Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Jace Everett Dust & Dirt Humphead

Can a person’s career be defined by one song?  Does that then categorise them as a one hit wonder? Jace Everett’s song Bad Things seems to have defined him for many who then think that that is all he does (or has done of note). That he’s forever trying to rewrite that one song. There’s no doubt that the use of that song as the theme for True Blood was a helpful step in terms of recognition as well as with some much needed financial rewards. Equally should Jace Everett be regarded as country music when his music could rarely have been said to have easily fit under any traditional country tag? He has long since moved on from his major label debut album and a (sort of) straight country sound (not that, in truth, he could ever really be defined that way). He has always explored a range of musical options that are defined by his voice and more edgy writing.

Dust & Dirt is a solid and varied album that again sees him working alongside his longtime musical partner Dan Cohen. They co-produced the album together and as well as supplying the objective and incisive guitar input, Cohen co-wrote several of the songs. And as the title suggests, this is not an album of happy ever after (or even before) songs. Although love and hope are not that far from the surface in several of the songs. Rather it considers the options that are available to those who have been round the block a time or two. As the man looking to avoid memories warns “I broke my own heart, turns out that’s just what I was born to do” (Someplace). Love, religion and some political pessimism are the themes that Everett returns to here.

The aptly titled Love’s Not What We Do is a (undrained) swampy moded song that reverberates with a healthy dose of realism regarding the country he lives in. A strong antidote to any “love and peace” that existed in decades past. It recognises that love may not always be enough. That even though we are the same essentially, living on the same planet, that “we all face the same fucking fear” we live in a state of division. The song has a suitably terse feel that sets off that sense of disquiet well. Romance though is taken to a more personal level on songs like Rescue Me, Green Or Blue and Golden Ring, which are imbued with a sincere sense of a deeper affection.

Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash joins Everett on Lowlands and counter balances Everett’s deeper voice well. There are hints of a more roots oriented sound here that serve the album well. It closes with a tribute to Guy Clark, a hero who Everett much admired and also toured with. His stripped down, ragged but right, version of Clark’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad serves as a good note to end on; as well as a heartfelt salute. Dust and dirt tends gets everywhere and on this occasion, is most welcome.

Matt Patershuk Same As I Ever Have Been Black Hen

This is the third release from a Canadian singer songwriter. And if this is the same as he’s ever been, then he’s made two previously crackin’ albums. There is a lot here to admire from Steve Dawson’s production through Patershuk’s honest and weary but resonant voice and his experienced songwriting. These songs are carefully hewn from a lifetime of observation, insight and introspection. There are not too many songs titled Memory And The First Law Of Thermodynamics, which deals with a tragic road death. Tragedy also is an underlying factor in the albums’ opening song Sometimes You’ve Got To Do Bad Things To Do Good. - which opens in a rockin’ Bo Diddley style. There are songs that look at the life of the working man (or woman) in Hard Knuckle Blues and Blank Pages And Lost Wages. Patershuk takes these well worn subjects and looks to find a slightly different perspective on how to tell them.

He and Dawson brought together a set of players to do the songs justice and set themselves up in Bryan Adams’ Warehouse Studio in Vancouver to record. The 12 songs, that last nearly an hour are time well spent. Such noted musicians as drummer Jay Bellerose and John Reischman on fiddle, bring their talents to the realisation of these songs with finesse and form. They are joined by multi-instrumentalist Dawson and the whole unit is working under the modest and understated banner of The Pretty Darn Good Music Band. Vocalist Ana Egge joins Patershuk on a couple of songs, adding feminine balance to those tracks. Gypsy has a nice feel on the story of a wandering man, nice mandolin too. She joins him again on the closing song Swans, which has a slow ebb and flow with a folkish delivery with just the two voices and acoustic guitar. It clocks in at over 6 minutes and has the feel of a traditional ballad.

Patershuk has made an album that should gather a set of new fans for this engaging and varied collection of original songs that place him among the best of contemporary roots/Canadian artists. Kudos to all involved who bring much to make these songs sound like classic performances.

Laura Benitez and The Heartache With All Its Thorns Copperhead

This is an album that hooks you from the opening bars. From Benitez’s engaging vocal to her band’s borderlands beat. Something Better Than A Broken Heart is infused with Billy Wilson’s accordion sound which helps give it a strong uplifting presence. From then on it continues to hit the spot. And while Benitez, in essence, offers no genre pushing attitude they deliver some deeply rooted songs that are unmistakably classic country in mood and manner.

Benitez fronts a seven-piece band that includes Ian Sutton on pedal steel, Bob Spector on guitar, a rhythm section of Steve Pearson and Mike Anderson with Steve Kallas on fiddle. Benitez adds harmony vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar. All are present and correct here, doing a fine job of delivering Benitez’s songs, all written by her with one co-write. That Benitez also produced the album means that it delivers her music exactly as she wants it. Which is the way it should be. The songs cover the inevitable topic of people and their relationships (Whiskey Makes Me Love You, In Red) and possible motivations (Nora Went Down The Mountain, Secrets). There is the introspection of Ghostship and the dual language border sound of Almost The Right One/Casi mi Cielo which has a particularly standout vocal from Benitez.

While there are more lauded performers making waves right now, few offer such a complete and considered package as Benitez does here. The different aspects of her music are highlighted across the eleven tracks in a variety of tempos and moods that make it an album that you want to hear from first to last. Benitez’s third album shows artistic growth and consolidation of what is a stand-out talent that deserves a wider recognition that in her San Francisco, California home base. There is definitely a rose here that blooms and recognises that life is good, even with all its thorns.   

Wes Youssi & The County Champs Down Low Never Lucky

This fine Portland, Oregon singer/songwriter and band-leader has just released a new album. It is a cracker. Sounding somewhere (to these ears) between BR549s Gary Bennett and David Serby both vocally and sound wise.  He is a lover of, by his own admission, honky-tonk, traditionally country and hillbilly. This is borne out by the music featured here. 12 fresh, original slices of the aforementioned musical roots. He has a classic nasal toned twangy voice that has many precedents in country music of yore. The musicians also take the sound seriously and the album lists a range of vintage instruments used in the recording. However even though this album takes it lead from the traditional country sounds of the past it has an energy and vision that is aimed just as much at a future as it is at any particular past.

The songs have themes that suit the genre such as the flirting, lothario of Cadillac Man. The escape from reality by going Into A Bottle, in a way, could easily have been written some decades ago. There’s a sense of uncertainty and moving out, or moving in, in the titles Crazy Train and Southbound Train. The latter has some well-placed banjo to give it a sense of urgency. I Ain’t A Quitter is a testament of a “good-for-nothing” who refused to give up on his aims and will be “back for another round.” The title song seems to take the notion of Down Low as refering to downing drink, going downtown as well as feeling down. High Time, as the title might suggest, is all about looking for that particular mindset while the boss is away. While not entirely unrelated to that title is the updated moonshine tale of growing weed and making some money for the man with green fingers who has taken to caring for and growing that illicit substance as outlined in Green Dream. The closing song Champ Boogie kicks it up with a turn on the dance floor.

The overall impression is of a band and singer very much in tune with the music that motivates them. They play with a style and skill that is apparent on every track and only comes when the individual players are all working to a similar vision. That vision is the take their music into a place where in may not be welcome on radio or on any major label. It is not exactly “outlaw” territory but rather relies on its ability to be more good time in outlook. It aims to please and it does that for lovers of good honky-tonk, made without pretension or posture. Down Low offers a high time for one and all.

Porter & The Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes Don’t Go Baby, It’s Gonna Get Weird Without You Cornelius Chapel

Chris Porter was the main man here and this is his current and last album - a posthumous release. He was previously singer in Some Dark Holler and The Back Row Baptists among other projects but was killed in an interstate highway accident while travelling with his band. Band member Mitchell Vanderburg was also killed and another member of the band hospitalized. In the wake of such tragic circumstances it is understandable that artists and bands who regularly travel to perform are going to me more vulnerable to such accidents than most.

The album was recorded in Austin in February 2016 some 8 months prior to his death. It was produced by the album's drummer Will Johnson (a member of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel as well as contributor to other projects). It is a full on rockin’ roots album, perhaps what was once referred to as alt-country. This is his first release co-credited to Porter and the band. His previous release This Red Mountain was credited simply as Porter. That album featured contributions from The Mastersons (who play in Steve Earle’s Dukes). The duo appears here on one track When We Were Young. Other players involved were multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney and former Drive By Trucker Shonna Tucker on bass and vocals.

Although it doesn’t directly state so on the album sleeve, I presume these are all songs written by Porter and the range from the country leaning Edith, to the effects-laden slow paced condemnation of Go On And Leave Me and the wishful Don’t Hang Up Virginia. Shit Got Dark deals with how a small town life that can become something very changeable very quickly and also get hard. Stoned In Traffic is, well, Stones-ish and rockin’. Many of the songs, as much as one can ascertain with lyrics, seem to deal with people and place and how the two relate together.

Bittersweet Creek and Your Hometown are two such instances. The latter looking at the fact that in some places a lot of people are related and have the same last name. When We Were Young is a slow atmospheric whirl with Porter giving a vocal that seems both wistful and full of doubt. Throughout he has a commanding voice that is the core to these songs and their overall feel. November Down and East December close the album that overall might remind of a band like the Bottle Rockets who brought a sturdy attitude to those cross pollination of rock, roots and country storytelling. Elements of Porter and his lifestyle feature in the compelling album cover illustration.

As a final statement, Chris Porter can be assured that this release is a strong one. It shows a developing artist and the many possibilities opening to him. For many of his family friends and fans it will have indeed got weird without him around. One can hope that this album is heard and that Chris Porter will be remembered for his musical contribution.

Various Artists Won’t Be Home For Christmas Hemifran

This label is headed by music fan and publicist Peter Holmstedt and is a collection of songs recorded for the season. Not all, as suggested by the title, are full of the joys of Christmas. The album opens with a great song from Elliott Murphy - a favourite artist of mine - who tells the tale of a visit from his cousin Linear that goes increasingly array. Five Days Of Christmas is just a voice and guitar rendition but Murphy instils just the right amount of humour and reason into the song to make it special. It’s an album highlight for me. After that there is a wide variety of moods and tempos and delivery from the 18 different artist involved.

Other songs that resonate with this listener (and each person will doubtless have their own favourites) include Kenny White with Christmas Day, Jude Johnson’s I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way - a simple piano, dobro and upright bass rendition. Kauna Cronin’s Where Are You Tonight? offers a perspective from an Australian artist and considers the plight of those who don’t have a home to return to at Christmas. Where Are You Going Tonight? is a poignant reminder of the fact that not everyone views Christmas as a safe and special time. It’s by Paul Kamm with strong female vocal harmony. My Darling Clementine’s Lou Dalgleish wrote the song Miracle Mable  about her and husband Michael Weston King’s daughter. While it is not essentially a Christmas song but fits the theme well. The Spirit Of Christmas by Bob Cheevers is another recollection of the hard aspects of the time. Cheever sounds like Willie Nelson, as has been noted, but it works. An up-tempo take on her song Christmas Ain’t Christmas makes Fayssoux’s recording of this song with Joe Bennett & The Sparkletones a rockabilly roots (snow) ride. This Christmas is a more positive outlook and a groove with the three main members of The Refugees delivering a harmony laden vocal. Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland and Wendy Waldman are the aforementioned vocalists. There’s a nifty riff from Phil Hurley to help move things along too. Jack Tempchin offers a more conventional ballad with Christmas All Year Round. The title track is the closing songs from Citizen K. It starts out slow but gathers pace and ends the album on a positive message.

As with any compilation based on a particular theme there are 18 artists that offer their individual take on the mixed feelings on this festive, fulsome time of the year; so there’s bound to be something here to make you think and for you to enjoy.