Reviews by Stephen Rapid

The Sweet Sorrows Celticana Self Release

The opening song of this album (The Angel’s Share) immediately reminded me of the late great Greg Trooper who co-incidentally was also produced by Phil Maderia. This album was recorded in Ireland at Big Feet Studio in Wexford and also in Nashville. The Sweet Sorrows are essentially a husband/wife duo of Sammy and Kylie Horner. They are joined by multi-instrumentalist Maderia, percussionist Dennis Holt, bassist Chris Donohue and fiddle and mandolin player Tim Cottrell. The songs written largely by Horner solo (with three co-writes - two with Kylie) show that the duo and have a strong Celtic influence mixed with roots/Americana - hence the title of this their fourth Sweet Sorrows album. Their website lists over 30 other releases; some solo outings, others are from Sammy Horner’s band The Electrics. So these guys are no stranger to the studio or writing process. 

The songs are largely delivered with both vocalists working together either as lead and harmony singers or as duets together. Madeira’s production is perfectly suited to the sound which is both full and satisfying. The music rocks with the rhythm section solidly there and the contribution from Madeira providing much of the texture and trajectory to the sound. The songs are also themed with a certain Irishness with titles like An Gorta Mor, Wexford In The Morning as well as in a certain musical ambience. All of which means that Celticana is an enjoyable listen and The Sweet Sorrows are continuing down their chosen path. A path which stems from a base in Ireland from where they tour throughout the world. The only thing that I wasn’t too sure about was the actual cover artwork which would have suggested something more in the Irish traditional vein that it actually is. Aside from that The Sweet Sorrows Celticana offers a perspective, while it may not be unique is potentially universal.

Paul Dougherty Spankin’ Hankin’ Bake It Black

The songs of Hank Williams Snr have received many and varied interpretations that range from those who stay firmly within the traditional parameters of his music to more left-field excursions such as The The’s Hanky Panky. This album is far closer to the latter than to the former. Paul Dougherty an American musician who grew up playing in Nashville and now lives in Berlin. although he has played both Americana and punk in the past this album is an electric and eclectic take on the blues.

Dougherty has chosen a mix of some lesser know songs from Williams’ repertoire such as My Sweet Love Ain’t Around, Rockin’ Chair Money and Low And Lonely alongside such classics as Move It On Over, Weary Blues From Waiting and I Saw The Light. The songs are all fronted by Dougherty’s life hardened vocal and backed by his playing. All the instruments here are played by Dougherty who also produced. So you get a lot of organ and piano over the often somewhat discordant rhythm base with jagged guitar and often loose structures that all highlight the bluster aspects of William’s lyrics which undoubtably are imbedded with the darker side of relationships that easily fit the blues as a format.

This is very much an album that will divide opinion and can offend some of Hank’s more literally-minded fans. That it is entirely produced, recorded and played by Dougherty could be cited as a somewhat indulgent process, especially at a near hour running time. Equally there are those who will find within these songs a sound that reflects the undoubted pain that lurked within their underlying heartbreak and (often self-induced) misery. 

Tom Russell Folk Hotel Frontera/Proper

This will immediately be familiar to anyone acquainted with the voice and songs of Tom Russell. His latest album takes as its title from some memories of the inhabitants of NewYork’s famed Chelsea Hotel such as the song about Dylan Thomas, one of its one time occupants, The Sparrow Of Swansea as well as the opening track Up In The Old Hotel. Otherwise there are songs about people (Rise Again Handsome Johnny - about meeting JFK, Harlan Cancy or Scars On His Ankles) and place (The Dram House Down in Gutter Lane, Leaving El Paso, The Rooftops Of Copenhagen). All are delivered in the eminently listenable grade, life roughened voice. Shown most prominently on the songs The Day The Drained The Liffey/The Banks of Montauk/ The Road To Santa Fe-O. It is one of those voices that has left an indelible mark on those who have encountered over his many and varied albums. There is also a cover that fits with the overall format in Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Here with guest vocalist Joe Ely - another great storyteller. Elsewhere Eliza Gilkyson also adds her vocals and reknowed guitarist Redd Volkert adds his individual skills number of the tracks too.

Not that Russell needs guests as his live shows attest, however they are there to give some additional depth to the success of the songs. I have listened to Tom Russell’s music through the years and this counts among his best and is delivered with a simple clarity and a focus that is centred around this distinctive voice and guitar. Add to that some occasional harmonica and additional instrumentation from other guests like renowned players Augie Myers piano and voice and Joel Guzman’s subtle and atmospheric accordion. Russell produced the album with Mark Hallman and it shows that as a storyteller he still has many a tale left to spin. The album clocks in at a very generous 70 minuets plus of his troubadour tales that encompass his heroes, inspirations and hotel inhabitants.

Jeffrey Martin One Go Around Fluff & Gravy

It would be frivolous to suggest that Jeffrey Martin has made a party album. Akin to saying that a book like Donald Ray Pollock’s debut collection of short stories Knockemstiff was a feel good read. It may be in that against the dead-end lives of those people who populate his short stories you should feel good that you’re not in their place. It is however compelling reading. One Go Around offers a similar experience with its tales of hard-worn, deflated and sometimes desperate living. However for all that this is an album that draws you in and offers hope in its consideration of the strength of the human spirit in dealing with adversity. Titles like Poor Man (“I’m not a bad man I’m a poor man”), Sad Blue Eyes, Lone Gone Now and Thrift Store Dress address lifestyles and hard times, longings and lost dreams.

The words evoke these emotions with clarity and understanding. The music similarly underlines these tales in a direct and subtle way that seems almost like it is just voice and guitar. Those two are central to the sound but around that are some telling textures of guitar, bass, drums, violin, banjo, pedal steel and keyboards. All give these musical tales an added depth that never overwhelms the central theme and delivery. All of which marks Martin as a man for these times. A songwriter not chasing a career that relies purely on sales but rather one based on doing something that has meaning for both Martin and for his listenership. Tyler Fortier’s production is open and full of subtle textures that reveal themselves on repeated plays. 

All of the songs bar one are written by Martin, that song Surprise AZ, was written by Richard Buckner - an fellow artist who could be considered something of a soul mate. They are striking low key songs that allow individual interpretation and introspection. In Thrift Store Dress Martin express a wish to settle down in a house “that can’t be moved”, to open oneself to another to allow someone else to see the “faraway sadness” in one’s eyes. That kind of rootlessness is a part of the make-up of the troubadour and their travels. There is a need to hear these songs to gain an insight into people and places that exist everywhere. In life you only get one go around, make the most of it and include albums like this in your life.

Petunia And The Vipers Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome Self Release

Songwriter and singer Petunia is back, after his last album, with his band the Vipers to further explore his personal take on roots music that takes into account today’s requirements  as much as having an earlier era of inspiration at its heart. petunia produced this varied set of songs with Steve Loree. The songs are a tribute to an earlier time when there were less attempts to pigeonhole genres. A song like Lonesome swings in a way that not to many do these days. It uses his crack band to good effect especially long time members Stephen Nikleva and Jimmy Roy on guitar and lap steel respectively. Jack Carton adds trumpet keyboards and accordion as required. While the rhythm section hold it all together for their take on old-time, swing, jazz and country.

Petunia has a distinctive nasal voice that recalls the like of Hank Williams Snr amongst others. A voice that may not suit everyone’s tastes but is a perfect vehicle for his music. He can yodel, croon and rock. The songs range from the uptempo undulations of the dark Urban Landscape through to the slow heart-searching of Heavy & Lonesome, the title gives you the sense of the overall mood of the song. Blindly Wander again has a sound that is deep and slowly dramatic. Blues In My Heart, while it covers similar territory has a casual uplifting mood with the trumpet giving it a late night sense of introspection. 

Alongside the original songs there a 3 public domain songs in the aforementioned Blues In My Heart, Too Long and the intriguing The Dying Crapshooter Blues which shows that Petunia understands the music roots and knows where to find the songs to cover. You might think of this as akin to Damon Runyon set to music. There is a timelessness to the music and its appropriation of earlier musical forms to create something new. There are a handful of artist around who cover such ground. There may be a number of bands covering something similar , especially those more attuned to old time string band mores, but the range of sound here makes Petunia and The Vipers something more diverse and delighting. All of which makes Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome an album that will never be mainstream but will be mandatory for those who appreciate something a little more individual.

Marty Stuart Now That’s Country -The Definite Collection Vol. 1 Humphead

This collection fairly lives ups to it’s title. While not his first greatest hits collection it is the best to date (with maybe more to come with the Volume 1 suffix in the title). It opens with a duet with his friend, former band leader and onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash on Doin’ My Time. Over the 44 tracks there are number of other much-missed icons who share the microphone with him in George Jones, Earl Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and Merle Haggard. Other duet partner include Steve Earle, Travis Tritt and (his wife) Connie Smith. Not that Stuart needs a lot help in the vocal department. His distinctive vocal ability has maintained it’s vibrance through his career as evidenced here.

The set has been paced nicely to allow material from all parts of his career to sit together sonically rather than chronologically. There’s not credit for whoever compiled the tracks but I suspect that Stuart would have had to approve the running order and it works so well balancing the better know tracks and singles against some deserving choice of album tracks. The result is over two hours of music that is full of variety, pace and mood without ever straying too far from the country music corral. This reviewer has a particular fondness for the songs he wrote with Paul Kennerley  - a series of songs that seems to combine the spirit of Buck Owens and Buddy Holly. Hey Baby, Tempted and Little Things all have that feel. Indeed Holly’s own Crying, Waiting, Hoping is included here too. The duet with Steve Earle features a stylistic sound that is rarely heard today as it was back in the 90s. But with tracks that run from his late 80s album Hillbilly Rock to his most recent Way Out West album it is worth noting that there is no filler here. Obviously some track will appeal more than others but as a body of work this is outstanding. 

While Stuart the Fabulous Superlatives are a band that more than live up to their name there is never a moment when you don’t appreciate the ensemble playing of the various bands featured throughout the collection. Players who have included such talents as guitarist Ray Flacke and bassist Larry Marrs. However, in the end, it is Stuart who is front and centre as the country music renaissance man. A man who has kept many of the traditions of the music alive both sonically and in appearance. He understands its history and future as these songs attest. Now’s that country - long may it and (Stuart) remain so.