Son Volt Union Thirty Tigers
Jay Farrar’s Son Volt have not always enjoyed the commercial success and adulation visited on his former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco. A trifle unfair perhaps, as Son Volt have recorded equally strong albums throughout their 25-year tenure. That two and a half decade run has witnessed personnel changes, but what has remained consistent is the band’s distinctive sound. Few other define alt-country quite like Farrar’s exemplary cocktail of country, rock and twang.
The current line up alongside Farrar is Andrew Du Plantis on bass, Chris Frame on guitars, Mark Patterson on drums and Mark Spencer on keys and lap steel. A similar alliance played on 2009’s American Central Dust and collectively they manage to re-create the sound that made that particular album a stand out in the bands back catalogue.
Union’s theme is politically charged, a reflection by Farrar on public rather than personal concerns, as he wades through the political chaos at large, both at home and further afield. Four of the tracks were recorded at The Woody Guthrie Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma and three more at Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois. Irish born community activist and school teacher Mary Harris (Mother) Jones - considered the ‘most dangerous woman in America’ for organising mine workers labour movements – has the song Rebel Girl dedicated to her memory. More recent social discontent is addressed in the lively opener While Rome Burns and continues on the following track The 99. The tempo may slip down a few gears on the exquisite Reality Winner, but the despair, questioning and venom in the lyrics remain consistent. The equally mid paced title track which follows bemoans the ‘divide and conquer’ political tactics at large (‘’Two party system, the donkey and the elephant, liberals and conservatives both fight for their own survival’’). Lady Liberty, the shortest of the thirteen tracks on the album is equally up front (‘’ Lady Liberty sighs at the words from the highest office’’). The album is bookended by the chilling The Symbol, the desperation of the pending deportation by the Mexican immigrant alongside his American born children.
Much of Jay Farrar’s early career writing was directed towards and paid homage to the plight of the underdog and voiceless, often addressed at characters from yesteryear. Union finds him exploring similar concerns but very much in the present times. The Union has been described by Farrar as “a testament to the role of folk music as protest music”. It’s not the first and most certainly will not be the last album whose direction is aimed at the tumultuous political cycle currently at large. However, the actuality of these times has shaken Farrar to gift us with the strongest material he has produced since American Central Dust nearly ten years ago. Its an album that improves with every listen and I look forward to revisiting it regularly in the coming weeks and months.
Review by Declan Culliton
Ted Russell Kamp Walkin’ Shoes PoMo
LA-based singer songwriter, producer, music teacher and critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Ted Russell Kamp has released his twelfth solo album titled Walkin’ Shoes - a particularly impressive feat given that he’s also been bass player with Shooter Jennings’ band for over fifteen years, together with his session work with Wilson Phillips, Whitey Morgan, Wanda Jackson, Rosie Flores and Billy Ray Cyrus to name but a few.
With shoulder length wavy hair and heavily moustached, Kamp has the appearance of a mid-1970’s West Coast dude and Walkin’ Shoes possesses a bluesy country rock sound often harking back to that era. Thirteen tracks, all co-writes with the exception of two, and with a gallery of exceptional players lending a hand, the album remains remarkably consistent given the number of personnel that contribute. Kamp provides vocals, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, Hammond, Wurlitzer, piano, trumpet, trombone and percussion and is joined by a list of contributors that include Rich McCulley, Gene Edwards, Brian Whelan, Sam Morrow and Jaime Wyatt.
The album could be a mirror image of Kamp’s whirlwind lifestyle, which finds him constantly on the move. You can smell the burning tyre rubber on much of the material from twangy opener Home Away From Home to bluesy rockers We Don’t Have To Be Alone, Tail Light Shine and Roll On Through The Night. Kamp is equally impressive when his foot is less firmly on the accelerator, both This Old Guitar and Heart Under Pressure hitting the country ballad bullseye. Paid By The Mile, a tongue in cheek consideration of the road weary touring hired hand, finds Kamp sharing vocals with emerging Southern rocker Sam Morrow.
There’s a lot to like about the album, which has nods back to the days when West Coast singer songwriters on the same page as Kamp were snapped up by major record labels and toured in luxury sleeper buses with all the accompanying excesses. Such indulgences may be history for all but a select few, but fortunately for us artists like Kamp are still producing music every bit as admirable as many of his predecessors.
Review by Declan Culliton
The Plott Hounds Damn The Wind Plott Hounds
If explosive Southern Rock is your thing then Damn The Wind, the latest album from Minneapolis five piece The Plott Hounds is most likely right up your street. Their guitar driven sound does not in any way attempt to reinvent the wheel and it’s a road that any number of American bands have travelled in recent years, yet I still found the album refreshing and invigorating. The album is peppered with all the key ingredients that combine to cook up classic Southern Rock, raspy whiskey laced vocals, gripping guitar riffs and solos, a thumping rhythm section, and most importantly, impressive songwriting.
They don’t waste any time getting out of the traps, Country Blues kicks the album off in rocking style. The guitar onslaught by Noah Alexander, Kirk Humbert and Jeff Powell continues on Winding Road with spirited support and chunky bass lines from Kevin Coughenour and percussion by Scott Tate. Not All Tornadoes Come From Texas recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd and the closing track Tough (For Avery) is a slow burner, echoed vocals replaced mid song by a classic twin guitar solo. However, It’s not all blood and thunder, the band park their grungier side with some classic country tinged blues on Old Photos and Good Night Buddy.
Simplicity possibly being the albums strongest point, Damn The Wind delivers text book rock and roll across it’s ten tracks. Well worth checking out.
Review by Declan Culliton
Joy Williams Front Porch Thirty Tigers
Americana duo The Civil Wars had all the hallmarks of the act most likely to make a major industry breakthrough at one stage. Their debut album Barton Hollow, released in 2011, sold over 650,000 copies in the U.S. alone and they were awarded four Grammy Awards. By the time their follow up self-titled album was released in 2013, Joy Williams and her musical partner John Paul White had already parted company some months previously. The official dissolution of The Civil Wars took place in 2014. Coincidentally, both artists have solo album releases in the coming months.
Williams was raised in Santa Cruz California but resided in Nashville for much of her musical career. She moved to Los Angeles after the demise of The Civil Wars but returned to Nashville after her father passed away.
Front Porch, is Williams second solo album since the dissolution of The Civil Wars. ‘’I took a long way looking for a shortcut. Come on back, come on back to the front porch’’ she sings on the album’s title track. Perhaps a metaphor for her return not only to the city where her artistic creativity blossomed, but also to her musical roots. The album is a collection of simple songs, beautifully delivered and enhanced by understated acoustic instrumentation.
The Civil War’s break up, after so much promise, played out like a car crash, much acerbity and no winners. Time spent away for Williams seemed as essential as the inevitability of her return to Nashville. Kenneth Pattengale of Milk Carton Kids fame came on board as producer for the album, with the agreed objective of creating the sound of a front or back porch setting, where Williams’ vocal was always the lead instrument. They also invited an impressive collection of songwriters, eleven in total, to co-write with Williams. Caitlyn Smith, Angelo Petraglia, Liz Rose, Emily Shackelton, Trent Dadds, Cason Cooley, Thad Cockrell, Mat Morris, Paul Moak, Natalia Hemby and John Randall all contribute across the twelve tracks. Admirably, the album works well as a unit, the tracks consistently on the same path, despite the arsenal of writers involved.
When Does A Heart Move On, The Trouble With Wanting are both dreamy slow burners, emphasising the depth, range and grandeur of Williams’ vocal. One And Only is somewhat pacier, closely related perhaps to Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely. When Creation Was Young is Alison Krauss & Union Station sounding, Williams’s vocals dancing alongside some slick acoustic guitar, dobro and fiddle. Preacher’s Daughter, autobiographically reflecting on her adolescence, is delightful and Look How Far We’ve Come, the final and shortest track at barely two minutes, closes the album on a positive note.
Front Porch is very much a rebirth for Williams, both spiritually and visionally. Her greatest asset was always her gorgeous voice, from her childhood days singing gospel in church and throughout her professional career. Gone are the crossover pop leanings of her previous album Venus, to be replaced by a more paired down and primitive offering. It’s a direction that is perfectly in keeping with her core skill set and a delight to behold.
Review by Declan Culliton
Bambi Lee Savage Berlin-Nashville Express Hoof & Anchor
The latest album from Bambi Lee Savage mixes indie rock with classic country sensibilities. Miss Savage previously worked with Mick Harvey, who played on and produced of her last album Darkness Overshadowed. That relationship goes back further to the 90’s, when she was engaged as an engineer in Berlin’s Hansa Studios. She worked there with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and also with U2. She was encouraged to the other side of the studio window and released her debut album Matter Of Time in 2003. She was also encouraged in her endeavours by Daniel Lanois, recording some demo tracks with him. One of those tracks was included on the Sling Blade movie soundtrack. That particular song Darlin’ is included here also in a remixed version.
Despite the stated influence of Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, this album would be at the indie edge of Americana. There are many studios and musicians credited on the sleeve but it is all held together by Savage’s overriding sonic vision. Touching on a number of different cornerstones, traces of David Lynch’s fondness for female torch songs are evident throughout. All of which means that this is not really for fans of walk-the-line traditional minded country. The songs do however have the flavour of country with titles such as This Blue Heart, Get Out MY Pillow (I’m Coming’ Home), I Can’t Count On My Man and I’ll Have To Leave Town (To Get Over You).
Beside Harvey she employs such Nashville notables as Dave Roe, Spenser Cullum and Will Kimbrough on two of the albums 10 tracks. It is something of a journey as the title suggest, that draws from all of Savage’s influences. The album boasts an Americana theme throughout, without being overplayed.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Jane Kramer Valley Of Bones Self Release.
Overall the air of a quite acoustic folk/country prevails on Jane Kramer’s third studio album. One thing that is crystal clear is Kramer’s voice. Possessing a depth of emotion, it delicately handles subjects as diverse as joy, marriage and the loss of miscarriage.
Kramer has gathered a selection of impressive players to accompany producer Adam Johnson and her co-producer Chris Rosser. The latter is a multi-instrumentalist who lays some textural playing over the subtle yet inventive playing of upright bassist Eliot Wadopian and percussionist River Guerguerian. These players, alongside others who contribute here, also appeared on her 2015 album Carnival Of Hopes. The other instruments given space to elaborate on the overall feel of the songs are Billy Cardine’s dobro, Nicky Sanders’ fiddle and Franklin Keel’s cello input. They all add to the overarching intimacy of the songs. I’ll See Your Crazy And Raise You Mine is a sweet ode to married life. Wedding Vows confirms a deep love that has grown over time from those initial vows. Likewise, Child evokes love and loss and is heartfelt, evoking a melancholic prayer.
Kramer has a folky voice that runs clear and free like a mountain stream and on this her third release, displays her development as both a singer and writer. She has been praised by Mary Gauthier which is understandable given the texture and detail of her songs. Kramer’s album is well worth seeking out and covers a number of bases in the Americana firmament. She breathes life into this valley of bones to create some full-bodied entertainment.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Vicky Emerson Steady Heart Front Porch
The effective lack of a strong female infrastructure in the music industry was something that was central to the direction taken by Vicky Emerson on her new album Steady Heart (her tenth release). She produced the album and wrote, or co-wrote, all the songs bar one. She recorded the album in Minneapolis with a set of players that included Steve Bosmans on some well placed and effective electric guitar. Other contributors included Zach Miller on percussion, Aaron Fabbrini on stand-up bass and Jake Armerding on violin and fiddle. Kari Arnett, Annie Fitzgerald and Sarah Morris all sang background vocals. The resulting sound is built around Emerson’s strong vocal presence and appealing arrangements. While there are not that many women gaining mainstream media exposure there are many who are producing the best work of their careers right now.
The one cover here is Richard Leigh’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, best known by Crystal Gayle’s interpretation. This version is slowed down, giving the sentiment of the song a darker hue, not dissimilar to the deconstruction that the Cowboy Junkies have used as a template in the past. However, it is Emerson’s own songs are the highlights here. In The Pines, Bird’s Eye View, the title track and The Reckoning with its sense of foreboding expressed as “I feel the storm rolling in. Like thunder chasing the lightning, I never knew how this would end.”
Overall this has an electric folk sensibility with sparse layered instrumentation and an equally alluring use of vocals. Something that is present throughout the whole album. The sense of purpose is readily apparent with Emerson in control and delivering the exact album she wanted - with a steady hand and heart.
Review by Stephen Rapid
Kari Arnett When The Dust Settles Self Release
First full album from this Wisconsin singer songwriter following the EP Midwestern Skyline in 2025. Arnett recorded the album with Danny O’Brien who took Arnett’s songs and gave them a sonic layered template that is full of atmosphere that sets the tone for the songs. there is a element of foreboding in the both the title and content of the opening song Dark Water. Then a song like One More Chance takes a more direct route with Arnett’s voice leading the song over a solid but controlled setting. One song that sits with the prevailing voices in music tackling the men-centric music industry is Only A Woman. Another powerful song is This American Life that employs some twanging guitar and solid bass drum beat over which various instruments intertwine to build the song understanding of what the American Dream might, or might not be. She showcases the power of her voice with this song.
Credit also to the players, Haley Rydell (fiddle), Jay Scabich (guitars), Alexander Young (drums), Andy Schuster (bass) and Ben Cook-Feltz (keyboards) and Aaron Fabbrini (pedal steel) who provide the backbone and muscle over which Arnett’s literate and thoughtful songs have room to grow and find their own level. The songs on the album are all self-written and are heartfelt observations of the ups and downs of the human spirit and its relationships, both for the good and the bad.
The more that one listens to the album there more it hangs together as a whole and each song stands on its own merits. When The Dust Settles marks Arnett as another genuine talent in the ever growing number of female Americana artists who are taking control of the direction their music might take with undue pressure of those more concerned with sales that with creating music that lifts the spirit. The roots of this music sit in country and folk but it also understand where those genres have moved over the last few years since the likes of Emmylou Harris incorporated the harder elements of Wrecking Ball into that traditional melting pot. When the dust settles the strengths of this album will be plain enough for all to see.
Review by Stephen Rapid