Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst I Feel Like I’ve Got Snakes in My Head  Silent City

This mini-album opens with a spaghetti western-styled instrumental titled For a Few Dollars Less and thus wears its influences on its sleeve. Guitar and keyboards shoot it out over a galloping rhythm, but it represents one aspect of Los Angeles based Steven Casper, a veteran of several bands before he put his name upfront, along with that of his regular band. They have released several previous EPs, as well as full length albums which attest to Cowboy Angst being a seasoned band.

Casper fronts the four piece, which is largely American/roots orientated, combining elements of country-rock, blues, folk and straight ahead rock. Restless Heart, Maria, Slow Dancing, She’s Bad and Driving Fast are all written by Casper. He has a distinctive voice, full of character which holds attention. The band and producer Ira Ingber have taken a slightly different tack with each song. Maria has strong a Tex-Mex influence with a featured repeated organ riff and conjunto accordion, while Slow Dancing is a piano and slide guitar-lead ballad that exudes a certain tenderness. Driving Fast appears in two versions, first in a Canned Heat style straight-ahead rock riff take and the second version, designated as the “4AM” version, is more acoustic with guitar, accordion and tambourine. It is the song from which the title line comes and shows how easily a song can be adapted to a different setting or mood, and work equally well, depending on how one wants to frame a particular story.

This is an accomplished band led by Casper, whose voice and songs probably have a strong following in California and beyond as their back catalogue attests. Equally they are not making music that hasn’t been heard before or is going to take you by surprise. They are a tight, focussed and talent unit whose songs and performances should guarantee them their place and piece of the pie.

Spicewood Seven Still Mad  Phoebe Claire 

This collective released their debut album in 2006 titled Kakistocracy. They were led by lyricist Luke Powers and Austin musical stalwart Tommy Spurlock and included the likes of Leon Rausch and Garth Hudson in the line up. All four are here with the latter pair appearing together on the song The Magic Bullet. They are joined by the likes of Suzi Ragsdale and a solid rhythm section. The songs are all written by Powers and Spurlock. The latter is the album’s producer and the two handle the vocal on a series of songs that are not without their bite and pose a polemic reaction to their immediate surroundings both personal and political. 

The previous album was rooted in the Bush era. That era may have changed, in terms of the names, but Power and Spurlock still aren’t too happy with what they see, hence the title of this new set of songs. These songs represent a different viewpoint from many in country music, apart from well know dissenters like Steve Earle. The titles pretty much give you an idea of the overriding lyrical themes expressed: I Live with The Devil, Hey Idiot (a song about some sound parental advice), Broke, Dumb It Down as well as the more reasoned and open consideration that People Are Basically Good. The final song The Magic Bullet is a reference to the theory of the single bullet theory associated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Not normally a subject heard to the backing of a steel guitar-led country band.

Recorded in Nashville, the Spicewood Seven prove themselves to be a united team who play the songs with a conviction that suggests they are all behind the sentiments expressed. The overall sound is edgy country rock, with both Spurlock and Powers handling the vocal duties with ease. The songs are not exactly designed for superficial listening and with no lyric sheet they require engagement to connect with them. Given all that, this will appeal to a certain frame of (open) mind and those who like things a little rough and ready. Let’s hope they’re still mad enough to do another album. No doubt the political climate will provide inspiration in the coming months and years.

Daniel Meade & the Flying Mules  Let Me Off At The Bottom  At the Helm

This is the latest album from the Glasgow singer/songwriter Daniel Meade and is the follow up to the Nashville-recorded, Morgan Jahnig produced album Keep Right Away. It is a tribute to Meade’s regular band; Lloyd Reid, Mark Ferrie and Thomas Sutherland, with guests. It sounds as good as that previous album both in songs and performance. Jahnig was again involved, as he did the mix in Nashville. Otherwise it was recorded in Glasgow.

The rhythm section is tight, Reid is a damn fine guitarist and there is some great piano playing throughout. Meade is an especially convincing vocalist and writer and the whole album could easily have emanated from the Americana community in Austin or East Nashville.

There’s a Ghost Where Her Heart Used to Be and Ghost and Crocodiles have an energy that is contagious. Meade can also keep the pace down as with the regretful “what could have been” He Should’ve Mine where Meade gives a passionate and perfectly suited vocal that fully conveys the emotion in the song. The title track is a cautionary tale about wanting to stay away from the dubious dizzy heights of success, another song that shows just how talented this crew is. That mood of an uncompleted relationship is further enunciated in Leave Me to Bleed, which features a strong guest vocal from Siobhan Wilson. These and other unresolved and unrequited factors of an unhappy life reach a conclusion in the final track of the self-explanatory The Bottle Called for Me 

The overall feel draws from an earlier era which blends hillbilly, swing, blues and folk, but sounds like a living, breathing, hard-kicking iteration of a timeless musical form which might only require water, or something stronger, to grow. Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules have made a very fine album that proves again that the roots of this music lie (partly) in these isles and is as much at home here as it would be in Tennessee.  

The Chapin Sisters Today’s Not Yesterday  Lake Bottom

While male sibling harmonies are fairly prevalent, there are not that many sister duos in recent times. Nieces of the late Harry Chapin, the Chapin sisters, Abigail and Lily, are releasing their 4th full length album. Their previous album was a tribute to the Everlys that didn’t get as much attention as the one by Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong.

The Chapins are dressed for the cover with white dresses and cowboy hats, and the album has a certain country-rock flavour, among other styles. What is foremost is their voices, either singing together in harmony or with one or other taking lead vocal - a very attractive sound it has to be said. The production, with Dan Horne and Jesse Lee, makes effective use of those voices over a layered musical setting that includes keyboards, bass and drums  (Horn and Lee respectively)  as well as pedal steel on three tracks and some judicious use of electric guitar here and there. 

The overall feel is of a slightly dreamy county/folk/pop; a sound that insinuates itself and allows the listener the chance to luxuriate in the music. The sisters have written all 12 songs on the album, with one co-write, and they show skill in that area too. Love Come Back, Autumn, Angeleno, Sleep In, and Waiting are all examples of this. The sound is fairly similar throughout and doesn’t vary a great deal, but that enhances the album nature of the music, where one tracks follows in tone from the next without showing up anything that seems out of place. Today is not yesterday, but tomorrow holds a future for these two talented and visually aware sisters and their music.

Underhill Rose The Great Tomorrow  Self-Release

With The Great Tomorrow the trio of Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose and Sally Williamson release their latest album of their folk/bluegrass/pop and country infused music. It has ten songs written by the individual members, plus one outside track. It is centred on their vocal harmonies. They usual have one of the trio take the lead vocal, generally the song’s writer, with the others adding close harmonies. 

The country connection is emphasised by Matt Smith’s pedal steel guitar, which is featured prominently, as is Nicky Saunders’ violin. The album’s producer, Cruz Contreras, adds guitar and keyboards to the sound. Williamson plays bass with a drummer to create a solid and effective rhythm section. Undersell and Rose add guitar, banjo which along with the upright bass give the core sound it’s folk and bluegrass centre, around which the other instruments help to embellish the particular song’s mood.

Although all three contribute as solo writers, the overall theme of love and relationships blend together. And while the album plays together well, there are a couple of songs that stand out in terms of immediate connection. They include Rest Easy, which has a livelier pace and is given some distinction by a Dobro. Elliott Wolff’s Straight Up is essentially just the band with a drummer and the stripped back arrangement works well. Not Gonna Worry pairs banjo and steel together and gives the two instruments equal prominence.

The Great Tomorrow should have appeal and it expands from what I imagine is the normal live trio’s acoustic setting. There is nothing too demanding here. It is all very understated and that is both a strength and a weakness. However Underhill Rose will continue to grow the fan base to a listening audience. 

Murder Murder From The Stillhouse  Self-Release

Think along the lines of punk-infused old-time music, Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions and a touch of the Pogues and you might have an approximate idea of what this 6 piece band sound like. They are an Ontario-based acoustic band and this is their second album of original songs, the one exception being a spirited version of Guy Clark’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad.

Three of the band share vocal duties, offering different styles, and they all lead the choruses over rambunctious rhythms and dexterous playing. Some of the songs have an immediate affinity with age-old traditional songs, which is a testament to their commitment to bring life into a style that has been around a long time and needs the occasional kick in the arse. Murder Murder are not the only band doing this by any means, but on their own terms, they may be one of the best.

There are some stand-out performances on the album including the environmentally-themed Where the Water Runs Black. Duck Cove is a song about the sailing life and suggests that these guys could easily play a pirate party. They can also calm things down to good effect on the spiritual quest pondered in When the Lord Calls Your Name. Alberta Oil is a song about an oil worker’s journey through a hard working life to death. The Last Gunfighter Ballad sounds in good hands too with Murder Murder making it sound like a song for the ages.

They sound like a band well worth seeing live and they are touring the UK and Ireland in May. If you can’t make it along, then check this album. It has a lot going for it and while it has precedents it has colour and power. Despite the dark name and intent, the band look pretty colourful in the main picture on their website - maybe to balance out the murder ballads they play. Check them out.