Reviews by Declan Culliton

Kristina Murray Southern Ambrosia Loud Magnolia 

The album cover of Southern Ambrosia, depicting Kristina Murray in semi darkness, has more than a passing resemblance to Emmylou Harris’s Luxury Liner. Possibly coincidence or possibly a statement of intent from the Georgia born Nashville resident. Murray first came to my attention a few years back when she was introduced by J.P. Harris as the finest country singer currently residing in Nashville, before she performed a few numbers midway through his own set at Americana Fest. She had previously worked with Harris as a backing vocalist, appearing on stage at The Grand Ole Opry and gaining a reputation as one to watch’ among the thriving East Nashville artistic community. She appears regularly at The American Legion in East Nashville, where a new generation of artists, along with more established names, keep the flag flying for traditional country music.  

The album was recorded in Nashville at both Sound Stage Studios and Welcome to 1979, under the watchful eye of Michael Rinne, who previously produced other East Nashville emerging artists Caroline Spence, Erin Rae and Kelsey Waldon.

Murray’s vocal is unadulterated country, wonderfully accented with a nasally drawl that fits the part, though I did find it a tad difficult to catch her lyrics from time to time, in the absence of a lyric sheet. She writes and sings from the heart, kicking off with the first track Made in America,(a first cousin to Margo Price’s All American Made perhaps), which visits the anguish and despair, coupled with the pride, resilience and contradictions of being a Southerner. It'a lively opener with Murray making a statement that she has more strings to her bow than simply being a great honky tonk vocalist. It also fosters some nifty guitar work by Kris Donegan and pedal steel courtesy of Justin Schipper, both of whom contribute in no small manner throughout the album.  

Personal pain and the despair of others are awash throughout the album, from the hopelessness and inevitability of Slow Kill, to the drug fueled violence of The Ballad Of Angel & Donnie, which also includes a killer guitar break by Donegan. The tempo of both tracks almost masks the painful lyrics, with a delivery that recalls an early career Carlene Carter at her boldest. Tell Me is a gentle, drop dead gorgeous and moving country break up ballad, sung as a duet with Frank Carter Rische, with a nod perhaps to Emmylou. Potters Field is similarly paced, equally striking and laced with baroscopic slide and pedal steel. The instantly appealing Lovers & Liars is an epilogue for a soured and broken relationship.It kicks off with wailing harmonica courtesy of Pat Bergeson and a slick bass line before Murray’s drawl kicks in. Strong Blood remembers her father, whose material legacy may only have been a bag of power tools and a few busted pick-up trucks, but who instilled in his daughter a strength of character and resilience. The self-deprecating Jokes On Me simply aches, both Murrays vocal and Justin Schippers eerie pedal steel setting an almost tearful atmosphere to the albums closer.

Southern Ambrosia is the second album from Murray, following her 2013 release Lights Out For The Lonesome. It’s broader reaching than its predecessor, not locked in traditional country and a further substantiation of her talent not only as a vocalist but also as a storyteller. Most of the tales may be depressing, dark and void of happy endings, but theyre honest, real life and compelling, from an artist that has served her time playing dive bars in Colorado before adding backing vocals to other artists. Shes finally arrived where she belongs, front of stage and with the support of cracking musicians. 

It’s inexcusable given the endless talent of female artists among the East Nashville community, that only Margo Price has got the deserved recognition, and she had to literally sweat blood for her breaks. Kristine Murray is yet another resident of that neighbourhood who, together with Erin Rae, Lilly Hiatt and others, could comfortably make a major industry breakthrough given the exposure and industry support. Southern Ambrosia is an album that sounds better and better on every spin and cant be recommended highly enough.

Neilson Hubbard Cumberland Island Proper 

Cumberland Island, Georgia is the largest of the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States. The ruins of the Carnegie mansion, destroyed by fire in 1959, remain on the island and the grounds are still populated by wild horses, dating back to their arrival in the 16th Century thanks to the Spanish Conquistadors. Cumberland Island is also the title of Neilson Hubbard’s most recent album and the inner album sleeve articulates how he and his wife spent a magical afternoon on the desolate island, one day after they were married. The inspiration generated by his visit to the island, and his marriage, are the stimulus for much of the album’s material and its artwork, with tracks such as the stunning My Heart Belongs To You and For My Love reflecting the latter and needing little explanation. 

Hubbard’s early career included his first band Spoon, before forming The Living Hand with Clay Jones, releasing two albums prior to pursuing a solo career and recording four solo albums between 1997 and 2008. The highly regarded Strays Don’t Sleep, a collaboration with Matthew Ryan was also released in 2006. Much of Hubbard’s energies in the intervening period were taken up with production work, working with artists such as Amelia White, Tyler James, Amy Speace and more recently Ben Glover’s album Shorebound and Mary Gauthier’s Americana Music Association Album Of The Year nominated Rifles And Rosary Beads.Hubbard, together with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt are also members of the roots band Orphan Brigade. 

Recorded in less than one week with Ben Glover sharing the production duties, the album is beautifully presented both in its packaging, photography and liner notes. The quality of the songs are equally impressive from the opener and title track – a dreamish Celtic Folk feel underscored by Eamon McLoughlin’s delicate violin playing – it recalls Van Morrison’s You Know What They’re Writing About with Glover’s influence as co-writer most evident. Equally impressive is How Much Longer Can We Bend, also co-written with Glover. Country gospel is the order of the day on Old Black Riverand the previously mentioned My Heart Belongs To Youis the album’s stand out track, a song that could very easily grow wings in a similar vein to Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It features in the main just Hubbard’s vocals in front of Danny Mitchell’s sympathetic piano and discreet horns. Don’t Make Me Walk This World On My Own also benefits from a similar exquisite mix of vocals, piano and horns.

Contributing to the album are a collection of Nashville big hitters including Will Kimbrough (guitars), Danny Mitchel (keys & horns), Dean Marold (bass), Eamon McLoughlin (violin), Natalie Schlabs and Audrey Spillman Hubbard (harmonies) and fellow Orphan Brigade members Ben Glover (acoustic guitar) and Joshua Britt (mandolin). There is a mellow style to much of the material on Cumberland Island, plaintive clear vocals revealing an artist growing in confidence and aided by a team of accomplished musicians and co-writers. An understated gem of an album, well worth checking out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as I am.

Various Artists This Is Loose Loose

Celebrating their 20th Anniversary, Loose remain the champion of all things Americana in Europe. This Is Loose, a fifteen-track compilation, is a further reminder of the quality acts that the Loose family represent and includes tracks from 2017, 2018 and indeed 2019, with the inclusion of songs by both Frankie Lee (Downtown Lights) and William The Conqueror (Bleeding On The Soundtrack), both to be included in their forthcoming albums.

The list of artists covered in the recording reads as a ‘who’s who’ at the business end of the Americana market, both in the US and U.K. Included are leading lights such as Courtney Marie Andrews, Israel Nash and Andrew Combs representing the more established international acts, with more local and emerging acts Treetop Flyers and William The Conqueror also featured. Jim White has always been beyond categorisation and his inclusion on the label is the perfect marriage and included is the equally talented and no easier to categorise Joana Serrat. 

We’re reminded of the untimely passing of Robert Fisher in 2017 by the inclusion of Untethered from Willard Grant Conspiracy’s album of the same title. The album remained unfinished at the time of his death but was subsequently completed by his musical friends. Recent signing Sons Of Bill open the album with Good Morning (They Can’t Break You Now) from their recent and most experimental album to date titled OH God Ma’am and everybody’s favourite live band Danny & The Champions Of The World feature by way of Don’t Walk Away.

The Americans, Gill Landry, Ian Felice and Frontier Ruckus complete the line up in what is the perfect CD to pop in the player and let Loose select your playlist. Roll on the next 20 years!

Ariel Bui Disguised As Fate (10th Anniversary Edition) Love Note Collectables

I also honour your suffering and pain, remembering only vaguely now the depths of your trauma and despair that seemed never ending. I want to tell you; your life will get better. You will have adventures and learn to set better boundaries, find stability and peace’’.

The quote above forms part of a memo on the inside sleeve of the album Disguised As Fate, written today by Bui to her younger self, in recognition of her arduous voyage from a coming of age teenager to the fulfilled young adult that she is today. 

The tenth anniversary re-release of Ariel Buis debut album was celebrated on September 16th at The Fond Object in East Nashville, on the closing day of the Americana Festival. Disguised As Fate was written by Bui between the ages of 15 and 20 while she, as a consequence of her mothers mental illness, lived in various parts of the US, often with other members of her family. Her parents had emigrated from Vietnam to the US at the end of the Vietnam War and growing up, particularly in the predominately white environment of Florida, was difficult for Bui, coupled with her mothers illness.

Now a classically trained musician and graduate of Rollins College in Florida, the album is in many ways a diary of that often traumatic and stressful youth, all of which heavily influenced the album. Titles include The Stranger (“My love for yous disguised as hate, So I can have someone to blame, For the fact that I couldn’tmake you love me’’), How It Should Be (“All our lives we spend afraid, Of the future we have made’’) and Change (“But one day, someone sweet will come my way, And Ill keep him at bay, Because I am afraid’’). All point to a young lady openly questioning and attempting to come to terms with her predicament. 

The album was co-produced by a close friend Dylan Ethier, who released it on his own Love Note Collectables label. Stripped back to the bare bones, the material essentially features Buis vocals and acoustic guitar, as she confronts the life issues shes been dealt. The vulnerability and frailty in her vocals and lyrics are all too evident and, in many ways, recall a young Dolores ORiordan.

Bui graduated from Rollins College in 2009 and abandoned the notion of a musical career, instead relocating to New Mexico, where she took up employment in a radically sustainable firm of architects and then worked for AmeriCorps’ Energy Conservation.Next, finding herself at a crossroads career wise, she was actively encouraged to revisit her musical vocation by friends who had recognised her unique and unclassifiable musical inventiveness. She subsequently settled in East Nashville and founded The Melodia Studio, which offers musical lessons to students of all ages, with the particular emphasis on fun learning’. 

The re-release of Disguised As Fate is much more than simply an album. It is a brave celebration of the resilience of a young woman, against all the odds in many instances, who has found her true vocation in life as an artist and musical educator. Its not a Saturday night party listen and needs to be approached in the context of the intriguing backstory. 

The memo quoted at the top of this review, in its totality, together with the poetic lyrics from this album, could fittingly be included in English Literature school curriculums for teenagers, by way of reassurance and awareness that difficult times do pass. 


Michelle Lewis All Thats Left Self Released 

Originally from Boston but currently residing in Los Angeles, Michelle Lewis has been playing piano from the age of eight, moving to guitar in her teens and is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. All That’s Left is the latest instalment and third release from her, whose debut album This Time Around was released back in 2004. She is not to be confused with another American songwriter of the same name whose claim to fame includes writing for Disney soundtracks and Cher.

Her music is best described as folk approaching pop, highlighting not only her very impressive vocals but also her sensitive and delicate songwriting ability. The album features eleven tracks in total, with topics covering the full range of emotions, from the tranquil In Love Againand You And Me, to the resolve of Push On, which has been released as a singleA self-confessed lover of the more sad and mournful side of songwriting Lewis’s darker emotions are visited in Scars and All That’s Left. A cover of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark is also included, a more unhurried delivery than the original with the focus on her vocals. 

Co-produced by Lewis and Anthony J. Resta, the album was recorded at Bopnique Musique in Los Angeles. Lewis has delivered some thoughtful song constructions on All Thats Left, that could quite easily find their way onto playlists on commercial daytime radio stations.

Rob Mc Hale Prophets On The Boulevard Wooden Door

North Carolina based folk singer Bob Mc Hales albums are consistently well turned out, both in musical content, cover design and packaging. Mc Hale is very much a disciple of his fellow Statesman Woody Guthrie and his songs follow a similar trail, with the emphasis often on the environment and equality. The thirteen tracks on the album are all self-written with the exception of Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster, which is given a makeover and presented in a delightfully lazy J.J.Cale type delivery. A follower of Guthrie McHale may be, but his musical style often has more in common with British Folk than closer to his home State.

Up to fifteen instruments and ten players were employed in the recording altogether including Mc Hales regular players, his brother Pat who adds harmonica and his guitar player Mike Alicke. Four female vocalists also contribute. 

The striking streetscape cover painting by David Merck depicts a rundown town with an animated bearded bible wielding evangelist preaching to a group of people, while around the corner a lady of the night invites custom from a passing motorist and a presumably dead body lies on the pavement. A couple of yards down the street a guitarist (possibly Mc Hale) sits busking on the street.

Standout tracks are the breezy opener Common Ground, the gentle tribute song Woodys Shoes and When Im With, a rocky closer that bookends the album. 

Marla & David Celia Daydreamers Seedling 

Male and female double acts seem currently to be the order of the day, with endless combinations recording and touring, often under the Americana umbrella. Marla and David Celia, who both have previous recorded output, have released their first joint album having toured extensively over the past few years, primarily in Canada, Russia and Europe. 

David Celia is a Canadian born artist whose four individual albums include influences as far ranging as Gordon Lightfoot and 60s Brit pop. He encountered the Heidelberg native Marla at a music festival in Germany and went on to produce her debut album Madawaska Valley in 2016. 

Where many of their like have followed the Welch/Rawlings model, exploring music of long bygone days, this combination’s output is closer to The Everly Brothers take on folk and country music. Aptly titled Daydreamers, the album is composed by two artists that appear as musically compatible as they are romantically. The overall feel of the album is of fondness and affection, with titles such as Lover Of Mine, I Am Her Man and Heart Like A Dove. Much more than a personalised mutual admiration recording, the album maintains a relaxing and soothing essence throughout, courtesy of some beautiful harmonies by the pair and consistently strong material. The album was recorded at The Rooster Studios in Toronto and self-produced by the couple under the supervision of experienced producer Don Kerr, who is also Ron Sexsmith’s drummer. 

Theres much to admire on the album, with well-crafted songs that are easy on the ear and the perfectly matched harmonies by the couple which shine most brightly on the catchy opener Carry It On and the title track Daydreamers. The previously noted Heart Like A Dove, written by David as a Valentine’s Day gift to Marla also impresses. Whats also noteworthy throughout is Marla singing in her own accent, thankfully not attempting to adopt an American inflexion.

The Whispering Tree Invisible Forces Self Release 

Singer/songwriter Eleanor Kleiner and multi-instrumentalist Elie Brangbour are The Whispering Tree and Invisible Forces is their third album release. Self-produced and recorded at their home in New York the material visits several genres, from the instantly accessible and Aimee Mann sounding Heavy to the more mysterious These Houses, a haunting tale of the ghosts of bygone times contained within every four walls. Fat Cat is a well visited songwriting theme and it’s delivered with a jazzy dash and California dreams of a slower paced lifestyle under sunnier skies. Bells,the closer, is also politically charged (‘I hear bells ringing for change, though I’m not sure who’s ringing those bells today’). Split In Half, at six minutes the longest track on the album, is also the standout, addictively rhythmic with Kleiner’s soaring vocals particularly impressive. Heavy, which includes the album’s title in its lyrics, relates to depression and the rhythm in the gorgeous Garden recalls Calexico.

In terms of musical direction, The Whispering Tree are difficult to define, blending folk, blues, country soul and even jazz across the eight tracks on Invisible Forces. What can’t be denied is that the album is very easy on the ears.