Reviews By Declan Culliton

Sarah Morris Ordinary Things Self Release

First listen to Ordinary Things brought to mind the Ohio singer Rachel Sweet, who’s blend of country infused pop was to the fore in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Not sure why she was released from my memory bank having not listened to her music for over thirty years but I did detect quite a number of similarities between her and Sarah Morris. Crystal clear voices, snappy country pop and simple but cleverly crafted songs mostly involving relationships, being the common tread between the two artists.

Following her previous two albums Grateful Moon (2011) and Lonely or Free (2012) Sarah Morris took time out from recording after the birth of her second child before returning to the studio earlier in spring 2015 to record the eleven tracks that feature on Ordinary Things. Recorded at River Rock Studios Minnesota with her band which includes Thomas Nordlund, a technically superb guitar player (whose solo album is coincidentally reviewed in this section), Andrew Foreman on bass and Zachary Schmidt on drums, percussion and keyboards, Morris also contributes acoustic guitar. Production duties were carried out by Eric Blomquist. 

The real winner on the album however is the heavenly quality of Morris’ soaring vocals that dip and soar throughout and leave a lasting impression with the listener.

No Memory is instantly catchy and hum a long, both Sway Me and Lie Here Tonight follow a similar path, delightfully mainstream and certainly radio friendly. Hope Sweet Hope fittingly closes Ordinary Things on a high note completing what is an upbeat and solid collection of songs delivered in some style.

Rachel Laven Love & Luccheses Self Release

I have Rebecca Roselly, who together with her husband Simon form the UK Roots band The Rosellys, to thank for the introduction to Rachel Laven, a 24 year old Texan singer-songwriter. Rachel guested at a show in Nashville that featured The Rosellys and certainly made a marked impression with her brief appearance.

A winner of the Texas Music Coalitions Artist of the Year while performing with her family band The Lavens she was also recently voted San Antonio’s Best Female Vocalist.

What places her ahead of many of her contemporaries, with ambitions of an industry breakthrough, is the possession of a quite luscious voice that recalls a young Carlene Carter and places Laven approaching the territory of the new breed of young gifted female songsters Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Munroe.

 Love & Luccheses features eleven songs, eight of which are written by Laven, three co-writes and one cover Something Like Heaven written by Walt Wilkins. It’s altogether a solid collection of songs ranging from ballads Each Other’s Shoes and Something Like Heaven with echoes of Patty Griffin and the beautiful title track to the ripping Do You Dare which is straight in your face 80’s Carlene Carter fun country at its finest. 

In summary the song writing and delivery on the album suggests a maturity way beyond Laven’s years and the potential for much bigger things going forward.

John Blek Cut The Light  Self Release

‘I would bleed myself dry, I would take the blows for you, I regret the day you went away, And the things I put you through’

The opening lyrics to the debut solo album from John Blek sets the scene for a collection of well-constructed songs often depicting tales of lost love, heartbreak, despair and sorrow.

The frontman of Cork roots outfit John Blek and The Rats abandons the more swashbuckling and high gloss style of his writing for the band and explores territories more familiar with recent outputs from artists such as Richard Thompson and Ryley Walker. The album as a whole leans towards a British / Irish folk sound with also a healthy nod towards more traditional Irish music in parts particularly on both Where Are You Tonight and Lightness vs Weight.

Often stripped to the bone the emphasis is always on the lyrics and the stories they reveal.  Rich in emotion and melody Ruby Blood, one of the albums strongest tracks, is achingly mournful and melancholy (Did you hear my heart, break in two, Ruby blood, Ruby blood that bled for you).

Little Sparrow certainly calls to mind Richard Thompson both in melody and style, The Northline speaks of unrequited love. The Night and the Liquor tells a tale of unrepentant, reckless over indulgence, weightless in its delivery and featuring only vocal and acoustic guitar. Recorded at Wakefield Recordings in West Cork the album was produced by John Blek and Brian Casey (who also contributes piano, Hammond organ and guitar).

Unlike Blek’s work with The Rats Cut The Light is not the album you’d choose to select to liven up the party instead it’s a consistent collection of ballads by one of the most impressive Irish songwriters to emerge in recent years.

Amanda Shires My Piece of Land BMG

Musically Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell are a marriage made in heaven and this latest offering from Shires speaks volumes of their compatibility also as partners and parents. 

Isbell has been since his early days a song writer of absolute talent whether it be his classic Drive By Truckers songs Decoration Day and Outfit or his work with his band The 100 Outfit which resulted in some equally impressive offerings such as Sunstroke and Streetlights. However memorable his early work was it has been surpassed by his output since his relationship with Shires began, her steadying influence and support instrumental in Isbell reaching a stage where he must be considered the leading singer songwriter of recent times.

In a similar vein based on My Piece of Land, the sixth album released by Shires, domestic bliss, motherhood and contentment seems to have had a positive creative influence resulting in the strongest album of her career to date.

Lubbock, Texas born Shires professional career started as a teenager as the violin player and member of Bob Wills backing band The Texas Playboys. Releasing her first album Being Brave in 2005 her fragile and sweet vocals, flawless violin skills and an ability to write heartfelt songs in the folk/country genre suggested a young lady with immense potential.

The quality of her debut album was equalled by her 2009 recording Sew Your Heart With Wires and possibly surpassed with the Carry Lighting (2011) and its successor Down Fell The Doves (2013). My Piece of Land, however, is a further step up from her previous work containing some beautiful songs both revealing, honest and personal.

Written while Shires was pregnant When You’re Gone reveals the loneliness of the house bound Shires while her husband is on tour ("I’ve learned exactly which of the floorboards groan and how the ac exhales when it kicks on"). My Love (The Storm), is one of two co-writes on the record with Isbell, the other being Pale Fire. Nursery Rhyme anticipates the birth of her first child ("My breath a prayer I’m holding in, I know you’re coming soon").

However it is the closing track You Are My Home that is the stand out song on the album. A seductive love ballad which features some glorious violin playing by Shires  and an equally impressive guitar break by Isbell, it’s a piece of music that having listened to a number of times will take some time to leave the listeners memory bank.  ("Your six one frame, my address is your name, high ceilings and walls, walls are just walls, and you are my home"). Production duties were undertaken by Dave Cobb with Isbell adding guitar and piano. Nashville session players Paul Griffith on drums and Paul Slivka on guitar also feature.

In an industry where heartbreak, failure and defeat more than often act as inspiration to song writers it’s a breath of fresh air to have a wonderful set of songs created by love, honesty and contentment. Highly recommended indeed.

Vicky Emerson Wake Me When the Wind Dies Down Self Release

Third outing from the Minneapolis resident Vicky Emerson and it’s an album that is immediately listenable from the word go. The opening track Under My Skin kicks the album off in fine style and what follows is a collection of quality songs that really work.

The sound throughout is a blend of folk, country with a splash of blues here and there. The song writing is strong, intimate, contemplative and matched by elegant playing throughout, mostly undertaken by Matt Patrick. 

The previously mentioned Under My Skin rocks along to a chunky guitar driven rhythm. Dance Me Into The Night, enhanced by some delightful fiddle playing, simply drifts along and tips its hat in the direction of Leonard Cohen. Silhouette tells a tale of lost love and opportunity, delivered with a disciplined and soaring vocal. Runaway Train does its title justice, rolling along at speed and Save All My Cryin’ (For Sunday Afternoon) is as country as it comes, with shades of Emmylou Harris and including some smart guitar and pedal steel licks. September Midnight is a beautifully paced and immaculately sounding love song, possibly the albums strongest track. 

As was the case with her previous albums Long Ride (2009) and Dust & Echoes (2012), production duties were undertaken by the aforementioned singer – songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matt Patrick who also co-wrote two tracks on the album.

Thomas Nordlund Divide Avenue Codesong

Stunningly atmospheric and technically superb Divide Avenue is an eight track instrumental album by Minneapolis based guitarist and composer Thomas Nordlund.

The album pays homage to the expansive landscapes of Baja, Mexico and was recorded live at The Hideaway in Minneapolis. The lead instrument is Nordlund’s electric baritone guitar and includes the input of six other musicians who contributed 6 string guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, wurlitzer, Rhodes, piano, bass and drums.

The result is quite stunning with the open desert and burning sun imagery being evoked not by a mariachi musical expression, as might be expected,  but by an intoxicating jazzy sound which often revisits some of the  jazz rock guitarists so popular of the 70’s such as Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell.

Instrumental albums can often be difficult listens and Nordlund’s debut album is no exception. They generally suit a certain mood and require more than couple of listens to digest. Divide Avenue is no exception but on repeated listens reveals itself as a wonderful body of work which would certainly work well as a film soundtrack. 

The Sawtooth Brothers One More Flight Self Release

Eight album in from the Minnesota band consisting of two sets of brothers, Ethan & Jesse Moravec and Clint & Luke Birtzer. It’s also their first album featuring all original material and was supported, as so many albums are these days, by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Named The Sawtooth Bluegrass Band in a former life, the band dropped the Bluegrass from their title and widened their musical horizons dipping into folk, country and a bit of pop together with their core old timey sound. The change in direction will no doubt appeal to a wider audience and avoid the band being pigeon holed into one particular genre, even if it may upset some of the purists. The end result is One More Flight which offers a rich mix of all these genres and creates a sound quite similar in style to their counterparts Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line. 

Lead vocals are shared on the eleven tracks between Jesse Moravec and Clint Birtzer, the other two members adding harmony vocals. The instrumentation, flawless throughout, consists of violin, mandolin, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and resonator guitar.

The album kicks off in fine style with the catchy and audacious Another Cliché giving a taste for what will follow. Next up is County Road X which features some heavenly violin breaks by Luke Birtzer. Summer All The Time is delightful, a combination of vocal harmony, bubbling violin and mandolin breaks that combine perfectly. The title track, possibly the albums standout, is the perfect mix of old and modern and sums up what the brothers do best. Take Me Away is an intoxicating and fitting closing track to a very impressive and cohesive collection of songs by a band certainly worth checking out.

Adam Levy Naubinway Self Release

Before listening to this album I was somewhat intrigued by the stark and rather disturbing imagery on the cover and inner sleeve and was interested as to how the artwork related to the album. I was aware of Adam Levy as band leader and singer-songwriter with Minnesota band The Honeydogs, but was completely unaware of the motivation and the event that lead to the recording of this solo effort.

Written in the memory of his son Daniel, who having battled with mental illness for a number of years, tragically took his own life in 2012, Naubinway is understandably anything but an easy listen. The lead up, event, aftermath and topic of suicide and mental illness are dealt with openly, honestly and was no doubt part of a grieving process surrounding such a painful ordeal. Understandably Levy found it impossible to write creatively for a couple of years after the loss of his son but was eventually inspired by Daniel’s artwork, having poured through the many sketchbooks he left behind. The album’s title Naubinway is the name of a small beach at Lake Michigan and is the last place that Daniel’s mother saw her son smile.

The lyrics are often pain staking to read and one can only imagine how difficult they must have been to compose and record. Tracks such as How I Let You Down ("Daniel, all your sketchbooks are a journey, the pain revealed…..We’re still learning how to be without you. Daniel, you ventured on to the thin ice. We threw you so many lifelines. You burned them to the quick") and Pitch Black Path ("It’s long and its dark. It’s a pitch black path lit by nothing but a spark and it won’t get any better till you move on") leave nothing to the imagination. 

The title and closing track, detailing the trip to dispose of Daniel’s ashes in Lake Michigan, would challenge any listener as would the accompanying photograph of the young man beside some of his striking artwork. ("A backwards baptism in Lake Michigan. I cradled my baby on his deathbed. Sleep my beautiful son in the shallows of Naubinway"). As with the opening track Take it as it Comes it features only vocal and acoustic guitar by Levy suggesting that the message was too personal to have an input by others.

However, beyond the despair and darkness the album reveals itself as a beautifully constructed, intelligently written set of songs, quite a few which recall a mid 60’s Beatles sound, How Your Well Runs Dry, This Friend and Atoms Never Die in particular. Marigold is a lovely honeyed ballad, I Wish You Well an equally upbeat love song both of which feature some dreamy steel guitar courtesy of Joe Savage.

Levy is on the record saying that the album was not about immortalising his son, which he would not have wished for anyway. It was primarily written by way of personally dealing with the loss. 

Produced by Adam Levy and Scott Miller and recorded at both their houses and at Essential Session Studios Naubinway is a striking body of work that deals honestly and compassionately with a particularly difficult subject matter. Well worth investigating.