. All this shows that within their chosen field of vision Speedbuggy USA are adept at delivering some engaging music. They do so with energy, conviction and cussedness that shows that even after numerous releases this band is far from spent and making their best music to date. Long may they keep kicking out the twang.

Lyman Ellerman  I Wish I Was A Train Woodshed Resistance

The album opens with Bigger Plan that I find not unlike one of the better Dire Straits tracks. It is a good introduction into the Americana world of Lyman Ellerman, a singer songwriter who has been through a lot of pain during his life not least due to the death of his son. His son was a drug addict and Ellerman has turned that hard journey into a song. The Addict takes a hard look at how the condition can devastate the person caught in the web and all those around them. It was written by Ellerman and Larry Brake who added harmony vocals on the recording. It is given a bluesy reading with co-producer Jason Morgan adding some telling guitar on the track, as he does throughout the album. The album is essentially Ellerman and Morgan providing the music behind Ellerman’s expressive voice.

The album is balanced between the songs that are shrouded in dark thoughts and those which express light and hope. This is not Ellerman’s first album by a long stretch and he has honed his craft since he first picked up a guitar in his teens. He is joined by Jessica Dooley for Nobody Knows You (Like I Do) which finds both sides recognising the true nature of the other. Ditches tells that if you wander off road you may never get back on track. Because Of You again is a slow blues that conveys that the only reason to get up in the morning is because of her. Shinin’ On Elizabeth is a tribute to love and its redeeming powers. The Stranger is an atmospheric story song that has a cinematic quality with spoken voice, insistent drums and raging guitar. One More Drink is an acoustic take on another self destructive lifestyle. Here Comes Tomorrow closes the album with the possibilities of a new day and a new beginning with some upbeat guitar and a persistent vocal chorus “Here the good times, here comes tomorrow.” 

This album represents who Ellerman is at this time in his life - the Nashville based singer songwriter who through the years has tried to reflect in his writing some of the harder aspects of life and death (which has seen him lose a lot of those close to him). The end result is a record that deals with some of those issues but does so in a way that offers understanding and insight - something that is often in short supply in the mainstream music that graces the radio today. Time, perhaps, to get on board.

David Starr South And West Cedaredge

Though recorded in Nashville with a crew of local session players, including the renowned pedal steel and electric guitarist Dan Dugmore, David Starr’s latest album does not fit with the current mainstream output - rather it crosses into an number of areas including country, folk and 70’s country rock. Not that these songs are without accessibility. Maybe You’re Not The One feels like a song that you already know. Written by Starr and Robby Hecht it could easily be a hit in the hands of a major label artist. The songs stand up to repeated listening without ever feeling like total classics. Starr has written the majority of these songs on his own but also some with such notables as Irene Kelly. She also joins him on harmony vocals on their co-write Don’t Give Me Hope. Starr produced this album which recalls a past that is rooted in bands like Poco, The Eagles and others who played melodic flowing country rock.

The songs largely deal with relationships, many looking at what could have been and what still might be. Listen to Night Rolls Around, Love Won’t Make Itself or Good As Gone in which Starr consider these options. In Until It’s Gone he sings of breaking nine of the Ten Commandments, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the tenth but he’s going his own path no matter what. If Nothing Changes takes a harder look at the direction society is taking in these days of fake news and fake attitudes. The lyrics have a certain poetic quality that sit with the overall musical setting.

There is one cover included which makes perfect sense of the overall mood and that is the Bernie Taupin/Elton John co-write Country Comfort. It fits as a reference point to a time when country music was neither traditional nor outright pop. As the title suggests, this albums brings together two places and times. David Starr lives in Colorado but also has a foothold in Nashville. The inspiration of birth places colours the overall mood - a mood that some will dismiss as not fitting with either the harder edged outlaw country movement or the more crossover pop/soft metal that dominates radio. That hardly matters for Starr who has made the album he wanted to.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Warden 'The East Dallas Warden' - Idol

Ward Richmond, a Texas native and long time part of the Dallas music community, has released a debut album under the name The Warden. Describing his music as "East Dallas honky tonk", he delivers a set of 12 self-written songs that loosely fit that definition. They are rough and ready roadhouse honky-tonk which feature Richmond’s his upfront life-worn voice. He is ably joined by a quartet of backing vocalists who both bolster and back up his punchy delivery.

Fellow Texas musician Robert Jason Vandygriff produced the album after pushing Richmond to take his semi-biographical songs into a studio. Vandygriff is also one of three guitarists while a solid robust rhythm section holds things down.  The sound is also embellished by pedal steel, keyboards and brass, all of which makes for diversity in the overall sound. At one point Richmond points that what is lacking in proficiency is made up in pure "moxie"; In other words, attitude and enjoyment count for a lot in The Warden's territory.

The songs give you a fair clue as to the lyric direction as they are tales of touring, drinking, fussing, fighting and fellowship with titles like Deny, Deny, Deny, County Line, Interstate, High Life and Dark Clouds. There is nothing unfamiliar to anyone with a penchant for punky, Southern styled, beer-stained, hardass country music, but you can't help but smile and enjoy this CD, especially on catchy tracks like Our Town and Bullets where Richmond duets with Madison King, one of his female guest vocalists.

Richmond wanted to express the highways and byways of his life with a degree of truth and a little added fiction to make them interesting. Texas is a big place and there's much going on outside Austin's city limits. This album is harder than the more traditional Heart of Texas styled releases, but it still draws from a Friday/ Saturday night having a good ethos, one that is both timeless and universal. 

Ted Z and the Wranglers 'Ghost Train'- Rip Cat

The Wranglers are a grassroots roots band from California fronted by the man named as Ted Z. He kids his Wranglers through a bunch of songs that are built around some serviceable melodies and hooks. There are elements of rock 'n' roll and outlaw country tempered with some lighter, folkier, storytelling. The title track evokes the spirits of lost musical souls featuring diverse icons such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as well as Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly  over a train rhythm beat, while Jackson Leverone’s atmospheric slide guitar evokes the essential spookiness of the song. 

Throughout, Monty Byrom's production brings out the best in these romantic, robust and rousing songs of love, lingering doubts and a liberalism that considers politics, people, places and the search for some truth and justice in the American way. Z is the writer and he has some skill in that department along with a dependable voice that has both warmth and grit.

Ghost Train probably has more in common with the insurgent county/cowpunk moments of decades past than with some of the more metalized rock that masquerades as country these days. There are strands of blues and Southern Rock neatly woven into their take on Americana. The songs are often hurtling down the tracks and building up a fair head of steam such as Joseph Ratcliff, Kansas, Bitter Hands and Postcard, which works particularly well with the rhythm section of Dan Mages and Mike Myers providing an insistent chugging base for Z's vocal and Leverone's guitar. 

On the other hand, this quartet are equally comfortable on ballads and slower tempos. The final track, Broken,  is just guitar and vocal and a heartfelt lyric of a "broken man waiting to bleed". Bitter Hands starts out slow but builds with baritone guitar and acoustic before the band kicks in. Producer Monty Byrom adds Bill Mason's keyboards on certain tracks to give a wider texture to songs like Go Find Your Heaven which tells the listener to go find the place that the singer never can. Ghost Train is an easy album to like if you like your Americana with some weight and songs that ring true. Z and the Wranglers have made a debut that will make them friends. 

Speedbuggy USA 'South of Bakersfield' - Wagon Wheel

As the title suggests,  Speedbuggy USA are an LA based-band who play what would have been termed 'cowpunk' a couple of decades ago; cowpunk being avibrant mix of classic country, rock 'n' roll with a punk attitude. This, their 8th release, is an 8 track collection of self-written songs that deal with blue collar lifestyles and some of life's rougher deals. Still Movin' On is a song about the travails of a trucker and is delivered at the speed of a high-rolling truck on a straight highway. Wrong Side is a duet with Bunny West that is about the battle with the bottle; a steel guitar infused poignant ballad it contrast with the more hi-octane nature of a couple of the other songs. The band’s lead singer, Timbo, having come through some pretty severe health issues, sings with the conviction of a survivor about these hard times. He sings with all the feel of someone who has lived through or been close to them and the rest of the band are right behind him and give these songs a solid and satisfying kick. 

There are enough changes of tempo and texture to keep it interesting throughout. The twanging Telecaster, steel guitar, strident rhythm section and, on occasion, as with Rusted Cars, an accordion adds to the overall feel. Git Yer Wagon Rollin' has the tongue in cheek feel of a speed driven hoedown with banjo prominent. Liars, Thieves and Ramblers sums up the types who live within some of these songs. It has a standout vocal from Timbo on a mid-paced stripped down song that doesn't so much judge the misfits as understand something of their plight. 1000 Miles from Nowhere is not the Dwight Yoakam song, but another song of a man who feels isolated on the road and from life at home. The road is a way out - or maybe not. Bakersfield closes the album with a song about being back on the road, broken down somewhere outside of that storied town.  

Speedbuggy USA sits outside the country mainstream, and always have done, but they play music that they want to play they way they want to play it, and for a small band that counts. It's also music I'm happy to listen to. 

Toby Keith '35 MPH Town' - Show Dog

Drink, the consumption of, taken to forget or just to unwind, has always been a fundamental part of country music but of late it seems to be Nashville’s solution to world peace. There's Beer on Clint Black’s most recent album and here Toby Keith opens his new album with another such salute to the leveling (pun intended) nature of alcohol in Drunk American,  a song written by Bob DiPiero, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. They are all seasoned writers, but this song will not be remembered as one of their best. Many of the other songs on the album are co-writes between Keith and Bobby Pinson, who made a fine solo album for RCA some time back. Pinson also co-produced the album excepting the Buffett-esque Rum Is The Reason which Mac MacAnally co-helmed. Buffett himself appears on Sailboat for Sale, although this is less related to his trademark sound than Rum is. Another song that has alcohol as its theme is Haggard, Hank And Her where the two named singers help with the pain induced by the latter. The final song Beautiful Stranger closes the album in a welter of strings on a power ballad inspired by the appearance of the woman of the title 

More to the point is that this album sounds a Hell of a lot more traditionally country than many of it's contemporaries. Russ Pahl’s steel is prominent throughout but having said that it is still not as edgy as it could be giving the fact that this is Keith's own label and he presumably records what he wants. He obviously still records with an ear for radio airplay. It is largely free from the political stance that some of his songs have taken in the past, concerning itself largely with the pursuit of a good time - albeit via lubrication amid an aura of lasciviousness.

Those who have enjoyed Toby Keith in the past will enjoy this album, as he plows his own furrow with a an identifiable voice that is at the centre of these songs and there is no doubting his prowess in that department. Like few of the other singer/songwriters who emerged when he did, Keith has followed his muse and while his music may not be for those who look to the rougher, more outlaw edges of country, he has remained true to his own vision and attitudes and for that his many fans will raise a glass (or two).

George Strait 'Cold Beer Conversation' - MCA Nashville

The latest album from George will hardly change opinions about his more recent output. It is solid, dependable, listenable and country. But there's not much different to consider and that maybe is exactly the point. Like Alan Jackson, Strait represents the forefront of traditional styled country in this day and age. We seem to be on a cusp of something a little broader in the American context without falling into the trap of bro-country or lame rock country, with artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton selling albums in quantities large enough for the majors to take notice.

That is as may be, but George Strait isn't likely to change his game plan at this stage. More likely he will change some of the writers whose songs he chooses. So while there are a couple of co-writes with long time contributor Dean Dillon, the name s that come to fore here are Jamey Johnson (two co-writes, one with seasoned veterans Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon). Four come from the pen of Keith Gattis, solo or co-writes. Gattis was an interesting solo artist with some good albums to his name as well as acting, for a time, as Dwight Yoakam's lead guitarist. 

The songs that stand out, for this writer are Cheaper than a Shrink, which is guess what?  Yep, it’s drink. That's also the key ingredient in Cold Beer Conversation. The musician credits include Paul Franklin on steel and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin alongside A-teamers like Glenn Worf, Brent Mason and Greg Morrow.  Top notch players all, though they rarely cut loose in the Chuck Ainlay/George Strait production. Take Me to Texas by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally is a song that is filled with longing for a Texas of the past and a wish to return there as a final resting place. This one has fiddle and steel at its heart, as would only be right given the subject. Strait now also writes regularly with his son Bubba and their co-write (with others) It Takes All Kinds is a fun song that swings western style. Stop and Drink is another strong number that has a little message beneath the light-hearted approach.

There is indeed little to dislike about this album, even if you have wished for the odd surprise. You can't fault Strait's smooth vocal integrity and delivery. He is a seasoned pro and knows what his fans want and, mostly, he delivers, but a man who has sustains a career as long as George Strait is bound to have his own signature sound and may not feel the need to step outside it the way that, say, Alan Jackson has on a couple of his albums. Even so, while not his best album in recent times, it is a lot more satisfying than the recent live album.

Duane Rutter 'Crazy Things' - Flat

Crazy Things is a solid third set of songs from the Ontario based singer/songwriter. Rutter has a suitably lived-in voice that has some grit to it. The are some memorable songs in the set from the opening Don't Forget through a soulful I Don't Ask to the stripped back understanding that in time We Find Ourselves at Last. He and producer/guitarist Andrew Aldridge have assembled a supportive band that includes (on one track Take That Water) Band keyboard player Garth Hudson and his wife Sister Maud. Other players include a defining contribution from Steve "Honeyboy" Wood on steel guitar and a tight rhythm section of Carrie Ashworth on bass and Nick Burson on drums.

The title track is a slow paced reflection of how people will do crazy things under certain conditions. The song has a strong contribution from JB Reed on duet vocals; she also sings on three other songs offering a nice contrast and counterpoint to Rutter's voice. The songs largely deal with affairs of the (often broken) heart, with titles like Will I Ever Learn?, I Ain't No Good and Number One. But there is a redemptive quality to these self written songs and an uplifting feel to their performance that makes Crazy Things an easy album to like and to revisit.

The final song, the aforementioned Take That Water has an understandably) Band-like feel with the contributions from the Hudsons being very much to the fore and a solid groove throughout. Rutter reminds me of no one and everyone at the same time, in that the music is generic in content but is elevated by the production and collective performances that make this an album that has the potential to appeal to a larger audience than just the one he enjoys in Hamilton, Ontario. Crazy Things just goes to prove that there's a lot of good music out there just waiting for a connection.