David Corley Zero Moon Wolfe Island
Less than three years ago David Corley was virtually unknown in the music world. Zero Moon is his second full album following a whirlwind two-year period which saw his debut album Available Light make a considerable industry impact, particularly in Europe, and a tour that almost ended tragically when a heart attack on stage in Groningen, Netherlands resulted in a long period of hospitalisation and subsequent recuperation. While recovering Corley recorded the seven-track mini album Lights Out, much of the material a reflection on his near-death experience. Having not entered a recording studio until he reached his early fifties Zero Moon is a continuation of the creative purple patch that Corley is currently enjoying.
Much of his latest album is bleak, desolate, searching and questioning, and all the better for it. The striking artwork (created by Kevin and Cynthia Kehoe) is monochromatic and stark, as are the barely legible hand-written lyrics by Corley himself, the only hint of colour featuring in the track listing and emblem on the rear cover. Equally dark, cold and edgy are many of the lyrics that feature on the eleven tracks.
I often wonder if the classic Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street were to be released today which of the numerous sub-categories would it be pigeon holed in, alt-country/Americana/indie rock or possibly country rock. Back in the day it was simply a ‘rock’ album, no more no less. David Corley’s music, for me, fits hand in glove into that simple one word categorisation and particularly on this new album.
It’s a long player in the true sense, you’ll need to set aside the best part of an hour to play it start to finish and three of the tracks (Zero Moon, Desert Moon and Burning Chrome), each one memorable, contribute to about a third of the album.
Recorded at The Post Office Studio, Wolfe Island, Ontario and produced by Corley’s right-hand man Hugh Christopher Brown, the sound throughout is beautifully loose, flowing and sounding very much like a live recording. The aforementioned Zero Moon and Desert Mission (inspired by Cormac Mc McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian) thankfully were not edited to the too often customary four minutes but instead were allowed to drift, ebb and flow giving the impression that things were going so well in the studio that the only direction was – keep on playing and see where we end up. His studio band are the same musicians that featured on Available Light and Lights Out. Chris Brown playing keyboards as well as production duties, Gregor Beresford (Barenaked Ladies, Suzanne Jarvie) on drums and Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, B.B.King, Al Di Meola, Ani DiFranco) playing bass. Sarah McDermott and Kate Fenner contribute backing vocals. Notwithstanding the quality of the musicians employed the most potent instrument is Corley’s voice, broken, whiskey torn, raspy and growling, perfectly suited to the subject matter that often concerns dark and painful landscapes. As with his previous recordings we are given a glimpse of Corley’s personal life, trials, suffering, frustration and distress. A door opened momentarily but never left open for too long, leaving the listener with only a brief opportunity to observe the contents. His lyrics continue to be beautifully abstract at times "Then pirates arrive, knives in their teeth, and dancing girls are filling the streets"(Zero Moon). "Mean beings wring their hands and hang their heads in darkness while our imagination founders on the rocks"(Vision Pilgrim). Whirl recalls his recent health issues in no uncertain terms "I’ll just whirl and hope that the wind don’t die, just in case – you know who to notify, my next of kin."
Down With The Universe which featured on Lights Out is given a second outing and Take Me Down Some and Splendid Now both echo early 70’s Stones. A Lifetime Of Mornings tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen, delivered semi-spoken.
Given the stature of Corley’s output on this album and his previous work, one is left wondering where his industry standing would be had his career kicked off a few decades ago, though possibly it was the life and near death experiences that were the catalyst, inspiration and motivation for the wonderful body of work he has delivered in the past few years.
An album of the year contender for this writer, hands down.
Emily Barker Sweet Kind of Blue Self Release
Having developed a quite British sound from her work with The Red Halo Band spanning nine years and with over fifty unrecorded songs of varying styles already in the slow burner, Australian born Emily Barker decided to experiment with a change of producer for her next project. While recording The Applewood Road (2016) album in Nashville -with Amy Speace and Amber Rubarth- she struck gold when a recommendation by sound engineer Chris Mara resulted in an introduction to Matt Ross-Sprang. Having produced a couple of the finest albums released in the past two years in Margo Price’s Midwest Farmers Daughter and Jason Isbell’s Something More, together with having worked at Sun Studios for eleven years, Ross-Sprang could not have been a better pair of ears to consider Barker's war chest of material.
On hearing a selection of Barkers songs Ross-Sprang wisely identified a core soul and blues tread in many of them and recommended Barker went on a musical diet of Ann Peebles, Dan Penn, music to her ears having grown up as a lover of Aretha Franklin and all things soul.
Never one to do things in half measures, fast forward to June of that year and Barker found herself at the hallowed ground of Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis surrounded by the tightest bunch of local session players you could imagine in David Cousar on guitar (Al Green), Rick Steff on keyboards (Lucero, Dexy Midnight Runners), Dave Smith on bass (Norah Jones, John Mayall) and Steve Potts on drums (Neil Young). Susan Marshall and Barker herself were on hand to contribute backing vocals. Recorded and mixed in seven days the resulting album is a collection of ten songs soaked in emotion and melody that work wonderfully together ranging from hard boiled soul and blues but also leaving plenty of room for the melodic ballads that Barker has a particular gift for penning.
Three of the songs included are co-writes with UK singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine, the heart wrenching and quite beautiful ballad – a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe - Sister Goodbye, the equally moving Over My Shoulder and the upbeat Motown sounding More!, featuring saxophone and trumpet by Jim Spake and Marc Franklin. No.5 Hurricane, co-written with Eric Palmqwist sees Barker visiting a style closer to her previous work with The Red Halo Band, an achingly gorgeous new love/old love song.
A hugely talented and focused artist, never standing on her laurels and always stretching her musical parameters, Sweet Kind of Blue is indeed a triumph and a delightful diversion for Barker.
John Murry A Short History Of Decay TV
Much as I dislike rolling out the ‘difficult second album’ cliché, it could hardly hold more relevance than A Short History Of Decay, the sophomore album by John Murry. His debut The Graceless Age was considered by many in the industry as a masterpiece, a road map detailing a lifetime of emotional, physical and mental turmoil. Autism, mental health issues, institutionalism, rejection and drug addiction all contributed to an album that appeared to play out as cold turkey, exorcism and closure.
Murry’s state of mind and health seemed to be in a good place and even if sales of The Graceless Age did not necessarily provide a retirement fund it presented him with a touring platform, a regular though possibly cult following, the confidence, motivation and platform to further his career. His well-documented loathing at the prospect of residing in California resulted in a relocation to Kilkenny, where he was welcomed with open arms by the art appreciative community, and he appeared to be in a good place mentally, physically and emotionally.
However, stability was short lived and over a few turbulent years further challenges presented themselves including the sudden death of Murry’s mentor and guiding light Tim Mooney, who had produced the previous album, and an acrimonious marriage break-up, both of which threatened to re-open scars barely healed and seriously challenge the vulnerable artist. Left without a regular touring band, no record label and limited income Murry continued to his perform raw, emotional live gigs sometimes with guest musicians, more often solo. He released the EP John Murry Is Dead in 2016 but the prospect of a second full album seemed to be drifting away.
An encounter with Michael Timmons of Cowboy Junkies fame followed, (Murry opened for them at a show in Glasgow), a friendship developed and Timmons greatly encouraged Murry to consider recreating, in the studio, the raw passion, emotion and honesty that pours from every inch of his body during his live performances. After a few false starts a recording session lasting five days was lined up at Timmon’s studio in Toronto with Peter Timmons (brother of Michael) on drums, Josh Finlayson (Lee Harvey Osmond) on bass and Cait O’ Riordan contributing backing vocals and most likely also moral support - having performed on stage previously with Murry. All guitar and keyboards were handled by Murry with Timmons, always the master of atmosphere, providing the structure, guidance and most importantly the discipline necessary to get the album down over the short period with the emphasis always on Murry’s vocal and his parables. The sound is more often than not paired to the bone, toned down, forthright and at times delightfully shambolic. Gone are the layering, multi instrumentation and sound effects that adorned The Graceless Age, Timmons simply and cleverly provided Murry with a blank canvas to express himself and set about creating an unobtrusive musical backdrop that never gets in the way of the vocals.
Most importantly Murry, with more than a helping hand from Timmons, did not attempt to create The Graceless Age Act 2, what would be the point and ironically the only track on the album that might have fitted snuggly on his debut is a remodelling of the Afghan Whigs What Jail Is Like.
The album is named after a book title by French philosopher Emil Cioran and the tracks One Day (You’ll Die) and Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together) both consider mortality - a subject which Murry appears enthralled by – though it’s difficult to decipher whether irony outpoints rancour, which can sometimes the case with Murry’s song writing.
"All I Do Is Fix Whatever I Broke the Day Before" admits Murry on Under A Darker Moon, testament to his chaotic behaviour. It’s a driving song with layered, echoed vocals and screeching guitars with more than a nod in the direction of Velvet Underground. As with much of the album it takes on another dimension when heard on headphones where the production and mix really hit home. Defacing Sunday Bulletins is equally turbulent, fuzzy guitar glancing over the shoulder of Finlayson’s thumping bass lines.
In many ways it should be celebrated that this release has seen the light of day given Murry’s wayfaring existence. A slow burner without doubt and one that even the most astute ear may require a number of visits to get fully on board but a more than laudable successor to The Graceless Age. Highly recommended.
Sophia Marshall Bye Bye Self Release
Due for release in late August Bye Bye follows Sophia Marshall’s five track EP The Paper Thin, released in 2015 and is further testimony to the vocal and song writing talents of the former member of boy/girl duet The HaveNots.
Marshall’s industry internship has included support act to Peter Bruntnell, Frazey Ford, Tift Merritt, Be Good Tanya’s, The Sadies and Sam Outlaw and it’s not difficult to identify certain influences gathered along that journey, most particularly in her capacity to fashion uncomplicated compositions using the basic tools, simple language and abundant hooks.
Boasting a beautifully unadulterated and natural voice, which sounds all the better for Marshall’s tendency, unlike many UK Americana artists, not to adopt a West Coast accent but to use her own natural pronunciation to full effect.
The album brings to mind the work of fellow UK artist Thea Gilmore in many ways, mixing powerful hard edged catchy songs like the title track and Losing You (co-written with Liam Dullaghan) with the more acoustic Sarah’s Room and surreal Beauty Sleep.
Catch Me shifts in the direction of Jesse Sykes with lots of twang and boldness, Hey Al, Woah! (great title!) is equally edgy while the atmospheric two-minute closer Drunken Sailor is delivered vocals only with Marshall given a helping hand by Jay Hardy (Hardy Band) and some cleverly plotted over dubbed vocals.
While titles such as Bye Bye, Losing You and Missing Pieces suggest looming despair and hardship, the subjects are dealt with in a positive, upbeat and assured manner suggesting an artist that is marching forward ready to embrace anything that comes her way. Most impressive and perhaps a door opener for Miss Marshall.
Suzanne Jarvie One Take Only Dirt Road
I have to admit arriving a bit late to the party when it comes to Suzanne Jarvie. She played Ireland in September 2016 in support of her album Spiral Road album but I was abroad at the time and did not get to see her show. Having been really impressed by her performance in Kilkenny recently supporting David Corley, I welcomed the opportunity to review her mini album One Take Only released in 2016 as a stop gap between her debut album and it’s successor In The Clear, due to be completed later this year.
Jarvie is yet another impressive female singer songwriter to emerge from Canada in recent years following the path taken by Sarah Harmer, Oh Susanna and Lindi Ortega. Born in Honk Kong and raised in Toronto, a lawyer by profession and the mother of four children, music was primarily a hobby for her from a very young age. However, a near tragic accident whereby one of her sons fell down a spiral staircase and his subsequent recovery was the trigger for her debut album Spiral Road. The album made a favourable impression particularly in Europe where it reached No.7 in the Euro/Americana charts.
This mini-album includes six tracks in total, two originals and four cover versions. Produced by Hugh Christopher Brown, Jarvie is joined by her daughter Sara Jarvie Clark on backing vocals and violin on Believing, a track which featured on the TV series Nashville. The covers versions included are Dylan’s Senor, Sweet Carolina from Ryan Adams and Hills of Home written by Ralph Stanley. However, it’s the two original songs that shine most brightly, the stripped to the bones opener You Shall Not Pass and closer Shadow of the Sultan both of which feature angelic vocals that above all seem to be delivered by an artists that actually loves what she is doing.
Jean Shephard Country Music: Pure and Simple HumpHead
Jean Shepard, who passed away in September 2016, was a member of the Grand Ole Opry for sixty years and one of the most iconic female honky tonk singers in the history of country music. Often overshadowed by artists such as Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn she made her debut in the country music charts as a teenager in 1953 with A Dear John Letter. Released as a duet with Ferlin Husky it charted at No.1 in the country charts and remained there for six weeks. Totally uncompromising, Shephard was an unapologetic champion of traditional country music, a principal that in many ways may have limited her career opportunities at certain times. Uniquely and unlike the majority of female country singers, she launched her career as a solo artist whereas her peers generally performed as family groups, band members or duets. For ever a risk taker many of her early releases were quite daring for the times with titles such as Then He Touched Me, Many Happy Hangovers To You, Don’t Fall In Love With A Married Man and My Arms Stay Open Late. Her debut album Songs Of A Love Affair, considered to be the first concept country album to be recorded, was released in 1956 when she was only 23 years old. The album featured some of the industry’s finest including Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, Bill Woods and Clarence Lee and consisted of twelve original songs with Shepard having an input into the song writing.
Shepard signed to Capital Records in 1952 and this double album collects no fewer than fifty songs released on that label between 1964 and 1978. Interestingly the tracking is not in any chronological order kicking off with A Real Good Women (1968) and closing with I’ll Take The Dog (1966). The real winner is the consistency of her incredible voice throughout and her staunch insistence in ‘keeping it country’ and avoiding any pop crossover regardless of the pressures from Music Row. Shepard survived many industry and personal difficulties, most particularly the tragic death of her husband Hawkshaw Hawkins, who perished in the plane crash that also claimed the life of Patsy Cline yet she continued to perform until twelve months prior to her death from Parkinson’s Disease.
This delightful collection of songs is an absolute vindication of Shepard’s insistence of keeping country music simple, pure, and unadulterated and far outshines the majority the hybrid product currently masquerading as country on Country Music Radio.
Erin McLendon Making It Up As We Go Self Release
Ticking all the boxes for what passes today as radio friendly pop country this is the second release from Music City resident Erin Mc Lendon following her 2015 recording Fire & Wine which was nominated as an album of the year by IMEA (International Music and Entertainment Association).
Originally hailing from Durham North Carolina, Mc Lendon graduated with A Bachelor of Music degree in Commercial Voice, a qualification that involved particular emphasis on the business side of the music industry. Her musical inspirations include a diverse range of artists from The Beatles to Tina Turner in the more popular genre but also soul queen Aretha Franklin and country icons Brad Paisley and Reba McEntire.
Opener When God Made a Woman is particularly radio friendly, densely layered, lots of hooks and a gospel like closing chorus. Don’t Believe My Eyes Anymore takes a swipe at the insincerity of dating sites and Honolulu Love is a stripped back ukulele lead song dealing with young love.
The title track suggests a random care free artist taking things as they come. However, the album gives the impression of an artist with her finger firmly on the pulse and more than aware of her market and the type of product that opens doors. McLendon is one of so many young female artists that are products of the America’s Got Talent formula sound but to her credit Making It Up As We Go has the songs, the sound and the self assured vocal delivery to position her ahead of a lot of her contemporaries.
Jeffrey Halford and The Healers Lo Fi Dreams Floating
The title of the album is a reflection on Jeffrey Halford’s efforts to make a recording with a particularly warm sound reminiscent of some of the classic recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s. Co-produced by Adam Rossi and Halford and using vintage equipment including Sears Silvertone, Danelectro and Harmony guitars, the album without doubt does succeed in nailing the intended stripped-down sound.
Texas-born but spending much of his childhood in various parts of California, Halfords childhood was never conventional as his nomadic parents moved from location to location, sometimes by choice and other times by necessity. Heavy exposure to classic AM Radio and artists such as The Doors, Marvin Gaye and Howlin’ Wolf sowed the seeds for a musical career that kicked off by playing street corners in San Francisco, forming rockabilly band The Snappers and for the past two and a half decades touring and recording with his current outfit The Healers.
Lo Fi Dreams is his eight release and represents everything roots music stands for, mixing blues, country, soul, rock and roll and most particularly attitude in abundance.
Elvis Shot The Television is a funky recollection of a bored and wired Elvis misbehaving, opener Two Jacksons is a slick, smooth tale of an encounter with an attractive sales assistant. Halford lets loose and cranks it up a notch or two on Bird of Youth before slowing things down with the atmospheric and amusing Sweet Annette which recollects a visit to a remote diner.