Reviews by Stephen Rapid


Country Lips Till The Daylight Comes Self Release

An eight piece country band may not be what immediately springs to mind when you think of music from Seattle, Washington. But this band more than hold their own with their brand of hard-core country music. This album follows up a live album Live at the Little Red Hen released earlier this year that pretty much sums up the band’s taste and influences with original material alongside songs from Hank Williams through to Bruce Springsteen. The album also features a live version of one of the tracks from this album Holding Out.

The band are slightly less rowdy than I expected on the live album and here put in a pretty polished performance. One, however, that is neither slick nor soulless. Country Lips may not take themselves too seriously but they are serious about what they do, though the keyword here is fun. The album opens with Laundromat and you get a feel for what is to follow from the opening line “You don’t have to drive me crazy, darling, I’m close enough to walk.” Their music is rooted in traditional country themes that hark back to an earlier time but equally serve as a platform for a contemporary audience to dance and let off steam to. Basically what a country band has always been best at and what they have been doing for decades. Country Lips don’t bring anything new to the party - rather they bring the party.

They write a bunch of catchy songs, they play and sing them well and sound like this is what they want to be doing. The line up features fiddle, accordion, piano and guest pedal steel over the bass, drums and twangy guitar bedrock sound. This creates a diverse and diverting sound. One that often seems to be coming from a border and State that’s pretty far away from Seattle but is one that feels a natural fit. There are thirteen songs included and all are originals bar Please Be My Love, a song previously recorded by George Jones and Melba Montgomery. They are the kind of band who write songs that could easily be from the pen of a classic country writer. You are soon captivated by the band and their music. There are four members credited with vocals and they are also a strong point in the band’s sound with the lead vocal supported by solid harmonies throughout.

With songs like Day In The Sun, Grizzly Bear Billboard, Don’t Quit Your Day Man, Bar Time and Reason I’m Drinking Country Lips feature the trials and tribulations of a blue collar lifestyle. In the end it is an overall package that works. It is an album that I have returned to many times and I enjoy it each time. Till The Daylight Comes is the sound that could not be classified as anything but country but has little chance at receiving mainstream airplay at mainstream country radio. That is a shame but in this day and age you can go to the Country Lips website to hear (or purchase) their previous 3 albums. This album is due for release in August and if you find yourself in Seattle and Country Lips happen to be playing you won’t likely find a better evening. These guys are in it for the music. Listen up.

The High Bar Gang Someday The Heart Will Trouble The Mind True North

Bluegrass is not exactly my forte but when it is played either with a punky energy and spirit or with a sense of storytelling and musical inventiveness rather than just technique and speed then I can appreciate it as much as anyone. The High Bar Gang are a seven piece band from Canada and are following up their well received debut album Lost & Undone with this second offering of well chosen covers. The song choices cover such bases as Silver Dagger (Dolly Parton) to Branded Wherever I Go (Roy Acuff), I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash) through to One I Love Is Gone (Bill Monroe) and Long Lonesome Highway Blues (Steve Earle). All fit the parameters of what the band have set out to do which is to deliver some classic songs in a classic setting. 

The lead vocals are shared between the majority of the band with only double bassist Rob Becker and Colin Nairne playing guitar and mandolin not featured on vocals. This gives the band a wide range of voices to suit the individual song choices. Dave Barber, Kirby Barber, Barney Bengal, Wendy Bird and Shari Ulrich all sing as well as (mostly) playing and they all make a sweet sound. They are joined by guitarist and occasional participant Colin James for their version of Utah Phillips’ Rock, Salt and Nails. As with any album certain songs immediately hit home and One I Love Is Gone with lead vocals by Bird and How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart which has Ulrich taking lead with the other ladies adding harmony are special. The latter incidentally written by Hank Williams but then finished by Norah Jones. That, though in the end, is just a selective viewpoint as the whole album is a balanced performance of fine acoustic playing (listen to Cold Rain And Snow as one example of that) and heartfelt singing.

The High Bar Gang are continuing a genre of music that they love but in doing so give it a new purpose and audience. It appears that the various members also play outside of the gang and therefore to not get together to tour that often. They have however done what they set out to do which was to play some of their favourite songs in an old-time bluegrass setting. This they have done and the end result is an excellent album that should be heard beyond the obvious listening circle. 

Bianca De Leon Love, Guns & Money  Self Release

Self-written and produced album number four from De Leon (other than the one cover Nothin’/Ramblin’ Man which combines songs by Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams). It was recorded in Austin, Texas with some local players stepping up to the plate. Names know to those who check such things on albums coming out of Austin like John Inmon, Paul Percy and some, not so well know perhaps, like Radoslav Lorkovic on piano, B3 and accordion (he also plays with Jimmy LaFeve and others)- an instrument that adds much to the atmosphere of the song Guns And Money. De Lone has a strong versatile voice that is the centrepiece of the material here. 

For her fourth album she handles the production herself and gets a strong, textured and varied sound from her assembled players. Some of the songs really evoke a time and place  such as I Sang Patsy Cline. A song that details the background to the title which was about the night that Manuel Noriega was removed from power in Panama. It appears in an extended 6-minute version and as a bonus track at the end of the album as a radio edit. To underline her affinity and heritage, Buscando Por Ti is sung in Spanish and is about looking for love. Stale Wine and Roses is  about leaving and being left behind and is delivered with a softness that echoes of regret. The Bottles On The Table, which features some effective playing from Lorkovic on piano and the East Side Flash on resophonic guitar and some string harmony vocals, has a similar sense of unresolved emotions.

The remainder of the album is equally effective and the songs bear repeated listening and the printed lyrics allow for closer inspection and therefore the meaning of the songs though relationships gained and lost are central to the songs. Garden In The Sun has another nice harmony from Hilary Claire Anderson. It is also a more acoustic-based song that considers offering a place of refuge. Nothin’/Ramblin’ Man fits well into the overall scheme of things by sounding completely in sync with the self-written songs. They are tributes to two writers who have likely provided much inspiration to De Leon. Silence Speaks Louder Than Words is an expression of a universal truth which again underscores that De Leon is a writer and singer of note who has produced an album that works on several levels and is the work of a person who has lived some life to get to this place. A place worth getting to.

Wild Ponies Radiant No Evil

Band mainstays, husband and wife, Telisha and Doug Williams have previously released albums under their own names before moving to the more band-orientated Wild Ponies name. Telisha is the main singer and plays bass, Doug also sings and plays guitar. Add to that two other trusted players in Fats Kaplan - strings and steel and Megan Jane on drums and you have a tight, multi-functional combo who have made a thoughtful and trust worthy album that is full of atmosphere and lives up to its title. Folk music with electric guitar might suit the overall sound best with Kaplan’s steel adding more of a dreamy texture than traditional country steel styled licks.

Mom and Pop, a song written by the duo with Jeff Barba, has a twangy country feels with joint vocals and a theme that fits - local stores that are quickly vanishing. Unplug The Machine sounds like a new wave band singing a Billy Joel song. It works though, and shows the open minded approach that the duo and producer Tres Sasser have taken this time out. The Night We Never Met is a ballad that chronicles a sense of unfulfilled longing. Lullaby is exactly what it says - a percussion based ode to a child, but one with a dark edge. That feel is further explored on Graveyard Train, a song that was inspired by a Texas graveyard that has a train track running through its’ middle. The musical tone is suitably weighty too. A plea for tolerance is contained in Love Is Not A Sin a duet that balances the Williams’ voices well. Telisha’s has been compared to a lot of other singers in reviews but suffice it to say to is a vibrant and sturdy one that commands attention. Doug meanwhile is no slouch in that department either and a fine guitarist to boot.

The songs are all written by the duo with a selection of other writers including Amy Speace, Roddy Hecht and Amelia White amongst others. One song, the title track features lyrics by a 12 year old girl Mariah Moore who submitted them when the duo were doing a program to nurture young writing talent. The duo added the music and one verse and Telisha sings it with the kind of open wonder that a person of that age would have. It is a gentle, soft song that does all involved proud. As does this whole album which make the best of all the talents involved and adds the name of the Wild Ponies to the list of performers that should be checked out and listened to.

Ana Egge & The Sentimentals Say That Now Grace

Ana Egge is an acclaimed artist with a bunch of albums to her credit and this latest one with Danish band The Sentimentals will doing nothing but further that reputation. She produced and plays on this album together and it covers a lot of bases from the traditional country of Promises To Break to such songs as the harmonium infused energy of title track and hard guitar riff that drives Spider. The songs are written by Egge and other co-writers including band member MC Hanson (whose own work has been favourably received here at Lonesome Highway in the past). He also contributes a self-written track The Girl From The Banks Of The Ohio that is a powerful folk-rock statement that shows the assembled players working as a unit that has skill alongside heart and soul.

Another standout is the Hanson/Egge co-write Still Waters Run Deep that features Hanson as lead vocalist with Egge joining him on the choruses. The song has an acoustic feel with the mandolin and acoustic guitar but is buoyed by solid drums and bass. The other players here are Jacob Chano and Nikolaj Wolf with help from engineer Peter Brander on occasional bass guitar. Wolf and Egge wrote Falling, Falling, Falling a song that at its heart is about wanting and needing another person. While on Take Off My Dress the shoe, so to speak, is on the other foot here and is about walking away that wants to be together. But perhaps the strongest statement is another Hanson/Egge co-write He’s A Killer Now which take the viewpoint of a mother whos’ son has committed that unsurmountable crime before having his own life taken away. It tells of the emptiness left in the wake of such devastation for all those involved. Especially in the wake of recent terrorists shooting in Denmark. This is not the stuff of happy-talk radio but something more substantial by far and proves that such difficult topics need to be aired.

Say That Now is an album that considers all aspects of life from a set of people who have witnessed and reflected on such conditions and have turned those experience into meaningful music. If you haven’t encountered Egge, or The Sentimentals, previously then this is an album that will doubtless enrich your listening experience.

Bill Jackson The Wayside Ballads - Vol 2 Laughing Outlaw

An Australian artist who has recorded this album in Nashville with Thomm Jutz producing (and playing). It is an acoustic album but one that transcends easy categorisation as folk or bluegrass. It is indeed coming from that area but as drums are also featured adds a more percussive element to the mix. Jackson is a folk styled writer influenced by such icons as Woody Guthrie who he quotes on the album cover. The players involved bring a variety of textures to the songs with banjo, fiddle, upright bass, mandolin and dobro to the fore from musicians like Sierra Hull and Justin Moses involved

There are 11 songs which were co-written by Bill Jackson and his lyricist brother Ross, two are co-written with others, that include the story telling about Silver Screen Cowboys, a Gippsland Boy and the notion that Every Day’s A Drinkin’ Day. Overall Jackson’s simple but effective delivery and warm, undemanding voice will remind you of a bunch of other troubadours. Nothing too wrong with that as in the end it’s about the songs and the way they have been put together. Thomm Jutz can be relied on to give the whole process a sense of understanding and a solid sound that would be hard to dismiss. Your liking for Bill Jackson will depend on your appreciation for the songs on offer here. Although Australian Jackson is also steeped in Americana and that is the subject of many of his songs. Something that may be familiar to fans of Irish singer/songwriter Mick Hanley who takes a similar musical path.

Jackson has released several albums previously including (obviously) Volume 1 of The Wayside Ballads and has developed a comfortable relationship with his songs and the musicians he plays with. Those who have a liking for care-worn troubadours, and we seem to take to them over here in Ireland, will enjoy these tales of the less fortunate but often satisfied characters who are the subjects of these songs.