Reviews by Paul McGee

The Mulligan Brothers Songs For The Living and Otherwise Southern Routes

Studio outing number three for this talented band of musicians from Mobile, Alabama. The first two records were very well received and built up their reputation as musicians of some substance, both in the studio and playing in a live setting. The original line up lost an influential member when Gram Rea (fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and vocals) left for family reasons but the remaining core of Ross Newell (lead vocals, guitar, and song writing); Ben Leininger (bass and vocals) and Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals) continued to look to the future and added a suitably different talent with Melody Duncan joining on fiddle, vocals and piano in 2016. The Female perspective adds a broader colour and nuance on vocals and playing style. 

This record is something of a departure with the writing casting a wider net into the areas of rock and blues. Newell is a fine writer and his eye for a couplet is as finely honed as ever. The opening song, The Deal, is a love song that does not mention the old clichés at all and all the better for it!

Possession In G Minor is a clever ditty about the eternal everlasting search of the Devil for new, lonely and vulnerable souls, while I Need To Get Out talks about new beginnings and creating distance with the past. Divine Design is about a relationship that is out of kilter where one party is an emotional bully taking the other for granted.

I Know That Man is a story song about sweet revenge in an abusive relationship. Ghost Town rues the price paid for ‘progress’ and the choking of so many small towns across America while Not That Way talks about suicide and the confusion it leaves in the hearts and minds of those left behind.  

The tour bus gets a song also with the excellent Roseanne, destined to be a favourite of audiences on tour, and a clever juxtaposition of groupie and road wagon! Great Grandaddy’s War talks about old attitudes and entrenchment forged from the Civil War years and a limiting attitude that change can only be a bad thing. It challenges and questions those who choose sides with a blind rage and self-righteous conviction. Duncan has a song included also with the sombre message of The Basement and the power of the deceased to invade our memories and thoughts.

The playing is superb throughout, the harmony vocals are a joy, while the lead vocal of Ross Newell is both sweet and warm to the ear. Arrangements stray from the simple Country/Roots formula to include new colours, under the familiar guise of well-crafted songs and performance. A real keeper.

The Mulligan Brothers Live From The Netherlands Southern Routes

This 13-song set is taken from a tour of the Netherlands in 2017. My copy has no information to suggest that a number of different nights and venues were included in the recording. Indeed, the muted crowd response and the lack of between song communication leaves the listening experience just a little sterile. What can be in no doubt however is the quality of musicianship that exists within this collective. On the back of two critically acclaimed studio records this ensemble has been stretching out into Europe in search of a wider network of admirers and with their quality they will have little difficulty achieving their goals.

Ross Newell (lead vocals, guitar, and song writing); Ben Leininger (bass and vocals), Greg DeLuca (drums and vocals) and Melody Duncan (fiddle, piano & vocals) deliver on all fronts with an engaging, easy charm in the song arrangements and vocal harmonies that augment the tight playing of all four musicians. 

Ross Newell is the creative source in the band and writes all their songs. His voice is very mellow and sweet, with the occasional sense of the timbre of Dave Matthews in the delivery. His words are well crafted and composed with both care and confidence into some real gems. Cecilia is a story song from the Plantation times and tells of a tragic love that results in a walking ghost. Calamine is another story song, this time dealing with murder on the run, while the wonderful Thrift Store Suitcase looks at second chances, living with regrets and leaving the past behind.

The surprise is that included on this live set are a total of six cover versions – quite a number when all one wants to hear is some more of the band’s original material. I do believe that a deluxe edition exists with an additional 12 tracks, but the inclusion of six cover songs, however good, on this single disc is somewhat unbalanced to say the least. 

Of the covers, we are given Stephen Stills, Townes Van Zandt, Grateful Dead, Thomas Dolby, The Steeldrivers and The Civil Wars. Some work better than others, given the Mulligan Brothers treatment, but the Thomas Dolby song I Love You Goodbye steals it for me with a superb arrangement and highlighted by the excellent fiddle playing of Melody Duncan.

The band are such a tight unit with Greg Deluca and Ben Leininger providing the understated rhythm for both Duncan and Newell to play between the lines. Well worth having in your collection but perhaps opt for the deluxe version to get even more of this great band in a live context.

Ben Bostick Hellfire Simply Fantastic

Any musician who saves his busking money in order to record a debut EP has my unwavering respect. This talented musician released his full debut record the following year and now we have his next project, as momentum builds towards World domination. Now based in Southern California, the co-production on this release is shared by Bostick and John Would (Warren Zevon) and there is quite an influence of the departed genius in the songs included here. 

Bostick has a wicked & wry sense of looking at things and amidst a gumbo of Country, Rockabilly, Blues and Rock we are treated to plenty of drinkin’, hard partying on Saturday nights, lustful love flings, poor boy messes and just downright bitter and mean men - loners set to do you harm.

Titles such as The Other Side Of Wrong, How Much Lower Can I Go, Feeling Mean, Blow Off Some Steam and The Outsider give a very strong flavour of what is involved in the grooves here.

We have a Johnny Cash vibe on the cool, drinkin’ rockabilly of the title track. No Show Blues has the writer skipping out on his wedding day, while Work, Sleep, Repeat gives a sense of what he escaped from as the debts pile up and the feeling of living a trapped life starts seeping in.

Excellent band in Kyle Lalone (lead guitar, vocals), Luke Miller (piano, organ), Perry Morris (drums, percussion), Cory Tramontelli (bass) and Bostick on rhythm guitar, harmonica and lead vocals. Just go out and buy it…!  

Lucia Comnes Held In The Arms Delfina

Based in San Francisco, this musician plays fiddle and sings songs in an Americana, Folk, Roots idiom. She has studied with many fiddle masters in the U.S. and Ireland. She also attended the Traditional Irish Music Program at University College, Cork, to study spoken Gaelic and sean-nos, or “old-style,” singing. Add to this a deep interest in Balkan/Eastern European folk music and a picture emerges of a dedicated artist to her craft. Simple arrangements, a sweet voice and understated playing.

All songs are written by Comnes with four co-writes and the production, by both her and fellow (multi-instrumental) musician Gawain Mathews, is uncluttered and bright. Songs about a celebration of rural life (On The Farm, Winter In The Mountains), join with a nostalgia for home and family values, (The Sleeping Lady’s Daughter, Matilde, Song For Mama) childhood and best friends (Mirabelle), loyalty, love and understanding (Good Hands, I’m With You, Morning Star), while a sibling in trouble is the context for Side By Side. A very pleasant listen.

Son Of The Velvet Rat The Late Show Fluff & Gravy/Mint 400 

Eleven songs recorded live at three separate venues in Austria and America and featuring husband-and-wife team Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, who are the core of this band that has been producing music since 2004.

Having built quite a profile in their native Austria, they relocated to Joshua Tree in California’s Mojave Desert in 2013 and have continued to follow their vision of what can be described as reflective resonance...                                                         

Their last release, Dorado, was a brooding atmospheric work of dishevelled beauty, ragged in all the right places but shining with a certain light. The vocals of Georg are lived-in and winking at a secretly held knowledge that informs his writing. Heike gently harmonises to add sweet to the sour and reminds in parts of the stripped back Cowboy Junkie arrangements circa the Trinity Sessions. There is a fragile beauty in the songs and the simple acoustic strum of Little Flower plays against the up-tempo groove of Surfer Joe, while a Nick Cave ghost haunts the arrangement on Do You Love Me?

Sweet Angela allows the band to stretch into a Neil Young work-out vibe while the meditative, slow-burn quality of Copper Hill is closer to the core of this band’s interesting sound. Well worth further investigation. 

Vinny Clohisey Pistolero Self Release

This release by Irish musician Vinny Clohisey seems to have been in the works for a few years now. The very scant information says it was recorded in 2016 at Floodplain Studios in Clontarf but some internet searching shows that the actual release is this year, 2018. 

There is no list of credits to the musicians who play on the 11 songs which is unusual, given that the promo copy I received has a colourful insert with full lyrics. This booklet also states that “the songs on this cd predate those on my 2015 EP”. Hmmm…!

In any event, here it is – an independently created project that seems to have had its spiritual home in the regular sessions at Darkey Kelly’s, The Lord Edward and various Folk clubs in and around Dublin City. The playing is very consistent throughout and a number of the songs stand-out, like the two instrumentals Sevilla and An Turas go dti An Talamh Naofa (The Journey to The Holy Land) for all our International readers.

The vocals are not quite so consistent and something of an acquired taste on some of the songs. However, this is a small observation and the pleasure in songs such as Pistolero, There’s Good Out There, Spailpin’s Song and Southern Ways, far outweighs any perceived pain. Kudos to all concerned.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Clay Parker and Jodi Jones The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound Electric Wreck

 Less than thirty seconds into the first track on this album, and you could be forgiven for assuming that The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound was an album of Gillian Welch outtakes and rarities. In fact, without the album cover in hand you would be convinced it was. Jones’ vocals have that sweetness and purity possessed by Welch and the guitar work is reminiscent of the sounds Dave Rawlings creates. The album as a whole retains this Welch/Rawlings feel throughout, but rather than dismissing it as copycat the focus should dwell on the quality of their harmonies, the playing in general and the songs, which stand on their own two feet. That opener Easy Breeze is aptly titled - airy, carefree and simply lovely on the ear. Remember It All and Down To The Garden travel similar paths, with shared lead harmonies by Parker and James, both laid back and as relaxed as J.J. Cale at his most untroubled. The lead vocal is taken by James on Katie’s Blues, a tale of release and liberation and the gorgeous country waltz Every New Sky contains some heavenly pedal steel breaks, courtesy of Paul Buller who also plays guitar and mandolin on the album.

It’s not a short album either, requiring over fifty minutes of your time over the ten tracks. The tour de force is without doubt the closing epic track Killin’ Floor. It delivers over twelve minutes of stripped back to the bare bone harmony vocals, only accompanied by acoustic guitar.  Shades of I Dream A Highway, the closer of Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) perhaps, but a beautifully spellbinding closer nonetheless.

Having abandoned solo careers to work as a duo, Parker and Jones discovered at an early stage that their ability to co-write far outweighed their talent for writing individually. Recording the album in both their hometown of Baton Rouge in Louisiana and at The Bakery Sound Studio in Nashville on a near zero budget, Parker admits that most of the people who worked on the album did so for little or nothing, simply because they believed in the duo. It’s an admirable sentiment and quite credible, given the quality of the end product which hopefully will garner them exposure to a wider audience. So impressed was actor and film director Ethan Hawke when encountering the duo at a casual neighborhood show, that he cast them in his recently released film Blaze.

The methods that they have adopted to develop a following are equally old timey, focusing on endless tours across Southern towns in the US and building their fan base on the strength of their live shows, without an over reliance on social media. Perhaps this is the reason the album took a while to surface. They have been performing as a duo since 2009 and have no doubt won the hearts and souls of many - not surprising given the calibre of this album.

Granted the album title can be a tongue twister - taken from the Woody Guthrie lyrics from When The Curfew Blows ("Was the lonesomest sound boys, that ever heard boys, like a midnight wind boys, when the curfew blows") – but the quality of the material is of the highest standard over the ten tracks that explore old time folk and country. If old timey is your thing, you really need to hear this album.

Folk Soul Revival Self-Titled Self Release

The band’s title could be extended to folk, soul, bluegrass, rockabilly and country revival, given the amount of ground the Virginian quintet cover on their self-titled album. Believe me, there’s every bit as much country music as there is folk and soul on offer here. Very much a touring band, with ten years on the road at this stage and knocking out over a hundred shows a year.  Folk Soul Revival have shared stages with Old Crow Medicine Show, Dr.Ralph Stanley and Jason Isbell to name a few and their musical contributions and harmonies on the album point to a road seasoned act. The opener Other Side is an ‘in your face’ belter, before they settle into some dreamy country ballads such as Losing Kind, Small Town and the closing track Willin’. Honey Do raises the temperature with toe tapping rhythm and some killer guitar work and Horrible Girl is no frills traditional honky tonk. Dance With Me, a wonderful country ballad, features the honeyed vocals of Leah Blevins.

Folk Soul Revival are Daniel Davis and Justin Venable, both on vocals and guitar, Brandon Sturgill on bass, Chad Light on guitars, pedal steel and banjo and Justin Louthian on vocals and drums. Recorded at Ten 4 Recording in East Nashville and produced by Grammy Award winner Chad Brown (Robert Plant, Jim Lauderdale, Ryan Adams, Patty Griffin), the album looks backwards, forwards and sideways, with real tales of heartbreak, mundane nine to five back breaking jobs, the joy of small town living, and flirty women.  Lovers of the band Western Centuries will lap this up. 

Jeremy Nail Live Oak Open Nine

My Mountain, recorded in 2016 by Jeremy Nail and produced by Alejandro Escovedo, was written by Nail while recovering from cancer, which had resulted in the amputation of his left leg. Live Oak, in many ways, is a celebration of the ability to not only survive, but to blossom in the face of adversity. The title’s inspiration comes from a six hundred-year-old Treaty oak tree in Austin, Texas, which survived a poisoning attempt in 1989 and still stands as proudly as ever, mirroring Nail’s own continuation.

Co-produced by Nail and drummer Pat Manske at The Zone in Dripping Springs Texas, the overriding feel the album creates is one of absolute calmness and tranquillity across the ten tracks. Credit must go to the pair for the quality of the production and the choice of instrumentation. It’s stripped back in the main, placing Nail’s vocals out front but also showcasing some superb playing, particularly Jeremy Menking’s guitar and lap steel playing. 

The title track Live Oak is a celebration of resurgence, durability and recovery ("light and water make it grow, gathered on the branches the birds build their nest, dead leaves falling underneath as I come back new again, strong as a live oak"). Abiquiu reflects on both loveliness and despair - inspired while driving through the New Mexico town where both desolation and beauty exist side by side, an all too common feature of many American towns and cities. Like so much of the album, it is unhurried and patient, with Nail’s vocals clear and tranquil alongside some fine guitar playing. Other Side Of Time and Hope and Fear follow a similar path, the latter uncluttered and dreamy, all the better for the addition of trumpet by Shane Pitsch. Even more laid back, if that is possible, is the gorgeous So Long, Yesterday, the album’s stand out track. A tale of loss, tragedy and possibly recovery, it includes striking backing vocals from L.A. singer songwriter Shannon Brackett and moody lap steel from Jeremy Menking. Till’ Kingdom Come, the closing track, is a reflection on both Nail’s personal survival and on those who did not make it to the other side ("from a body ridden with disease, to this new life I live and breathe, to the ones that did not survive, I wish we could have had more time").

Nail’s previous album My Mountain featured in the main material that catalogued pain, loss, suffering and survival. Live Oak, on the other hand, is an album that celebrates recovery and endurance, written very much in the present and is another exquisite album from the Texan songwriter. 

Rhyan Sinclair Barnstormer Little Haunted Girl

Still only in her late teens, Rhyan Sinclair’s debut solo album finds the Kentucky born singer abandoning her more rocky sound as lead person in All the Little Pieces, the band she formed at the age of eleven. Barnstormer finds her exploring her country roots and very successfully it has to be said. She has not approached the challenge half-heartedly either, engaging the talents of Jason Groves (who recorded three other albums with Sinclair in previous projects) and Sean Giovanni to co-produce with her and also calling on some crack players - Fats Kaplin, Toni Karpinski, Ross Holmes, Carl Miner, Eliza Mary Doyle, Lillie Mae and Jeff Binder - to contribute to the album. The recording stretches to nearly fifty minutes across fourteen tracks, twelve written by Sinclair and two co-writes, Kentucky Night Sky and the title track, with Toni Karpinski.

Primarily and to her credit, it is a country album in the true sense, avoiding the pop crossover direction of many of her young peers and all the better for it. From Here, the opener, is uncluttered, beautifully paced with dreamy pedal steel by Kaplin, the perfect companion to Sinclair’s sweet high-pitched vocals. Barnstormer, the title track, steps up a few gears, a lively jaunt with Carl Milner’s slick banjo playing and some ripping fiddle playing by Ross Holmes taking pride of place, alongside Sinclair’s silky vocals on this occasion. Few country albums exclude a weepie and The Sad Song ("gonna write a sad song and get it over"), ticks that box, stripped back and unhurried. Old Lost Town is small town reflections with nods towards Miranda Lambert and Brandy Clark. Retrograde does slip one foot into the pop camp, but the touching and gentle Cold Summer’s Day steers the ship back in the right direction, with Lillie Mae adding harmony vocals and fiddle. What Time Is It In California? is a country/soul/gospel fusion, which works spectacularly well, group vocals and hand claps included, a tale of wanderlust and itchy feet, before the album closes with the loose bluegrass sound of Free At Last

It remains to be seen if Barnstormer is simply a diversion for Sinclair, or if it implies a musical direction she intends pursuing. What can’t be denied is that it’s an exceptionally mature and professional undertaking from someone so young. Possibly a track or two could have been omitted but in the main the writing and singing is top drawer and the playing immaculate throughout. 

RJ Comer One Last Kiss  Growling Moon

The cover photo on RJ Comer’s One Last Kiss album depicts a vintage car ploughed into a tree on the side of the road, an image which could aptly refer to the singer songwriter’s early career. From singing in a church choir as a young boy, to addiction and homelessness as a young man, RJ Comer eventually conquered his demons and the Chicago-born troubadour subsequently relocated to rural Tennessee, where he currently resides with his wife and dog. Having dropped out of music school and abandoned his musical career, three decades passed before Comer finally turned his life around and won a scholarship to law school. To complete his rehabilitation, while performing with his band semi-professionally, he was signed by a record label.

One Last Kiss is Comer’s first full album having released two mini albums, Hell Hole Swamp in 2015 and Nightly Suicide in 2016. His rugged baritone vocals reflect a life well lived and perfectly suit the twelve country tinged blues tracks on the album. Recorded at Great Hill Productions and Slack Key Studios in Nashville, the production duties were undertaken by multi-instrumentalist Shawn Byrne, who also plays guitars, bass and mandolin on the album. Even with Comer’s vocals always upfront the quality of the playing shines through, Randy Kohr’s (Dolly Parton, Jim Lauderdale, Dierks Bentley) slide guitar is especially intoxicating on House Grown Cold and Desert Mama. The latter is a playful yarn about an LSD trip in the desert ("I can’t say that I’m sober, but I can say I ain’t been drinking, I see a snake swallow its tail and then it rolls away like a wheel"). Let’s Run is a simple ballad craving escapism from the nine to five rural grind and features Grand Olde Opry staff fiddler Eamon McLoughlin on top form. Under A Lover’s Moon is a confessional love song celebrating the writer’s contentment and fulfilment.

Treetop Flyers Self-Titled Loose Music

Winners of the Glastonbury Festival Talent Competition in 2011, Treetop Flyers self-titled release is their third recording following The Mountain Moves (2013) and Palomino (2016). 

The London based band are headed by founding member Reid Morrison and borrow their name from a Stephen Stills song, a heads up to their musical direction which blends late 60’s West Coast with folk and soul. Flea Drops, which opens the album, is a mellow instrumental followed by the soulful blues sound of Sweet Greens & Blues, which celebrates that unique Brit soul sound and includes saxophone courtesy of Geoff Thomas Widdowson, a member of their label mates Danny and The Champions of The World. The spacey psychedelic Kooky Clothes creates images of sun drenched outdoor festivals on the west Coast circa 1969. Astral Plane fits a similar bill, though very much to Morrison’s credit, delivered in his own accent rather that adopting an annoying American twang. Warning Bell revisits their distinctive UK soul sound and Art of Deception recalls early Traffic with its infectious groove and Steve Winwood sounding vocal. Closing the album as it opened with an instrumental, Door 14 bookends what is an impressive, tender and most listenable album.

Unlike their previous recordings, which took place in the main in their own London SOUP studios, this time they travelled to Stoke Newington and The Cube studio, and with quite basic equipment concentrated on making an album that reflected exactly where they were musically at that moment in time. A very good place by the sound of the end product.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Kate Vargas For The Wolfish & Wandering Little Maniac

First up you notice the voice that has a rasp to it that makes it distinctive and individual. She is a songwriter who has written or co-written all the songs on this her third album. Producer Charles Newman has gathered around her, in a Brooklyn studio, a set of players who don’t play safe with this engaging take on Americana. The percussionist Granville Mullings Jr is central to the sound, using an array of junkyard objects that add a quirkiness to the direction the songs take. 

Some songs immediately draw you in like Common Creep, a sharp critique of an aquaintance, with its memorable chorus of “you’re a creep, you’re a creep … just like me” - showing that Vargas doesn’t exclude herself from criticism when considering life, love and logic. But there are many moments on this album that make you realise that Vargas is an artist who is pushing the limits of her personal vision to create music that is not simple or easy but rewards engagement. Her blend of folk orientated storytelling is placed in the middle of a sonic stream that washes over her voice, adding a dream like (or nightmarish) take on her songs that draw on literary sources to create the wolfish world she wanders.                                                    

She can strip the song right back to voice and guitar on Madeline (a song about a troubled patient in an asylum). Then Come Join The Show is set into a heavier palate that suits the song’s sense of unease. The songs are drawn from a personal journey that may not reveal their meaning on first listen, but if not then the nature of the setting gives a strong hint of the elemental inspiration behind these tales. Her upbringing in New Mexico undoubtedly influence her sense of intrigue and interest in folklore and supernatural instincts.

Kate Vargas is a performer who is likely to gain a growing audience for her musical stories and her third album is well placed to achieve that. She offers something in her music that is magnetic, menacing and meaningful. 

Benjamin Jason Douglas First World Blues Flour Sack Cape

From the get-go it’s easy to fall in love with this album. Sure the comparisons in terms of voice and writing style are pretty obvious and you can name your own names. The music touches on several roots orientated bases but is blended, like an old whisky, into something with a touch of bluesy woodsmoke and nocturnal deadly nightshade. It was distilled by Joe Lekkas and a team of like minded local musicians who understood the mission. Lekkas is also a player here, along with Ryan Dishen on guitar and Erin Nelson on drums. This trio are fronted by Douglas who is very much the big man with the big presence here. He also wrote all the songs on the album aside from Lekkas’ Tchoupitoulas.

The songs are largely life experiences that stem from the personal and the observed. The lyrics are good and worthy of attention. In Raggedy Andy Williams, about a marriage break-up, he tells his other half “you can have the records and the player too, ‘cause I can’t hear them now without thinking of you.” Tentpole has a gospel feel that relates to the teller wanting to be a “tentpole in the big tent revival.” The song opens with the voice of a revivalist preacher before becoming a jaunty, uplifting spiritual (including a verse of Amazing Grace). Walking Down The Grain is a chillin’ tale of the devil taking his Daddy’s hand and walkin’ him down the grain. There is a weight to this song that is palpable in its subtle menace. Lighter, musically, at least is the acoustic Doc Red Blues with guitar and mandolin behind a heartfelt vocal from Douglas. Street Preacher has also a tender heart, as does the album closer Gloria. Both show a more restrained and reflective delivery that work to highlight Douglas’ overall vocal ability and power.

The ten songs on the album sound like they should be part of some atmospheric HBO series, something like Carnivale. The songs are cinematic in both content and in the playing. The four musicians have produced something special that funnily enough is not that far from some successful artists who are currently riding high in the charts. The vocals are slightly grittier but the potential is there. These First World Blues are first class.

Letitia Van Sant Out In The Studs Self Release

The latest album from Baltimore based Letitia Van Sant is a beautifully laid back recording with simple, sparse and effective production by Alex Lacquement that places Van Sant’s voice, itself a versatile instrument, front and centre. Associate producer Don Goodwin also engineered and mixed the album. The songs are all folkish tales other than the one cover, a timely version of Stephen Stills’ protest song For What It’s Worth. Here Dan Ryan plays electric guitar, Dan Samuels plays drums and Lacquement the bass. But again this is an understated performance that makes the point of the song more poignant.

Elsewhere there are contributions from other musicians including guitarist David McKindley-Ward, Patrick McAvinue on upright bass and Laura Wortman adds harmony vocals on a couple of tracks. Overall this a tight knit unit that underplays the songs without ever short changing them in a way similar to the Cowboy Junkies’ production values on their Trinity Sessions album. This album stands alongside that in similarly allowing space in the songs. The lyrics (reproduced in the accompanying booklet) are clear, as is Van Sant’s voice which is able to portray the emotion of the songs without ever over delivering.

Where I’m Bound, the first track on the album, in timeless folk style opens with the lines “As my mother lay dying she called me to her side …” Her mother then advises her to follow the compass of her heart. This is something that Van Sant does through the rest of the album. In The Field she allows that her “soul is a field where her love may grow.” Nature and environment are also underlying influences on her work.

Van Sant was involved in environmental advocacy before she won the Kerrville New Folk Song Writing Competition. Previous winners include Nanci Griffiths and Lucinda Williams, which is a testament to her writing skills. She has released two previous albums (one as part of a band) but in many ways considers this something of a debut. There have been comparisons to Courtney Marie Andrews and certainly that can be seen if one considers Andrew’s earlier work. But Van Sant is quite different in her overall approach at this point. She sings in the title song “Am I wrong to want what I want?” The answer is “no” and in this set of songs she has produced a work that many may also want, as it is a striking and effective album from an artist with the vision, voice and songs to stand out. 

Speedbuggy USA Kick Out The Twang Wagon Wheel

An album to warm the heart of anyone missing the raucous rakishness of cowpunk. Speedbuggy USA are back with a thirteen track album of hardcore twang that announces its affiliation with the seminal debut of the MC5 with a similar attitude of no compromise. Not that it is without its airier moments such as the opening cover of the Monkees The Last Train To Clarksville. Then it’s largely a mix of hell-for-leather devil-may-care moments that recall the likes of Jason And The Scorchers and The Beat Farmers .... bands who understood where they were coming from and where they were going - which is more than some of the “country” bands lost in Hair Metal do today.

Opening with a vocal chorus Get Around leads to a solid rockin’ workout, while the next song Shaky Town puts more emphasis on the country side of what they do, with some steel underscoring the sense of movement that is prevalent in many of the songs. Between those two points of twang and fang they display their clear ability as musicians. Timbo and Seth Von Paulus trade tasty guitar riffs throughout the album, also notable for the talents of Brady Sloan on bass, drummer Jamie Dawson and Gregg McMullen playing pedal steel. These guys kick-ass as they tell the stories of tortured minds, devils inside and returning from the road.        

But they can also handle recriminations and regret as they do on the ballad Sorry. Long Gone shows they can strip it back when needed, with mandolin taking the lead. Honky Tonk Singer is another slow paced reflection of a wasted life. The song is laced with pedal steel again adding to its sense of loneliness. The album’s second cover is the Bobby Sharp written Unchain My Heart, first recorded by Ray Charles and given a impassioned and (lost) soul inflected delivery here. All this shows that within their chosen field of vision Speedbuggy USA are adept at delivering some engaging music. They do so with energy, conviction and cussedness that shows that even after numerous releases this band is far from spent and making their best music to date. Long may they keep kicking out the twang.

Lyman Ellerman  I Wish I Was A Train Woodshed Resistance

The album opens with Bigger Plan that I find not unlike one of the better Dire Straits tracks. It is a good introduction into the Americana world of Lyman Ellerman, a singer songwriter who has been through a lot of pain during his life not least due to the death of his son. His son was a drug addict and Ellerman has turned that hard journey into a song. The Addict takes a hard look at how the condition can devastate the person caught in the web and all those around them. It was written by Ellerman and Larry Brake who added harmony vocals on the recording. It is given a bluesy reading with co-producer Jason Morgan adding some telling guitar on the track, as he does throughout the album. The album is essentially Ellerman and Morgan providing the music behind Ellerman’s expressive voice.

The album is balanced between the songs that are shrouded in dark thoughts and those which express light and hope. This is not Ellerman’s first album by a long stretch and he has honed his craft since he first picked up a guitar in his teens. He is joined by Jessica Dooley for Nobody Knows You (Like I Do) which finds both sides recognising the true nature of the other. Ditches tells that if you wander off road you may never get back on track. Because Of You again is a slow blues that conveys that the only reason to get up in the morning is because of her. Shinin’ On Elizabeth is a tribute to love and its redeeming powers. The Stranger is an atmospheric story song that has a cinematic quality with spoken voice, insistent drums and raging guitar. One More Drink is an acoustic take on another self destructive lifestyle. Here Comes Tomorrow closes the album with the possibilities of a new day and a new beginning with some upbeat guitar and a persistent vocal chorus “Here the good times, here comes tomorrow.” 

This album represents who Ellerman is at this time in his life - the Nashville based singer songwriter who through the years has tried to reflect in his writing some of the harder aspects of life and death (which has seen him lose a lot of those close to him). The end result is a record that deals with some of those issues but does so in a way that offers understanding and insight - something that is often in short supply in the mainstream music that graces the radio today. Time, perhaps, to get on board.

David Starr South And West Cedaredge

Though recorded in Nashville with a crew of local session players, including the renowned pedal steel and electric guitarist Dan Dugmore, David Starr’s latest album does not fit with the current mainstream output - rather it crosses into an number of areas including country, folk and 70’s country rock. Not that these songs are without accessibility. Maybe You’re Not The One feels like a song that you already know. Written by Starr and Robby Hecht it could easily be a hit in the hands of a major label artist. The songs stand up to repeated listening without ever feeling like total classics. Starr has written the majority of these songs on his own but also some with such notables as Irene Kelly. She also joins him on harmony vocals on their co-write Don’t Give Me Hope. Starr produced this album which recalls a past that is rooted in bands like Poco, The Eagles and others who played melodic flowing country rock.

The songs largely deal with relationships, many looking at what could have been and what still might be. Listen to Night Rolls Around, Love Won’t Make Itself or Good As Gone in which Starr consider these options. In Until It’s Gone he sings of breaking nine of the Ten Commandments, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks the tenth but he’s going his own path no matter what. If Nothing Changes takes a harder look at the direction society is taking in these days of fake news and fake attitudes. The lyrics have a certain poetic quality that sit with the overall musical setting.

There is one cover included which makes perfect sense of the overall mood and that is the Bernie Taupin/Elton John co-write Country Comfort. It fits as a reference point to a time when country music was neither traditional nor outright pop. As the title suggests, this albums brings together two places and times. David Starr lives in Colorado but also has a foothold in Nashville. The inspiration of birth places colours the overall mood - a mood that some will dismiss as not fitting with either the harder edged outlaw country movement or the more crossover pop/soft metal that dominates radio. That hardly matters for Starr who has made the album he wanted to.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Raven and Red We Rise Up Self Release

This Nashville based 5-piece release their debut album and the creative core of the band is Brittany Lynn Jones (lead vocal, violin, tenor guitar, mandolin & banjoin) and brothers Mitchell Lane (lead vocal, 6 & 12 string guitars) and Cole King (Mandolin). On this release they are ably joined by Paul Leech (electric & upright bass, cello) and Justin Collins (Drums, percussion). Excellent musicianship throughout and some superb harmony vocals. Plenty of highlights across 12 tracks that include Mirror To My Soul, It Could Have Been You, Moonshine and Makeup (One More Mistake), Grandpa’s Beer and We Rise Up

The stand out track is Wild Roses which also gets a reprise later in the song order, augmented by Winter Raven and World Traveller. Brittany weaves her 5-string violin through the melody lines with great skill and touch while the mandolin playing of Cole and guitar augmentation from Lane lead to a heady mix of Country, Folk and Bluegrass sounds that would lighten up any gathering of musical minds.

Cold Tone Harvest After You Copycats

What an impressive debut. This band is from Plymouth, Michigan and is comprised of Andrew Sigworth (acoustic guitar/vocals), Daniel Ozzie Andrews (acoustic bass/bass guitar/bass banjo), Brian Williams (drum/banjo) and Tony Pace (Dobro/lap steel/electric guitar).

Formed in 2008 and with a couple of EPs to their name, this full-length album is packed with terrific songs and some superb playing. All songs were written by Andrew Sigworth with the exception of Adeline, written by Anthony Price and a cover of Out On The Weekend by Neil Young. Adeline, Wake Me, Stealing Roots and Hold On all show different colours of this band and the trade-off is so engaging between restrained, slow tempo arrangement and full-on melody lines; equally compelling and measured.

Lap steel features throughout and lifts the song arrangements along with Sigworth, who has a particularly arresting vocal and his tone sits perfectly into the organic playing of the band as they trade off with lap steel, banjo, dobro and guitars, playing around the rhythm and tempo established by Ozzie Andrews and Brian Williams. 

They are not afraid to stretch their quintessentially country sound into new areas and the use of trumpet, tuba and trombone on a few of the later tracks is superbly judged as are the touches on violin/vocals (Erin Zindle), cello (Christina Furtado) and mandolin (Jay Lapp). There are additional guitar, keyboard & vocal parts from Chris Dupont and the 12 songs are uniformly impressive in their construction and delivery. One of the finds of 2018 without a doubt.

The Furious Seasons Now Residing Abroad Self Release

Based in Los Angeles, the contemporary folk sound of this trio is very rewarding and the playing is both understated and free-form with an easy, jazz-like groove. 

Davis Steinhart (acoustic guitar, percussion, vocals), Jeff Steinhart (bass, keyboards) and P.A. Nelson (acoustic, slide, resonator, high strung and electric guitars, vocals) produce a fine warm session across 13 tracks. 

The guitar work is very special and elevates the music on songs like Tethered, Fort Knox, The Muse, Marathon and Airtight display a mellow, gentle sound that is very appealing. Perfectly captured by the upright bass and fine guitar lines of So Sorry Adele on this, a sixth release that highlights their dedication to create clear, no frills melodies. Quietly contemplative and executed with grace and no little talent.        

 Seán Millar and Jon Sanchez It All Ends Tonight Self Release

Four tracks over sixteen minutes, the meeting of two minds and a lot of quality in the grooves. Séan Miller is well known in Irish music circles as an eclectic warrior of the bright and beautiful in song composition and creative thinking. Never one to shy away from a challenge, his career has taken him into the occasional cul de sac, but his bright light always finds a way home and guides him onto greater journeys. Here, he teams up with Jon Sanchez, one of the top guitar players in Texas who has played with, among others, Alejandro Escovedo and Rocky Erickson. It is a stripped down recording played live and produces music that is compelling with an acoustic rootsy feel to the arrangements.

Everyday’s A Holiday tells of a family dominated by an abusive Father, (street angel, house devil). There is a sense of liberation for the abused and downtrodden with the message that out of dark deeds, bright days can appear. The Gang is a reflection on being misunderstood and misjudged. Wayward youth looking for meaning. 

It All Ends Tonight speaks of loneliness and the need for intimacy. Bordering on the obsessive almost, in search of a dream? Like Jesus and Satan… Savage Pride is an anti-war protest song with the undercurrent of righteous indignation. Youth taken and hurled off the cliff like lemmings in a power play! 

Jon Sanchez plays electric guitars, piano and santur (hammered dulcimer). Seán Millar plays acoustic guitar, bass and sings. Daragh O’Toole plays organ. Recorded by Jon Sanchez and mixed by Daragh O’Toole, this is hopefully a teaser of more superb collaboration to follow… Watch this space?

Sugar Brown It’s A Blues World… Calling All Blues Self Release

Born in Ohio, moved to Chicago, this artist is authentic Blues at its best. Sugar Brown is back with a vengeance on his third release. Hummingbird kicks off with a tight rhythm, channelling the juke joint sound of the prohibition 20’s, barrelhouse piano adding to the magic created by electric guitar and baritone sax in the background. 

All songs are written by the man himself, although the second track, Love Me Twice, sounds just too close to BB King’s The Thrill Is Gone, for comfort. Hard to be truly original when it comes to the blues I know, but Sugar Brown always walks a tight line between innovative guitar playing and a nod to the past in aspiring towards a contemporary sound. The sweet tension created in Lousy Dime is reminiscent of a Tom Waits arrangement while the fiddle playing of Minnie Heart is very memorable. The shuffle in Sure As The Stars has a JJ Cale vibe running through the guitar playing with a ‘less-is-more’ groove. 

The title track is a slow burn with great piano and guitar parts as Sugar builds to a band coda. The acoustic blues of Hard To Love and Brothers bring out the preference of Sugar for analogue recording equipment and old microphones in what are timeless performances, as is the following track, Out Of The Frying Pan, which channels some of the great signature Blues sounds. The harmonica on What I Know and the front porch swing of Tide Blues are also a real joy. 

Not a weak track here and yet another testament to the talent on offer. If you want authentic blues, played in a traditional fashion, no frills, just great dynamic and skill, then look no further.

Lucky Bones Matchstick Men Self Release

The third release from Dublin singer song-writer, Eamonn O’Connor (aka Lucky Bones) and one that builds strongly on his reputation as an artist of real quality, who has been operating under the radar for a number of years now, but deserving of much greater recognition. The song arrangements are upbeat in tempo and reflect a band ethic rather than on previous releases which were more grounded in the familiar singer-songwriter tradition. 

Produced by Gavin Glass at Orphan Studios in Dublin, the playing is excellent throughout, dovetailing perfectly with the arrangements and melodies. The studio musicians are members of the Lucky Bones band; Conor Miley (guitars), Leon Kennedy (bass), Peter O’Grady (keyboards) & Binzer Brennan (drums). Gavin Glass also played on the project and the musicians add plenty of colour to the sensitive singing and words of Lucky Bones. I am sure that these songs would resonate equally well in a solo acoustic setting.  

The title track is written for Eamonn’s Father who passed away recently and it is a very poignant and heartfelt performance that sets a high standard for the rest of the album. Indeed, there is a sense of looking back at the years gone by and reflecting on lessons learned throughout. The sound channels Snow Patrol meets Del Amitri in places and the perspective of experience is never far away with a certain rueful melancholy running through the songs. 

The frustration and defeated stance of Neon Morgue give way to the hope and comfort of Home To You, with Ireland depicted as a long-missed girlfriend in a clever juxtaposition. These are mature insights into a life lived and the wistful vocals blend beautifully with the music on tracks like Gone and The Things That We Take In

The final song, The Walls, just nails it with a terrific arrangement that builds to a cathartic climax, a bare look at insecurity and sleepless anxiety; “Invent doubt, it’s all I ever do, Me, the walls, the moon”.

Such a fine release and well worth checking out.

The Needables Tales from the Fish Tank / Deep Down At The Bottom Of It All Self Release

Two Eps and a few years in-between. Met Floyd and Beat at a recent Birds of Chicago gig in Kilkenny, where they played support. What came across onstage was a pair of talented players having fun and producing a fine sound. They kindly gave me their music to listen to and review, after the show.

Funding a studio release is not for the faint hearted and this probably hints at why the band has preferred EPs to full-length albums thus far. Tales... first appeared in 2015 and includes 6 tracks that vary from the upbeat, good time sound of Bringing It Home and the easy swing of You Won’t Cry, to the slow strum of Oh Chicago and the reflective acoustic sound of It’s Better Forgetting The Things You’ve Done and Rainy Day Blues

Deep Down… appeared in 2017 and the unifying impression across both recordings is the excellent harmony vocals, coupled with guitar and mandolin, as these six songs continue to build upon the progress made by this talented duo. Baby I’m On My Way is a positive message and both Harder To Say Goodbye and These Dreams Of You are strong examples of song-writing that resonates after the songs have ended. Right Time has a good tempo and some great harmonica while closer, Guess It’s Better Late Than Not At All, slides along at a quiet pace and leaves you wanting... just one more. An act to watch out for.

Ashleigh Flynn & The Riveters  Home Perm     

This release marks a change of direction for an artist who grew up with bluegrass music and released a number of prior albums under the Americana/Folk banner. In the studio she again turns to old friend and collaborator Chris Funk (The Decemberists) who produced the project and recorded at the Halfling Studios, Portland, Oregon.

Ashleigh Flynn has turned to an all-female band, named The Riveters and they certainly kick up a storm with the dynamic guitar of Nancy Luca at its centre. Ashleigh contributes vocals/acoustic guitar and is aided by Nancy Luca on electric guitars, Carmen Paradise on bass, Jolie Clausen on drums, Jenny Conlee-Drizos plays organ/piano, Kathryn Claire on fiddle/backing vocals and Ara Lee backing vocals. 

The 10 songs are penned by Ashleigh with five co-writes, and a sound that switches between straight out Rock and Pop arrangements. The first six tracks hit hard with a sense of either The Runaways meet the Black Crows or the Stones giving Sheryl Crow a turn at the microphone.

The playing is very strong throughout with the guitar driven riff of This Love repeated on tracks like Cold Black Line and You Will Remember. The Pop sound of tracks like The Sound Of Bells, Too Close To The Sun and One Moment is replaced by the slow groove of Shrouded Sun and the influence of country roots returns on the final tracks with High On A Mountain and the standout Big Hat, No Cattle sealing the deal. So, a little scattered in direction but this is no rifle that Ashleigh is shooting; more like a shotgun aiming to hit as wide a target (audience) as possible. They sure seem to be having fun doing it too.

 

Reviews by Declan Culliton

 

 

Hadley McCall Thackston Self-Titled Wolfe Island

Every so often an album comes your way by an artist new to you that stops you dead in your tracks. This was very much the case, after a couple of spins, with Hadley McCall Thackston’s debut self-titled album. Comprising ten tracks and at marginally over thirty minutes, Thackston could have been tempted to include a few covers, or add a couple more choruses to a few of the shorter tracks to increase the length of the album. Fortunately, she declined, instead creating a body of work that is unconditionally her, warts and all, with lyrics which often carry personal messages.  It’s a beautifully written account of a young woman’s coming of age, with reflections on childhood, insecurity, adolescence, peer pressure, self-doubt and reconciliation.  

Thackston had intended packing her bags and moving from her hometown of Decatur Georgie to the bright lights of Nashville, in an attempt to establish her musical career. By happy chance Hugh Christopher Brown, of Wolfe Island Records, was introduced to her music by label mate David Corley and without delay redirected the Greyhound Bus from Nashville to Wolfe Island Ontario. The move was a meeting of minds, introducing Thackston to a musical family and environment perfectly suited to inspire her creativity. Much credit must go to Chris Brown for the uncluttered arrangements on the album, which complement Theakston’s gorgeous voice. The range of instruments used totals over twenty, from strings to guitars and accordion to ukuleles, an indication of Brown’s determination to make every track on the album shine individually, a task he passed with flying colours. The recording in the main took place at The Post Office in Wolfe Island Ontario with additional recordings at Sacred Heart of Mary Church also in Wolfe Island and at Broderick’s Music in Kilkenny, where Ger Moloney’s accordion pieces were recorded.

The word ‘timeless’ is possibly the most overused phrase in folk and country album reviews, but this album most certainly earns that banner. Thackston manages to blend old time country and folk, contemporary and even bits of jazz. Her vocals are from another world, with the ability to stretch one syllable words forever, she manages seven syllables on the word ‘God’ on the beautiful Redbird!

Her mellifluous vocals on the opener Butterfly considers the fragility of the young child growing up in a world of mixed messages and peer pressures (‘’and you are not afraid to fly wide pride, accepting all the joy your beauty brings’’).  Somehow, awash with divine pedal steel, fiddle and strings, fantasises about the dream lover yet to be met (‘’And on the day we finally meet I know we’ll fall in love, cuz you were put here on this earth for me from those above’’). Self-consciousness and insecurity surface on the melodically upbeat Ellipses, hitting a catchy groove that’s hard to shake off, as Thackston yearns for courtship (‘’ I’d take your sweet nothings for over diamonds any day, like the magpie who adorns her nest with treasures thrown away’’). She turns her attention to more worldly issues on the politically charged Change (‘’turn on the news and what do I see, another black man’s life cut short by the police’’). Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush) is traditional front porch country fare, complemented by lively fiddle playing by James Abrams and backing vocals by label mate Sarah Mc Dermott. Devil or Angel flawlessly blends folk with a quite jazzy vocal delivery. Last Mountain Waltz, the albums closer, returns to the front porch with a gentle tale of liberation and acceptance. It does not quite reach the two-minute mark but makes its point charmingly in four short verses.

Hadley McCall Thackston has created  an album that sounds like a June Carter and Amy Winehouse collaboration, written and recorded in heaven and communicated through a young artist whose vocals and poetry pay homage to both of these legends. 

Israel Nash Lifted Loose

Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, the classic 2011 release by Israel Nash Gripka, recorded in a dusty hay barn at The Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, singled out the young Ozarks Missouri born artist as one of the most promising emerging acts of that time, further reinforced by his dazzling live shows. The album ticked all the Americana boxes with Southern soul, blues, country and lots of attitude. The tracks Baltimore and Goodbye Ghost are as good as anything written under the Americana genre in the past decade. A victim of his own success  perhaps, Nash has failed somewhat to reach those lofty heights in subsequent recordings. Rain Plains (2013) and Silver Season (2015) followed, both receiving positive industry reviews, yet you could be forgiven for feeling that Israel Nash (he had dropped the Gripka by then), was avoiding risk taking with much of the material and sounding more and more like Neil Young & Crazy Horse on each recording.

Lifted, co-produced by Nash and Ted Young (Kurt Vile, The Rolling Stones), finds him in more experimental form and all the better for it.  Recorded in his custom-built studio named Plum Creek Sound in Dripping Springs Texas, its mix of layered vocals, horns, strings, guitars and percussion, combine to produce his most impressive work since Barn Doors. File under ‘Hippie Spiritual’, we are advised on the cover. With the ongoing turmoil of these uncertain and often depressing times, when all normal political and environmental logic is turned on its head, Nash has, by his own admission, has moulded an album ‘about love and peace and purpose, creating a space for those feelings and personal reflections to manifest’.

So does it all work? The answer has to be spectacularly so. The material was created by Nash from first principals, word by word, note by note, layer by layer, with Nash even utilising outdoor sounds of frogs, crickets, rattlesnakes and running water.  Rolling On (Intro) kicks the album off with  sixty seconds of a layered sound collage before exploding into the track itself, setting the scene for what is to follow. Spiritfalls sounds like a song you’ve grown up listening to, echoes of Neil Young minus Crazy Horse, it’s beautifully paced and decorated with some great guitar breaks. Northwest Stars (Out Of Tacoma) must have been composed outdoors staring skywards, you can almost feel the cool night mist amongst its dreamy, hypnotic textures. Strong Was The Night and Looking Glass are reminders of Nash’s ability to also create the less swashbuckling and melodic, both being simple yet spacious ballads. The Widow, (is that the crickets I hear in the background?) dips and soars gloriously, Beach Boys quality harmonies beautifully dominating – the majority of the harmonies were created by Nash himself – a wall of sound with sparring harmonies, synths and dubbed over voices, combining without ever competing. Sweet Springs also recalls The Beach Boys with harmonies that would not have been out of place on Pet Sounds. Golden Fleeces threatens to bookend the album on a more sombre and gentle note, before unexpectedly erupting into chorus and continuing to dip and soar beautifully.

Make no mistake, it’s not an album that fully sinks in on first listen, there’s so much going on that repeated plays are required – on headphones ideally – to take on board the musical textures, gorgeous harmonies, bells, whistles, strings, horns and more. Nash was always going to eventually equal the dizzy heights of Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, it’s taken him a while but with Lifted he has finally nailed it.

Mike And The Moonpies Steak Night at the Prairie Rose Self Release

If ever an album title and its cover left you in no doubt what to expect when you pop the cd in your player, this nugget from Austin Texas bad boys most certainly does. Six dudes chewing the fat outside a Texas honky tonk bar, with a blazing trail of fire following lead man Mike Harmeir, as he strolls across the dirt track street. It captures the album’s content perfectly, the material itself being a blazing trail of rip roaring country music Texas style.  Formed by Harmeier in 2007, it’s the fifth album by the Austin based Outlaw Country six-piece band, that also includes Preston Rhone on bass, Kyle Ponder on drums, Zachary Moulton on pedal steel, Catlin Rutherford on guitar and John Carbone on keys. They are essentially a touring band, knocking out close to two hundred shows a year, mostly around Texas and Oklahoma. 

Barely over a minute into opener Road Crew and you get the message, rollicking pedal steel, guitars and keys kick in over Harmeir’s mischievous rantings (‘’ he sells the shirts he drives the van, he’s counting money with a left arm tan, he’s a rambler gambler he just quit drinkin’ and he’s on the road crew tonight’’). Might Be Wrong recalls early Mavericks, Beaches of Biloxi’s rhythm is borrowed from Elvis’s Suspicious Mind and Getting High at Home is classic Texan honky tonk, great playing and equally sassy lyrics (‘’I still put my boots on and ask the girls to dance, but now I spend a lot more time wearing sneakers and old sweat pants’’). Wedding Band and The Worst Thing track are no nonsense straight country and the title track (based on a Houston bar where Harmeir got a residency when in his teens), is a heartfelt ballad of a broken marriage and misspent youth, as the writer recalls childhood memories of sitting in the bar with his father listening to country cover bands. 

Produced by Adam Odor (Reckless Kelly, Cody Canada, Raul Malo, Ben Harper), it was recorded in only five days at The Yellow Dog Studio in Wimberley Texas. 

It’s likely that Mike and The Moonpies will remain a working live band, surviving by packing up the van and travelling the length and breadth of Texas and Oklahoma, possibly without establishing a foot hold elsewhere. Maybe this album will break new ground for them, maybe not, it certainly deserves to. In the meantime, this, for me, is real country music by real country players. Don’t expect to spend endless hours pouring over the lyrics, regaling as they are.  Instead just crank it up and navigate some rip roaring, badass, no nonsense, dive bar country music. File beside Dallas Moore, Whitey Morgan, Reckless Kelly, Whiskeydick and Jamey Johnson.   

Sons Of Bill ‘OH GOD MA’AM’ Loose Records

Four years after the release of their last and fifth album Love And Logic, the Charlottesville Virginia band Sons Of Bill, have finally managed to release their eagerly awaited follow up. Plagued by personal issues, which included marriage breakdowns and addictions, the band – which features brothers Sam, Abe and James Wilson – overcame those setbacks and were in the studio recording the album, when James fell on glass, severing five tendons in his right hand, an injury that threatened to leave him without any movement in his fingers.  Fortunately, after a long period of recuperation, he regained the use of all fingers and the album could be completed.

Tragedy often leads to inspiration and all these wretched events contribute to a change in direction for the band, both musically and lyrically. Recorded in both Nashville and Seattle with producers Sean Sullivan (Sturgill Simpson) and Phil Eek (Shins, Fleet Foxes), the album experiments with a fuller and more expansive sound, without abandoning their trademark striking vocal harmonies. The album was mixed by Grammy Award winning producer Peter Katis, who leaves his stamp firmly on it, with a sound that often brings to mind early work by The National. No coincidence, as Katis has worked on seven of The National’s albums, contributing in no small manner to their distinctive sound. 

The opening track Sweeter, Sadder, Farther Away contains only keyboard and vocals, a reflection of more innocent times perhaps, very much the calm before the storm.  Firebird ’85, the next track, takes off in a completely different direction with a heavy drum beat, some slick hooks and crisp harmonies. The intro to Believer / Pretender wouldn’t be out of place on an early New Order album, but like its predecessor quickly settles into an infectious power poppy groove. Green To Blue, the most uncluttered track on the album, has an earthy Pink Floyd sound to it and competes with Before The Fall as the standout track on the album. Easier finds them slipping back into cruising gear with a sound more in keeping with the work on their earlier albums. 

Despite recording five quality albums to date and having praised heaped on them by their peers, a deserved breakthrough has escaped Sons of Bill to date.  Hints at a change in direction did surface on their last album Logic and Love with Bad Dancer implying a more indie and less countrified direction. OH God Ma’am is a brave move, with more in common with New Order and Echo and The Bunnymen than Son Volt and possibly aimed at a wider audience. It may be a general change in direction or simply a temporary detour. Either way, it’s another great album by a band that should be shifting albums by the lorry load.

Martha Fields Dancing Shadows Self Release

Hot on the heels of her 2017 recording Southern White Lies, Martha Field’s latest album Dancing Shadows maintains her prolific output of recent years. Whether it’s country, folk, blues, Tex Mex or rockabilly that tickles your fancy, there really is something for all tastes in this strikingly packaged gem. 

It kicks off with the bluesy Sukey and tails off with the breezy Lone Wolf Waltz, fourteen tracks and over fifty-five minutes later. Recorded at Studio Recordoval in Chateauneuf – Sur – Charante France, it features musicianship that could hardly be bettered by the cream of Nashville session players. The musicians are in fact her European touring band, made up of Ubain Lambert on guitars, Serge Samyn on upright bass, Oliver Leclerc on violin, Danis Bielsa on drums, Manu Bertrand on dobro, pedal steel and banjo with Manu Godard and Vincent Samyn adding organ and piano respectively. Collectively these guys provide the ammunition to bring Field’s suite of songs to life and combine perfectly with her potent vocals across the fourteen tracks. ‘’14 songs that tell my story, past and present, through the mountains and valleys’’, she explains in the liner notes and it’s fair to say she pours her heart out from start to finish.

Not surprisingly, given her itchy feet – she seems to be constantly on the move – quite a few tracks are travel related. The burning desire to play Ireland is the theme on Exile and Paris to Texas – the first single to be released from the album – laments the distance between her two homes.  West Virginia In My Bones, delivered with maximum twang, pays homage to the lands of her childhood where she vows to return (‘’when I die bring me home, West Virginia in my bones’’) and the gentle ballad Oklahoma On My Mind aches with regret, possibly of love lost. Last Train to Sanesville and Hillbilly Bob are pacey toe tappers rocking along late 50’s Elvis style.

In a nutshell, Dancing Shadows is a fun album that is every bit as much Saturday night as Sunday morning listening, by an artist passionate about her art. Lets hope she makes that trip to Ireland, I’d expect she and her band are killer live! 

Ben Glover Shorebound Proper 

Recognising that the local market could not offer him a sustainable career from his hometown of Glenarm Ballymena, Ben Glover headed for Nashville a few  years ago where he has established himself as a highly respected songwriter, working with artists such as Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Neilson Hubbard. His songwriting talents were recognised in 2017, at the highest level, when The Americana Music Association voted his co-write with Gretchen Peters Blackbirds International Song of The Year.

Indeed the move has been a transformation for Glover, who now divides his time between Ireland and Nashville, co-writing, collaborating, and recording solo albums and working with his latest band Orphan Brigade, whose album Heart Of The Cave was recorded earlier this year.  His work on both sides of the Atlantic is reflected on Shorebound, which includes contributions from American’s Amy Speace, Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Mary Gauthier, Neilson Hubbard and Angel Snow together with Robert Vincent, Ricky Ross (Deacon Blue) from the U.K., with Irish artists Malojian (Steve Scullion), Matt McGinn and Anthony Toner also featuring.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard – he also features on Song for the Fighting – the album offers twelve songs, ten co-writes with the guests noted above, with two solo tracks also featured, the title track and Kindness. What You Love Will Break Your Heart opens the album in fine style, an upbeat poppy sound featuring Amy Speace on backing vocals, contrasting in style and content with the darker brooding semi spoken Catbird Seat, co-written with Mary Gauthier. Dancing With The Beast, the next track, was also recorded earlier this year by Gretchen Peters and is the title of her most recent album, it follows a similar menacing and grim style and is every bit as impressive as the Peter’s version. Northern Stars, which finds Glover teaming up with fellow countrymen Malojian (Stephen Scullion) and Matt Mc Ginn, is instantly catchy. Keeper Of My Heart, which bookends the album, is a gorgeous love song, possibly the albums stand out track, with Glover’s and Robert Vincent’s vocals perfectly matched.   

Glover’s previous two albums The Emigrant (2016) and Atlantic (2014), suggested an artist not quite convinced  where he should reside, both geographically and artistically. Shorebound is the work of an artist content, assured and very much at peace with himself.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Truckstop Confidential Fool’s Rodeo Self Release

This alt-country band from Atlanta, Georgia capture the spirit of what they do on their second release which follows their debut ep The Secret Is Out from 2016. This band is made up of veteran players from the local music scene. Their lead guitarist also has studio experience and he engineered and produced the album, which features a selection of 9 band compositions and shows that they have a knack for taking traditional country influences and giving them a little spit and polish. The band also includes Steven Hicks on vocals and guitar, Linda Dixon on keyboards and the solid rhythm section of Cris McAvoy and Brooks Robinson. For the album they are ably augmented by Kurt Baumer on fiddle, the slide guitar of John Ferguson and pedal steel player Steve Stone. 

Everything is in place for a good night out (or in) without ever feeling that band are about to change your perception of country music. This is down-to-earth roots music that is a group effort and displays the members individual talents. The songs are not without a cheeky sense of humour. The opening Binge Watching takes the action of spending hours focused on one subject - in this case a girl! The title track has a good chorus that makes it one of the catchier songs on the album, a song about movin’ on and burning bridges. The ballad Angels Appear uses the pedal steel to enhance the overall slightly downbeat mood. Big Time is built around a slide guitar and an expression of right place, right time. Camille has a classic feel that reminded me of a song I can’t quite place right now but was none-the-less enjoyable. More alt in approach is Something About A Train which has a requisite sense of movement in both lyric and structure. The album ends with an up-tempo call out that kicks up the dust and has some fine twanging lead guitar and piano to drive the album and song to its conclusion.

Truckstop Confidential are likely to be prominent in the live roots scene in Atlanta and their home State. They have the chops to deliver their songs with confidence and clarity. They are one of many regional bands who have deservedly gained a reputation without ever really gaining notice beyond their home turf. However this album seems to be on all the streaming platforms and is worth checking out at the very least. 

John Lilly State Songs Self Release

A thoroughly enjoyable release from the talented Mr. Lilly. His albums have always been made with heart and soul and this album is no exception. Lilly has written 12 songs, each about a different State and given an individual musical flavour to each track that relates to the musical heritage of the State in question. This makes for an album full of variety and texture that is given focus by Lilly’s engaging voice and the sheer enjoyability of the contributions of his accompanying players who are excellent throughout. 

Lilly wrote all the songs (bar an arrangement of one and a musical quote in another) as well as acting as executive producer with fellow producers Tommy Detamore, Charlie Barnett and Joel Savoy. They have gathered a section of some of the finest players around them including all three producers, alongside names like Floyd Domino, Tom Lewis, Bobby Flores, Ric Ramirez, Sonny Landreth and Brennen Leigh, among others. Pedal steel guitar, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, tuba and euphonium are among the instruments that add sonic texture to his odes to the individual States featured. Which in the spirit of Johnny Cash are: Maine, Texas, Oregon, Mississippi, Arizona, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Wyoming, Louisiana, Idaho and West Virginia.

As with any such album, some tracks stand out initially more than others - though the album as a whole works as a musical journey - so Nothing Short Of Texas captures the mood of 40’s Western Swing, In My Dreams Of Oregan has great harmony vocals from Lilly and Leigh, as does the waltz New Arizona Waltz. Gotta Go To North Dakota benefits from some sterling slide guitar work from Landreth and West Virginia Hills as a great period mood with a strong layered vocal chorus. Goodbye To Idaho also works in its stripped back setting of just Lilly's voice and his guitar.

This is an album that should be loved by anyone who likes well-played, well-crafted songs that are rooted in traditional modes and are as relevant to a listener today as back some 70 years ago. In other words, timeless.

Blue Yonder Rough And Ready Heart New Song

As well as releasing albums under his own name John Lilly is also a member of Blue Yonder, a band that plays on Tuesday nights in a venue, Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia. The band are Lilly, electric guitarist Robert Shafer and bassist Will Carter. On this recording, to fill the sound out in the studio, they are joined by Tony Creasman on drums, Russ Hicks on pedal steel and John Cloyd Miller and Gar Ragland on harmony vocals. The latter also produced and mixed the album which was recorded in Asheville, North Carolina.

Again this is another set of Lilly’s original songs which deal in the complexities and simplicities of human relationships. With life, love, losing, loneliness and long roads ahead. These are all songs that are fixed on a dial that shifts between classic country, swing, folk with touches of rockabilly and blues. The songs are testament to the themes that are reflected in the titles like Standing By The Side Of The Road, Green Light, You Can’t Get There From Here, Tombstone Charlie, Rough and Ready Heart, Lonely Hour and Well Acquainted With The Blues.

As with all Lilly’s song writing there are some memorable songs in this set that again makes it an enjoyable and lasting listening experience. Nothing here is going to change your attitude to classic country overtones of the Americana music that is the Blue Yonder remit. Rather, this is a solid, simple realisation of the music that inspired and continues to enthuse Blue Yonder and their weekly audience, as well as those who have encountered their music in recorded form. One listen to a song like Lonely Hour will tell you all you need to know about the quality that these guys deliver. It is heartfelt and human with an eye on a heritage where music was an important part of a lot of peoples lives. It is just that for these musicians and those who hearts are in the right place to enjoy it. 

Luke Tuchscherer Pieces Clubhouse 

The  new album from the English, New York based singer/songwriter has by all accounts taken a turn towards the harder, rocker end of the Americana spectrum - that may well appeal to those who favour the rockier moments of Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Springsteen. Not that Tuchscherer sounds directly like any of these it is rather the attitude he exhibits here. Perhaps best exemplified by The MF Blues - no prizes for guessing what the MF stands for! - a hard driving guitar laden rock-out that suits the title. More in keeping with his previous albums and roots oriented direction is Ain’t That What they Say? a song that benefits from a startling vocal, a memorable chorus and a dynamic that builds with the song. Tuchscherer can also deliver a slow song that is appropriately regretful in mood with harmonica and keyboards adding to the melancholy.

A former member of rock band The Whybirds he took a turn towards Americana on previous albums but here returns to an angrier, robust rock sound. In order to capture the intensity Tuchscherer and his band recorded the rockier songs live in the studio in the UK. It works by capturing that energy. Something that bands can often loose when entering a studio. Tuchscherer produced the album and knew what he was aiming to capture here. But it is balanced with the slower more melodic based songs working alongside the rockier material. In that light, Ghosts, a song that recognises mistakes and metamorphosis as one achieves some sense of understanding of one’s past and hopeful future. Requiem has a similar thoughtful quality but this time it turns its anger on those who would mistakenly see greed and power as the ultimate selfish goals … the rich get richer, while the poor put in the hours … it builds up to a burning guitar shredding climax.

The title track is one that again manages to sound positive though the words suggest something more adrift from that outlook. The final track See You When I See You is dedicated to his former band and is something of an invitation to do it one more time together “let’s hit the road together, while the world goes up in flames”. It is an overview of a career filled with promise. A promise that was not fulfilled though Tuchscherer continues to make music and to hold that belief that music has the ability to allow change to happen, at least in a personal capacity, if not for everyone. Pieces may not be for everyone but if you like your music to have a rockier edge then these pieces will fall into place.

Lachlan Bryan And The Wildes Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music Self Release

Described as a country album thatb is influenced by Billy Bragg and Leonard Cohen as much as it is by Willie Nelson and Townes van Zandt. It is the Australian band’s fourth album. It opens with the song I Hope That I’m Wrong which was inspired by a newspaper headline about the the surge of stories of abuse that women faced in various industries. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Middle Aged Man in some ways continues the theme by relating how the older guy chasing the younger girl is something of an (middle) age-old pursuit. But one that is far less tolerable in these times. 

The band add guest vocals on The Basics Of Love, which seems like a song you have heard before (and not the Waylon Jennings related title) but is an original. Though it is difficult to say with no (writer) credits available. It is the first of two duets were the added female voice gives greater depth to the song. In this case it is fellow Australian Shanley Del. The other duet is with Lindi Ortega and fairly untypical of her usual type of song. A gentle piano led ballad that uses both voices to good effect. Bryan is singer and piano player and could be thought of as someone who took Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album as a template and followed it to a logical, more country route. However throughout the album there are songs that also feature backing vocals from Imogen Clark. She wrote In New York with Wilde member Shaun Ryan. Perhaps one track to highlight for it’s emotional, quiet strength is Peace In The Valley. A song that displays a van Zandt influence more obviously than others.

The album was produced in Melbourne by Damian Carfarella, a new addition to the band. The result is an easy, relaxed listen with thoughtful lyrics and a solid, purposeful playing that doesn’t sacrifice capturing the right take for something more polished and perfect. I have a feeling that some girls might quite like this country music. Men however are not excluded.

I See Hawks In LA Live And Never Learn Western Seeds

While I have listened to this band in the past I paid more attention to the lyrics on this album as they just seem to stand out from the music a little more. The concept and humour of My Parka Saved Me was an immediate attention grabber with the spoken female lyric being followed closely by that of singer Rob Waller. It is both effective as a story and as an example of the bands oeuvre. The opening song is an ode to environmentalism and Ballad For The Trees not only mentions a selection of trees but also the under threat honey bees. Known as purveyors of  “psychedelic country” in California you can hear where that tag has come from but they are also an accomplished group of players who are musically adept and aware.

Guitarist and producer (and band leader) Paul Lacques knows what he wants this album to sound like and over the 14 original songs manages to create a range of musical sketches that gives the listener the space to enjoy what I See Hawks In LA have to offer. Waller has a baritone voice that has enough resonance to give each song its focus. He is ably supported vocally by the remainder of the band whose harmonies are a reminder of many a Californian band and singer of yore. This and their individual musical talents, which are enhanced by some additional musicians on keyboards, pedal steel and fiddle, all helps to make these songs shine and this is perhaps the best album that this combo has yet produced. 

The songs that stand out for a number of reasons aside for the afore mentioned My Parka Saved Me where drummer Victoria Jacobs provides the female vocal are Stoned With Melissa (a simple tale of daily imbibing), Poour Me a word play on “poor me” and “pour me”, as in, another glass of wine!  Aside from the intentional humour these songs often have something of the element of truth to them. They can also rock out as they do on The Last Man In Tujunga with its odd yet intriguing chorus of “I’m almost out of minuets and I”m almost out of bullets” and on the boogiefied workout King Of Rosemead Boogie.

This is the eight album from I See Hawks In LA in a career heading for 20 years together and they are continuing to perfect their individual take on Californian country music. There is little here that sounds like filler and much to enjoy. Long may they live and never learn.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Mean Mary Blazing Woodstock

This lady is a real talent and her back story is the stuff that makes a movie script seem far-fetched. Raised by a nomadic family, at times in the wilds and the woods, building their own log cabin and embracing a life of home schooling.

Mary James learned to play music at a very young age and is a novelist and a music producer, who has regularly appearared on Nashville TV shows, as well as running her own You Tube channel (35,000 subscribers). Her endorsing of Deering Banjos, an instrument on which she absolutely excels, is proof of her talents as a musician and her dexterity on fiddle and guitars is also most impressive.

Mean Mary is a performing name and whether touring solo or with her sometimes band, Mean Mary & the Contrarys, her musical strengths are always to the fore. While the banjo displays traditional bluegrass sounds, Mary plays the instrument in a way that makes it very melodic & tuneful.

Her brother Frank plays some excellent guitar and this project is a soundtrack to her latest book, Hell Is Naked, about a SWAT agent working undercover as a movie extra. The good thing is that the music stands up as a separate entity and it is not necessary to reference the book to enjoy the music that has been created as an accompaniment piece. 

Ten tracks and plenty of virtuoso playing from Mary & Frank James on banjo, 6 and 12-string guitars violin & percussion. Tracks like Rainy, Rock Of Ages, Lights, Gun, Action and the title track are all instrumentals and played with an elán and verve that is quite infectious. I Face Somewhere, Gone and Sugar Creek Mountain Rushare also expertly delivered. 

Her constant companion through much of this career activity is her Mother/author, Jean James. Some of their videos are a real joy to catch online and I would recommend a visit for a few giggles and to witness some fine musicianship into the bargain.

Mean Mary also peddles a sweet pickin’ balm as a sideline, aimed at all banjo players and beyond - a unique blend of natural plant oils infused with eight essential oils. These plant oils deeply moisturize sooth and protect your skin, keeping it supple for fast pickin’. 

Need I say any more…? Big smiles all round!

Spencer MacKenzie Cold November Self Release

Still in his teenage years, this young Canadian musician certainly knows his way around a fretboard. This is a second release and the quality of playing is very impressive indeed. There are hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the style with some excellent solo breaks and passionate Blues riffs. The future is certainly bright for this young player and already he is punching well above his tender years in terms of the quality of his sound and natural ability. 

The title track, Cold November, is a tribute to the families of the Paris attacks in 2015 and the studio musicians deliver consistently high standards across all ten songs (written by MacKenzie). Move On Down The Track; Haunt Me; Next Door Neighbour Blues and She Don’t Care are strong examples of the fine musicianship on display, with a horn section that impresses while the core band deliver a tight sound that allows MacKenzie to solo around the rhythm with an unrestrained joy. One to watch.

Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen 

This is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since Rattlesnake Cage appeared in 2014. A multiple Juno Award-winning producer, for this project he turned to long-time collaborator and friend, Jesse Zubot to assist in scoring and arranging the strings for five of the ten tracks included. 

With the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver providing the space required, Dawson recorded live with up to twelve microphones in various positions to capture the guitar and orchestration. Contributions from Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse Zubot and his brother Josh (violins) and John Kastelic (viola) create a rich tapestry of sound and the perfect back-drop for quiet days spent in contemplation or lazy evenings by the fireside with a favourite glass of wine, perhaps. Tracks such as The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Forge; Bone Cave; Old Hickory Breakdown; Little Harpeth and Bugscuffle are worthy mentions across the project but really, there is not a weak track on display.

Playing a range of guitars – acoustic, 12-string, national tricone, weissenborn, ukulele – the depth of Dawson’s talent lies in the fact that the melodic progressions are seamless and give the impression of total fluidity and graceful ease. Joined also by Jeremy Berkman (trombone), Nick Anderson (french horn), Sam Davidson (clarinet), John Reischman (mandolin) and Charlie McCoy (harmonicas) on selected tracks, it all works as a composite whole & the fact that he has produced and/or played on more than 80 albums since the turn of the millennium says it all really and speaks volumes for the national treasure that he has become in his native Canada.

The Vagabond Something Wicked This Way Comes Eggsong

Based in Norfork, England this ensemble releases their third album of songs and their sound is very much based in the area of Folk/Roots with traces of a harder Rock edge sprinkled through a number of the ten tracks included here. The band is comprised of nine members, which I am sure makes touring something of a logistical challenge; all those hotel rooms & meals to cover and the practicalities of transportation and instrument space - glad I’m not the tour manager!

In any event, their excellent music is well worth investing in and the organic sound is a heady mixture of fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, guitars, keyboards and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure! This raggle, taggle band of gypsies resemble a Fisherman’s Blues era of the Waterboys with elements of Dylan (title track), Randy Newman (Spiritual Man) and Three Dog Night (One For The Road). 

Tracks like Bright Are The Stars, Not My Day To Die and Zoetrope, are very melodic and overall, the celebratory sound is very appealing. The quality of musicianship and production from José McGill and Gregory Cook, both band members, is very clear and balanced to include all members in the mixing & mastering, so that none of the (many) instruments get drowned out. 

The Fretless Live from the Art Farm Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian four piece from Toronto & Vancouver who play fiddle tunes and folk melodies that are intricate, sprinkled with high-energy performance and a vibrancy borne from years of playing together. The goal is to continually push traditional music as far as possible and to expand the rhythmic, harmonic and structured arrangement style of the many folk genres. 

They have won multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle, viola), Eric Wright (cello), Ben Plotnick (fiddle, viola). This Live project was recorded at the Artfarm recording studio in front of an audience to try and capture the dynamism of their live performances. The tracks are all traditional Irish tunes and they are a vibrant and tracks such as Jenny Welcome To Charlie/ Bear Island; Johnny O’Leary’s/The Miller’s Maggot/ The Sally Gardens; The Pipe On The Hob/Bixie’s Jig and the closer, The Star Of Munster are all fine examples of this fine band in full flight. 

Dana Cooper Incendiary Kid Travianna

Working with co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz, this is the 28th recording in a career that has seen this artist work through the vagaries of the music industry since the 1970’s when he first recorded with Shake Russell and with his own rock band, Dana Cooper's DC3.

Incendiary Kid is a cohesive album of ten songs that cover a whole gambut of emotions, from wanting an idyllic World where love gets its own reward (Flat Made Round), sharing the daily load by reaching out to another (Traveller Too), isolation (Bird Or a Fish, Maybe Tomorrow), disillusionment (My America), relationships (Summertime Woman, Song of the West) and corporate greed (Making a Killing). With a sound that is based in acoustic folk/rock, Cooper’s finger-picking guitar style is complimented by his rich vocals. 

He regularly visits Ireland and travels around the countryside with a bus of tourists in tow; acting as both guide and performer at various stop overs. This is an activity that other artists have been turning to in recent times as an idea to open additional income streams and to keep their core fan base interested in ongoing activities and projects.

Reviews by Eilís Boland

Ben Hunter/Phil Wiggins/Joe Seamons A Black & Tan Ball Self Release

Joe Seamons and Ben Hunter are a fascinating duo who are at the forefront of the recent emergence of a musical subgenre that they themselves have dubbed Black Americana. Other exponents are artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Cedric Watson. What they all have in common is a deep regard for, and knowledge of, the musical traditions of the Appalachians, the Ozarks and the American South, the African-American stringband traditions, folk-blues and country-jazz. 

Hunter and Seamons have a particular interest in the pre-war era song tradition ie the ballads, blues and folk songs of 19th century America. Their mission is to “revive obscure stuff” and this they have done in spades in this fantastic collection of thirteen classics from the Great American Songbook. Here they are joined by the truly legendary blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, who continues the Piedmont blues tradition. 

In an album of superb tracks, it’s difficult to single out any particular highlight. The opener Do You Call That A Buddy is a blackly humourous (no pun intended!) tale of treachery sung in Phil’s rich baritone, with lots of call and response hollering from the boys. Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me is given a lovely languorous treatment again by Phil, and it interestingly features Bens’ mandolin playing. It’s quite unusual to hear a mandolin used in the blues tradition but it works really well here. Both Ben or Joe take lead vocals on many of the songs. 

Ben, who is particularly known for his fiddle playing (in fact he’s classically trained) has revived the fiddle in the blues genre - apparently it played a significant role in early blues but then fell out of favour. Joe switches easily between guitar and clawhammer banjo, his banjo featuring on a stunning extended version of John Henry. Rory Gallagher fans will be surprised by the almost unrecognisable rendition of Bullfrog Blues, which is closer to the original version written and released by William Harris in 1928.

The three instrumentals are as impressive as the songs, especially the breakneck Shanghai Rooster. In addition to playing gigs, Seamons and Hunter have dedicated themselves to educating communities and especially the younger generations by conducting workshops and community events across the US, not just in their Seattle base.

Edwyn & The Borrowed Band High Fences Dead Records Collective

Glasgow based but heavily influenced by Americana, James and his band release their second album of original material, ably self produced and recorded in their hometown. The result is an impressive collection of strong songs, catchy melodies and superb playing with a country rock flavour. The opener San Ysidro sounds like it has come straight out of California, with its jangly guitar riffs, and pounding rhythms. James, who takes lead vocals throughout and writes or cowrites everything, has a strong voice, reminiscent of Ryan Adams at times. Emma Joyce’s harmony vocals are particularly impressive, being superbly complementary to James’s. Scott Keenan completes the trio of harmony vocalists, which contributes to the band’s lush full sound.  

The bluesy/funky Get Back Up has a real Southern Rock feel, with it’s fabulous electric guitar breaks and Emma’s soaring vocals. Pushing Statues uses a quartet of brass players who add a subtle backdrop to the full sound, also boosted by guest pedal steel player Tim Davidson and the ever present rocking and rolling keyboards of the aforementioned Scott Keenan. 

Other highlights are: Quoting Sagan, a catchy ballad that builds slowly from a quiet acoustic guitar intro into a luscious dramatic electric guitar driven climax; Taking Liberties co-written by Ronnie Gilmour and featuring his inventive electric guitar work; and the closing song Doubts, another slow burner which builds on layered electric guitar and piano interludes, ending in a gorgeous finale of soaring lush instrumentation and echoing vocal harmonies. 

The CD package is well designed and the album is also available on vinyl. My one gripe is that I’d like to hear some of the band’s Scottish origins peeking through the project - perhaps this will happen on the next album, one which I very much look forward to.

Foghorn Leghorn All At Sea Self Release

Probably one of longest running bluegrass band in England, Foghorn Leghorn release only their third album in over 25 years of existence. Best known on the London scene, where they have a regular residency in the Betsey Trotwood, the band are known for their lively irreverence and tongue-in-cheek attitude to their music. They readily delve into their wide musical influences to broaden their bluegrass sound with large dollops of folk and country. While they may not be the tightest band you’ll ever hear, they make up for it with enthusiastic abandon!

It’s refreshing to review an album in this genre that is packed with all original material. The majority of the songs are written by mandolinist Eamonn Flynn. His songs range from  uptempo love songs like Spanish Champagne to my personal favourite, Beginning to Hurt - a tender ballad of unrequited love. But he’s also adept at writing insightful commentaries on current social ills. No prizes for guessing the subject of He’s Got The Whole World (in his tiny little hands). 

Fundamental Breakdown is a welcome instrumental interlude written by banjoist Tim Kent. Whale Bone is a truly chilling exploration of the well known scandal of corporal punishment in certain religious institutions in these islands, and demonstrates Eamonn Flynn’s songwriting acumen again. 

Danny George Wilson joins in on the closer Moving Along - ending on a positive note despite the personal and sociopolitical strife explored in earlier songs. The excellent cover art is a cartoonish depiction of the band and various political world figures who are on a boat washed up onshore during a storm - survivors despite the chaos around them - very fitting!

Sarah Morris Hearts In Need Of Repair Self Release

Having spent some years in Nashville pursuing her songwriting career, Sarah Morris is now back in her native Minnesota, where she performs regularly with her longtime band. She also uses these excellent musicians on this her third album, which she coproduced with Eric Blomquist. Sarah has been blessed with a pure and sweet voice and the sparse tasteful production allows her voice to shine on the eleven self penned songs. Packaged in pink, the album art gives a hint as to what lies beneath.

The Nashville songwriting machine experience is to the fore in most of the songs on the collection, so if you like pop country, music that won’t rock the boat, then this might just be your thang. Songs like Good at Goodbye, Course Correction and Helium detail heartbreak and heartache but you might just feel like you’ve heard it all before. Confetti is a well overdue plea to all to get our heads out of our phones and ‘spread love like confetti’ - a worthy sentiment indeed, but one likely to fall on deaf ears!

Nothing Compares is a whole other deal. This is a touching love song written from the heart, to her husband of 15 years. Backed just by an acoustic and an electric guitar accompaniment, Sarah convincingly conveys the vulnerability and the trust implicit in such a longterm relationship. It’s an exquisite track. The two other standout songs are Falling Over and Shelter or The Storm - the soulful bluesy production on these catchy songs allows Sarah to let go and indulge a gutsier side to her voice, one I’d really have liked to have heard more of. On A Stone, an exploration of steadfastness, is another strong song on which Sarah’s voice soars, beautifully backed by guest musician Jillian Rae’s violin.

SIDELINE Front and Center Mountain Home

This is a solid fourth album from a much awarded and admired group of ‘sidemen’, who, along with a few younger additions, have now become a permanent band. They excel at the hard driving Carolina-Grass style of bluegrass, and all six band members are comfortable taking lead vocals.

From the pen of Milan Miller comes Lysander Hayes, the dark tale of the classic ‘bad boy’, driven by the pulsating claw hammer banjo of Skip Cherryholmes (Cherryholmes, Lou Reid and Carolina). Another founding member Jason Moore contributes exciting bass lines here and he ably anchors the whole album with his playing - something he has done for years touring with James King and then with Mountain Heart.

Another strong song and radio hit is the opening Thunder Dan, featuring the lead vocals of mandolinist Troy Boone, a recent addition to the band and a graduate of ETSU’s Bluegrass programme. Steve Dilling’s classic driving banjo style is one of the delights of this recording, but he also takes lead vocals and contributes outstanding harmonies on many of the songs.

Generally the songs here are chosen for their traditional style, for example the sentimental ballad Frozen in Time, Bluefield WV Mtn Girl and Something Out of Nothing. However, there are also welcome contrasts, for example Gordon Lightfoot’s Song For A Winter’s Night (covered by Tony Rice) which here is given a quiet laid back feel, thanks to Skip’s outstanding guitar work and his rich vocals. Or the lovely slow version of Dudley Connell’s Memories That We Shared, with guitarist Bailey Coe on lead vocal duties. Don’t worry, there are the inevitable gospel songs - I Long To See His Face and Satan’s Charms give free rein to these guys to show off their sweet four part harmonies. An exhilarating version of the traditional Cotton Eyed Joe instrumental closes out the collection. 

One reservation is that there are no original songs here, which is a bit surprising considering the wealth of talent in the band. The second is the uninspiring design of the packaging - a far too busy mosaic of photos and some poor graphics could so easily have been improved upon.

EJ Ouellette Conjure Man, Conjure Man Self Release

Boston based Renaissance man EJ Ouellette has released his first solo album, on which he played most of the instruments, wrote most of the songs and also produced, engineered and mixed it. Phew! It’s essentially an album of three halves. Ouellette excels at creating brooding atmospheric story songs, as he does on the title track. His ‘Conjure Man’ character is a sort of hoodoo man - suggesting danger, black magic and witchcraft. In fact, his creator hopes to turn this character into the subject of a film and has already made a pilot video to expand on the idea. Ouellette’s experience as a film maker is also evident in Charming The Snake and Hey Jonah. In the former he continues to effectively evoke the dark theme of the opening track with his moody banjo, menacing bass line and the inspired choice of Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) on percussion. 

There are three instrumental tracks. Jenny’s Jam is a traditional Irish reel, given a Celtic rock feel here with drum and bass and EJ’s manic fiddle playing. Campbells’ Farewell To Red Gap is a Scottish traditional tune, again given the rock treatment. Much more successful is the hauntingly beautiful self penned slow air Gideon’s Lament, where EJ shows his fine playing by laying down harmonising twin fiddles.

The remaining seven songs are essentially power ballads in a distinctly Springsteenesque style. This is probably due in part to the prominence of the saxophone as one of the lead instruments. Heck  - he even manages to make Steve Earle’s I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet sound like it was written by Bruce!

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Kacy & Clayton The Siren’s Song New West

Second cousins Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum’s third recording The Siren’s Song finds the duo exploring a fuller sound from their previous recordings with the addition of bass guitar and drums. Having been invited by Jeff Tweedy to open for Wilco at The Fillmore in San Francisco last year, the duo impressed Tweedy to the extent that he offered to produce the album at Wilco’s famous Loft Studios in Chicago. The end product is quite staggering and an album that has hardly left my CD player since it’s arrival. 

There has always been a primal innocence to their writing, inspired no doubt by the rural upbringing they enjoyed but this time around they create and perform songs like veterans. Quite extraordinary considering they are both marginally above the legal age to purchase alcohol in the States!

Everything about the album transports the listener back to the late 60’s/early 70’s, from the impressive graphics on both the front and back of the sleeve (the artwork and layout were directed by label mate Daniel Romano), but most particularly to the material itself, folk music soaked in country with nods in the direction the very best of UK folk when Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch and a young Richard Thompson held court.

Despite approaching deeper topics such as disillusionment (The Light Of Day), abandonment (Go And Leave Me), exploitation (A Certain Kind Of Memory) and betrayal (Cannery Yard), the album also possesses some lighter moments, particularly on the sardonic White Butte County, where Linthicum takes the lead vocal on a familiar tale of small village hopelessness ("The hills of White Butte County are a pleasant sight to see. But the girls of White Butte County have the same Grandpa as me"). Lifeboat would not have been out of place on the Richard and Linda Thompson classic breakup album Shoot Out The Lights ("If envy was tequila and jealousy strong beer, we could throw a party that would last throughout the year") and the simplicity of the aforementioned Cannery Yard is spine tingling, with Anderson’s sweet vocals accompanied only by acoustic guitar and gentle fiddle playing.

Far from being revivalists and given that they grew up in the remote Wood Mountain Uplands, the impression generated is that the material is first hand and based on personal experience rather than delving into The Harry Smith Songbook. Songwriting aside, what elevates the material to an altogether different level is Anderson’s intoxicating and crystal-clear vocals, perfectly in tune with Linthicum’s equally impressive fingerpicking guitar style.

The Siren’s Song is an album created with totally sincerity, innocence and love, steeped in all that’s so vital in classic country folk music. The genre is in safe hands with Kacy and Clayton as custodians and I’m already eagerly awaiting their next album. A contender for album of the year for me on it's European release this year or last year when it was released in the U.S.

Lera Lynn Plays Well With Others Single Lock

Lera Lynn’s 2016 release Resistor found the young Nashville based artist abandoning her more familiar country roots sound and experimenting with an album that crossed into indie territory, possibly targeting a wider audience given her far reaching exposure having appeared and performed in the second series of HBO’s True Detective.

Plays Well With Others finds her returning to more familiar territory. The album features seven co-writes with some of her Nashville neighbours, who each also duet on the various tracks they contributed to. What is particularly impressive about the album, given the formula, is how well the tracks gel as a unit and critical to this is Lynn’s selection of collaborators. All the more notable given that Lynn deliberately did not point any of her allies in any particular direction during the writing process. 

The performers on the album are a reflection of the burgeoning and emerging musical talent in Nashville with contributions by John Paul White – who also co-produced the album alongside Lynn and Ben Tanner - Andrew Combs, Dylan LeBlanc, JD Mc Pherson and Nicole Adams. The old guard also features courtesy of Rodney Crowell whose delicate semi spoken vocals combine beautifully with Lynn’s honeyed purring on Crimson Underground.

The overriding theme throughout is love imagined, gained and lost with titles such as Lose Myself, What Is Love, Breakdown and Nothin To Do With Love exploring relationships at their various junctures. 

Recorded in a week and a half at John Paul White’s Sun Drop Sound Studio in Florence, unlike its predecessor Resistor it features acoustic instrumentation throughout as a backdrop to some stunning vocal deliveries. Particularly impressive are What Is Love featuring Lynn and Dylan LeBlanc’s perfectly matched hushed vocals, accompanied only by acoustic guitars. A stripped back version of the Sutton/Sherrill classic Almost Persuaded is given the George and Tammy treatment by Lynn and John Paul White. Shovels & Rope contribute to the other cover on the album, the dark and sleazy Wolf Like Me written by TV On The Radio and both Lynn and Andrew Combs explore their edgy sides on Breakdown. The only all-female duet finds Nicole Atkins sharing vocals on the upbeat 60’s sounding In Another Life.

Duet and tribute albums can often go horribly wrong but Plays Well With Others does exactly what the title advocates by combining well-chosen conspirators, great songs, exceptional vocal deliveries and most of all simplicity, acknowledging that sometimes less is more. At thirty-two minutes it’s not the longest album, having said that one listen is never enough so get ready to hit the play button once more, I certainly did.

Carter Sampson Lucky CRS

Carter Sampson’s profile has been heading skyward in Europe ever since the release of Wilder Side in 2016, an album that hit the No.3 spot in Euro Americana Chart’s Best Albums of that year.

An artist that seems to be continually on the road, Sampson managed eight visits to Europe in a twelve-month period touring that recording which included two sold out shows at Kilkenny Roots in 2017 and appearances at both The Maverick and Glastonbury Festivals. Her latest album’s title may suggest an element of fortune in her rising star but it’s the quality of her song writing and her distinctive sweet vocals, together with a relentless work ethic that has found the Oklahoma born Sampson fostering a growing fan base and getting the recognition she richly deserves.

Recorded at On Studios in Moore Oklahoma, the production duties are shared by Sampson and Jason Scott, who also adds drums, guitars, mandolin and backing vocals. Fellow Okies joining Sampson in the studio were Jason Tyler (dobro, banjo and mandolin), James Purdy & Jack Waters (drums), John Calvin Abney (keys and electric guitar), Kyle Reid (keys, guitar and pedal steel), Luke Mullenix (bass). With no intention of straying from what she does best the album follows a similar path to Wilder Side, route one country folk held together spectacularly by her tight rhythm section. 

The cracking title track opens the album with Sampson and her host of backing musicians giving the number the Emmylou/Hot Band treatment. Coincidently the album culminates with the Shel Silverstein classic Queen Of The Silver Dollar, Sampson version displays a looser laid-back delivery than Emmylou’s version on the Pieces of The Sky album.

Other inclusions that reveal Sampson as an artist growing in confidence and maturity are Hello Darlin, complete with some dreamy steel guitar by Kyle Reid complementing Sampson’s gorgeous unhurried vocals and All I Got which follows a similar path. Tulsa, written by fellow Okie Zac Copeland, is not the first time an Oklahoma artist has written with glowing pride about their home State and Sampson’s effort certainly does the song justice.

The up-tempo Rattlesnake Kate is classic dirt road country, a tale of a determined freewheeling independent woman – perhaps an analogy to the demands on a female musician’s trials attempting to survive in today’s market – raising her son alone and single handily bumping off one hundred and forty rattlesnakes and skinning them to make a matching dress and shoes. 

There’s so much to savour and admire on Lucky. Like its predecessors Wilder Side and Mockingbird Sing, it’s uncomplicated, joyous and delivered by an artist in possession of a voice that always seems to love what she is singing about. Thumbs up also to Stuart Sampson for the most impressive cover painting featuring Ms Sampson in trademark red cowboy boots!

Levi Parham It’s All Good CRS

It’s All Good is the fourth release from Okie Levi Parham whose signature blend of blues, soul, rock and country lands somewhere between The Allman Brothers and early 70’s Rolling Stones.

Parham’s 2016 release All American Blues made the No.1 spot on the Euro Americana Charts and it’s reasonable to expect the gritty blues soaked It’s All Good will hit similar highs. 

‘I ain’t scared, I ain’t worried, I’ve got friends and they’d be here in a hurry’, Parham tells us on the album’s title track and true to his word Parham and his entourage took the ten-hour drive from Tulsa Oklahoma to Muscle Shoals Alabama to record at the famed Portside Sound Studio. The journey most certainly was a fruitful one resulting in a ten-track album that sets its stall from the primal bar room bluesy opener Badass Bob and continues on a similar high-octane path before drawing breath with the closer, a John Prine sounding ballad All The Ways I Feel For You.

The stellar line-up includes guitarists Paul Benjaman, Jesse Aycock, Dustin Pittsley and Parham, pooling their talents with John Fullbright on keys, Aaron Boehler on bass, Dylan Aycock on drums, snippets of sax courtesy of Michael Staub and backing vocalists Lauren Farrah, John Carter Abney and Lauren Barth. The individual talent in that bunch alone was a signal of Parham’s intent of going for broke and its fair to say he pushed the band all the way to get his just rewards.

"Ring that bell I’ll come running out like a heavyweight", Parham sings on Heavyweight, an inclusion that, intentional or not given the title, recalls The Band at the top of their game. Boxmeer Blues could have been plucked from The Stones Exile On Main Street sessions, slick layered vocals and bluesy piano breaks on a tale of temptations and distractions on the road. In LP jargon the sixth track Shade would be the Side 2 opener and its addictive and beautifully paced rhythm recalls Derek & The Dominoes. The brooding Turn Your Love Around offers five minutes plus of raw hypnotic blues.

It’s All Good is more than a recording paying homage to music and bands of previous decades but more accurately a collection of  top drawer material delivered vocally and musically by an artist who is very much a caretaker of the soulful bluesy country sound that we love so much. Hats off young man, it’s a gem!

Suburban Dirts I Want Blood Old Jank

Suburban Dirt are a six-piece band made up of John Wheatly (lead vocal, guitar, harmonica), Chris Varley (bass), David Austin (drums, vocals), David Moyes (guitar), Jay Seymour(keyboards) and Joolz Addison (violin).  Residing in the London commuter belt town of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire rather than any dust bowl State in the country they write about has not deterred them from creating an absorbing and exceptionally well researched project.  With gothic and blood thirsty tales of pre-cowboy America, the band’s third album plays like a soundtrack to a violent and gruesome movie populated by mercenaries, bandits, smugglers, rapists and highwaymen, in a free for all continent immediately post American Revolution. The album is based on the lives of the infamous Harpe Brothers, who are credited with being the first serial killers and mass murderers in America and whose barbaric treatment of their victims included gutting them, filling their bodies with stones and dumping them in the nearest waterway. Ruthless horse thieves and highwaymen, the two brothers were also employed as plantation foremen – think the Brittle Brothers in Tarantino’s Django Unchained -  they adopted the outlaw lifestyle having been loyal to The British Crown during American Revolution. The album consists of fifteen sections which need to be played in one sitting for maximum effect. 

The Harpe Brothers Theme opens the album in frenzied fashion getting straight to the point ("We cut them open, carve out their guts, fill their innards up with stones").  What follows are the gentle instrumental Home and then Eli, a tale of hope for a character who will later become one of the brothers’ targets. We hear of the brother’s wives and their casual acceptance of their partners brutality on Harpe Women ("He’ll be home soon, making plans. We will wash their feet and cook their meals, we will make their beds and watch them sleep"). The revenge and final and slaying of Micajah Harpe - Wiley Harpe died five years later -  by a victim left for dead features in The Hunt ("I know I’m not evil but I have done evil deeds, I took the head of that evil son of a bitch and stuck it in a tree").

Playing out every bit as dark as the Bob Frank and John Murry murder ballad classic World Without End - another comparison might be Richmond Fontaine’s cinematic The High Country -   I Want Blood is essentially a soundtrack without a supporting movie. Well worth checking out.

Fox & Coyote Scattered Shadows On A Double Bed Self Release

Ryan Evans and Jonathan Harms, the founder members of Cox & Coyote, originally performed as a duo, two voices, a banjo and a guitar. That particular line up somewhat restricted their musical direction and led to the recruitment of Catherine Canon (cello and vocals), Grant Gordon (bass) and Kenny Befus (drums), who collectively contribute to the current line-up. Scattered Shadows On A Double Bed most certainly benefits from the addition of the more recent recruits, offering a unique, experimental and wonderfully layered musical landscape, quite difficult to categorise. Described as alt-folk the album’s material ranges from the Sufjan Steven’s sounding White Spider to A Million Filaments which would not have been out of place on a (very) early Genesis album. What is consistent throughout is outstanding musicianship, with the cello contribution by Canon a particular delight. 

The opening track (Don’t Tell Me) There’s Nothing In My Head dips, soars and eventually explodes musically and the closer Bed ("You can forget about tomorrow, I’m going back to bed again") deals with escapism and depression, a topic also suggested both in the album’s title and cover shot. 

All in all a most interesting and challenging listen which requires a number of visits to fully appreciate and best described on their website as "sonic panorama, juxtaposing hushed confessions wit raging guitar solos, thick cello crescendo with existential howls."

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Wylie and The Wild West 2000 Miles From Nashville Hi-Line 

Wylie Gustafson is in it for the long haul. He has walked the line of authentic traditional country music since his debut release in 1992. He has released 22 albums to date and the standard of the music has always been top notch. There was a time I remember that Wylie was a mainstay of CMT when it first was broadcasting in these parts. But times change and as things stand now he wouldn’t have a chance ofgetting exposure. Something that he tackles on the opening song,Nashville Never Wanted Me. Another factor that appealed, as a spectacle wearer myself,was that Gustafson wore glasses - one of the few country singers to do so. 

Gustafson lives on aworking ranch in Northern Montana and as such,brings the two parts of this traditional form together,country and western. He does so with a genuine passion, perception and panache. Nothing about this album could be said to be trying to redefine the genre. Rather itbrings a timeless approach to the music. That and a set of musicians who deliver the goods. Guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Chris Scruggs are superlative - as usual. The rhythm section of Mike Bub and John McTigue also provide the necessary bedrock that you would expect from such seasoned players. Clayton Parsons and Mark Thornton both add guitar and the former also plays the pedal steel featured throughout the album. Vaughan is quoted as saying “rarely do I encounter music as unaffected and heartfelt” and you know, with all the sessions that Vaughan plays that counts for something.

Of the 15 tracks on the album the majority are composed by Gustafson and cover such topics related to his lifestyle like Wild Rose Of The Range, Cowboy Vernacular, Cowboy Daddy and Road To Narvacan. Others like Little Secret and Hope Lives In You are more relationship related. There are two examples of his trademark yodel too in Hot Rod Yodel and Ukulele Yodel. The five covers will be well known to many and all are well chosen to fit Gustafson’s voice and the overall context of the music featured. Two are Nick Lowe songs (Lowe has often acted as a touchstone for a certain segment of the alt-country fraternity) in (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding and I Knew The Bride. Sitting alongside the classic Sea Of Heartbreak, Robbie Fulks’ Tears Only Run One Way and Stan Jones’ (Ghost) Riders In The Sky which closes the album on a high note. Long may he ride the range and given that this is one of his best albums he still has a lot of trail to cover.

Charlie Smyth The Way I Feel Self Release

Recently on the Lonesome Highway radio show I played the song The Cold Hard Truth by Jamie O’Hara so it was something of a coincidence that the next day this CD arrived. I immediately noted that track 4 of this CD was a version of that very song. The second thing that gained my attention and interest was that it was produced by Andy Gibson, noted for his upright steel playing and production with Hank 3 and Bob Wayne. However the first think you notice is Smyth’s lived in, purposeful and barbed baritone. That, with the harmony and duet vocals of his wife Kalee Smyth, offer their take on classic country duo singing - a combination of opposites, sort of the beauty and the beast that is both effective and affecting.

Smyth matches his own songs with some interesting cover choices. Along with the aforementioned Cold Hard Truth the album opens with Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise which fits better in the overall contect that might be expected. Then add in Star Spangled Banner, Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes and the George Jones, Roger Miller co-write That’s The Way I Feel. All are given a pretty reasonable turn out,some working slightly better than others,but all fitting the context of the album. Gibson and Smyth’s production is a solid take on an interpretation of classic country stylings while feeling more alt.country than roundly retro.

Given that Smyth’s musical career started as a punk rocker in Chicago and Seattle as well as a spell playing with no-waver James Chance, there is a finely honed balance of respect and irreverence that gives the album a sense of nowness that certainly veers more towards outlaw and out-thererness than orthodoxy,without ever going off the rails into something more akin to his former musical directions. However, it is on his ownsong writing that you get a sense of the strength of what Smyth is capable of. Faithfully, Paint, Country Girl and Shore which all open what is delineated as Side B of the album show both a good sense of melody and word smithery as well as defining this particular sound. The version of Star-Spangled Banner though, in truth, feels more like a statement as it features a lone fiddle and feels like a lament for his country’s lost identity rather than a celebration.

There is much on this album that makes it one to get acquainted closer with inits entirety rather than picking out individual tracks. Smyth doesn’t look a typical country hipster on the cover, even in his stars and stripe shirt, rather he has the look of a life-worn rocker. He has, however, crafted an album that encompasses much of what he has been through to get here while also perhaps a connection with a simpler time and music. Where he goes from here,given where he has been in the past,is entirely up to him but it would be good to think he will explore these roots further.

Ford Maddox Ford This American Blues Porterhouse

This band is led by Chip Kinsman and producedby his brother Tony. Both brothers have a long history of being involved with some ground breaking musical ventures. They were founding members of The Dills who releaseda number of7” singles, including You’re Not Blank, Class War and I Hate The Rich. The duo then explored the energy and directness of that music,blended with a love of country music,to great success in Rank & File. They released 3 albums starting with Sundown and Long Gone Dead on Slash Records before moving to Rhino for their, more robustly rockin’ self-titled third album. Seeking other viewpoints their next venture was Blackbird wherein they took on a harder soundincluding the useof some electronics. There followed a return to their roots with the Western themed Cowboy Nation, in the late 90s. The duo recently returned to music with the band Ford Maddox Ford which featured Chip as a playing member and Tony as producer. Shortly after releasing this debut album came the sad news that Tony had passed away from cancer.

Ford Maddox Ford (named after an American author) include (alongside Chip Kinman), Dewey Peek on guitar, Matt Little on bass and drummer S Scott Aguero. There are eleven tracks,mainly written by Kinman and Peek,with one (Quicksand) written by the two Kinmans and one cover ofthe Wilbert Harrison songLet’s Work Togethera song best known by versions from Canned Heat and Brian Ferry. 

The song combines much of the duo’s DNA right back to the Dills days as it is a hard guitar-led sound that acknowledges a lot of influences including the blues mentioned in the title. Chip Kinman’s distinctive vocal is at the heart of the band’s sound. It is that which pulls all the iterations of their music together. That and Tony Kinman’s stripped back and direct production. How Does Your Horn Sound Today is a slow questioning song with slide guitar that allows them to stretch out at a slower tempo. It may be that some fans of Rank & File and Cowboy Nation may not feel totally comfortable with this harder, bluesier direction. But it is rather, another aspect of their sound rather than a total departure. Many of the themes and threads are the same as they have considered since they started playing. Promised,which opens the second side of the (deep blue) vinyl editionmay remind some of the Only Ones with its angular, unhurried approach. The riff laden Before The Fall is another strong moment as is the motorised closing aforementioned cover song.

All in all, a promising return, albeit tinged with a deep sadness, that marks Ford Maddox Ford as a further step in a musical passage that is still open to exploring sonic possibilities that work together.

Stevie Tombstone On The Line Self Release

In common with many these days the latest release from the hardcore troubadour Stevie Tombstone is a 6 track EP (or mini-album if you wish). Either way it leaves you wanting more. Not that this is the singer/songwriter’s first outing as he has 4 previous releases under his belt. He formally fronted a band called the Tombstones in Atlanta before proceeding with a solo career that combines hardcore country, country blues, folk and raw blues into an alt. country roots alliance.

For this outing Tombstone has produced a stripped back sound that is centred by his heartfelt and hall-marked vocals. These are songs drawn from deep inside a soul that has seen the voraciousness of life and how it manages to uplift and also, on occasion, crush the spirit that is central to us all. Tombstone though has the capacity to turn these observations and experiences into songs. Indeed, in this light he walks a similar line to Michael McDermott, another singer/songwriter who speaks his own truth. Tombstone’s music is a little more inclined to the real deal country line perhaps. 

The one cover is a choice that makes perfect sense here. Wreck On The Highway is an oft-recorded public domain song written by Dorsey Dixon in 1937. It is a song that reflects on the reaction of the singer after coming on an alcohol related fatal crash and as such a warning indelibly told. Tombstone’s own songs include Take This Pain about wandering the world alone. The track features some effective steel from Scott Lutz. Right State Of Mind has fiddle, upright bass and acoustic guitar and tells of a substance that might bring one to that condition. Forty Dollar Room reflects on what it is like to be in such a location and again in a lonesome state of mind. The title song has a piano theme played by Joey Huffman and a vocal from Shelli Coe that is a pledge of fidelity over a building track with organ a spiritual quality that again shows that Tombstone is a soulful and singular vocalist who delivers these songs with the kind of believability that aligns him with some of his more lauded peers.

The track At Least I’m Genuine is a selective list of the singers’ many faults and concludes that while he may not be the best you’ll ever find at least he’s genuine. That sentiment may in fact sum up Stevie Tombstone. There are others with a similar conviction and talent but Tombstone comes across as just that - genuine. And that counts for a lot in my book. 

Gerry Spehar Anger Management Self Release

I Hold Gravity,Spehar’s previous album,dealt with some fairly weighty life issues and was recorded just before his wife passed from cancer. Given the title of his new release things would appear to be still weighing heavy on his soul. This is, in essence, an old school protest album albeit with some tangential influences involved. Essentially a roots album with folk overtones and elements of other influences mixed in. The album was produced by Spehar and I See Hawks In LA’s founder Paul Lacques with help from Tommy Jordan. All were also part of the assembled team of players that included such as LA country stalwart Brantley Kearns on fiddle. The songs are a mix of solo written material and some cowrites. All feature the centrality of Spehar’s warm but forceful vocal (reminiscent of a number of old school troubadours) over a varied and interesting set of arrangements that keep the album moving along at a satisfactory pace.

Spehar’s touchstone was the integrity and honesty of Woody Guthrie (to whom the album is dedicated). The music though is written for these times with songs like Thank You Donald and Bitch Heaven that puts the current protagonists in the same frame … “old man Trump had money and Woody had song.” This sits alongside a hard ballad like A Soldier’s Spiritual a song that considers the plight of many a war veteran facing anuncertain future. Elsewhere he tackles other topical issues with a sense of anger, frustration but also with wit and humility. The last song on the album asks the simple question What Would Jesus Do? He wonders would Jesus build a wall or would he cut taxes on the rich and leave the poor without healthcare. Pertinent and perceptive for an unsure time. While he also asks about the lessons of history in Pearl Harbour,about that infamous attack and what was learned from it.

Many casual listeners take the attitude when faced with a particular viewpoint that may or may not coincide with their own of “shut up and just sing.” All well and good but the art of the protest song is one that should not be forgotten or ignored. Here Spear’s personal opinion is expressed when he sings (rather than the in-between song asides that often occur in a live situation) and, as such, he has made an album that also works on a pure enjoyable musical level,so that even if the words didn’t mean jackshitthe music should please. It is a well produced and performed album that has a depth of meaning beyond the more usual subject of relationships. Spehar and his co-writers have something to say and hopefully in doing so they have managed some of that anger that was invoked by recent events. For all that,listen to this for the character of the singing, playing and sincerity and hopefully some of the sentiments expressed will get through too.

Mike Aiken Wayward Troubadour Northwind 

The title of this album sums up the overall attitude of this singer/songwriter whoselatest release is a well produced and played set of original songs and a couple of outside covers. The album was recorded in the main in Nashville and Aiken secured the services of some top-notch players in theshape of guitar-slinger Kenny Vaughan, bassist David Roe and drummer Tom Hurst. Aiken added his skills on a variety of guitars and his wife Amy adds harmony vocals and a range of percussion instruments. The titles of the songs are an indicator of the subjects that Aiken writes about such as Two-Lane Highway,about the places such structures can take you to. Hard Working Girl is a non-judgemental overview of a person caught in that lifestyle. The trials and tribulations of the machinations Music Row is the subject of Nashville Skyline. Aiken’s interest in sailing is touched on in Chesapeake. A Little Lazy In Your Life has a jazz feel that suits the mood of the song while Hangover Helper praises the hair of the dog as a way to escape a previous night’s excesses.

Mark Collie and Shawn Camp wrote Dead Man Walks Before He Runs and it has a darker mood about trying to escape from a correctional facility delivered with a bluesy guitar-led feel that has a certain sense of desperation. The other outside songs are Penelope and Real Mean Dog; the former has that beach front, light reggae touch on a song about wanting to return to Jamaica, whilethe latter is a twangy tale of man, dog and pick-up truck. Both left behind in a relationship gone sour.

Aiken’s music has been described as a mix of country, folk, rock and Buffet style back porch, ocean beach music. He grew up in New York State and currently is based in Norfolk, Virginia. His wide-ranging Americana has a broad approach that should appeal to many. This is an accomplished album of roots music that will further enhance Aiken often praised body of work. The work of a troubadour who finds much to enjoy in life and conveys that feeling in his music.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Luke LeBlanc Time On My Hands Self Release

These 5 songs are thoughtfully delivered with understated playing and a production that proves the adage that ‘less is more’. On the opening, Beautiful, the studio musicians interplay across an arresting acoustic rhythm as the longing of the lyric spins the driver home along dark Wisconsin roads. Time On My Hands sparks with an up-tempo arrangement and a focus on living for the moment. Winter Rising slows things down with an easy strum and superb violin from Laurie Melting Stagner, both restrained and reflective in delivery. 

The 12-bar blues of Please Stay, with dual harmonica from Stacy Bowen and Luke LeBlanc, is nicely paced and quietly laid-back while the final song, Highway’s Gone, ends up on the road again as a metaphor for a failing relationship; “drivin’ on empty and runnin’ out of room”- a bittersweet melody to take everyone home. 

Luke LeBlanc sings with a warm tone and his voice has a fine quality and resonance across these acoustic tracks. Well worth investigation and another steady step taken in a career that is gaining momentum.

Michael Veitch Wake Up Call Burt Street

This talented and well-respected singer-songwriter has released a 5-track EP that is aimed at the moral conscience of everyone who is witness to the inequality of this World and the crazy extremes of current politics and conglomerate growth.

Veitch plays beautifully on acoustic and electric guitar and his fluid style adds great colour to these songs. He is joined by Lou Pappas (upright bass), Dan Whitley (resonator guitar), Fooch Fischetti (dobro & fiddle), Brian Mellick (percussion) and Andrew Borkowski (cello). Back up vocals are ably provided by Julie Last, Aima Honal and lead vocals from Veitch highlight a gentle and sweet delivery. 

Veteran’s Day, Happy 4th of July, Pledging Allegiance are all wearisome objections to War at any price or cost. Voices Of The Old Days points to a past that has not been heeded or learnt from and White Rose is a song that reflects upon a call to arms. A timely reminder for our troubled times and the lack of empathy that perverts our attempts to recover some humanity.

Amy Henderson May Self Release

Folk meets Indie attitude on this 8-track release. The East Coast of America is familiar stomping ground for this song-writer who handles all vocals and plays acoustic & electric guitar, plus harmonica on her fourth album. There is some nice lead guitar and dobro from Radcliffe Burt and John Priestly plays both fretless & upright bass and mandolin, while Rene Carillo adds cajon and percussion. 

All three add their vocal talents to these well-arranged songs that are both bright and melodic. The drumming of Chris Schup and percussion of John Morland swell the sound and tracks like It’s My Year is a radio hit if ever there was one. Hemingway continues the feel-good factor and the vocal delivery reminds me of Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, not a bad marker. Everything About You and Rockabye Me end proceedings in fine style; the first a soulful rhythm groove and the latter a reflective slow acoustic blues.

Annie Keating Ghost Of The Untravelled Road Self Release

A 5-track release that adds another fine touchstone in the career of this very talented artist. Keating has delivered seven superb albums stretching back to 2004 and her insightful writing is a real joy to experience. The title track speaks of the road not taken in a relationship and is a wistful reflection. Forever Loved is a heart-felt message to a child who must learn to walk their own path but will always be held close in the heart. 

Kindness of Strangers is a journey song for the weary and those in need of respite along the way. Sting Of Hindsight sings of regret and the need to go forward with faith. The closing Forget My Name is paean to love and the urge to move on while being dragged back to the comfort of the past. Throughout there are the wonderful talents of Chris Tarrow (guitars and pedal steel), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), Steve Mayone (mandolin, nylon guitar and harmony vocals), Jason Mercer (upright bass) and Kate Steinberg (harmony vocals). Beautifully played and delivered in real style.

Yvette Landry & the Dukes  Louisiana Lovin’  Soko

Steeped in the Cajun culture of her Louisiana upbringing, Landry is a musician/singer/songwriter who tours worldwide as a multi-instrumentalist in several bands. Over four previous releases she has sought to bring cultures and traditions together and no more so than on this latest release. It is a look back to the days of Juke Joints and dance halls where Louisiana came alive after the working day. The eleven songs are originals from some of the greats like Bobby Charles, Warren Storm, G.G. Shinn and others. The one departure is a great version of the Sara Evans song, Three Chords & The Truth, taken from her debut record in 1997.

The band are quite superb and even more impressive is the fact that there were no rehearsals, with the live environment at Dockside Studios sparking the musicians to record everything with the first take! So, take a bow, Roddie Romero (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Eric Adcock (pianos, farfisa, wurlitzer), Josef Butts (upright bass), Derek Huston (tenor and baritone sax) and Jermaine Prejean (drums and percussion). This ensemble adds greatly to the authentic feel of every track here and the fine vocals and acoustic guitar of Yvette Landry complete the perfect circle. It’s rare that a project hits with such immediacy but this is certainly a real keeper.

Guest musicians Beau Thomas (fiddles) and Richard Comeaux (pedal steel guitar) add great colour to a number of songs, including Three Chords & the Truth and the co-vocals of Landry and Romero are a real joy, especially on Homesick Blues, Yea Baby, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and the standout Take It Easy Greasy. Hopefully this is not a once-off project as this band is way too good not to repeat the magic again.

Annika Fehling Trio In the Universe Rootsy

What a very pleasant surprise! This project is the work of a trio named AFT, led by Annika Fehling, who lives on Gotland, an island off the Swedish mainland. She plays acoustic guitar with real style and is joined by Robert Wahlstrom (piano, Moog and percussion) and Christer Jonasson (guitars, acoustic, electric and lap steel). Production at Spacefield Studios on Gotland is beautifully crisp and clear and delivered by Robert Wahlstrom in impressive style. 

The nine tracks are sung with both passion and a gentle tone by Fehling and the expansive feel reminds me of early John Martyn/Nic Jones when they were exploring the line where folk interpretations stopped and jazz leanings took sway. The room to play and stretch out the arrangements is embraced by all three musicians as they deliver a very resonant and vibrant performance across their range of instruments.

Dark City Alone and Stars arrive with strong rhythms and superb interplay as the song structures build. Spirits Awake and Seamless are more restrained and reflective in delivery. Fehling has an impressive body of work to her name and a back catalogue that is deserving of close scrutiny if this particular project is anything to go by.

Reviews By Declan Culliton

 

Shane Joyce The Sadness of King Joyce Self Release

Following on from his impressive five track mini album release of 2016 titled An Introduction, The Midnight Union Band lead man Shane Joyce returns with his second solo recording, featuring nine self-penned songs and revealing an artist growing in maturity and confidence. In contrast to An Introduction, which pointed towards a love of all things Dylan and Morrison, The Sadness of King Joyce reveals itself to be altogether more intimate, individualistic and soul bearing, with anguish, distress and resolution the dominant themes. In many ways the album exposes the deepest inner thoughts of Joyce and his alter ego.

The title track which opens the album is quite stunning. Delivered with somewhat semi spoken vocals and brought to life by gorgeous strings, compliments of Rowan Sherlock and Claire Kinsella, it confronts lost love head on (‘There’s a girl I used to know, but she had a better place to go. I showed her what I had inside. She said ‘son, those things are easy to find’) with a delivery and deportment that recalls Nick Cave at his most morose. 

The influence of Leonard Cohen, particularly in his early and disconsolate work, are evident throughout the album, most noticeably on The Spider, a nightmarish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale. Stripped to the bone with only vocals and piano, it’s a tale of capture and submission. (‘I slipped into a spider web, I couldn’t move a thing. Then came the bristle of many legs and the teeth began to sink. The venom joined my blood and cauterized my veins’). Similar echoes of Cohen also surface on the otherworldly Winter.

The Battle may be a cry for help, the rock bottom addict yearning sobriety, the abandoned companion begging to be loved again, the depressed pleading for freedom and normality, the adult craving for the comfort of the womb ('Make me strong Mama, like I used to be’). Equally impressive is the beguiling Bad Woman, piano and strings accompanying Joyce’s tale of lust and frustration. In contrast to the desolate opening song To Lady, Too Late concludes the album, certainly not offering closure but with a degree of acceptance and defiance. (There’s no glory in defeat, no grace in backing down, and so I won’t retreat, you’ll keep seeing me around’). 

The Sadness of King Joyce is a coming of age album by an artist equally proficient as a prophet of despair and hopelessness with dark and gothic tales as he is brewing up a storm in his other role as frontman with The Midnight Union Band. Its mix of expressionless and controlled vocals, sparse acoustic guitar and piano add to the atmosphere but what elevates the album is the exquisite strings that embrace and caress much of the material without ever dominating. A wonderful piece of work.

Megan O’Neill Ghost Of You Self Release

Described as The Irish Carrie Underwood by The Irish Times, Kildare born singer songwriter Megan O’Neill’s debut album Ghost Of You follows her 2015 EP Coming Home which reached No.1 in the Irish County Charts and her 2017 mini - album Stories To Tell, recorded with her band The Common Thread and produced by Guy Fletcher (Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler).

Her latest offering Ghost Of You was recorded in Nashville in late 2017 under the guidance of the talented producer, songwriter and pianist Zak Lloyd – who also co-wrote six of the inclusions - and its twelve songs are tailor made for the new country market. Don’t expect screeching fiddle playing or haunting pedal steel guitar, instead the album offers radio friendly crossover pop country of a quality that’s tailor made to tick all the boxes for inclusion on Country Radio playlists. The title track Ghost Of You – a gorgeous ballad composed in memory of lost loved ones - together with Why I Need You and Without have all been released as singles over the past nine months and the album has its official release on 9th June. Tell You To Leave, Good Love and opener Don’t Come Easy find O’Neill every bit at ease belting out catchy arena anthems as she is with heartfelt ballads.

 O’Neill hasn’t put a foot wrong career wise to date with appearances at The Bluebird Café in Nashville, slots at C2C in London and having her song Don’t You featured in the TV series Nashville. It’s extraordinary that no Irish female artist in recent years has made an international breakthrough in the commercial country market given the popularity of the genre in Ireland. This could possibly change with this release, O’Neill has put her heart and soul into Ghost Of You and given the exposure has the talent, vocals, songs and drive to match the success of like-minded acts this side of the pond such as The Shires and Ward Thomas. Watch this space.

Ana Egge White Tiger Storysound

Ana Egge had already got seven albums under her belt when I discovered her in 2011 courtesy of the excellent Bad Blood album which introduced me to the artist christened 'The Nina Simone of Folk' by none other than Lucinda Williams. Praise indeed and well justified for the Saskatchewanborn singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose latest release White Tiger has me scratching my head wondering why she’s not a household name. Voted at nineteen years of age the Best Singer Songwriter and Best Folk Artist by The Austin Music Awards and with supports slots on tours by Iris De Ment, Shawn Colvin, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Ron Sexsmith it’s inconceivable that Egge remains relatively undiscovered by many. Perhaps it’s her free spirited mentality to flit between various genres, in many cases on the same album, whether it be country, indie folk and jazz, that’s resulted in her being difficult to classify and to market. Alec Spiegelman is the producer this time around and his contributions on keyboards and reeds together with string and horn arrangements greatly enhance the ten tracks on the album.

White Tiger- her tenth recording -finds Egge in a typically empirical mood from the opening and instantly catchy opener Girls, Girls, Girls, which details a lesbians coming out in the Big Smoke - complete with whistles and horns - and  equally captivating is the You Among The Flowerscomplete with it’s woolly and unshakable robotic rhythm. One cover version is included and it fits the overall rustic theme of the album like a glove. John Hartford’s In Tall Buildings laments having to leave behind all cherished values by way of conformity ('Goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew, goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you') and Egge shares the lead vocal with guitarist and bluegrass musician Billy Strings with violin courtesy of Alex Hargreaves. The title track White Tiger, dedicated to a dear friend encountering difficult times, drifts along beautifully with Egge’s dream like vocals simply hypnotic.

Ana Egge, together with the superb Kate Stables (This Is The Kit), Anais Mitchell and Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station), has helped to redefine folk music into a distinctive alt/indie style and White Tiger is yet another outstanding album from an artist you really need to check out. 

Mike Ross Jenny’s Place Taller

The U.K. has for decades produced some exceptional blues artists, many of whom have remained relatively unknown outside their immediate fan base. Sussex resident Mike Ross falls into this category, even if his output has one leg in the rock camp with a sound that brings to mind the swashbuckling Scottish blues rocker Frankie Miller or Roger Chapman of Family and Streetwalkers fame.

Jenny’s Place (named after his wife’s Swedish holiday home) is the second solo album recorded by Ross and features nine studio tracks together with six bonus live tracks recorded at The Latest. Thumping bass and gravely vocals introduce the opener Bamboozled, a boozy, sexy, barroom blast and a fair indication of what’s to follow. The Big Picturerecalls mid-career Stones, Harpotips its hat in the direction of Canned Heat and Jenny (Sun Goes Down) could have been plucked from the Tom Petty songbook with its infectious riff and chorus.

There’s not a lot on Jenny’s Place that hasn’t been done endless times before but Ross’s hoarsy, vocals, screeching guitar and harmonica breaks are a reminder of how uplifting rootsy blues music can be when the bar is set this high. Classic roots/blues rock revisited and certainly an artist that would be a blast in a live setting.

Charley Crockett Lonesome As A Shadow Thirty Tigers

Street wise from an early age as a result of years spent hitchhiking and busking around the States and satisfying his wanderlust by spells in Paris, Spain, Morocco and North Africa, Charley Crockett – a descendant of American folk hero Davy Crockett -  finally returned to his home state of Texas in 2015 where he settled down and recorded three albums. His debut album A Stolen Jewel gained him the Dallas Observer Award as Best Blues Artist of that year.  Crockett subsequently got the opportunity to tour as support act to Turnpike Troubadours and the positive exposure lead to a recording deal with Thirty Tigers. His release on that label in 2016 was an album of country covers titled Charley Crockett presents LIL G.L’s Honky Tonk Jubilee which revisited the work of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Ray Acuff and Webb Pierce In homage to a host of traditional country artists that influenced him. 

Lonesome As A Shadow – the title depicting Crockett’s early busking career - finds him more experimental and exploring various styles of music from blues to country and soul to Cajun. Recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis under the watchful eye of Grammy Award producer Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Chris Isaac), the album was recorded live to tape over a period of four days and features some stunning musicianship from his backing band Blue Drifters.  Crockett’s uneven vocals can be an acquired taste and are rescued on occasions by the quality of the musicians alongside him in the studio who manage to transform and rescue some quite average material in some cases.

Writing and recording the album was, no doubt, a labour of love for Crockett and the opportunity to showcase his many musical influences and inspirations. Comparisons in his press releases to the work of Hank Williams, Van Morrison, Dr. John and Bill Withers are somewhat exaggerated, though there are a number of highlights on the album, in particular the bluesy Sad & Blue and the rocking Goin’ Back To Texas. All in all, the album, for me, suffers from a lack of coherency and over ambition, despite the dazzling playing throughout.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers Years Bloodshot

The second album from this tight and tenacious combo follows time spent touring and playing in front of audiences across the US. There is some real meat here with all parts of the equation adding up to something that counts. The band serve the songs and it all feels right. The guitar and steel give that roots edge but the overall sound is capable of a number of twists and turns that fail to pigeon-hole them into a single category. However, there is no doubting that this fits the overall loose Americana tag. 

Shook is the author of the 10 songs and she has a voice that is central to their truth. Songs that deal with a variety of emotions and moods that are signalled, to a degree, by their titles. New Ways To Fail, The Bottle Never Lets Me Down, Damned If I Do, Dammed If I Don’t and Heartaches In Hell are all songs that have at their heart an emotional and intentional reaction to situations that feel like her take on the reality of living and coping in these straightened times. Hard times, heart breaks and hard drinking are all explored with a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She can also take and understand an opposite viewpoint, like in The Bottle Never Lets Me Down where she sings the song from the male perspective.

With some of her more high profile major label contemporaries, like Kacey Musgraves for instance, making moves to a broader pop platform it is refreshing to hear Shook and her band explore the possibilities of their music without abandoning the underlying sense of country, alternative or otherwise, that is the bedrock of her two albums to date. Whether she expands on that in any way is up to Shook but for now she and her core band which features exhilarating exchanges between guitarist Eric Peterson and steel guitarist Phil Sullivan and bassist Aaron Oliva make music that is for these times. 

Karen Jonas Butter Self Release 

There is a sense of maturity about this new album from Karen Jonas. She is a mother as well as a working musician and so that has to mean that she doesn’t have a great deal of time to mess around and on her latest album she looks at her life and delivers a set of songs that reflect her life and loves. This means a smooth mix of twang and torch. A subtle blend of country, folk as well as a touch of soul and jazz tinged moments. 

The title song relates to a love of baking in her kitchen and the associations that butter has with her family, her upbringing and also the family she is raising currently.It’s about being at home with family as much as being at home with her music. There are also references to the circus of life in songs like the directly titled   as well as in Mr Wonka. Elsewhere she walks, reluctantly, down Yellow Brick Road (“paved with fool’s gold”), Butter is an allegory for the good things and Jonas alludes to that with the track’s big band feel. Then thereare the tales of heartbreak and woe that often are the subject of country aligned albums.

The album was co-produced by long term associates who worked on the last two albums, guitarists Tim Bray and Jeff Covert, in a studio in hometown Fredericksburg in Virginia. It features a full, warm sound that includes pedal steel, fiddle, keyboards and brass, alongside a strong rhythm section and some versatile guitar contributions. Often, they recorded in late night sessions after the kids were tucked up which gives the album a sense of comfort and ease with unforced late night attributions. There is a timeless feel throughout that has both class and sass. All three of Jonas’ albums are worthy of attention and the combined talents of all those involved have produced a set of recordings that are as real and tasty as butter on a good bread.

Sean Burns and Lost Country Music For Taverns, Bars and Honky Tonks Self Release

This Winnipeg artist has released a number of albums under his own name alone. This one has the appendage of Lost Country - a set of musicians who have joined in the recording to deliver a set of songs that live up to the album title. Music that indeed would fit any of the venues mentioned. Small, intimate, loud and looking to be entertained. And entertain they do from the train whistle sound of the cut-a-rug opener, Have You seen That Train. The band - Joanna Miller on drums, bassist Bernie Thiessen and guitarist Grant Siemens - are joined by a couple of superlative players in the fabulous Chris Scruggs on steel guitar and Harry Stinson on harmony vocals as well as (for one track) harmonica player Big Dave McLean.

What makes the album work especially well is the diverse nature of the songs. The second track Farewell Parties (which might be located more in atavern than arowdy bar) is a sad, slow tale of a break-up when his woman is setting up the event before he has actually gone. Then there’s the mid-tempo My Old Self, a quavering vocal that tells of a man who doesn’t really want to get back to his bar-fly self anymore. Throughout, Burns vocal delivery is spot on and able to take the rough with the smooth, the lost with the found. Burns penned a half dozen of the songs but choose some good songs that fit the bill from other writers such as Wade Mosher’s Don’t Let The Highway Get You Lost, a song about keeping focus and avoiding distractions. Big Freightliner is a song written by fellow honky-tonker Andrew Neville. Dan Russell’s Sturdy Woman should also please Band fans too. Another stand out is Don’t Play With Fire a cautionary tale co-written by Burns and Sara Bleackley with some great Harry Stinson harmonies. The final song here, I Wish Things Were Different, is another ballad that is full of regret and remorse.

As with all the songs, the band and guests have a ball and the playing is perfect for the music with Scruggs steel adding a welcome diversity that takes the music upwards and onwards. Though the core band are well capable of delivering in a live setting I would imagine (and with the YouTube live clips to back it up). Sean Burns joins the growing number of under the radar independent artists who clearly love to listen to and play classic country; albeit from their own point of view with original songs and well chosen covers. Top notch music for all occasions - if those occasions demand a cool band building a head of steam on some hot songs.

Ashley McBryde Girl Going Nowhere Atlantic

This girl from Arkansas plays guitar and writes songs. Ashley McBryde rhastwo previous self released albums and won the Country Showdown talent show before signing with Atlantic records and releasing her major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere. That this album was produced by Jay Joyce made me fear for something more bombastic with strong crossover leanings so it’s good to report that this is a more subtle and restrained production and very much in sync with the songs. McBryde is a part of the trend towards female songwriters who write for their times and contemporaries. The end results though are good storytelling songs that should always be at the heart of what is labelled country music.

A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega, the first single from the album is an example of her craft and was named one of the best songs of 2017. There are many other here that show her skill at taking the elements of her upbringing, as well as observations of those she sees around her, as the focus and subjects of her writing. The title track and opening song is a realisation that while a person can be dubbed going nowhere, this can in fact be doing pretty good. Radioland tells of the influence that that medium had on her and her family. American Scandal is a passionate declaration of the need for love. As is often the case these days McBryde has co-written these songs for the most part with a selection of different co-writersbut whatever the source, they are well written and engaging. The one solo write is a straight and honest consideration of the things that are good and bad about a close relationship. That song, Andy (I Can’t Live Without You), will resonate with many as being based in a no-bullshit reality (as is much of the material here). Material that is memorable and full of a definite female power.

The lyrics are all worth listening to and it’s a shame that the label didn’t see fit to include them in the package to make that easier. Another factor in the success of the album is McBryde using her band on the album; a group of players who have lived with these songs and understand them. Joyce’s production, as mentioned, helps to achieve a balanced and dynamic sound that moves from slower ballads to out and out rockers like El Dorado. Out in front of all this is McBryde’s striking vocal delivery that is full of heart and soul. Ashley McBryde’s major label debut is one of an artist who is going places and one well worth joining her on

Ashley Monroe Sparrow Warner Brothers 

For this new album Monroe has taken a step in a different direction than I had expected. Her performance at Dublin C2C in 2016was a stand-out of more traditionally minded country music (closer to the real thing than much of what has performed under that banner). For this album Monroe has worked with the very much in demand Dave Cobb. They recorded the album in the Historic Studio A in Nashville and have used the environment to create what they may have considered to be a contemporary take on the string-laden countrypolitan made famous by Chet Atkins (often in that very studio). It is an interesting if not quite fulfilling venture. One that artist and producer are no doubt happy with but one that somehow fails to ignite despite some quality song writing.

Monroe is still a distinctive and twang-inflected singer who is commanding on these co-written songs. It has highlights like She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me) and the opening Orphan, the heartbreak of Paying Attention or the affection of Daddy Told You. But the overall sound seems to fall between different stools; neither pop nor traditional country, without really firmly establishing itself in its own right. There is no steel guitar for instance which might’ve helped to somehow make a link to her previous work. Rather, it is strings with an accompanying rhythm section, keyboards and Cobb’s own guitar contributions.Individually the songs are good enough but overall the similar mood and arrangements tends to negate the strength of the intention.

As part of the Pistol Annie’s Monroe achieved some recognition but her solo career seems not to have taken off as expected and for a writer and singer of her undoubted talent that is a shame. There are circumstances for that to a degree, especially in the way country radio underplays the role of female artists. So, in the end, Sparrow tries hard but doesn’t quite succeed on its own terms but that doesn’t mean writing off Ashely Monroe. What will be interesting, outside of this release, will be how she performthese songs in a live setting alongside the music of the previous albums. For now, it is worth listening to Sparrow yourselves and making your own minds up as to how it flies.

Ross Cooper I Rode The Wild Horses Self Release

Perhaps the best known of the real cowboy singer/songwriters is Chris Ledoux. Others include Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson and you can add to that list, Ross Cooper, a former professional bareback rider who had to quit the rodeo circuit when he sustained a knee injury. Now he concentrates on music and has just released this brand new album. The title track makes reference to that career though many of the other songs are more about the trialsand tribulations of everyday life. Me Only, Damn Love, Living’s Hard, Loving’s Easy and Heart Attacks are all explorations of day to day existence. Equally the album has a hard-edge sound that is hardly traditional honky-tonk. Often it hits the edge of hard riff-laden rock. But then some of Ledoux’s music did as well.

The album was produced and mixed by Eric Masse in Nashville. He and Copper assembled a sturdy set of players including Steelism’s Jeremy Fetzer and Eddy Dunlap on pedal steel. Another name that may be familiar to many is Erin Rae on backing vocals. These join the 11 named musicians who contribute their talents to the recordings on what is an enjoyable album that has enough roots Americana to make it of interest to all those who enjoy the more adventurous side of things.

Fellow artist Paul Cauthen co-wrote Old Crow Whiskey & A Cornbread Moon with Cooper and it is one of the more traditionally orientated songs here. Andrew Combs, another artist who may be known to our readers, is a co-writer of Lady Of The Highway along with Jordan Leaning. It celebrates those ladies who add some comfort for those travelling the well worn highways. Cooper has a versatile voice that can handle the slower material along with the up-tempo rockers. It is the kind of album that may well appeal to Ryan Bingham fans and those who like their roots music to have a less traditional bias.

Cooper had a hand in writing all the 12 tracks here and he is following his muse in music and looking for the same thrill that bareback horse riding undoubtably gave him. I imagine that in a live setting with a receptive audience that he might get close. On record he has made an album that grows with listening and signals a singer/songwriter who has the experience of a lifestyle first hand that others only imagine (his song Cowboys & Indians touches on that very subject). An experience that should translate into a portfolio of believable songs as he gets further into his music career. As his song says he is Another Mile on that path.

Romantica Outlaws Self Release

A couple of years agoBen Kyle released a self-titled album that was one of my albums of the year. He also released a fine duets album with Carrie Rodriquez. Since then he has been putting out albums under his previous band name, Romantica. This new album is a mixture of all these elements. The opening track features Rodriquez on backing vocals and the final track is a version of one of the standout tracks from his solo album. This live rendition of The Dark features Ryan Adams. 

Key to Romantica’s gentle, reflective sound is pedal steel guitar. On one of the tracks he features two different steel players. The songs are originals with the exception of two covers - Something from George Harrison and the other is his take on Hallelujah. Now I have to admit, though I love the song, I’m a bit hallelujahed out at this stage having heard so many versions - some good, some bad -  this one however has meaning for Kyle and fits the mood of the album fine. But given the standard of his songs like Do Go Gently, Love In Winter or Listen To Your Soul he may not need to add outside material other than that the songs has a special meaning for him in context of the overall album.

Kyle has recently been through a serious and debilitating illness (Lyme Disease) and couldn’t function in the way he wanted and was unable to communicate or make music. A distressing situation for anyone to face and doubly so for someone who often communicated through words and music. This release then is very welcome. Kyle is still dealing with the illness and its ramifications but has found a way and the words to deal with that.

Without knowing this, these tracks still offer and deliver much. They are called forgotten songs. Songs from an earlier time that have been outsiders, outlaws. Now they may offer some insight. I haven’t heard all the previous Romantica albums but would recommend them (as would my colleague Paul who reviewed the last album). The band name may be slightly incongruous given what he has been going through but is perfectly suited to this music. Wishing you well Ben.

Lloyd Green & Jee Dee Maness Journey To The Beginning Coastal Bend

This album is (largely) instrumental revisit to the Byrds seminal Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album by the two steel guitarists who played on different parts of the album; Green in Nashville and Maness in LA. Anyone who loves the sound of steel guitar will enjoy the joint playing of these two masters of the instrument. There is a rhythm section of Dennis Crouch and John Gardner and they are joined by Russ Pahl (guitars), Sam Bush (mandolin and fiddle) and others including Al Perkins, Sally Van Meter, Earl Poole Ball and Skip Edwards. An array of talent in other words. John Macy was in the producer’s chair.

The songs will be well known to anyone who knows the original album and include I Am A Pilgrim, Hickory Wind, The Christian Life as well as a song that was recorded at the time but not included. One Hundred Years From Now gets an outing here. It is a niche album perhaps but also a tribute to an instrument that was once fundamental to country music and to an album that many regard as one of the foundation stones of country-rock.

The final track is a reprise of You Ain’t Going Nowhere which features the vocals of Jim Lauderdale, Herb Peterson, Richie Furay and Jeff Hanna all trading verses. it makes a fitting end to the otherwise vocal-less album. Steel guitar lovers worldwide should take notice as well as those who appreciate the many talents involved in putting this tribute together.

 

Reviews by Paul McGee

 

Patrick Darrah Northern Truth Double Darrah

This artist is from Bloomingdale, New York where he worked in his father’s auto business. These days he lives in Nashville and delivers his debut recording, on his own independent label, Double Darrah Entertainment. He writes two of the ten songs included here and the production is by Drew Smith and Kevin “Swine” Grantt, both of whom play in the studio band. 

There are songs of lost towns and lost lives (Colorado), old flames, old memories (Who You Used To Be), old love (I Never Got Over You), memories of youth (Mama Left The Radio On; Dry County). Being left behind is a common theme in Country music but three songs are perhaps a few too many on the same record (You Make It Look Easy; After You and Love Oughta Be Perfect). 

There is a real contemporary country groove to the songs and both Smooth As Whiskey and the rap groove of Make You Mine are the stand-out radio hits.The playing and production are very bright and clear in what makes for an enjoyable listen overall.  

Korby Lenker Thousand Springs Soundly

Seven releases into a career that has seen him mature into a song-writer of some substance, in addition to a published writer, for this project Lenker recorded the basic tracks in different places that held an importance for him. These are songs that are written with personal meaning rather than commercial appeal but the strong sense of melody ensures that his craft shines through. Having recorded across seven states and featuring approx. 30 different artists, including Amy Speace and Molly Tuttle, the songs have an immediate appeal.

There is a lonely quality to the opening tracks, Northern Lights and Friend And A Friend, both focusing on leaving and travelling on with reflections of life on the road and an unknown future. Uh Oh is a song about infatuation and the hope in wishing, it is gentle and sweet, as is the fine ballad, Love Is The Only Song, with cello and piano complimenting the whispered vocals. 

There is a look back through the rear window to younger days and lessons learned in Father To The Man, co-written with Amy Speace, while the dark tale of Stormy Seas is somewhat stark by contrast. The rock vibe of Last Man Standing tells the tale of Custer and Crazy Horse in the Sioux Nation fight for survival. The happily inane girlfriend in Book Nerd bears little resemblance with the free-spirit busker of Nothing Really Matters and her old man admirer who watches from afar. There is a sense of Paul Simon in the vocal delivery here and also on the excellent Late Bloomers; a song that speaks of the need to keep believing, even if dreams have been lost along the way. The final song, Wherever You Are is a real stand-out and an ode to the memory of a lost friend, both gentle and sad while keeping the feeling alive.

The project was produced by Korby Lenker, mixed by Paul Mitch, and mastered by Alex McCullough. It is a very engaging album and one which comes with a warm recommendation. 

S Carey Hundred Acres Jagjaguwar

This is a meditation of sorts, a soft whisper across a field in the early morning dew. The ten tracks blend into a seamless listening experience that never lifts beyond the gently laid-back atmosphere created by producer, song-writer, multi-instrumentalist S Carey – also known for his role as the drummer and supporting vocalist of indie folk band Bon Iver. 

He is joined here by a small group of musicians who play beautifully and sensitively in support of these mood pieces, including Justin Vernon, original founder of Bon Iver. This is the third solo release from Sean Carey and the whispered vocals and lush, yet understated, sonic vibe to the project is beautifully realised.  

Pedal steel mixes with synthesizer while programmed sounds blend with violin and viola. Titles such as Meadow Song, (with clarinet & french horn), Hundred Acres, True North, Rose Petals and Hideout give a flavour of the sense of quiet place and space that permeates this record.

A contemporary sound that hints at days gone by yet points to a bright future for this excellent musician.

True North Open Road, Broken Heart Self Release

True North is an acoustic Folk/Roots band that has released three previous albums prior to this new offering which surfaced in 2017. The band comprises Kristen Grainger (ukulele, vocals), Dan Wetzel (guitar, resonator guitar, octave mandolin, ukulele, vocals), Martin Stevens (mandolin, fiddle, octave mandolin, vocals) and Josh Adkins (upright bass, vocals). The album features eight songs written by Kristen Grainger and four covers; Mighty Bourbon (Justin Evan Thompson), The Eye (Brandi Carlile, Philip and Timothy Hanseroth), Wilder Than Her (Fred Eaglesmith) and Without You (Eddie Vedder).

Guest musicians Eric Alterman (cello) and Todd Sickafoose (bass) join the band who self-produced the collection at Big Owl Studios in Salem, Oregon. The playing is subtle and understated, giving the songs a cohesion and fluidity that makes the listening experience a very positive one. The vocals of Grainger are very engaging and the sweet melodies are quite hypnotic when listening on headphones; intimate and charged with a gentle longing.  The harmony vocals with Dan Wetsel are very complimentary to Grainger’s voice and lend an added layer to the arrangements.

One-Way Ticket contains the lines that appear as the title of the album and the song is one of striking out for the future, changing circumstances and having the will to keep believing. Dark Horse Bar & Grill celebrates the solace of a local hostelry where there is ‘lots of free philosophy’. Ratio of Angels to Demons deals with the passing of a friend and does so in a very creative and poignant manner. The subject matter of some songs is somewhat bleak with titles like I’m Gone, You Come Round, Sunday Night Blues and Without You handling the pain of separation and the feeling of being alone in the World. 

However, these are balanced by the upbeat melodies of Seed, Leaf, Flower, Seed – a celebration of the Seasons and the inherent magic of Mother Nature, plus the ability to take the extraordinary from the everyday ordinary things as explored on Small Wonders. A very impressive release and one that is well worth exploring further.

Will Paynter Truth & Beauty Self Release

Fender Rhodes and tenor sax join with the tenor bass of Will Paynter on opening track, One Better Man and we are given a soulful feel for the talents of this artist who performs and records with the Sonoma Sound Band. They play roots music with rhythms that incorporate blues, country and folk influences. 

Paynter served in the army with the Green Berets and has lived in both in Central and South America. His wandering has also seen him travel in the Far East and the South Pacific, North Africa and the Middle East. He has released a few previous albums and this current project includes 13 tracks and a list of studio musicians that is both very long and impressive with Greg Brady and Paynter co-producing. 

There are four cover versions of songs by Tom Waits (Down There By The Train), Johnny Cash (Let The Train Blow The Whistle), Bruce Springsteen (Further On Up The Road) and Dock Boggs (Wild Bill Jones) and all other songs are written by Will Paynter. The acoustic stripped-down feel to the whole recording and the less-is-more playing adds to the character of the songs like Loving You, Truth & Beauty, Brand New Day, All I Own and Clearer To Me Now

The most arresting song is What People Are Talking About, which highlights all of the injustice in the World today and a commentary on the lack of humanity in all of it – a grim overview of our times.

Six vocalists, five guitar players, three drummers, two bass players, accordion, violin, pedal-steel, banjo, saxophone, piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, and some fine harmonica playing from Paynter himself – plenty to enjoy here.

Jordan Davis Home State HumpHead.

A debut album from new artist Jordan Davis who comes from Louisiana, USA. The twelve songs are typical of the crossover country releases that are proving so popular among the current listeners of commercial radio stations. There is a slick production sound, courtesy of Paul DiGiovanni, who also contributes acoustic & electric guitars, banjo, vocals and programming. 

It is that last credit that old purists of the Country genre hate to see – programming. In modern recording techniques the use of loops, syncopated beats and programming can lead to something more akin to Pop music and can sound sterile, lacking real character or colour. 

This release falls into that territory. Sure, there are lots of bright choruses and hooks that will sound great while driving along with the windows down and the stereo turned up. Songs that celebrate woman-kind and songs that celebrate the chase involved in impressing a sought-after beauty – Tough To Tie Down; Singles You Up; Made That Way; So Do I; Dreamed You Did – all come and go with the hopes of success in the high stakes of romantic conquest. 

Country music is not something that exists in a vacuum and it must move forward, but the modern sound of albums like this do not fit any definition of the original roots of Country. Davis has a strong vocal and the tracks all bounce with a bright and breezy quality but I find myself wishing for Willie Nelson or Emmylou to appear and save the day. Hmmm.

Reviews by Paul McGee

 

 

Mare Wakefield & Nomad Time To Fly Maresie

This husband and wife duo met at Berklee College of Music in 2004. These days they are based in Nashville and multi-instrumentalist Nomad Ovunc produced and engineered this collection of 12 songs for their second release as a duo. Mare (Mary) Wakefield has been releasing solo records since 1997, with a total of 5 albums to her name. She plays acoustic guitar and sings with great clarity and conviction across these self-penned songs and very impressive they are too. 

Nomad contributes on piano and accordion plus melodica, percussion and backing vocals. The superb Will Kimbrough plays electric guitar and is joined by Brian Allen on upright and electric bass and Wes Little plays drums. They contribute in no small sense to what is a very accomplished collection. Special guests include Greg Foresman (electric guitar), Eamon McLoughin (fiddle), Bobby Holland (backing vocals) and Mike Waldron (guitar). 

The songs touch on a number of current topics as Land Of The Free demonstrates; a biting condemnation of bigotry in modern America and the lie of it being the land of the free. Lyrically this lady really nails it. The songs Breathe and Falling deal with lessons learned from heartbreak and failed relationships, while the title track looks at losing a loved one and the growth that can arise from bereavement.

Real Big Love is a playful opener with an up-tempo beat and a celebration of being alive in a World of free will and endless choice. Henry is a similar giddy, tongue-in-cheek, look at a flirtatious restaurant employee and a customer she fancies… The Day We Buried Mama is a real hoot with the sub-title (& Cousin Bobby Joe Got Wed). Old country jive and great playing by Nomad on piano.

Bernice & Bernadette is a song of unrequited love at a time when such liaisons were forbidden to dwell upon, much less put into action. It is both poignant and beautifully observed.

These are folk songs in the best tradition and the talents of Nomad blend perfectly with the warm vocals and song-writing talents of Mare in creating a highly recommended release. 

I’m Kingfisher Transit Fading Trails

This is the creation of Thomas Jonsson who writes all eleven songs here and adds guitars and vocals to the project. He is joined by a coterie of musicians who support the melodies on a variety of instruments. Jonsson has been releasing music since 2003 and this represents his third album as musical alias, I’m Kingfisher. Produced by Carl Edlom, who also contributes on guitars, bass, piano, synthesizers, percussion, field recordings and vocals, the stripped-down sound of these acoustic driven songs is a soft seduction that eases itself up to you and settles down for the evening by the fire. There is a hypnotic quality to the strumming and voice which lulls the listener in and gently seduces. Think Nick Drake meets Jeff Buckley if you want a sign-post along the way.

Luck Underwhelms Me is a powerful arrangement with subtle string accompaniment and Sarajevo is a song that checks Vedran Smailović, known as the "Cellist of Sarajevo".  Can’t Wait For The Future is a song of hope and for growing through new experience. Silent Spring shows off some fine guitar work but the subject matter of the song escapes me.

Although no lyric sheet came with this music and the actual words are hard to follow, it does not seem to matter, as the whole stream-of-consciousness vibe on the project allows the arrangements and voice to meld together. Despite the fact that song titles like Superman In A Wake and Topography Of Gabon don’t lend themselves to easy explanation and the abstract art work of the CD cover is in no way representative of the music contained within; I find myself increasingly impressed on repeated listening with this entire project. You will not be disappointed upon purchase.

The Equitorial Group Apricity Self Release.

This band hail from Eastbourne, England and are comprised of Teresa Fox (keys and vocals), Andy Tourle (bass and vocals), Dave Davies (guitar and vocals), Mike Tourle (drums) and Helen Weeks (vocals and pedal steel/guitar). They issued a compilation last year of previous songs, plus a few new titles, three of which appear on this new album. Apart from a Live at Summer Trifle Festival release, again in 2017, I know little about the band as there is no information with the CD that arrived for review – quite frustrating and not helpful.

The title of the album refers to the warmth of the sun in winter and their sound is akin to a gentle stroll in the early morning with the minimal strum of guitar and simple drum brushes delivered on the first two songs, Lights Shine and Juggernauts, setting the mood for the rest of the album. Surrogate Funeral dials everything up a notch with a good beat and rhythm that allows the musicians to stretch out a little and the noir feel of Burning is interesting. Electric Night and Motorbikes build into extended guitar explorations and the arrangements overall hint at mood scapes that carry a wistful sense of surrender. Farewell My Lovely and Those Dudes are a slice of Americana that points to wider influences and this is Folk-Rock with fine playing and confident vocal delivery. A release that bodes well for the future.

Paul Thorn Don’t Let The Devil Ride Perpetual Obscurity

This is a collection of Gospel/Soul/Blues songs, mainly plucked from obscurity and originally recorded by black southern gospel groups. There is also a cover of Love Train, the classic O’Jays hit and Paul Thorn has really delivered a collection of 14 tracks that impress on all levels. A veteran of the Roots-Rock circuit with a dozen releases to his name, Thorn is a well-respected artist who was born and raised in Mississippi and the son of a preacher. The influences of his childhood in Church revivals are clearly evident here and he honours the old traditions with real spirit and plenty of loving attention to detail.  

Featuring guest artists such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, The McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns and Bonnie Bishop, the themes of redemption, reflection and resilience in the face of troubled times are highlighted in songs like Keep Holdin’ On; One More River; You Got To Move; Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed and Soon I Will Be Done. The title track, Something On My Mind and What Should I Do all have a slow blues groove and the co-production of Billy Maddox and Colin Linden is a joy throughout. Little Feat meets BB King and the result is pure gold.  A must have purchase. 

Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints Texas, etc… Dolly Rocker

Jeb Barry has three previous releases and his reputation as an artist in the Americana space is well earned. His Pawn Shop Saints are Michael O’Neill (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Chris Sampson (bass) with Josh Pisano (drums) and they support the songs with easy restraint and understated skill. Jeb takes lead vocal and plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, mandolin, bass and dobro. If you enjoy Steve Earle then this music will please you greatly.

This is a double CD with 19 tracks in total and the band are joined by Dan Tremblay (acoustic guitar), Ray Gargan (fiddle), Bernadette McMahon (ukulele), Heather Austin (lead/backing vocals) and Thomas Corrigan (vocals) to add some extra weight to the recording process. Disc One (The Sainted) is with the band, while Disc Two (The Saintless) is more sparse, stripped-down and solo. 

His songs address issues of the heart with the conundrum of love and the lack of it. Songs like You Don’t Ever Miss Me, The Girl Never Loved Me, Galveston 92, Evidence, A Little Mercy and Everybody Knows leave no doubt that finding love and then keeping it nurtured are the most difficult challenges that this songwriter grapples with. Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time is a more light-hearted look at relationships and is a duet with Heather Austin. Refugees is a fine song and looks at the difficulties in modern America where bigotry runs rife; the message of ‘aren’t we all refugees?’ is well delivered and a timely reminder of the original aspirations upon which the USA was founded.

Robert Lane Only A Flight Away Self Release

This is the third release from Robert Lane, a singer songwriter based in Birmingham. He has played mainly in a solo capacity in building a career that has seen him tour extensively throughout England and Germany. With upcoming tours in both Holland and Scandinavia, his momentum is building and his playing skills are very strong.

Lane has a clear vocal style and plays guitars, bass and piano on this album. He is joined by Matthew Pinfield on drums, bass and piano and Lucy Phillips on violin. The production, by Matthew Pinfield, goes for a much bigger panorama and a range of styles beyond his contemporary Folk leanings. 

The instrumental opener, The Hundred House, is impressive with emotive guitar lines and a swell of keyboards and programmed backing voices. The following track, Man Of The Moment, a swipe at Donald Trump, has a very Rock driven guitar sound that reminds me of Wishbone Ash in the arrangement. There are songs that lean towards radio aspirations with the arrangement on Right By My Side channelling a Beatles/ELO string section.

The acoustic blues of Baby Knows is a song that highlights the great fretwork of Lane and on The Instigator, a finely melodic dissection of a one-sided relationship, his acoustic guitar shines brightly again. These simple Folk arrangements work best.

The message of Far Too Busy is one of frustration at the loneliness in the world and the marginalised in society; prostitution, old age and child abuse are addressed in a plea to slow down and recognise the quiet desperation in the faces of those around us every day. Take As Long As You Need is a message of support for a close friend who is going through a grieving process and is a well thought out song. The final track, Who Do You Think You’re Talking For, with just solo acoustic guitar, speaks to a friend about toning down a brash ego and taking stock. 

The artwork on the album is somewhat odd and unrepresentative of the music. A more fitting image might have been to represent the song that inspired the CD title and Bill Frost’s Flying Machine, a Welsh legend about the first man to attempt to fly, is an excellent tune.

All songs are written by Lane, apart from three co-writes with musician/producer Matthew Pinfield. An interesting release that enhances a growing reputation as Robert Lane continues to hone his signature sound.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Western Centuries Songs From The Deluge Free Dirt

If it ain’t broken don’t fix it. Western Centuries template for their debut release Weight Of The World (2016) was simple -  strong songs, killer vocals, sweet harmonies and stellar playing. Anyone fortunate to catch their live shows while touring that album last year would testify to their ability to tick all these boxes and more. Together with featuring much of the material from that album they also included what seemed to be an endless supply of new material, weaving effortlessly between classic, cajun and honky tonk country. Much of that material has ended up on Songs From The Deluge, songs that were written, tested and honed on their gruelling touring schedule in 2017. 

Loosely described as a supergroup, Western Centuries are made up of three accomplished writers and musicians in Ethan Lawton, Cahalen Morrison and Jim Miller. Leo Grasalon on pedal steel and upright bass player Nokosee Fields complete the line-up. In true democratic fashion each of the writers contribute four songs each on the album, taking lead vocals on their own compositions. Three songwriters on an album can be one (or two) too many but Western Centuries – as was the case with their debut album – manage to impressively achieve a consistent flow from start to finish by all sticking to their core value of producing pure country music and avoiding any crossover into pop or modern country.

 Jim Miller, who could be described as the father figure in the band, cut his early career teeth with Donna The Buffalo, who were Jim Lauderdale’s backing band for a spell. Ethan Lawton was formerly a member of Zoe Muth’s band The Lost High Rollers and Cahalen Morrison was previously a member of the duo Eli West. Between them they conjure up George Jones style ballads (Rocks And Flame, Wild Birds), Maverick’s quality Tex-Mex (Far From Home, Warm Guns), no nonsense honky tonk (My Own Private Honky Tonk, soulful blues (Three Swallows) and even find room to let there hair down with the full on rocker Time Does The Rest

Self-produced by the band in Eunice Louisiana with the assistance of Cajun musician and producer Joel Savoy, Songs From The Deluge is a joy to behold, probably best described simply as a fun album from start to finish.

Eva Hillered New Me Hill Songs

Swedish singer songwriter, music therapist, vocal teacher and authoress Eva Hillered has been recording since 1988, when she was nominated for a Grammy as Newcomer of The Year. Since then she has recorded nine albums, the latest titled New Me. The album is made up of both self and co-writes over the ten tracks, with Hillered performing vocals and guitar and multi-instrumentalist Peter Sund contributing guitar, mandolin, drums, rhodes and percussion. Sund also co-produced the album with Hillered.

Highly regarded in her native Sweden, Hillered’s musical style ticks both the folk and country boxes with an easy listening charm, characterised best here on the title track and Rosanne Cash sounding Swede Hollow. The Curtain and Sing Him Back – the latter a co-write with Nels Andrews - are uncluttered and dreamlike with Hillered’s impressive vocals perfectly paced.  Equally arresting is The Hunt, a haunting tune brought to life by well-placed backing vocals and slick guitar playing by Sund.

Nowhere Brothers Down Life Boulevard Self Release 

Lo-fi Americana Italian style from Nowhere Brothers duo Nick Ventolini (vocals, harmonica and penny whistle) and Roberto Fiorelli (vocals, guitars, piano and stomp box). Self-produced and recorded over two days at the Pyramix Studio in Phoenix Arizona, Down Life Boulevard is atmospheric, delicate, spacious and captures the recent nomadic lifestyles of the duo, with much of the album featuring only acoustic guitar and harmonica. On first listen the music creates an impression of demos rather than completed songs, to be fleshed out at another time by the addition of electric guitar, bass and drums. However, on further plays it reveals itself to be an impressive finished article with the sparseness and stripped back instrumentation contributing to the mood of the album.

Standout of the ten tracks are the grief-stricken sense of loss on Soul Mirror and Dust Walker which conjures up images of isolation and dark starry desert skies.

Beautifully packaged with lyrics in both English and Italian, Down Life Boulevard is an impressive late night listen for fans of Bill Callahan and Peter Oren. 

Dugger Band East Tennessee Son Self Release

Brothers Jordan and Seth Dugger began their musical careers singing at their parent’s church in Greenville Tennessee. East Tennessee Son is their debut mini album, offering six tracks that flirt with Southern rock, country and mainstream pop. They possess, without doubt, the capability to create music that is tailor made for what features currently on Country Radio with tracks like For The Girl and One Track Mind particularly market friendly.

Unapologetically Christian, they have created a programme titled A Dream Worth Chasing, a series of schoolhouse concerts to introduce and motivate young children through music. They have performed at numerous High Schools over the past twelve months as part of this venture. 

Opener Warning Label, the strongest track on the album, recalls a rocked up Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth. However, it’s unreflective of what follows which tends to stick to less adventurous material. What can’t be denied is the standard of musicianship across all the tracks and the brother’s vocal expertise. An album that could undoubtedly make an impact in the mainstream crossover country market given the exposure.

Orphan Colours All On Red At The Helm

Ex- members of London band Ahab, Steve Llewellyn, Dave Burn and Graham Knight teamed up with former Noah and The Whale guitarist Fred Abbott and Danny and The Champions Of The World drummer Steve Brooks to form Orphan Colours in 2015. All On Red is their debut album following the release of their EP High Hopes in 2016. The album title suggests a make or break gamble and may possibly be reflective of the ambition of the band to achieve the industry breakthrough that failed both Ahab and Noah & The Whale, somewhat surprisingly given both bands had huge potential.

Start of Something opens the album in style, a big sound a la Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes with slick riffs, big power chords and ripping sax solos. Goodnight California follows a similar path, bursting out of the speakers with an insanely catchy chorus that impacts on first spin. Equally addictive is Renegade kicking off with thumping drums joined by more power riffs.  Not that it’s all blood and thunder, closing track Rambling Rose together with Sarah and Loving Lately both display Llewellyn’s – who wrote all the material on the album - capacity to also pen dreamy radio friendly ballads.

In a market that often demands classification it’s not easy to place Orphan Colours in a particular genre. A few decades ago their sound would simply be described as rock. What is beyond doubt is that with their arena suited anthems they possess the ammunition and the oomph in their arsenal to turn a lot of heads if the roulette wheel is kind to them. 

Tupelo The Heart’s Bloodline Crashed

Alt-folk combo Tupelo’s music has straddled traditional, folk and country since their formation in 2008. Not surprising given their individual musical backgrounds and pedigrees. Voted best folk group in 2013 by Hot Press Magazine The Heart’s Bloodline is their latest offering which finds them continuing to stray further from their trad origins into left wing alt-folk, a genre which continues to grow in popularity.

Hugely celebrated overseas, the band have toured Holland, Belgium, France, Russia, Norway together with performances at Irish Music Festivals in the States. For their third album duo James Cramer (vocals, guitars, mandolin, percussion, banjo) and Kevin Duffy (fiddle, vocals) are joined by Brian Connor on keys, Jerry Fehily on drums, Robbie Malone on bass and Bill Shanley on guitars. Offering ten tracks, all written by Cramer, the album was recorded at Cauldren Studios in Dublin and mastered by David Montuy (The High Kings, Celtic Woman) at Blackbird Studious in Nashville.

Standout tracks include opener Break Loose, released as a single late last year, Nursery Rhyme , with echoes of The Waterboys, Queen of the Vale, which is enriched by delightful harmonies and backing vocals courtesy of Julia Hale and the Van the Man sounding Just Leave It.

Tupelo have earned a reputation as one of the finest live Irish bands peddling the alt-folk brand and a few listens in to The Heart’s Bloodline suggests that they are equally adept in a recording studio.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Birds Of Chicago Love In Wartime Signature Sounds

Husband and Wife duo, JT Nero and Alison Russell return with a follow up release to their 2016 Real Midnight album. If that was defined by a reflective, understated direction then this new set of eleven songs walks more along a line between up tempo numbers and gentle, poignant arrangements. 

Starting out with the soulful hum of Alison over a simple accompaniment of banjo, piano and a hint of electric guitar, the reflective mood is quickly broken by the track, Never Look Back, which jumps out at you with a positive energy and a message to leave the past behind with no time to lose. 

This is followed by the title track which is a beautiful melody and message of taking care of each other first. Love always endures in the world of these Birds and why not indeed. Travellers then follows with another up tempo arrangement and the calypso beat of being nomads in this world of constant schedules to meet and busy lives to serve. 

Try is a sweet soulful song that hints at a very personal situation with the illness of a loved one at the heart of it. There are some passionate vocal lines from Alison and JT sings "I don’t see your body broken, I still see the fire there in your eyes."

And so, the listening experience continues, light juxtaposed with shade as the mood swings back and forth. 

The studio musicians are uniformly excellent and the production by JT and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars) is superbly balanced and open, which allows plenty of room for the players to express themselves. They have tried to capture the excellent live performance of the Birds in as much as a studio setting will allow. The entire album was recorded in just a few days and the immediacy of the overall sound gives the impression that much of it was recorded in just a few takes. Spontaneity taken to the next level as the ensemble compliment each other in serving the songs. 

Lodestar is another example of a sweet groove and a message of forgiveness and healing; "You are not what you’ve lost, what remains should not bear the cost." Roll Away and Baton Rouge (impacted by the 2016 Louisiana floods), are both gospel tinged, soulful messages of being alive in the world and moving forward. Roisin Starchild is a look back to school days by Alison and a close friend who had her back while growing up. It hints at a darker underlying message and the escape of Roisin at the age of only 12 in the search for ‘a kinder place’... It left me really wanting to know what ever became of her…

Superlover and Derecho end the project with messages of hope and concern for the gathering storms that will have to be endured in our quest for community, empathy and understanding.

The vocal harmonies are tight and give a strong sense of just how good this band are in a live setting. There are some lovely moments by Drew Lindsay on piano and keys, together with Joel Schwartz on lead guitars. The rhythm section of Nick Chambers on drums and Chris Merrill on bass anchor everything with strong playing, both understated and vibrant as required; while Dan Abu Absi adds rhythm electric and acoustic guitar with Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor providing harmony vocals on four tracks. 

Always interesting and revealing itself more on repeated listens. My album of the year so far and an essential purchase.

Backtrack Blues Band Make My Home In Florida Harpo

This band reside in Tampa Bay, Florida and formed back in 1980. They are one of Florida’s longest running blues acts and have released five studio albums plus a live CD/DVD package to date.

This new release is another live cd/dvd package of a gig in St Petersburg, Florida recorded in January 2017. It all clocks in around 50 minutes of stellar Blues work-outs, including covers of songs by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Your Funeral And My Trial, Checkin’ On My Baby), B.B. King (Woke Up This Morning) and T-Bone Walker (T-Bone Shuffle).

Kid Royal is a really gifted guitar player and his passionate solos are a highlight of this project, elevating the tracks and adding some magic sparkle to the excellent Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums, and Stick Davis on bass. The harmonica playing of lead vocalist Sonny Charles is also a real treat across all nine tracks included here.

Make My Home In Florida is a track where all these elements come together in a real tour de force of playing and the production by George Harris is crystal clear and very bright in the speakers. Essential for all lovers of the blues.

Ashley Campbell The Lonely One Hump Head

This debut solo release from the daughter of Glen Campbell comes within a year of his passing and Ashley is embarking on a career that has seen her learn the ropes as an integral part of her father’s touring band during 2011 and 2012. She played banjo and guitar, wrote a fine song Remembering, while the documentary I’ll Be Me, about Glen Campbell’s farewell tour and battle with Alzheimer’s was very well received upon release to the public.

This album is released on her own label, Whistle Stop Records and produced by both Ashley and Cal Campbell. The thirteen tracks are co-written by Ashley and Cal, who appears throughout on various instruments; as does Shannon Campbell, on selected songs, playing electric guitar. There are strings on quite a number of songs and the title track has a bossa nova swing that has radio hit written all over it. The use of synths and programming on a number of tracks adds a sheen to the sound and the horns on We Can’t Be Friends is another departure into the arena of Country Pop. 

Ashley is an undoubted talent and her skills as a musician cannot be faulted – the instrumental, Carl & Ashley’s Breakdown, highlight her superb banjo playing. This release is a strong statement of intent with plenty of catchy melodies (How Do You Know, Good For You) and tales of broken hearts and living life to the full. It has a number of hits in the grooves (A New Year, Looks Like Time, Better Boyfriend) and I wish her well in her future career that will, no doubt, go from strength to strength.

Lelle Dahlberg These Words Are True Self Release

A native of Bureå, Sweden this singer-songwriter releases his debut album after many years of writing and recording with other artists and bands. All music and lyrics are written by Lennart Dahlberg and he sings in a voice that has a well of experience and a lived-in quality to draw from. The production is uncluttered, from the blues of Come Back Home to the laid-back groove of There’s Only You, that has the fine vocals of Pearl adding to the melody.

Tonight’s The Night and Play That Old Melody have a real honky-tonk swing and the fiddle and piano playing on I Should Have Loved You are very catchy. The swing of Till We Meet Again with pedal steel to the fore and Can’t Stand Losin’ You with its’ slow twang and bittersweet piano are also good songs. A very pleasant listen across all 12 tracks.

Andrew Sheppard Steady Your Aim Self Release

Singer-songwriter Andrew Sheppard is from Idaho this is his second album, following on from Far From Here which was released in 2015. Production is by Sheppard and Eric Loomis, plus Wes Walsworth; both of whom play guitar on the record which was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. 

The other musicians on the album are Nick Archibald on bass and piano; Joe Giotta on drums; David Henry on cello and backing vocals; Smith Curry on pedal steel and lap steel; Chris Tuttle on organ and Wurlitzer; Sarah Elanton and Catherine Anderson on harmony vocals.

The title track is very radio-friendly and Travel Light and Carry On is a slice of country tinged desert music that reminds me of the great western landscapes. Standin’ Tall compares different attitudes to life, from the bum who lives off the system to the quiet heroes who make the best of the cards that are dealt them. Lies As Cheap As Whiskey is another tale of life on the outside and Not My Kind is a look at people who think that living is all about brash, loud and proud behaviour. Further Away ends proceedings with a song to a deceased friend who is a guiding inspiration that endures. Good country roots songs, well performed and a name to watch out for in the years ahead.

Kris Delmhorst The Wild Blueblade

In a career that has seen her release eight studio albums, a few collaborations with Red Bird (husband Jeffrey Foucault & Peter Mulvey) and a couple of live outings, Kris Delmhorst has arrived at an interesting crossroads in what has been a varied path taken.  Her Folk beginnings have been replaced by a sophisticated soundscape of wistful moments, notes in a diary and a souvenir of a life lived in contemplation of the self.

There is a longing and a search for something undefined and unseen in these songs. The playing is sparse and understated with sensitive arrangements and melodies serving the songs so well. Kris plays cello, guitar, organ, piano, Wurlitzer and Jeffrey Foucault adds lovely touches on a variety of guitars, ukulele, and piano. They are joined by Jeremy Moses Curtis on upright and electric bass, Billy Conway on drums and Alex McCullough on pedal steel guitar.

This is her first release in four years and the solitude and realisation of a love that is treasured on the opening, All The Way Around, sets the template for what is a work of real depth and maturity.

The title track is like a meditation on love and nature. Rules To Games dissects a relationship and all the petty squabbles that keep people apart in the daily grind. Magnolia speaks of casting off the old in favour for a new attitude and beginning to look forward with optimism. Kris sings so sweetly and with a soft tone that reminds me sometimes of Norah Jones in these hushed moments of contemplation and reflection. At other times there is a hint of Natalie Merchant in the delivery (Colour Of The Sky) but it is always the unique warmth of Kris and her delivery that shines through.

Production is by Kris and Jeffrey, all songs are written by Kris and her gentle muse has never been more keenly defined. Foolish Blood and Lonely West are relationship musings and the feelings that arise from the realisation that love burns within and without. Hollow deals with the heaviness of a relationship, "Cause music comes from emptiness, When the air is moving through it."

The final song, The Light In The Hall, is a wish to have all our insecurities fall away in the quiet of night when trusting yourself to the vagaries of this mortal coil. A superb record that is everything one would expect from a talent that keeps growing and blossoming.

 

 

 

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Leslie Tom Ain’t It Something, Hank Williams Coastal Bend

Perhaps using the life and songs of Hank Williams as a roadmap may seem like an odd direction to follow given how that turned out for him. However, here, Texas born singer Leslie Tom has taken the spirit of Williams’ template of love, heartbreak and loss as the heartbeat of her latest release, a 10 track tribute to Hank that combines 6 original songs with covers of William's originals - Hey Good Lookin’, Honky Tonkin’, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the somewhat lesser known Angel Of Death. All are delivered with a passion that makes them worthy of attention despite the fact that they have been, in the main, recorded many times before. Part of that is due to the skill of Tom’s assembled band and John Macy’s production. Both are respectful while also rejuvenating the songs and sound in a style that is fluent and fresh. Those who like to read credits and have done so through the years will recognise the names of steel guitarist Lloyd Green and guitarist Chris Leuzinger among the talented players involved (who also included Andy Hall on dobro - for Angel Of Death - from the Infamous Stringdusters). The album was recorded in Nashville’s Cinderella Sound Studios but is a far cry of from much that emerges from via the studios of Music City these days.

The original songs are both lyrically clever and emotionally concise and incorporate some of Williams’ spirit and synergy, but do so from a defiantly female perspective. Still Love You (Audrey’s Song) is written from the perspective of Hank’s wife and their troubled relationship that was still imbued with an underlying love for each other. Born Too Late offers the “if only” theory that he was born too late and she was born too soon. Mr Williams is a precis of his life and relationship with Audrey that uses some of Hank’s lyrics intertwined with Tom’s own incisive writing. The final track Hank You Very Much (listed as a “bonus track” as it appeared on a previous release) takes this even further by using many of Williams’ song lines in its verses. It features vocals from Larry Nix who adds harmony throughout the album. Another guest on a song he co-writes with Tom is Dean Miller and  their Are You Ready For Some Hanky Panky? is a joyful and up tempo realisation that we are all ready for some of the music of Mr. Williams.

Although Tom is a multi-instrumentalist here she concentrates on delivering some powerful and impassioned vocals that do justice to all the material on the album. An album that covers a range of moods, tempos and tempestuousness that places here in the forefront of traditionally-minded singers who don’t feel the need to court the temptation of crossover commerciality. Leslie Tom has combined her considerable talents and those of her players to produce a statement of intent that surely points to some equally potent (and likely original) music in the future. Ain’t that something to look forward to?

Sir Canyon Ventura Skies Self Release

Singer and writer Noah Lamberth is the central figure being behind Sir Canyon. He is a part of the revived and resolute California country music scene. He uses d his music as means to deal with some emotional hurt and loss that he had encountered in his life. He is a film and documentary maker in his other life and previously played in a band, Hank Floyd. He also played steel guitar for the likes of Katy Perry. Lamberth played some of his home demos to his friend, producer Andy Davis, who was impressed enough to begin recording the songs with a serious intent to bring his self described country/surf/mariachi/desert rock sound to another level

Indeed, even though there is pedal steel, twanging guitars and more, the end result is neither traditional country nor mainstream crossover country pop/rock. Rather, it evokes some earlier exponents of California country, without ever sounding like such icons as Glen Campbell, Gram Parsons or the many exponents of the Bakersfield Sound; as well as that of those who made their home and music there - like Neil Young - another influence on these sounds. Even though there are elements of all of these in Sir Canyon’s music there is also the cinematic aura of the soundtracks that are part and parcel of the music inherent in California’s film industry, especially those that deal with the landscape of the American West.

The opening track (and video) Angeleno Daydream looks to the sense of mythology that is central to Los Angeles as a city of dream and reality. The good and the bad that both draws people in looking for fame and fortune as much as it is a catalyst to move out and on. The song opens with three music components that are pivotal to the overall sound. They are strummed acoustic guitar, deep baritone guitar and ethereal pedal steel guitar. These three elements are soon enhanced by the full band utilising an understated rhythm section and Lamberth’s considered indie styled vocals. There is a dream-like quality at times that befits their self-described “cosmic Americana” sound. It is a blend of influences that takes some of the principles that Gram Parsons based his musical ideology on without sounding like a rehash of that man’s oeuvre.

Crucial to the album is the input of producer Andy Davis and mixer John Rausch who have worked with Lamberth’s song writing to bring a quality to the overall project that makes for an end to end listening experience that works on a number of levels. As band leader Lamberth not only is vocalist but also plays pedal steel and guitar on the album. Joey Esquibel and John Moreau are the rhythm section. Producer Davis plays keyboards and adds background vocals. Martin Saavedra plays effective trumpet on Cindy Come Over. This team took it’s time to produce and album that they were proud of. It shows and while if you’re a hard-core honky-tonk fan it may not appeal, it is an album that is a welcome addition to the cannon of recent work from L.A. based artists, such as Sam Outlaw, that is a worthy antidote to much of the output from Nashville.

Michael McDermott Out From Under Pauper Sky

As the title suggest this is an album about taking hold of your life and looking toward the better things. Things that really mean something. His story is one of excess and extremes. Being signed to a major label at an age where nothing else seems to matter and when that falters and fails resorting to finding things to blot out that lack of self worth. McDermott has now, over his last few albums, both solo and with The Westies found himself dedicating his life to creating work that he can be proud of as well as realising the strengths and support that his wife and daughter bring to his life.

However, it is also true that these negative tendencies have given him the opportunity to look at the good and the bad things that life has to offer. The songs here look at both sides, but end up being imbued with positivity and understanding that sees the cycles of life, death and everything in between as an opportunity to learn and grow as a human being. Given also that McDermott is a dynamic and riveting live performer as well as an accomplished artist in the studio his music is underrated and worthy of greater attention. He has already been praised, in the past, by Stephen King, amongst others, for his song writing ability. This album brings his work to a whole other level. His experiences have galvanised him to create something with a more resonant meaning that in the past.

McDermott produced the album and in doing so has delivered an album that he is central to, as a player contributing guitar, bass and keyboards. His wife Heather sang back-up and played fiddle on the album (she is a performer in her own right and recently released a fine album). He also included some of The Westies (such a long-time bass player Lex Price) and other players who either came to the studio or contributed remotely. His studio is in Willow Springs, Illinois and working there gives him the freedom to create in his own time. He even added one song The World Will Break Your Heart when the album was ostensibly done. It was a song he felt needed to be on the record as it in some ways serves as a cautionary tale for less worldly artists. The eleven songs here clock in with a time of over 45 minutes allowing the songs the time they need to tell their stories. God Help Us is an ambiguous plea for the understanding of faith. Lack of faith in one’s self is apparent in the opening Cal-Sar Road. A location where one might score and then try removing pain through narcotics. He is well placed to tell this fictional tale of murder and mayhem. As he is in many of the other songs on the album. Sad Songs is a full-blooded rock song that sees him wanting to move away from that subject to something more positive.

In overall terms this is an album that should appeal to his hard core fans as well as those who like their songwriters to be able to deal in truth in a musically varied and interesting setting. One that allows the layers to emerge slowly with each listen. McDermott has clearly come out from under and emerged into the light with an album that is arguably the best of his career and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Sam Morrow Concrete And Mud Forty Below

This album opens with Morrow giving a deep soulful vocal over a strong full sounding track with edgy guitar. Heartbreak Man has a little of Waylon in its DNA (as do many of the other tracks) and it is a good start to what is an album that fits in well with the current idea of what outlaw is right now. His is a blend of Texas dance floor country, some Southern Rock and a soupcon of Memphis country funk. His deep baritone voice sits atop a live, in the studio, sound that producer Eric Corne captured on a vintage Neve desk. From then on, the playing adds much to the overall feel with Hammond styling, mixed with bluesy slide, twanging’ Telecaster and layered vocals. San Fernando Sunshine exemplifies this. While the up tempo Good Ole Days moves along at a pace with some nods to his native Texas and some fine guitar playing which again blends with the swirling full bodied keyboards.

Skinny Elvis features duet vocals from his label mate Jamie Wyatt (as do two other tracks where she joins him on backing vocals). It also features a notable turn from Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel. An instrument that is also central to the equally effective Coming Home. The guitar and keyboard blend is prominent on the standout ballad Weight Of A Stone which has a compelling and telling vocal from Morrow. One that should easily find him favour with Chris Stapelton fans and marks Morrow out as a real contender. Cigarettes has a touch of Little Feet in its loose, rootsy funkiness and bolstered by some judicious Moog bass. There is some fiddle that works well on the closing song Mississippi River.

Morrow is the assumed writer of the songs here, working with Eric Corne (individual writing details are not credited on the promo sleeve). The latter is also the label owner and has played a large part in bring some diversity to Morrow’s country funk amalgamation. Something off an abiding trend these days but one that Morrow and Corne have pulled off with style giving the listener an album that works on many levels. Never quite fitting easily in either the country rock or country soul categories but rather offering a blurring of the lines that makes Concrete And Mud, as the title might suggest, both hard edged and loose. So, while it may not be everyone’s side of a honky-toning night out, it is music that the 27 year old Texan can put out there knowing that he’s tried to make the best album he can at this time - and it is an album for these times.

The Lynnes Heartbreak Song For The Radio Self Release

These two Canadian artists have worked together previously but this is the first album that Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles have released together. They have written all the songs together (with one being a co-write) and co-produced the album. Miles plays acoustic and electric guitar and piano while Hanson also adds acoustic and electric guitars. They are joined by a full band that includes Kevin Breit on guitars, Dave Draves on keyboards Keith Glass plays baritone guitar and Don Cummings plays the B3. The rhythm section is Peter Von Althen and Steve Clark. The all do a great job as this is an excellent album on all levels - great vocals, memorable songs and engaging playing.

Most of the songs are song by both vocalists together or with one thing taking the lead and the other adding harmony. Either way the vocals are a foremost part of the overall presence of the album. Those songs, as the title suggests, deal with failed and unresolved relationships. The closet to positivity is Halfway To Happy (well as a title at least). Other than that, these titles tell a story in themselves: Cost So Much, Recipe For Disaster, Dark Waltz, Blame It On The Devil and Heavy Lifting. The thing is, despite the lyrically directions, this is an energetic, uplifting and rewarding recording.

They each have a strong turn of phrase and the lyrics are well written; being emotive, gritty and revealing as befits artists who have had life experiences and lived to tell the tales. It has been said that individually there are both compelling but together they excel. Heartbreak Song For The Radio is ready testament to that. The songs are not without balls. These are not delicate folk songs but rather move from the more reflective tone of Blue Tattoo to at the harder edges of Halfway To Happy. Throughout, the harmonies are enchantingand it is an example of two artist totally in synch with each other, their band and the songs. One could only wish to hear more of their brand of patented heartbreak on the radio.

Mojo Monkeys Swerve On Medikull

A California based trio who have lent their considerable talents to a great number of musical endeavours not least acting as sidemen to such luminaries as Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Richard Thompson, Keith Richards and Eric Burden. They are bassist/vocalist Taras Prodaniuk, drummer and vocalist David Raven and guitarist/vocalist Billy Watts. This new album, their third, displays their individual and collective skills on 10 self written songs and one cover; Allen Toussaint’s Ride Your Pony. The opening song Tuscaloosa Maybe has a Western Swing feel and features some alluring pedal steel from Marty Rifkin. Rifkin also joins them for the next song, Two Shots. Both are somewhat different in style from what follows on with nods to soul, rock and blues - a California filtered selection of roots oriented moods – giving both diversity and dance floor vibes throughout. If I Were Gone, All The Wrong Things and Beat Bus Driver are just three of the titles that show why these three work so well together.

There are hooks a-plenty that these guys can play, as well as write and they appear to be having fun throughout. They have been compared to ZZ Top and that comparison is understandable but these monkeys have their own tales and their collective experiences on display here and it shows you why they are in demand as players. There’s nothing particularly new on offer on Swerve On, other than good music that is easy to enjoy and get in the groove to.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Courtney Marie Andrews May Your Kindness Remain Loose

Honest Life, released in 2017 by Courtney Marie Andrews, was considered by many as one of the stand out albums of the year, remarkably the sixth release in the career for the 26-year-old Arizona born artist.

Having toured continuously from January through to August last year, the material that makes up the ten tracks on May Your Kindness Remain, unlike its predecessor, was essentially written while on the road and shifts to a wider lens perspective than the it’s more personal predecessor. Its overriding themes are in the main observations of ordinary people struggling to survive, reflecting the plight and disintegration of the working and middle classes in America and the resultant pressures on the individual in an ever-changing materialistic world. They read as real-life tales, the bones of which may have been overheard and conceived by Andrews in coffee shops, bars and motel lobbies on her travels across small town America. Much of the material was performed live by Andrews during the latter half of her tour last year, revealing a fuller sound than the more acoustic feel of her previous album.

Having self-produced Honest Life, on this occasion Andrews sought out producer Mark Howard, whose previous employers included Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Marianne Faithfull. Heading straight from her tour to California with her band, the album was completed in eight days in a rented house converted into a studio in Los Angeles. Given that much of the material had been performed on tour the recording reflects in the main ‘first takes’ (‘recorded in a circle without a click or fancy programs, looking into my bands eyes’) or at most just one overdub. Andrews, a most accomplished guitarist in her own right, was joined in the studio by her trusted band members Dillon Warnek on guitar, Daniel Walter and Charles Wicklander on keyboards, Alex Sabel on bass and William Mapp on drums. The addition of Gospel soul singer C.C. White, who provides backing vocals on a number of tracks, appears to have led Andrews own vocals in a more soulful and dynamic direction, no doubt also influenced by her immersion in Motown and Soul music while on the road.

If How Quickly Your Heart Mends was the standout song from Honest Life and the track that generated much of the interest for that album, it’s more than matched here by the excellent Kindness of Strangers with powerful layered vocals by Andrews and White together with some wicked guitar breaks by Warnek. The dying American dream and gentrification is the spark for Two Cold Nights In Buffalo (‘What happened to the middle-class, Mom and Pop, Five and Dimes’). The title track is a plea to a failing friend blinded by materialism and avarice (‘And if your money runs out and your good looks fade, may your kindness remain’). I’ve Hurt Worse may be sly humour but more likely a tale of resignation and acceptance of a mundane relationship (‘I like you honey, you don't listen to a word I say, I like you honey, when you interrupt me anyway’). Rough Around The Edges reflects on mental illness and personal trauma that often goes unnoticed and the difficulty in keeping a relationship on the rails in the circumstance (‘Don’t feel like picking up the damn phone today’). Border, representing a topical concern in America and further afield at present, is the wild card on the album, a punchy organ driven rocker.

May Your Kindness Remain is a brave departure from a fearless and assured young artist willing to take challenging career risks in support of her art. It’s not Honest Life Part 2 but another chapter in the wide ranging musical template of one of America’s most talented young female singer songwriters. Intoxicating and highly recommended.

Hans Chew Open Sea At The Helm

I've a fond memory -and damaged hearing- from a gig by Hans Chew in the back room of Ryan’s in Kilkenny some a few years ago. The venue comfortably accommodates around forty punters but the sound engineer- on Chew's direction - had the volume at what seemed like stadium levels. Pre-warned by the most engaging and likeable Tennessee born piano player, what followed was an ear bleeding but more than entertaining introduction to a talented young man. 

A native of Chattanooga in Tennessee, Chew’s splendid 2010 debut album Tennessee and Other Songs turned a lot of heads and found him a slot in the growing Americana genre at that time. Influenced by his mother’s tastes in Hendrix and The Stones and his father’s passion for classical music he's quoted as making the point that he knew Beethoven's 5th before Led Zeppelins Fourth! 

His latest album Open Sea sounds like it was recorded somewhere between 1968 and 1972. Featuring his regular guitar player Dave Cavallo, Chew has also drawn on the services of Jimy SeiTang and Rob Smith of New York band Rhyton to add bass and drums. It contains only six tracks but collectively they stretch to over forty minutes. The epic second track Cruikshank, at eight minutes long and with more than one extended guitar solo, could be from a lost Blind Faith or Allman Brothers album or indeed a Led Zeppelin demo that was  considered just not quite heavy enough to make Houses Of The Holy. The title track at seven minutes is no slacker either, even if dangerously close in content and melody to Blind Faith’s Can't Find My Way Home. Whom Am Your Love follows a similar path with an addictive groove that pays homage to Traffic. Freely is steeped in Brit Folk, Chew’s slick piano work duelling with Dave Cavallo’s guitar pickings in the style of Richard Thompson.

Open Sea may not be fashionable in today's often overly controlled markets. I mean, who would consider recording an album forty one minutes long featuring only six tracks with pounding drums, ripping guitar breaks, thumping bass lines and sounding like it was put down in one take? Hans Chew would and more power to him, it's a complete blast! 

Dean Owens Southern Wind At The Helm

Another under the radar artist that continues to release quality music, Edinburgh singer songwriter Dean Owens is typically a ‘musicians / musician’, highly regarded by his peers for both his creative writing ability and versatility. Southern Wind, his first release on At The Helm Records, is his seventh studio recording and was recorded in Nashville under the watchful eye of in demand producer Neilson Hubbard who also worked with Owens on his 2015 release Into The Sea. Much of the writing was in collaboration with his close friend Will Kimbrough, a superb musician in his own right and an artist very much on the same page as Owens. Their combined lyrics capture the moments beautifully across the thirteen songs on the fifty-six minutes that make up the album.

The rocking opener The Last Song, complete with yelps and whoops, is followed by the storming title track Southern Wind, currently on release as a single. The album especially excels where Owens recalls and reminisces on youthful and more innocent times. Elvis Was My Brother evokes memories of a childhood friend whose fascination with Elvis compensated for his absent father. Louisville Lip pays homage to his own childhood hero Muhammad Ali and Madeira Street, where Owens grew up, recalls his childhood, influenced no doubt by the untimely passing of his sister a few years ago.  The plight of the homeless is considered on Anything Helps and the bittersweet Famous Last Words brings to mind mid-career Elvis Costello at his most sentimental. However, the real highlight of the album is the stunner Bad News, it’s not the first time its theme -the lover to be avoided-has been visited and Owen’s interpretation is as good as any of its predecessors.

All in all, a cracking album that I’ll be often revisiting in the coming months by one of the standout Americana artists dwelling this side of the pond.

Clara Rose The Offering Self Release

It’s a particularly busy time for Irelands premier blues singer Clara Rose. Her recent Ladies In The Blues tour, accompanied by Flo MciSweeney, Emma Nicolai and Jhil Quinn, is followed by her third album release titled The Offering, in the wake of her debut A Portfolio (2010) and EP Queen Of The Late Night Radio (2012).

A Bachelor of Music holder from N.U.I. Maynooth and an All-Ireland Medal winner for Sen-Nos singing, Rose can also boast a Music Therapy Masters from The University of Limerick.  She has toured with a host of household names including Jack L, The Waterboys, Horslips and Eleanor Mc Evoy. She has also collaborated with harmonica and blues legend Don Baker, the perfect musically suited partnership, recording Baker and Rose in 2016.

Very much in her comfort zone when blasting out the blues, The Offering is evidence that Rose is anything but a one trick pony, with the material also straying seamlessly into modern folk and soft soul vibes over the ten tracks that feature on the album. Cardboard City Blues has jazzy overtones with hints of Sade in evidence and Tightrope Walkers is catchy, poppy, radio friendly fare. 

However, the stand out tracks feature Rose doing what she does best in belting out the blues. The Queen Of The Late Night Radio, Love Sweet Love and her cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball And Chain all showcase her exceptional vocal range. 

Recorded under the eagle eye of producer Gavin Glass in his Orphan Studio over a seven-day period, the album features Rose’s regular band members Sean Beatty, Tony Mc Manus and Michael Black. Additional vocals were provided by Elizabeth Monahan, Claire Mc Laughlin and Paula Higgins. 

A lady that can most definitely can sing the blues, delivering an album that further establishes her as one of Ireland’s finest female vocalists. An album well worth checking out and don’t miss out on the chance to catch her live given the opportunity.

Jerry Leger Nonsense and Heartaches Latent 

Four years after recording his debut album Early Riser, Canadian artist Jerry Ledger has released Nonsense and Heartaches on Latent Recordings, the label headed by Michael Timmons (Cowboy Junkies, Natalie Merchant, Mary Gauthier, June Tabor), who also produced the double album at The Hanger, Toronto.

It’s actually more accurately described as two separate albums as the raucous Nonsense has little in common with the more acoustic laid-back feel of Heartaches – with the exception that the same musicians contributed to both recordings. The musicians in question are James McKie (lap steel, fiddle, guitars), Dan Mock (bass, vocals), Kyle Sullivan (drums, vocals) and songwriter Jerry Leger who provides vocals, guitar and piano.

Michael Timmons could never be accused of over production and Nonsense delivers raw ‘first take’ bluesy tones which works particularly well on the Frankie Millar sounding opener Coat On The RackForged Check has a Johnny Kidd and The Pirates vibe and shades of Pancho & Lefty can be heard on Wedding Dress. On The Fishing Line is unapologetic blues recalling Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster.

Heartaches heads in an entirely different direction, its countrified folk sound working best on Things Are Changing Around Here and Another Dead Radio Star. Leger’s impressive vocals and piano dominate on Lucy And Little Billy The Kid and Pawn Shop Piano, the latter a reflection of the day to day existence of many a musician which benefits from the combined vocals of Leger and Angie Hilts.

Well worth investigating with Nonsense perfect for the car CD player and Heartache more suited for a feet up, end of the day nightcap. 

Jesse Terry Natural Jackson Beach

A graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Natural is Jesse Terry’s fifth album release, his previous recording Stargazer having only been released six months ago. Natural is an album that features many of the female vocalists particularly admired by him, some being personal friends, others being artists he previously worked with. Included are Dar Williams, Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope, Liz Longley, Annie Clements, Erin Rae, Sarah Darling, and Kim Richey. The album contains eleven self-written songs together with the inclusion of Jeff Lynne’s Mr. Blue Sky, a track which Liz Longley contributes backing vocals. Produced by Josh Kaler at EastSide Manor Studios in Nashville (Kaler also adds drums, bass, guitar and ukulele), the songs are stripped right back with the vocals being the main focus at all times.

It’s a most impressive body of work that not only highlights Terry’s own talents but also that of the wonderful, in the main Nashville based, female vocalists who contribute. Much of the material could be compared to Sufjan Stevens at his most melodic. Music and song writing has given Terry the tools to deal with and overcome a turbulent childhood which included spells in reform school and recovery from a drug overdose at the age of eighteen. The album suggests a young man at peace with himself and nowhere more so than on I Was An Island written on The Aran Islands and one of two tracks that feature Kim Richey on vocals. Beautiful Way To Get Home is unhurried and patient with dreamy cello playing by Larissa Maestro and gorgeous harmonies by Terry and Erin Rae. Other highlights are Stargazer featuring Dar Williams and the closing title track, an evocative love song containing only guitar and vocals by Terry, perfectly bookending the album.

Natural scores on many fronts, from the delightful packaging to the musical content. It’s a welcome introduction to Jesse Terry and listeners should be also encouraged to visit his back catalogue, together with the work of all the female contributors, many of who are indeed well known and admired by Lonesome Highway.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Dallas Moore Mr. Honky Tonk Sol

For his latest album the Texas based singer/songwriter has honed his craft and produced an album of some substance. The eight tracks are concise and lean, coming in around the half-hour mark. He has brought in Dean Miller (who himself has delivered some fine country albums) to produce the album and the sound is as strong as you might expect or want, a step up indeed from some of the previous recordings which, as with a lot of independent artists, are done under tight financial constraints. The rougher and rowdier elements however have not been lost. This is an artist who is more or less on the road with his band constantly playing all the honky tonks and roadhouses around America. It is no major label stance but rather a genuine expression of a love and legacy for music that is solidly rooted in the outlaw music that, at the moment, pretty much defines real country music.

Outlaw meant and should mean artists who adhere to their own rules by remaining independent in terms of how they approach the writing, recording and production of their music rather than necessarily self-releasing their own albums. It would be healthy and fruitful to see an artist like Dallas Moore signed to a major label and being given the creative freedom he has here. Aside from long-time guitarist Chuck Morpurgo, Moore is joined by harmonica player Mickey Raphael (of Willie Nelson fame) and pedal steel guitarist Steve Hinson amongst others. All of this brings the best possible performance behind Moore’s songs from the slow waltz of Kisses From You to the “on the road” tails of Home Is Where The Highway Is (“the only home I’ve ever know”). A place where he has plenty of opportunity to observe the antics of the characters who feature in the title track. Shades of Pinto Bennett in that one.

Dallas Moore can be counted alongside Whitey Morgan, Jackson Taylor, Cody Jinks and others in terms of making the kind of music that many want to hear and that is all but banished from corporate radio stations. The beard and hat are in place and the attitude and grit are authentic, as is the passion for making music. Music that entertains, music that rocks and could easily find a bigger following if given its place alongside some of the more lauded major label performers out there. This is a good place to get acquainted with Moore’s music and it is also a good platform for Moore to build upon by adding more lyrical depth and musical nuances without sacrificing what it means to be Dallas Moore. We all need some more.

Mary Battiata & Little Pink The Heart, Regardless Self Release

A new name to me but one I’m very pleased to be acquainted with. Mary Battiata is a former Washington Post journalist with a passion for writing and performing traditionally orientated country music with folk, roots and pop overtones. Her band Little Pink (and guests) are equally adept in bringing these songs to fruition on record with particular sounds woven into each track as needed. Little Pink is a reference to the Band’s debut album and its formative influence, in terms of integrity, without sounding like that seminal album.

Mary Battiata has a crystal clear voice that has been compared, at times, to Margo Timmins and Linda Thompson among others. While I can see these comparisons Mary Battiata's voice has its own identity - one that is front and centre here. Battista is an equally adept writer penning all the songs here other than traditionalist Arty Hill’s Drive That Fast. Hill also sang harmony and played acoustic guitar as well as helping with the preproduction. Little Pink are Tim Pruitt (guitar), Alex Webber (bass), Ed Hough (drums) and Dave Hadley (steel). On the album the special guests include Ray Eicher on pedal Steel, Dudley Connell on harmony vocals as well as those bringing such additional instruments as banjo, fiddle, mandolin, accordion and saxophone. All these instruments add to the tonal range, within the context of the overall sonic direction and that allows these songs the room to move, depending on the song and its mood. 

There are a number of immediate stand-outs, including Things You Say And Things You Don’t, Disappearing Ink, Six Miles Out, Can’t Take My Mind Off You and 20 Words, among the 14 tracks; but in truth there is no filler here - it is all top notch and Battiata’s writing is emotive and takes a clear view of relationships, affairs of the heart, that fall on both sides of the divide that delineates the ones that work, the ones that don’t and the ones that could go either way.

Simply put, an album that stands up to a lot of the independent, thoughtful, creative contemporary female voices that are making some of the standout Americana music being made today. Battista and Little Pink are not from Nashville or Austin but rather hail from Arlington in Virginia and they are proof that a there is a lot going on, in terms of good music, outside those more well known cities. This may be regional but it is also international and Battista comes with a recommendation from the noted writer George Pelecanos.

Ryan Bingham Live Humphead

This show was recorded at the Whitewater Amphitheatre in Texas in 2016 and is getting a European release now. It was recorded in front of a vocal and vibrant partisan audience. In truth on some tracks this is a little distracting but overall it shows that his audience is right behind (as well as in front) of him. The band here is not a variation of his Dead Horses band but rather a set of seasoned players like Jedd Hughes and Daniel Sprout on electric guitars and Richard Bowden on fiddle alongside a sturdy rhythm section. These players were part of the band that recorded his last album (Fear And Saturday Night). Bingham is on acoustic guitar and harmonica and he is well up there in the sound. Some of the songs are virtually stripped back to his voice and guitar. And his gravel hardened voice is as distinctive as ever.

The songs came from different albums and parts of his career but two albums in particular are the source of many of the chosen songs in the set. They are Mescalito (his major label debut) and Fear And Saturday Night. The band, over the albums 14 songs 79 minute duration, cover a lot of ground from bluesy rock, ragged folk and toughened roots. These are in keeping with the nature of many of the songs which take a darker view of life with titles like Top Shelf Drug, Depression, The Weary Kind, Hard Times and Nobody Knows My Troubles expressing inner turmoil and trepidation.   

The songs are obviously familiar to many of the audience who sing along at times and cheer to particular phases and words. But as a summation of a career and a starting point for getting acquainted with Bingham’s music this may not be the best album to start with. That album may be Mescalito which came out on Lost Highway in 2007. There was at least one self-released album before that which never made it beyond local sales. But for Bingham fans there is much to enjoy in different and extended versions of the songs than appear on the previous albums.     

Brett Perkins and the Pawn Shop Preachers Put A Fork In Me, I’m Done Works Of Heart

An American abroad, Brett Perkins now resides in Copenhagen in Denmark and fronts his band (in various combinations) The Pawn Shop Preachers. The play (they say) “Americana for middle-aged music lovers.” Ones with a good sense of humour too it looks like. Perkins is no stranger to recording and touring and has a number of other albums under his belt. Although the cover doesn’t make it clear I assume that these are all original songs that are featured on the album. There are 12 songs that, unusually for these days, all come in under the three-minute mark. They are all short, sharp and satisfying.

The titles give you some clue to the nature of the content, as in: She’s Got Champagne Tastes On My Beer Budget, She Loves My Belly And My Bald Spot and I’m Longin’ For A Short Term Relationship. Just Like Jesus has a chorus that runs “ I like water with my wine, just like Jesus  … I don’t think I’ll be coming round again.” Get Me Outta’ Nashville is about dealing with a heartbreak in Music City and how every song reminds him of his predicament!

The album was produced and mixed by Troels Alsted, along with the band (who all have alter egos such as Friar Klaus and Pastor Zat; all clearly have a love and understanding for classic country stylings and mix a bit of other swinging rootsy elements in there too with their up tempo Americana. Fun and frowzy.

Alpha Mule Peripheral Vision Giant Meteor

This duo has a background in the visual arts and music. They describe their music as being influenced by such diverse but compatible elements as rock, blues, bluegrass, folk and traditional country - the basic ingredients of Americana then. Joe Forkan grew up in Tucson and Eric Stoner is from California - where they are now based. The album however was recorded at the renowned Wavelab Studio in Tucson, Arizona. They joined forces to play music five years ago and this is their debut album.

They produced the album working with Chris Schultz (recording) and Craig Schumacher (mixing). Schumacher also contributed keyboards alongside a selection of well chosen musicians including Calexico’s Joey Burns on bass and Jacob Valenzuela playing trumpet. Conor Gallaher contributed pedal steel guitar and Fen Ikner was the drummer. The cover image would suggest an old-time string band direction with banjo and guitar the featured photographic instruments. Indeed, those are equally prominent in the overall sound but with the skills of the other players involved, it has a wider musical focus while being built around the core of that earthy set-up. There is also something of that Tucson/Wavelab spacious soundscape to be taken into account.

They open (and close) with Corpus Christi a track that highlights these two elements well. After that, the main 10 tracks explore a mix of melody and metamorphosis. There are also an additional 5 tracks described as “bonus tracks” one of which is a version of Joe Henry’s Short Man’s Room. It also has three versions of the album songs stripped right back to the duo’s bare bones which also prove effective. On The Moon features the voice of Apollo 8 astronaut Commander Frank Borman which adds to its slightly unworldly quality. The title track again uses the pedal steel to good effect.

Much of the music has a cinematic sense that would make it a good source for use in a film or a TV series but aside from that potential it is a captivating sound that repays repeated listening in its own right. That they have added these layers to what could have been a more directly bare bones affair makes the album work on another level from that of perhaps seeing the duo play live. Their peripheral vision has insight. 

Melanie Dekker Secret Spot Self Release

A folk/pop/country styled singer from British Columbia in Canada who writes her songs and releases her albums to a growing audience in North America and in Europe. Dekker has produced this latest collection of songs with Sheldon Zaharko. They cover different bases and given that she credits the influence as such diverse artists as Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga, Tracy Chapman, Etta James and Tom Petty that’s not surprising. They are all held together by her confident and versatile vocal presence.

The songs are mostly written solo with a couple of co-writes and with one track, the title, written by Allan Rodger. Roger also plays bass on several tracks as well as drums, keyboards (all three on one track). Elsewhere the musicians add banjo, mandolin and accordion to add the rootsier sounds to the electric guitars, keyboards and trumpet that feature. There are several songs that have an immediate likability including the song written for her father (Te Amo Mucho) which has a Mexican element in the accordion and Spanish guitar, Memories of You, Ginned Up and Always Gonna Be which takes the sensible proposition that in life there is always gaining to be someone “faster, faster smarter, prettier” and to be as her Mother advised “the best you can be with what you’ve been given.” Good advice and something that Dekker has taken to heart to produce music that feels true to her vision and talent.

On Dekker’s website there are some 10 albums available so it’s obvious she has grown with her music and her fanbase along with her. With her writing talent and voice Dekker could compete with many of the current crop of crossover artists. She has opened for Diana Krall and Faith Hill which attests to the fact that her music can fit into a number of formats. She does this by believing in herself and her music and finding the secret spot where that works.