Reviews by Paul McGee

The Tumbling Souls Between the Truth and the Dream Wee Studio

This Scottish group has released a collection of folk songs that reflect their influences and the twelve tracks are all performed with great gusto and no small amount of skill. The collective boasts eight players who create a celebratory sound and the mix of fiddles, guitars, accordion, banjo, mandolin and piano serve up lots of fine melodies in what is quite an enjoyable listen. 

Grounded by the double bass playing of Keith Morrison, the talents of all the ensemble are given flight across songs like Knowing Where You Come From, King Of The Moon, Wishing My Time and Stornoway at 2am.

All songs are written by Willie Campbell a veteran of many years playing in different bands and other collaborations and his vocal performance is very strong here. Production by Pete Fletcher is bright and clear and the inclusion of a live track, Dance A Little Better, gives a sense of just how good these musicians are in a live setting.

Eryn Lady E Self Release

Sweet soul music from a talented singer who knows how to deliver a powerful performance across the six songs included on this EP. There is a blues feel to tracks like The You Missing From Me and Just Jump, while the Gypsy tempo to the arrangement on Stranger In My House is suitably different and adds a new focus. Running Red Lights is back to a soulful delivery and the production of Jack Daley, who also plays bass, is very sensitive to the undoubted vocal talents of Eryn.

Trevor & Sylvie Time Is Free Self Release

Trevor Wheetman and Sylvie Davidson are a husband and wife duo based in Nashville. Trevor is multi-talented and can lend his skills to being an actor, musician, composer, and musical director. He is also a multi-instrumentalist and together with Sylvie, who also boasts acting skills in addition to her musical abilities, they deliver folk-based music that is both engaging and impressive in equal measure.

All of the thirteen songs included on this debut are written by the duo, with the exception of a Mark Knopfler cover, The Bug. Wheetman pens four songs, Davidson takes credit for three and the remaining five tracks are co-writes. Production by Nick Foster is very proficient and the fine harmony singing is given a central place in the mix. Foster also contributes on guitars, slide, mandolin, dobro and banjo while the other studio musicians play in a restrained and tight fashion throughout.

There is a nature theme with songs like Stolen Flowers (a wedding with a difference) and Thirsty, which speaks of love, simple ways and going back to the land. Build This Love speaks of union and the bonds of family. All I Know is a catchy love song with strings arranged by Matt Montgomery and it is another good example of the craft at play here.

Idiot and Opposite Of Love, both have a slow groove and an easy vocal from Trevor that channels James Taylor. Cupid’s Confession is a real joy and a clever look at the routine involved when you are a bored facilitator of love. The Few and Through The Cracks are two stand-out tracks as the project winds down, the first a slow folk blues with fine vocals from Sylvie & Trevor and beautifully restrained cello provided by Alex Kelly; the latter an acoustic reflection on love with winsome vocals from Sylvie and again, the superb cello of Alex Kelly. Definitely a recommended release that continues to unveil new treasure on repeated listening.

Low Lily 10,000 Days Like These Mad River

This is contemporary Folk music played to a very high standard indeed. The 11 tracks display a vocal dexterity and harmony heaven from the three key musicians involved, Liz Simmons (guitar, vocals), Flynn Coen (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Lissa Schneckenburger (fiddle, vocals). There are two instrumentals included, The Good Part and Single Girl. The former displays the power of the trio, with accompaniment on banjo and bass driving the arrangement; the latter is a reflective piece with solo fiddle from Lissa that shows off her impressive talents to full effect. This collection of songs bears repeated listens and the clear vocal delivery and the terrific production of Liz Simmons raises the experience to new levels. Songs like Dark Skies Again, Hope Lingers On and 10,000 Days Like These bear strong testament to the joy of fluid playing, sweet melody and harmonious vocals. The superb cover of Brothers In Arms (Mark Knopfler) also sits comfortably into the overall thrust of the project and I have little doubt that seeing this group in a live setting would rank as nothing short of a compelling evening. Highly recommended. 

Lee Palmer Horns & Harps Self Release

In the liner notes of this release, Lee Palmer says that he has had the privilege of releasing 5 studio albums over the last 6 years and that this release counts as his most musical experience to date. We are not inclined to disagree at Lonesome Highway, having reviewed a number of his previous releases on the website. 

Ten tracks that are split between featuring acoustic & electric harp, courtesy of Roly Platt, and saxophone by Turner King. The rest of the band are terrific support players with the back beat of Sean O’Grady and the bass of Alec Fraser Jr. adding greatly to the loose feel and blues drive of these songs. The warm sounds of Steve O’Connor on piano, organ & wurlitzer are augmented by the impressive background and harmony vocals of Chris Ayries and the production is crisp and uncluttered.

Tracks like My Baby Again, Isn’t That So and Shake 'Em Blues provide a classic bluesy feel while Old Picture, Old Frame and Life Rolls On, highlight sweet guitar playing over a gentle beat. The big sound of Rockin' Strawberry Jam is countered by slow burn of Somebody’s Daughter, a song that addresses homelessness and one that stands out here among an impressive body of work.

Swampcandy Mine Self Release

This collective hail from Annapolis, Maryland and have a number of prior releases dating back to 2007. Ruben Dobbs is the creative force behind the band and in addition to playing guitar and singing, he displays a healthy disregard for being pigeonholed into any genre. Included here, across 13 tracks is a huge gumbo of swamp groove (JC’s Revenge), light New Orleans jazz (Party With The Devil), jazzy blues (Holy Rope), hard rock (Dead Man Walking) and some ragtime, polka sounds (Burn The Meadow). To say nothing of the spoken word links between tracks, some of which are very humorous, with the loose percussive sounds of a Tom Waits, delivered in tracks like Knock Out and Never Going Back.

There are credits for 18 different studio players who range on instruments from strings, percussion across a heady mix of banjo, piano, keys, vibraphone, bass and things that go bump in the night!! Interestingly, no guitars, as would be expected on a big production project like this – voodoo with a bit of the Devil himself thrown in for good measure. Addictive and very impressive.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Amy Ray Holler Daemon

Indigo Girl Amy Ray possesses the musical and writing talents to effortlessly work folk, country, indie, gospel and blues like few others and her latest and sixth solo release, finds her at the top of her game. The album covers the emotional baggage of a lifetime spent in Georgia and is a reflection of personal struggles together with those of her fellow Southerners, across a range of topics including sexuality, racism, religion and addictions. It’s the third impassioned album of this year which follows a similar tread, the subject matter being the inspiration for two most impressive albums by younger female artists Kristina Murray (Southern Ambrosia) and H.C. Mc Entire (Lionheart).

Calling on the same production team and musicians as her 2014 album Goodnight Tender, the album includes guest performances by a host of musicians and has vocal contributions from Justin Vernon, The Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Vince Gill and Brandi Carlisle. Producer Brian Speiser also combines strings and horns this time around and with such a vast array of instrumentation it is to his credit that the sound mix is impeccable, each instrument crystal clear in the final mix.

The opening track Gracie’s Dawn (Prelude) lasts barely forty seconds before the stunning rocker Sure Feels Good Anyway kicks in. The song challenges racism head on and is a precursor for much of the compelling material which follows. Particularly moving are the final two tracks of the fourteen across the album. Bondsman (Evening in Missouri) inspired by the Debra Granik directed movie Winter’s Bone, paints a bleak picture of poverty and desperation ("Oh Lord, let me sleep through the thunder, Let me sleep through the rain, One more night before the bondsman comes, And takes it all away’’). Didn’t Know A Damn Thing, dedicated to the African – American author and social  activist Toni Cade Bambara, reflects on the  racial inhumanities and horrors inflicted on her people while she was a baby and young girl, oblivious to what occurring in her home State ( "Bodies were hanging, bodies were burning, And my Mama and Daddy, they were earning, I was rocking the cradle, while in that Tertile Black Bell, They were taking the blows for every toll of that Liberty Bell, I didn’t know a damn thing’’). Given the subject matter of much of the material, the album is also not without humour. Tonight, I’m Paying The Rent is an upbeat reality check about the toils of the industry, the hard-earned cash and the hardship often endured for that hard-earned cash. ("If it don’t feed the soul, it’s still heaven sent, Tonight I’m paying the rent!’’).

Holler is a reminder of exactly how gifted Ray is, as both a songwriter and storyteller, and her ability to translate personal emotional baggage in a compelling manner. It reads like chapters of a book by an artist that remains proud of her heritage having never abandoned her religion, while reflecting on being born during the civil rights protests in the 60’s, the horrors inflicted by her people on their neighbours, touring for over thirty years and the conflict of being a left wing and gay Southern woman. It’s a worthy successor to Goodnight Tender and one that will no doubt feature in my 'Best of 2018' listings.

 Whitey Morgan & The 78’s Hard Times & White Lines Self-Release

One of the caretakers of what many of us consider to be authentic country music, Whitey Morgan has been firing up audiences for a dozen years or more with his ass kickin’ and full on live shows. His studio output may be relatively sparse but always manages to recreate the hell for leather stage shows, that he and his trusty honky tonk brothers, The 78’s, continue to deliver.

Hard Times & White Lines sticks to his trusted formula of songs about drinking, drugging, suffering, self-destruction, surviving and carrying on, both from a personal and third person perspective. Don’t expect particularly deep thought-provoking lyrics to explore, that’s not what’s on offer here. Instead, we’re treated to full on straight-talking assault of hardcore country, kicking off with the opener and first single from the album Honky Tonk Hell ("The doors are always open and you're welcome inside, The whiskey and women or whatever you like, You’ll never check out of this heartbreak hotel, A man can get caught up down in this honky tonk Hell") – possibly a homage to a dodgy dive bar or maybe a state of mind. Raging guitars and pedal steel introduce Morgan’s raw baritone drawl on that first track and the ignition is finally turned off over forty minutes later, with the more traditional barroom country closer Wild And Reckless. ("Guitar on my shoulder, a drink in my hand, one keeps me from falling, one helps me to stand, I’ve been wild and reckless, a little insane, and there's a crowd just inside here calling my name"). The eight tracks that make up the balance of the album don’t stray from similar territory, though a cover of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid drifts somewhat into straight rock. It is one of three non-originals on the album, the others being Dale Watson’s Carryin’ On and Don Dupre’s What Am I Supposed To Do

Steel guitar always earns pride of place with Morgan and three peddlers are name checked on the sleeve notes - regular 78’er Brett Robinson and guests Larry Campbell (who also played on Morgan’s self-titled 2010 album) and Austin Tripp.  Also adding muscle to the guitar sound is Jesse Dayton alongside Joey Spina, Kevin Key, Tony Martinez and Dylan Dunbar. Bass and drums contributions are courtesy of Alex Lyon and Tony Dicello and Jim (Moose) Brown and Drew Harakal play keys. 

Morgan’s pace of life, by his own admission, has slowed down somewhat since becoming a parent and relocating to rural California and the aforementioned Carryin’ On -alarmingly similar to Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind! -  though written by Dale Watson, could be autobiographical, reflecting Morgan’s present predicament.  Hard To Get High, with its instantly catchy melody possibly refers to an earlier career chapter ("I put the lid on these pills, gave away that cocaine, I couldn't drink another whiskey to kill all this pain, your leaving left me damned down in this hole, and it's hard to get high when you're feeling this low").

There does appear to be an industry driven change in recent times – even if it’s at a snail’s pace – in respect of country music of the classic and outlaw kind. It seems to be slowly grinding its way back into favour with artists like Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson and Sturgill Simpson earning warranted exposure. Let’s hope the resurgence filters it’s way down to Whitey Morgan, there’s little doubt that it’s entirely deserved and anyone giving Hard Times and White Lines a listen, will no doubt concur.

John Blek Thistle & Thorn Self-Release

John Blek’s last album Catharsis Vol.1, released this time last year, was written while he was hospitalised having contracted a mysterious illness that side lined him for a number of months. Thistle & Thorn, his third solo release in as many years, was not inspired by such unorthodox leanings but still manages to improve on the lofty fineness of its predecessor. Recorded in both Wavefield Recordings, Clonakilty, Co. Cork and Louisville, Kentucky, the album contains ten songs written by Blek over a twelve-month period.

Whereas his last album flitted between folk and trad, his latest offering remains steadfastly in the former camp, a genre that Blek particularly excels in, both in his writing and vocal delivery. It’s a solid collection of folk ballads punctuated by some sumptuous vocal contribution’s courtesy of Kentuckian Joan Shelley and guitar work from her artistic partner and Grammy Nominated Nathan Salsburg. The production duties are by Blek and Brian Casey who also adds guitar, bass, piano, organ and mandolin. 

Conflicted emotions are addressed on The Body, the inevitable parting of former lovers driven by waywardness and neglect ("I’ve grown weary of you, the late nights and the drink too. Your foolish sense of duty, it means nothing to me"). It’s delivered delightfully in a call and response fashion by Blek and Joan Shelley.  Merrier euphoric times in (possibly) the same relationship are referred to the Colours Rising ("O my lover lay back down, I see the colours rising when you’re around"). Subtle strings courtesy of Lea Miklody and Dolcie Ross Keogh assist in creating a dream like ambiance to the song. IF I is an uncomplicated poem put to music. The Blackwater opens the album in an unhurried and patient manner, paving the way for what is to follow. Simplicity has always been one of Blek’s finest points and in a similar manner to his previous solo work, Blek’s vocals are out in front on Thistle & Thorn, but fleshed out more dramatically on this occasion by some wonderful instrumental arrangements. In Your Likeness considers existence and continuity, an ode to a fallen brother. Self-control, longing and mental well-being are present on the closing track All The Night. It’s an impressive closer to an album that once more reinforces Blek as one of the premier singer songwriters in the folk genre in Ireland and indeed beyond, where his talents were formally recognised in 2017 with his nomination for Song of The Year by The International Folk Alliance. 

With tours of Ireland, U.K, Germany and further afield programmed for 2019, Thistle & Thorn is a powerful statement to have to offer from an artist that pays homage to writers from previous decades such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Nick Drake as well as his modern day peers Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley and Alela Diane.

Daniel Romano Finally Free New West

You certainly cannot accuse Daniel Romano of being predictable or unproductive for that matter. Never idle or dwelling in one musical location, his output of eight albums in eight years have covered traditional country, folk, rock and roll, desert and ‘in your face’ rock. His latest release creates a late 60’s early 70’s ‘back to basics’ feel across the mainly acoustic recordings. In essence it’s a one man show, with the only contribution being that of Kay Berkel, who plays piano on Between The Blades of Grass and There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form.  Vocals, writing, instruments, production and engineering are all by Romano, with the album being taped on a four track Tascam cassette recorder from one microphone, which remained in a single position throughout the recording, picking up the various instruments from their locations in the room.

Finally Free may be a head scratcher on first listen and does demand repeated and undisturbed plays to appreciate, but it’s well worth the time invested. Romano admits that "A lot of it is intentionally out-of-tune and not sung obsessively, but I just felt like that's how it needed to be." Though the album may appear to be ‘mind changing substance induced’,Romano actually confesses that the lyrics came to him while driving across the Prairies and suggests that he does not necessarily totally comprehend them himself and therefore the lack of a lyric sheet is no handicap. It’s as equally challenging to interpret the albums title as it is the lyrics. The discerning listener may draw his own assessment from the streams of consciousness, but in real terms the charm of the album lays in the melodies and harmonies throughout.

Empty Husk, opens with gentle harmony vocals and guitar strumming before erupting mid-section and closing as calmly as it started. All The Reaching Trims is a beautiful ballad with languid vocals and acoustic guitar dancing from speaker to speaker. Both these tracks together with Gleaming Sects of Aniram recall early career Roy Harper, possibly played at 33rpm instead of 45rpm. The Long Mirror Of Time stands out, the most conventional and up-tempo offering, Romano’s vocals dip, soar and wail impressively aided by some delightful organ contributions. Celestial Manis is distorted, ghostly and searching, its trippy melodies recall Bowie at his most experimental, the sound of lost souls in purgatory seeking liberty. There Is Beauty In The Vibrant Form bookends the album, mischievously distorted vocals, guitar and percussion combining seductively.

Followers may not necessarily have seen this coming but Finally Free is very much the sum of its parts, an album to be savoured in one sitting, preferably alone and in a dark room. Romano continues to challenge the listener as much as he challenges himself and this new album is yet another essential instalment from an incomparable craftsperson.

Bill & The Belles Dreamsongs, Etc. Jalopy 

Four-piece Johnson City Tennessee band Bill & The Belles signature sound is a throwback to popular music in America back as far as the 1920’s when Ragtime was the flavour of the day, soon to be overtaken by Jazz, Swing and eventually merging with country music as the preferred choice for many radio listeners. Bill & The Belles manage to recreate all these styles with their amalgamation of the various genre across the thirteen tracks that comprise Dreamsongs, Etc. Five of the inclusions were penned by lead vocalist Kris Truelsen.  

Reflecting a sound that is also closely aligned to bluegrass, it’s no surprise that they were nominated in 2017 for four IBMA Awards, though it hardly does them justice to pigeon hole them to one single genre. Banjo, fiddle, clarinet and guitar are provided by Truelsen, Kalia Yeagle and Grant Van’t Hoff respectfully, the trio also contributing harmony vocals, with fourth member Karl Zerfas adding bass. The musical arrangements, production and performances throughout are impressive and stylish.

Hum Your Troubles Away starts the ball rolling in simple Ragtime style, followed by the Hank Williams sounding - both in title and musical content - Lonesome Blues. A similar melancholy is visited in Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues – complete with yodelling – one of two Jimmie Rodgers songs covered, the other being the broody My Carolina Sunshine Girl. The self-written material compares favourably, in particular the timeless Wedding Bells Chimes and Good Gal I’ll Be Okay, both of which could have been borrowed from The Great American Songbook. 

The Jalopy Theatre and School of music, located in Redhook, Brooklyn, NY is a grassroots cultural centre preserving traditional music from The States and further afield, with an inhouse record label. Bill & The Belles debut recording is their latest offering and fits perfectly into Jalopy’s ethos. Anyone with an awareness and appreciation of old-time music should explore their impressive catalogue of artists.

The Hot Club Of Cowtown have developed a very successful touring and recording career presenting a similar approach to music of bygone eras as did the Manhattan Transfer some decades back. Here’s hoping Bill & The Belles can also continue the tradition.

J.R. Harbidge First Ray Of Light Absolute Label Services

You could be forgiven for assuming that First Ray Of Light was a recording by an artist hailing from Long Island or the like, given its Americana singer songwriter feel. In fact Harbidge hails from the Black Country and has been present in the Birmingham rock music scene for over two decades. Currently residing in Derby, First Ray Of Light finds Harbridge somewhat abandoning his rock and grunge background for a more polished and considered collection of songs. Included are some impressive weepies (When You Don’t Love Your Man, Learn To Love The Rain, A Side Of You That Cares) alongside more up-tempo songs including opener – and very much a song for our turbulent political times -  Turn The Screw, a damning commentary on political and financial institutions. The albums highlight and closing track I Know You Know I Know, which kicks in at nearly seven minutes, follows a similar upbeat and rattling sound. I Won’t Support Your Wars continues the political overtones of the opening track and the title track First Ray Of Light optimistically visits a sense of possible rehabilitation from darker times.

Nine tracks on the album are self-penned by Harbidge and one track is a co-write. He also contributes vocals, guitar, bass, harmonica and mandolin together with production, recording and mixing duties. The album delivers a collection of thoughtful and honest song constructions, easy on the ear and well worth investigating. 

Reviews by Paul McGee

Kathy Mattea Pretty Bird Captain Potato

Six years since her last release, Calling Me Home, sees Mattea return with a collection of twelve cover songs that highlight the talents which turned her into one of the most successful country singers of her generation. Not that she restricted her recording history to just one genre of music; Mattea has often explored bluegrass, gospel, celtic and folk leanings.

This release displays her wonderful phrasing and tone, despite some health scares over recent years which saw her temporarily fear the loss of her voice. Her ability to interpret a song over many years of experience has served her well and she tackles covers by Martha Carson (I Can't Stand Up Alone), Jesse Winchester (Little Glass Of Wine), The Wood Brothers (Chocolate on My Tongue), Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billie Joe) and Joan Osborne (St. Teresa) with her unique stamp of making the songs her own.

Mostly the songs are pared down to simple guitar or piano accompaniment and this allows for a new perspective on the sentiment or words contained within.  A good example is her treatment of the traditional arrangement, He Moves Through The Fair and the fine version of Mercy Now, a timeless classic written by Mary Gauthier. 

Production by Tim O’Brien is wonderfully bright and vibrant in the speakers and the musicians excel on every track. Welcome back to one of the greats.

Martha L. Healy Keep the Flame Alight Self Release

This is the second release from a Scottish artist who really impresses. Healy sings in a confident and strong style that brings an extra energy to these ten tracks and the instantly appealing openers, No Place Like Home and Fall In Love Again, have you hooked from the outset.

Recorded in Nashville during 2017, Healy used the production talents of David Spicher who had worked on her debut release, Better Days, back in 2014. Local Nashville session players on the sessions include Bill Cooley (guitars/bazouki), Todd Lombardo (guitars/mandolin), Rory Hoffman (accordion, piano), Eamon McLoughlin (fiddle), Wendy Newcomer (vocals), Dave Racine (drums) and Chas Williams (Dobro). All songs are penned by Healy with one co-write included, We Will Be OK, written with Wendy Newcomer and a song that speaks of hope for tomorrow.

The title track is a personal testament to the need to keep enduring and work through the inevitable hard times that we all face from time to time on our respective journeys. The swing and the swagger of Woman With No Shame channels Dolly at her best and the Folk tinged Unmade Bed takes a wry look at an old relationship that time has passed by ("All that is left is the things that they should have said; in an unmade bed...").

There is a soulful power to Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream and the frustrated message of this song is extended into Sisters To Strangers, a look back at the toll paid in living a life that veers away from youthful hopes and dreams. The closing ballad, Don’t Give Up, is a fitting sentiment to an artist who has forged a career for herself that continues to grow and the momentum gained with this superb release will surely power her along to greater heights.

Lisa Mednick Powell Blue Book Self Release

This collection of ten songs has a release date in 2017 but only recently found its way to the Lonesome Highway mailbox. It is a real keeper and worthy of a belated review, albeit at the end of 2018.

There is a wistful atmosphere to these reflective sounds and a sense of long forgotten memories that come back to remind us of younger days. Understated, stripped back arrangements and a soft focus to the production on songs that resonate and repeat like some lost dream…

Victoria Williams, Tommy Malone, Alison Young, Greg Leisz, among others, assist in the studio but it is the focus of Lisa and her husband, bass player and co-writer, Kip Powell, that brings the magic to tracks Checkpoint, Cold Coffee and Highway Prayer.

With a debut release in 1994, (Artifacts Of Love), it was 2002 before the release of her follow-up (Semaphore), until sixteen years later we are given Blue Book. This artist has played with Earl King, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry to name but a few and has quite an eclectic history, having toured with The Chills and Juliana Hatfield. Something for every taste here. 

Tom Freund East of Lincoln Surf Road 

A quality release from an artist who has been creating terrific music for over 20 years. He has collaborated with so many headline names, such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, The Silos to name a few… His song-writing is superbly crafted and his back catalogue is well worth investigation. On this latest release there are eleven songs and Freund is joined by a list of great players – drums from Matt Johnson (St. Vincent, Jeff Buckley) and Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson, John Cale, Blind Boys of Alabama), pedal and lap steel from Ben Peeler (Dawes, Shelby Lynne, Father John Misty), keys from Rami Jaffe (Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams) and Chris Joyner (Sara Bareilles, Rickie Lee Jones) and violin from Jessy Greene (Wilco, The Jayhawks). 

His writing is subtly laid-back in style but filled with little gems and great insights. A toxic relationship in Freezer Burn is captured in the lines "I was running on hope and fumes" while the self examination of a life lived in the fast lane (Brokedown Jubilee) is referenced with "I was a friend of the devil, but even he got sick of me." 

Abandoning The Ship and Homer Simpson’s Clouds (Day Of The Locust) are other tracks with real punch. Great writing and excellent songs that stay in the memory long after the disc has finished. Always a good sign!

Brad Colerick Nine Ten Thirty Back 9 

This is the fifth release from Los Angeles resident & singer-songwriter Brad Colerick. It was recorded in South Pasedena and co-produced by Colerick and Guillermo Guzman, who contributes bass and percussion across most of the 12 tracks.

They are joined by a group of local musicians who play their part in adding colour to the song arrangements. David Plenn on electric & 12-string guitars is very much to the fore as are the talents of Tim Fleming on pedal steel, dobro, 12-string and baritone guitars. 

Colerick sings in an easy style and there is a commercial, contemporary sound to tracks like Bachelorette Party, while Great Year and Millard Stream channel a Jimmy Buffet style and the sense of a soft breeze on a sunny day. Healer, Almost Home and Weeds are songs with a gentle tempo that drift along on a pleasant groove. A very easy listening experience. 

Ultan Conlon Last Days Of The Night Owl Darksideout

In the five years since his last release, this talented singer-songwriter has continued to grow into an artist of real quality and his creative muse is further enhanced on this latest project. There are twelve songs included and the warm production adds greatly to the arrangements and melodies of opening songs, As The Light Gets Low, The Town Square and Hall Of Mirrors, which set the tone for the rest of the album.

There is some lovely tight playing from the band that comprises of Ultan (acoustic guitars, vocals), Dave Curtis (electric guitars, baritone and 12-string guitars, piano, keyboards and vocals), Jon O’Connell (double and electric bass, acoustic guitar and lap-steel, mandola & vocals), Donal Kerins (drums, vocals), along with Jimi Higgins on percussion, Sabrina Dinan on vocals and Adam Shapiro on violin. 

Strings and brass add greatly to the overall production and these were recorded at Tesla Studios in Sheffield with additional musicians credited in the liner notes, along with pedal steel credits to Russ Pahl in Nashville, who plays on A Weak Heart Like Mine... This has recently been released as a duet with Mary Coghlan providing vocals to great effect.

Quite an investment in terms of energy and time, the commitment given certainly pays off and Ultan can move forward with some confidence into a future that holds plenty more opportunity to build further media attention.

Sorrow Ease and Hurt Inside are fine songs with gentle tones while Ojai takes things down a little with the reminiscence of a city trip, with an old flame, that still lingers in the memory. The radio friendly sounds of The Measure and Twice The Child are perfect examples of how astute a song-writer Ultan is; plenty of feel-good grooves and sing-along choruses that point to increased chart opportunity. However, it is the quiet, pensive strum of the final track, The Fine Art Of Happiness, that gives the greatest hint towards the future success of this blossoming talent. A release of some substance and one that comes highly recommended.

Sina Theil Under Cover Downda Road

Debut release from an artist who was born in Germany and has now settled in Ireland and taking her music career to the next level. Sina has quite a talent and her abilities have seen her songs achieve seven separate number one slots on the Country download charts from her Kildare base. 

This covers record has already gone to the number one slot on the Country download charts and to see what all the fuss is about; well, just go and buy this collection of eleven songs.

The difficulty with releasing a covers record is that you are "damned if you do; damned if you don’t…" Delivering a decent version of a favourite song is hard to do and if you fall short then you open yourself to all sorts of criticism. Especially if you decide to cover such diverse artists as Gretchen Wilson, Cheap Trick, Paul Brady, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Eagles.

The good news is that Sina carries it all off with some style and the overall production by Brian O’Mahoney at Golden Egg Studios in Portlaoise is very impressive. The players, including O’Mahony, deliver a tight sound across each track and the fiddle playing of John Davidson is a real joy throughout and brings a real country feel to covers of These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ (Lee Hazelwood) and I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick).

Some of the covers work better than others, which is only to be expected across such an eclectic mix of choices. However, the overall project is very infectious and the three Brandy Clark inclusions (Stripes, Crazy Women, Since You’ve Gone To Heaven) show the key influences in Sina’s choices. She certainly likes to rock it up but it is the superb version of Colder Weather (Zac Brown Band) that steals the show and points a clear direction for where this talented artist should concentrate when it comes to following this release.

A word about the stylish press kit that was given to Lonesome Highway and the colourful biography and three separate singles that were included. Proof positive that here is an artist with her eyes set on the big prize. The packaging is high quality and makes a statement about the very professional approach being taken here. 

A recent single is Travelin’ Soldier (Bruce Robison), covered by the Dixie Chicks, and is blended with the traditional Irish song, The Minstrel Boy, to great effect. Not included on this covers release but another reason to seek out this rising talent. Watch this space…  

 

Reviews by Eilís Boland

Nathan Evans Fox Texas Dust Self Release 

The title track of this outstanding second album from folk/Americana artist Nathan Evans Fox chronicles the tragic story of his grandfather, which Nathan discovered quite recently and which inspired the whole collection of songs here. His grandfather was a migrant Tennessean worker who ended up in Texas, volunteered for the army and was posted into conflict abroad. After a family tragedy, he was granted a compassionate discharge and returned home to try to pick up the pieces. The universal theme of the struggle of soldiers to return to civilian life and family after the horrors of war is explored with stark imagery -‘I can’t change all my ways, I can’t change the laws of grief’ - and with some fine fiddle playing and echoes of military snare drum from Nathan himself. 

Displacement - from family, from friends and from familiar landscapes - is the other overriding theme in most of the songs. A North Carolina native, where he was immersed in country, rock, bluegrass and gospel music growing up, Nathan spent a year working in the Texas flatlands. On the evidence of the melancholy songs that were inspired there, one can safely assume that it didn’t go very well.

Texas Blues No.7 deals with that time, when he struggled with his faith and had somewhat of a meltdown.  ‘Lost my taste for poetry, picked up my taste for gin’. Simple accompaniment by Nathan on acoustic guitar and some subtle Hammond organ are all that are needed as a backdrop to his gritty vocals.

St Louis is another song wherein the temptations of wanderlust are tempered by the worry of being away from ageing loved ones, this time bookended by Nathan’s superb mandolin playing. It’s not all melancholic, thankfully. There are some memorable love songs here too.

Despite what one would expect from the title, Grief Song is a beautiful love song accompanied by Nathan’s piano and fiddle, atmospheric upright bass from Mike Conners and enhanced further by gorgeous backing vocals from Lindsay Foote. She is a revelation throughout the album, but particularly on another love song, (the inappropriately titled) Texas Blues No.4, where she sings a duet with Nathan.

Corn Whiskey is a gentle country ballad about an Appalachian couple’s adventures in evading the law, which comes to the inevitable gruesome end. The staying power of love in a long-term relationship is explored in Quicksand, where more sweet piano playing from Nathan is perfectly enhanced by claw hammer banjo from Mike Conners. Seek out this excellent album and enjoy.

Montana Tunesmith Dream Catch Self Release

‘Never judge a book by the cover’ goes the old adage and I certainly learned this lesson when I first played this album. My expectations had been low - I didn’t particularly take to the stylised cover painting of the salmon leaping out of the lilac tinted lake (apologies to acclaimed Montana artist Monte Dolack) - I had speculated that this would be another collection of mediocre songs with a New Age sensibility. How wrong I was! From the very first chords I knew this was something special. 

Brothers Tim and Mike Nordstrom make up the band - Tim is the main songwriter and instrumentalist while Mike contributes vocals. For this their third album they have returned to Texas to work again with maestro producer and multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines in The Zone studio, where everybody who’s anybody in Texas music has recorded at one time or another. 

I suspect Lloyd Maines had a simple task, however, along with his bunch of seasoned session musicians, because the material brought to him by this little known duo from Montana was indeed much better than average.  

This is true Americana music. Tim Nordstrom is justifiably proud of his home state and this pride permeates all the songs here, either overtly or covertly. The musical style is a combination of folk, rock and country. As well as Lloyd Maines playing his signature pedal steel and dobro etc, he is joined by Pat Manske (Joe Ely, Alexandra Escovedo) on drums and Dennis Ludiker (Asleep At The Wheel) on fiddle and mandolin.

It’s difficult to single out a favourite song, but title track Dream Catch is particularly memorable - inspired by the death bed story told by an elderly grandmother who once caught a 21lb fish and then let it go. They are joined on this song by renowned fiddle player Tracey Grammer, who  contributes vocals as well as a gorgeous fiddle instrumental interlude.

There are many story songs - Beatnik Son, Hillbilly Storm Chaser and Death of a Salesman are outstanding. 31 Flavors bemoans the decline of culture as a price for the rise of convenience and mass production. Destination Desolation is a rollicking country road song.

Unusually for a record, there’s a three song epilogue, ‘dedicated to Montanans who have protected the natural environment’. The first of these is overly sentimental, but it’s saved by some searing pedal steel courtesy of Lloyd Maines. Full Moon On The Missions and One Montana are truly beautiful and moving.

Tim and Mike’s vocals are clear throughout the album, and their sibling harmonies are as sublime as one would expect. If this album doesn’t make you want to go visit Montana, nothing ever will.

PK Gregory Honkabilly Blues Genuine Butter 

Some very funny songs from one-man-band PK Gregory which will whet your appetite to see him live. PK manages to inject humour into every situation - so much so that I found myself smiling through almost every song here. As well as being possessed of an irreverent sense of humour, he’s an excellent composer of melodies. He plays mainly electric guitar, which is punctuated by bluesy harmonica and percussion from a foot drum. 

There are love songs (of sorts!) like She Showed Me A Picture Of Her Cat and Beat Me Senseless With Your Love. Then there are more conventional love songs like She’s Not My Type (She’s Not You)  and Let’s Not Fight - which is a plea to a long term partner to hang up the gloves (although this one is not for the easily offended either).

He excels at evoking the gothic in the black humour of My Soul Is A Wasteland Of Pain And Death and The Executioner’s Song, both of which are delivered at lively ditty pace. By contrast, Heck Of A Deal delivers a serious message about bullying. Kelly Got The Stomach Flu is just hilarious. Best of all is the opening song The Jesus Cure in which PK details his Catholic schoolboy obsession with a young female teacher who happened to have been a nun!

The overall musical direction is country blues with folk and honkytonk thrown in. It was all recorded live in his home studio so there’s nothing fancy here, but I expect it’s a good indication of how he sounds in a live gig situation.Based in Arizona, I don’t expect he’ll be touring Europe anytime soon, more’s the pity.

The Mallett Brothers Band Vive L’Acadie Self Release  

If you like your rock on the heavy side, with a touch of country, blues and southern thrown in, then this could be the album for you. This is their fifth recording since the brothers Luke and Will Mallett formed their band in 2009. They’ve been playing in their native Maine and up and down the East coast and Mid-West of the US ever since. 

The title track Vive L’Acadie is a nod towards the Acadia region, which stretches from the north east corner of Maine right up into Quebec. However, apart from a Cajun feel to this opening celebratory song of all things French-Canadian (with superb fiddle playing from Andrew Martell) the rest of the album has a more conventional country rock feel.

There are story songs - Onawa tells the tragic true story of a head-on train collision in 1919, when 23 newly arrived Scottish and English emigrants lost their lives. There are trucking songs - the metal heavy Headed Home starts at a gentle pace as the long distance trucker bemoans his lot, only to build into a frenzy that even ZZ Top would be proud of. Then there are the songs of the ordinary working class heroes from every small town in America - Too Much Trouble is a musical contrast to most of the album with acoustic guitar and fiddle dominating.

But of course there are also the love songs. In Few More Dozen Roses the said flowers end up ‘on the side of the road’, allowing Wally’s steel guitar to get a peek in (it is otherwise drowned out in the mix throughout the album, as is the mandolin and banjo, unfortunately).

The album is attractively packaged in a trifold digipak with a lyric book (essential as Luke Mallett’s growly vocals are difficult to decipher!) and with lovely illustrations by Nyla Smith-Lachman.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Ben Da La Cour The High Cost Of Living Strange FSCR

This is one of those albums that transcends all expectations because of the strength of the songs and performance. Da La Cour is a singer/songwriter in the roots/Americana mode but one who with this fourth release shows himself as a contender to join the likes of Rod Picott and Slaid Cleeves as contenders to the crown of Guy Clarke and other notable songsmiths. In the song Uncle Boudreaux Went To Texas he has written a couple of the best lines I have heard all year. “He swore he met Townes van Zandt outside a bar in Houston this one time, I always did believe him, my Daddy told me he was full of shit, he said the closest Boudreaux ever got to Texas was Willie’s Greatest Hits.” Although there are only 8 tracks on this mini-album all are strong and there’s variety in the mood and temposthat make for a consistently interesting listen.

Recorded in Nashville,itwas produced by De La Cour and Joe Lekkas and tight group of musicians who deliver their best shots. Fiddle and accordion join a bass, drum and guitar line up to deliver a warm and full sounding recording. De La Cour has a background in metal and rock but is now firmly ensconced in folk/roots story-telling. De La Cour has called this "Americanoir" - an appropriate description. One trackGuy Clark’s Fiddlesuggestthat he has absorbed some of the best writers around but these tracks are proof positive that his own writing is heading in the right direction. The themes may not be unique in the genre but they feature observations that are as true as any. Company Town is a look at the death of a town and the death of hope. Tupelo is a darker tale of escapism and endangerment. There is an acute sense of observation in the writing that is turned into memorable songs.

Da La Cour was raised in New York but moved to Los Angeles before settling in Nashville for the time being. He has couple of previous releases (A Wasted Moon and Ghost Light) before this current release which simply leaves you wantingmore from this engaging story teller. Hopefully in the not-to-distant future. He is expressing the need for humanity and the lack of it that exists in society at large. Something that has it cost in either living strange or in the strange aspects of living.

Thomas Gabriel Long Way Home Oxvision

On his recordings Thomas Gabriel sounds even more like his Grandfather Johnny Cash that even in the live setting. Gabriel himself has said he feels that he doesn’t have anything like the resonance and gravity that Cash had. Even so the casual listener may think that he is listening to tribute rather than a voice that respects and relates to such an icon. Once you get over the vocal affinity you are left with an album that in some ways has more in keeping with Cash’s later works than the earlier Sun styled recordings. This album, produced by Matthew Oxley, is centered around the voice but behind that is a forward looking set of arrangements that are full of atmospheric ambience.

In its favourit features 14 new original songs, some written by Gabriel, solo or with a writing partner Rick Scott or by executive producer Brian Oxley,for the most part. They are defiant statements of life as understood and realised by a man who had recently served several years in prison and had dealt with the demons of addiction. Cell is the most obvious of these but most of these songs have a darkness in their heart. In that light,Gabriel’svoice suits these tales of hardship and self awareness. However, there is a sense of redemption there also with a song like Come To Me song that offers a vision of a better place to lay your burdens down. Twangtown is a rebuke of those who have (always) favoured finance over heritage and real music in Music City.

Gabriel has said that this album represents and certain point in his life and recovery and that his next album will, likely, be coming from a better place. As it stands,musically,this is not intended as an easy listen. It is a recording that marks a scion of a legendary family trying to find his own path who sees no reason to try and change his voice to something different than it is. What it represents, is a living memory of an icon, while trying to find hisown identity andnever denying the lineage. It is a long way home for Gabriel but he is taking it one step at a time. Steps that in themselves are as strong as his voice. 

Carson McHone Carousel Loose

An artist with a back story that finds her playing a residency in an Austin nightspot at an age where she wouldn’t have legally been allowed to drink there. Now,after that live playing experience and with two previous releases behind herMcHone has sharpened her craft to include her past and her future. To encompass some traditional country influences that were part and parcel of her upbringing as well as to bring the music forward. This was done by bringing in producer Mike McCarthy who had worked with Spoon and Patty Griffin, to name but two. He has also gathered solid rhythm section over which fiddle, steel and electric guitar enhance and explore country’s perimeters without even losing sight of that musical core.

The themes of country music are here, the failed relationships (Sad And Gentle). Many come from an autographical background and some are revised and rerecorded form her earlier Goodluck Man release. Playing in bars from a tender age undoubtably will colour your viewpoint of life and relationships. Seen first-handthat experienceno doubt inspired some of these songs,which often have a melancholy undertow,that gives them a sense of confessional purpose. It is an album that is moving away from a strict traditional country base to something more contemporary and imbued with a wealth of other influences that are still aligned with a vision of where McHone might take this music in order to suit each song in its own right.

The upfront Drugs and Dram Shop Gal whose lines “But I still like to do my runnin’ round, so it couldn't be, I would not be bound” show that there is a determination to move on as a person and with her music. She is able to give each song on Carousel its own space and place allowing the songs their individual tempo and setting. There’s the piano and brushed drums mood of How ‘Bout it. That contact with the dance floor best of Good Time Daddy Blues. The overall mood of the album though is more plaintive without ever losingits energy and focus. McHone is exploring her options but has still created an album that manages to be considered country while moving beyond any restrictive boundaries. Life goes round and we wait to see which carousel horse McHone arrives on next.

Hunter Perrin Wild Card Self Release

It comes as no surprise that Hunter Perrin spent time as a member of John Fogerty’s band. He has distilled the elements of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll into a new album that delivers 10 songs in 23 minutesof American music that thrills and avoids and excess fat. It is a sound that some mayfind too sparse and stripped back but it’s one that this review revels in. The themes are classic and timeless and could have been recorded anytime since the 50s. 

Titles like A Tear From A Bloodshot Eye, Another Lonesome Night In A Lonesome Town and That’s You, That’s Me, That’s All cover some basic emotional modes of the heart with a strong sense of hook and melody that makes you think that these songs have been around for quite some time. They are all however written by Perrin and played with his band mates Christopher Allis on drums and Thomas Lorioux on upright bass. This duo lay a solid rhythm under which Perrin sings and plays a big Bigsby tremoloed guitar. One song, Gallup, NM (New Mexico) is a vibrant instrumental and is set in that particular location, as is California Is My Home; a song that details his previous and current home bases. He is equally well versed musically,having studied at Yale and the University of Texas,where he studied classical guitarist.  He played in a rock band in NewYork called Hi-Five and has subsequently started three other bands as well as releasing two solo albums.

Although this album is released under his own name it is more of a band album in overall sound. A sound that is obviously a deliberate one given his undoubted range and experience. Perrin’s wild card is his innate ability to produce an album that has no fat or filler and all of its ten songs are somemorable and deceptively simple in their recording that they feel fresh and fundamental.

Connie Smith My Part Of Forever (Vol.1) Humphead

There may be lot of singers in country music better known than Connie Smith but few are better vocalists. This is another collection by the (generally) reissue label Humphead who have a collection of double CDs that are mainly drawn from a particular time of an artist’scareer and from a label they can licence the tracks from. in this case Smith and husband Marty Stuart have made the selection of tracks that span her career. So CD1 runs from 1973 to 1985. Songs from when she was signed to Columbia that include a good half dozen albums. She worked with producers Ray Baker and George Richey during this period and the sound is steadfastly traditional country without ever getting stuck in a rut. The range of writers was equally varied from Hank Williams through Dallas Frazier to Steve Earle.

The second CD takes tracks from more recent albums and finds Smith’svoice if anything stronger and more authoritative. There aremany tracks from Long Line Of Heartaches that was released by Sugar Hill in 2011,as well as the Warner released self-titled album from 1998through to an album I wasn’t aware of entitled The Lost Tapes - Country Rewind 1972-2015 - which as it suggests is a collection of rare and unreleased recordings. Stuart acts as executive producer on these Scotty Moore produced tracks. The other tracks were produced by Stuart himself and the sound is balanced and undoubtably country and at odds with the move towards a more pop-oriented sound. One listen to My Part Of Forever and you hear a masterclass in country music as it should be.

One might readily assume that at least some of the recent tracks benefit from the playing of Smith’s band The Sundowners who included steel player Gary Carter as well as Robbie Turner. Steel guitar is very much in evidence and central to many of these tracks. As a career overview it is a well thought out selection that sees Smith at the top of her game after remaining vital for nearly half a century. Something that not many can say. Alan Cackett’s sleeve notes are informative and they complete the package. It leaves one looking forward to Volume 2.

Mike Blakely The Outside Circle Swing Rider

With the new Colter Wall album focusing on the Western side of country music this album from Blakely is welcome. Blakey isstoryteller and uses these ten tracks to paint a vivid picture of a time and way of living that is all but gone. He does so in the tradition of the original singing cowboys and exponents like Michael Martin Murphy, Ian Tyson and Wylie Gustafson. Blakey’s latest album is his 13th and a return to the C&W format that he featured on his first two albums. He is also the author of Western novels and winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award and is steeped in the lores and motivations of those who love the feel of that time and those legends of the west, sung and unsung.

As a writer he has had his songs covered by the likes of Alan Jackson and Raul Malo among many others. Blakely is a native Texan who brings life to his songs of cowboys, round-ups and rodeos. His voice is ideal with a depth that is both warm and appropriately worn. The album was produced by Walt Wilkins and Ron Flynt and features a host of Austin players including Lloyd Maines on steel guitar, Rich Brotherton on mandolin and Kim Deschamps on resonator. The songs are originals written by Blakely solo or with Damon Rogersother than the traditional songThe Colorado Trail. The Ballad Of Josiah Wilbarger is a seven minute plus tale of the trials and tribulations of the rider and his encounter with a Comanche raiding party. It is a compelling story that does everything that is should over a simple and sparse backingfronted by Blakley’s captivating vocal.

This sub-genre of country may not be overtly popular but is one that still thrives and has many followers and exponents. If you are at all a follower of the Western ethos in movie, book or song then The Outside Circle is an album that you will want to explore and it is one I have returned to often since it arrived.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Kristina Murray Southern Ambrosia Loud Magnolia 

The album cover of Southern Ambrosia, depicting Kristina Murray in semi darkness, has more than a passing resemblance to Emmylou Harris’s Luxury Liner. Possibly coincidence or possibly a statement of intent from the Georgia born Nashville resident. Murray first came to my attention a few years back when she was introduced by J.P. Harris as the finest country singer currently residing in Nashville, before she performed a few numbers midway through his own set at Americana Fest. She had previously worked with Harris as a backing vocalist, appearing on stage at The Grand Ole Opry and gaining a reputation as one to watch’ among the thriving East Nashville artistic community. She appears regularly at The American Legion in East Nashville, where a new generation of artists, along with more established names, keep the flag flying for traditional country music.  

The album was recorded in Nashville at both Sound Stage Studios and Welcome to 1979, under the watchful eye of Michael Rinne, who previously produced other East Nashville emerging artists Caroline Spence, Erin Rae and Kelsey Waldon.

Murray’s vocal is unadulterated country, wonderfully accented with a nasally drawl that fits the part, though I did find it a tad difficult to catch her lyrics from time to time, in the absence of a lyric sheet. She writes and sings from the heart, kicking off with the first track Made in America,(a first cousin to Margo Price’s All American Made perhaps), which visits the anguish and despair, coupled with the pride, resilience and contradictions of being a Southerner. It'a lively opener with Murray making a statement that she has more strings to her bow than simply being a great honky tonk vocalist. It also fosters some nifty guitar work by Kris Donegan and pedal steel courtesy of Justin Schipper, both of whom contribute in no small manner throughout the album.  

Personal pain and the despair of others are awash throughout the album, from the hopelessness and inevitability of Slow Kill, to the drug fueled violence of The Ballad Of Angel & Donnie, which also includes a killer guitar break by Donegan. The tempo of both tracks almost masks the painful lyrics, with a delivery that recalls an early career Carlene Carter at her boldest. Tell Me is a gentle, drop dead gorgeous and moving country break up ballad, sung as a duet with Frank Carter Rische, with a nod perhaps to Emmylou. Potters Field is similarly paced, equally striking and laced with baroscopic slide and pedal steel. The instantly appealing Lovers & Liars is an epilogue for a soured and broken relationship.It kicks off with wailing harmonica courtesy of Pat Bergeson and a slick bass line before Murray’s drawl kicks in. Strong Blood remembers her father, whose material legacy may only have been a bag of power tools and a few busted pick-up trucks, but who instilled in his daughter a strength of character and resilience. The self-deprecating Jokes On Me simply aches, both Murrays vocal and Justin Schippers eerie pedal steel setting an almost tearful atmosphere to the albums closer.

Southern Ambrosia is the second album from Murray, following her 2013 release Lights Out For The Lonesome. It’s broader reaching than its predecessor, not locked in traditional country and a further substantiation of her talent not only as a vocalist but also as a storyteller. Most of the tales may be depressing, dark and void of happy endings, but theyre honest, real life and compelling, from an artist that has served her time playing dive bars in Colorado before adding backing vocals to other artists. Shes finally arrived where she belongs, front of stage and with the support of cracking musicians. 

It’s inexcusable given the endless talent of female artists among the East Nashville community, that only Margo Price has got the deserved recognition, and she had to literally sweat blood for her breaks. Kristine Murray is yet another resident of that neighbourhood who, together with Erin Rae, Lilly Hiatt and others, could comfortably make a major industry breakthrough given the exposure and industry support. Southern Ambrosia is an album that sounds better and better on every spin and cant be recommended highly enough.

Neilson Hubbard Cumberland Island Proper 

Cumberland Island, Georgia is the largest of the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States. The ruins of the Carnegie mansion, destroyed by fire in 1959, remain on the island and the grounds are still populated by wild horses, dating back to their arrival in the 16th Century thanks to the Spanish Conquistadors. Cumberland Island is also the title of Neilson Hubbard’s most recent album and the inner album sleeve articulates how he and his wife spent a magical afternoon on the desolate island, one day after they were married. The inspiration generated by his visit to the island, and his marriage, are the stimulus for much of the album’s material and its artwork, with tracks such as the stunning My Heart Belongs To You and For My Love reflecting the latter and needing little explanation. 

Hubbard’s early career included his first band Spoon, before forming The Living Hand with Clay Jones, releasing two albums prior to pursuing a solo career and recording four solo albums between 1997 and 2008. The highly regarded Strays Don’t Sleep, a collaboration with Matthew Ryan was also released in 2006. Much of Hubbard’s energies in the intervening period were taken up with production work, working with artists such as Amelia White, Tyler James, Amy Speace and more recently Ben Glover’s album Shorebound and Mary Gauthier’s Americana Music Association Album Of The Year nominated Rifles And Rosary Beads.Hubbard, together with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt are also members of the roots band Orphan Brigade. 

Recorded in less than one week with Ben Glover sharing the production duties, the album is beautifully presented both in its packaging, photography and liner notes. The quality of the songs are equally impressive from the opener and title track – a dreamish Celtic Folk feel underscored by Eamon McLoughlin’s delicate violin playing – it recalls Van Morrison’s You Know What They’re Writing About with Glover’s influence as co-writer most evident. Equally impressive is How Much Longer Can We Bend, also co-written with Glover. Country gospel is the order of the day on Old Black Riverand the previously mentioned My Heart Belongs To Youis the album’s stand out track, a song that could very easily grow wings in a similar vein to Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It features in the main just Hubbard’s vocals in front of Danny Mitchell’s sympathetic piano and discreet horns. Don’t Make Me Walk This World On My Own also benefits from a similar exquisite mix of vocals, piano and horns.

Contributing to the album are a collection of Nashville big hitters including Will Kimbrough (guitars), Danny Mitchel (keys & horns), Dean Marold (bass), Eamon McLoughlin (violin), Natalie Schlabs and Audrey Spillman Hubbard (harmonies) and fellow Orphan Brigade members Ben Glover (acoustic guitar) and Joshua Britt (mandolin). There is a mellow style to much of the material on Cumberland Island, plaintive clear vocals revealing an artist growing in confidence and aided by a team of accomplished musicians and co-writers. An understated gem of an album, well worth checking out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as I am.

Various Artists This Is Loose Loose

Celebrating their 20th Anniversary, Loose remain the champion of all things Americana in Europe. This Is Loose, a fifteen-track compilation, is a further reminder of the quality acts that the Loose family represent and includes tracks from 2017, 2018 and indeed 2019, with the inclusion of songs by both Frankie Lee (Downtown Lights) and William The Conqueror (Bleeding On The Soundtrack), both to be included in their forthcoming albums.

The list of artists covered in the recording reads as a ‘who’s who’ at the business end of the Americana market, both in the US and U.K. Included are leading lights such as Courtney Marie Andrews, Israel Nash and Andrew Combs representing the more established international acts, with more local and emerging acts Treetop Flyers and William The Conqueror also featured. Jim White has always been beyond categorisation and his inclusion on the label is the perfect marriage and included is the equally talented and no easier to categorise Joana Serrat. 

We’re reminded of the untimely passing of Robert Fisher in 2017 by the inclusion of Untethered from Willard Grant Conspiracy’s album of the same title. The album remained unfinished at the time of his death but was subsequently completed by his musical friends. Recent signing Sons Of Bill open the album with Good Morning (They Can’t Break You Now) from their recent and most experimental album to date titled OH God Ma’am and everybody’s favourite live band Danny & The Champions Of The World feature by way of Don’t Walk Away.

The Americans, Gill Landry, Ian Felice and Frontier Ruckus complete the line up in what is the perfect CD to pop in the player and let Loose select your playlist. Roll on the next 20 years!

Ariel Bui Disguised As Fate (10th Anniversary Edition) Love Note Collectables

I also honour your suffering and pain, remembering only vaguely now the depths of your trauma and despair that seemed never ending. I want to tell you; your life will get better. You will have adventures and learn to set better boundaries, find stability and peace’’.

The quote above forms part of a memo on the inside sleeve of the album Disguised As Fate, written today by Bui to her younger self, in recognition of her arduous voyage from a coming of age teenager to the fulfilled young adult that she is today. 

The tenth anniversary re-release of Ariel Buis debut album was celebrated on September 16th at The Fond Object in East Nashville, on the closing day of the Americana Festival. Disguised As Fate was written by Bui between the ages of 15 and 20 while she, as a consequence of her mothers mental illness, lived in various parts of the US, often with other members of her family. Her parents had emigrated from Vietnam to the US at the end of the Vietnam War and growing up, particularly in the predominately white environment of Florida, was difficult for Bui, coupled with her mothers illness.

Now a classically trained musician and graduate of Rollins College in Florida, the album is in many ways a diary of that often traumatic and stressful youth, all of which heavily influenced the album. Titles include The Stranger (“My love for yous disguised as hate, So I can have someone to blame, For the fact that I couldn’tmake you love me’’), How It Should Be (“All our lives we spend afraid, Of the future we have made’’) and Change (“But one day, someone sweet will come my way, And Ill keep him at bay, Because I am afraid’’). All point to a young lady openly questioning and attempting to come to terms with her predicament. 

The album was co-produced by a close friend Dylan Ethier, who released it on his own Love Note Collectables label. Stripped back to the bare bones, the material essentially features Buis vocals and acoustic guitar, as she confronts the life issues shes been dealt. The vulnerability and frailty in her vocals and lyrics are all too evident and, in many ways, recall a young Dolores ORiordan.

Bui graduated from Rollins College in 2009 and abandoned the notion of a musical career, instead relocating to New Mexico, where she took up employment in a radically sustainable firm of architects and then worked for AmeriCorps’ Energy Conservation.Next, finding herself at a crossroads career wise, she was actively encouraged to revisit her musical vocation by friends who had recognised her unique and unclassifiable musical inventiveness. She subsequently settled in East Nashville and founded The Melodia Studio, which offers musical lessons to students of all ages, with the particular emphasis on fun learning’. 

The re-release of Disguised As Fate is much more than simply an album. It is a brave celebration of the resilience of a young woman, against all the odds in many instances, who has found her true vocation in life as an artist and musical educator. Its not a Saturday night party listen and needs to be approached in the context of the intriguing backstory. 

The memo quoted at the top of this review, in its totality, together with the poetic lyrics from this album, could fittingly be included in English Literature school curriculums for teenagers, by way of reassurance and awareness that difficult times do pass. 

 

Michelle Lewis All Thats Left Self Released 

Originally from Boston but currently residing in Los Angeles, Michelle Lewis has been playing piano from the age of eight, moving to guitar in her teens and is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. All That’s Left is the latest instalment and third release from her, whose debut album This Time Around was released back in 2004. She is not to be confused with another American songwriter of the same name whose claim to fame includes writing for Disney soundtracks and Cher.

Her music is best described as folk approaching pop, highlighting not only her very impressive vocals but also her sensitive and delicate songwriting ability. The album features eleven tracks in total, with topics covering the full range of emotions, from the tranquil In Love Againand You And Me, to the resolve of Push On, which has been released as a singleA self-confessed lover of the more sad and mournful side of songwriting Lewis’s darker emotions are visited in Scars and All That’s Left. A cover of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark is also included, a more unhurried delivery than the original with the focus on her vocals. 

Co-produced by Lewis and Anthony J. Resta, the album was recorded at Bopnique Musique in Los Angeles. Lewis has delivered some thoughtful song constructions on All Thats Left, that could quite easily find their way onto playlists on commercial daytime radio stations.

Rob Mc Hale Prophets On The Boulevard Wooden Door

North Carolina based folk singer Bob Mc Hales albums are consistently well turned out, both in musical content, cover design and packaging. Mc Hale is very much a disciple of his fellow Statesman Woody Guthrie and his songs follow a similar trail, with the emphasis often on the environment and equality. The thirteen tracks on the album are all self-written with the exception of Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster, which is given a makeover and presented in a delightfully lazy J.J.Cale type delivery. A follower of Guthrie McHale may be, but his musical style often has more in common with British Folk than closer to his home State.

Up to fifteen instruments and ten players were employed in the recording altogether including Mc Hales regular players, his brother Pat who adds harmonica and his guitar player Mike Alicke. Four female vocalists also contribute. 

The striking streetscape cover painting by David Merck depicts a rundown town with an animated bearded bible wielding evangelist preaching to a group of people, while around the corner a lady of the night invites custom from a passing motorist and a presumably dead body lies on the pavement. A couple of yards down the street a guitarist (possibly Mc Hale) sits busking on the street.

Standout tracks are the breezy opener Common Ground, the gentle tribute song Woodys Shoes and When Im With, a rocky closer that bookends the album. 

Marla & David Celia Daydreamers Seedling 

Male and female double acts seem currently to be the order of the day, with endless combinations recording and touring, often under the Americana umbrella. Marla and David Celia, who both have previous recorded output, have released their first joint album having toured extensively over the past few years, primarily in Canada, Russia and Europe. 

David Celia is a Canadian born artist whose four individual albums include influences as far ranging as Gordon Lightfoot and 60s Brit pop. He encountered the Heidelberg native Marla at a music festival in Germany and went on to produce her debut album Madawaska Valley in 2016. 

Where many of their like have followed the Welch/Rawlings model, exploring music of long bygone days, this combination’s output is closer to The Everly Brothers take on folk and country music. Aptly titled Daydreamers, the album is composed by two artists that appear as musically compatible as they are romantically. The overall feel of the album is of fondness and affection, with titles such as Lover Of Mine, I Am Her Man and Heart Like A Dove. Much more than a personalised mutual admiration recording, the album maintains a relaxing and soothing essence throughout, courtesy of some beautiful harmonies by the pair and consistently strong material. The album was recorded at The Rooster Studios in Toronto and self-produced by the couple under the supervision of experienced producer Don Kerr, who is also Ron Sexsmith’s drummer. 

Theres much to admire on the album, with well-crafted songs that are easy on the ear and the perfectly matched harmonies by the couple which shine most brightly on the catchy opener Carry It On and the title track Daydreamers. The previously noted Heart Like A Dove, written by David as a Valentine’s Day gift to Marla also impresses. Whats also noteworthy throughout is Marla singing in her own accent, thankfully not attempting to adopt an American inflexion.

The Whispering Tree Invisible Forces Self Release 

Singer/songwriter Eleanor Kleiner and multi-instrumentalist Elie Brangbour are The Whispering Tree and Invisible Forces is their third album release. Self-produced and recorded at their home in New York the material visits several genres, from the instantly accessible and Aimee Mann sounding Heavy to the more mysterious These Houses, a haunting tale of the ghosts of bygone times contained within every four walls. Fat Cat is a well visited songwriting theme and it’s delivered with a jazzy dash and California dreams of a slower paced lifestyle under sunnier skies. Bells,the closer, is also politically charged (‘I hear bells ringing for change, though I’m not sure who’s ringing those bells today’). Split In Half, at six minutes the longest track on the album, is also the standout, addictively rhythmic with Kleiner’s soaring vocals particularly impressive. Heavy, which includes the album’s title in its lyrics, relates to depression and the rhythm in the gorgeous Garden recalls Calexico.

In terms of musical direction, The Whispering Tree are difficult to define, blending folk, blues, country soul and even jazz across the eight tracks on Invisible Forces. What can’t be denied is that the album is very easy on the ears.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Jaimee Harris Red Rescue Self Release

This is a very impressive debut from a Texas artist who is starting to make quite a few ripples Stateside. Starting off with the hard edged, driving guitar sound of Damn Right and the topic of doomed attraction and broken relationships, the mood changes on the soft and reflective Creatures to a nice melody and tempo, even if the subject is, again, that of love lost.

Harris has a past that she is thankful to have survived and this chance at putting her life on a central path is not one that she intends to mess up. Her voice is both gentle and powerful as she brings just the right amount of colour and tone to each of the 10 songs included here. There is just one co-write and the remaining songs are all self-penned, with Depressive State perhaps being the immediate stand-out with it’s refrain an earnest plea for acceptance, both from herself and others. I had a strange sensation of her singing this with Tom Petty in a dream; it’s just got that vibe about it.

The acoustic strum of Catch It Now speaks of getting out there and living life big while the guest vocals of (the late) Jimmy LaFave on Red Rescue add a poignancy to the lyric about reaching out and trying to help lift the darkness.

Fake seems a deeply personal song with its slow, lifting structure while Hurts As Good As It Feels sounds like the most radio-friendly track here; again, it deals with an abusive relationship that feeds only negative habits.  Forever is a different take on Jaimee’s ability and delivers a torch song moment that no doubt has fuelled the early comparisons to Emmylou. However, my thoughts are more towards Patty Griffin with her vocal power and tone and never more so than on Snow White Knuckles, a song that deals with her addiction and shows both her resilient and vulnerable sides in the understated delivery.

Closing track Where Are You Now? has a sad acceptance in the letting go of a loved one (parent, friend, relative?). Poignant and restrained.

The production by Craig Ross is very bright and full of just the right amount of space for the players to really express themselves and serve the songs. One of the best releases this year and highly recommended.

My Politic 12 Kinds Of Lost Self Release

This band is building up quite a head of steam as their career reaches for new heights with the release of this seventh album since they started out in 2006. Working around the central pairing of Kaston Guffey and Nick Pankey, the other band members add greatly to the organic, rootsy sound of the 12 tracks here, with dobro, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitars and upright bass all adding plenty of layers to the superbly observed songs and lyrics.

Starting out with Bored Young Ghost, a clever take on the possibility that growing up bored in a small country town is not just the preserve of the living. Loneliness captures that feeling of isolation perfectly and the need to reach out to another. All songs are written by Guffey and he certainly has a way with words and capturing a sentiment, a feeling or an idea worth pondering upon. Lost love is reflected in Only Human, with the notion that ultimately, we are always on our own – ‘I was always thinking of me, and you were always thinking of you.’

Down In Hell is about addiction and the possibility of repeating the sins of the father is something that many songsters have tacked, but not with this much wry observation and insight. The Tunnel is a plea and the need to reach out for one another.

I Don’t Wanna Run is about slowing down, living a simple life and being thankful for a place to settle down. Devil’s Playground, is a Steve Earle type workout that examines hypocrisy and juxtaposing the high from a needle with the high from the Good Book on a Sunday. ‘Amphetamines are passed around like communion and the Good Lord’s grace.’ 

These are character songs and dreaming of another life (Aint Outta Line), failed relationships (Great Divide), returning home (My Mother Missouri) and living a reclusive life (News Alone) are all observations on life and the feeling of being vulnerable and lost. 

Really great stuff throughout, with Wilson Conroy on dobro, mandolin, and Jen Starsinic on fiddle being supporting the twin guitars of Guffey and Pankey. Will Cafaro provides solid bass lines throughout with occasional drums from John Wood and B3 organ from Jeff Adamczyk.

Tim Easton Paco & Melodic Polaroids Campfire Propaganda

Welcome back to this very fine singer songwriter who has been releasing excellent music since his debut appeared back in 1998. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, Easton released a series of quality albums culminating with a best of collection in 2013. 

He continues to record and release music and this project is a direct-to-lacquer mono recording. There is a timeless quality to the feel of the songs and the 10 tracks included are all just Tim and his faithful old companion, Paco – a J-45 Black Gibson guitar that he has owned since 1987.

The liner notes talk of both him and the guitar having taken a lot of dents and cracks over the years on the road but on listening to these songs, his craft is alive and well with the added sparkle that only experience and insight bring with the passing years. He is a very talented guitar player and his songs speak of heartland America in the best of Folk traditions. 

Never Punch The Clock Again is a story song of murder and staying on the run. California Bars is another dusty road tale of wanderlust and evil deeds while Elmore James is a tribute to the old blues master.

Another Good Man Down speaks of drug addiction and there is a cover of the Jimmie Rogers song, Jimmie’s Texas Blues, while Travelling Days evokes the spirit of Woody Guthrie complete with harmonica backing to add atmospherics. This is a cosy night by the fire with a nice glass of wine.

Jesus Save Me is a plea for tolerance and patience among the self-professed emissaries of truth on Earth and the greed that seems inherent in humankind, with bullying ways engineered to spread fear. This is an excellent release and deserving of a place in any discerning music collector’s home.

Walter Salas Humara Walterio Rarr

The Silos were a band credited with being at the origins of the alt-country, No Depression movement sound that spawned such acts as Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, The Bottle Rockets, Wilco, Son Volt and many others. 

As a founding member, Walter has always espoused that rebel notion of staying independent, keeping it on the edge and creating a body of work, whether with the changing Solos line-ups, or latterly on a solo basis, that is continuously scaling such heights... His light continues to burn brightly as evidenced by the 10 tracks included here, all played with an energy and tension that feels like electricity burning in your grip. 

Walter also handles full production duties and the snap of She’s A Caveman and Here We Go are examples of the dynamic still at play as he releases his rock instincts to run alongside the more rootsy numbers like l Want To Be With You and Come In A Singer; all the way along to the funky groove of Hecho En Galicia

The playing is excellent throughout with Joe Reyes on guitar and Konrad Meissner on drums really driving the tight workouts and spinning the plates… Out Of The Band sums it all up with a driving beat and a rocking conclusion to what is a really enjoyable listen and one that proves real talent never goes away; it just takes a well earned rest from time to time!

The Watson Twins Duo Self Release

Twin sisters Chandra and Leigh Watson make a very welcome return with this 8-track album. It has been a few years since their last output but those sweet harmonies are as tight as ever and the production on the project is light and airy. Russ Pollard did the honours at Camp Sierra Studio in California. He also plays a number of instruments across the tracks, with just a few guest appearances from Vanessa Carlton (piano), Bo Koster (keys) and Mickey Raphael (harmonica).

At just over 21 minutes, it never overstays its welcome but, rather leaves you wanting more – a very good sign! The traditional country sound of Cry Baby is perfectly captured with some superb pedal steel playing by Carl Broemel, who also provides bass and guitar parts, in addition to some drum programming. All in all, this is a tightly produced record that highlights the commercial appeal of the twins, together with their natural talents as songwriters and singers. All eight tracks are written by Chandra and Leigh and the big sound of Rolling Thunder reminds me of the classic 60’s arrangements and vocals a lá the Shirelles.

They sing of ‘this city of lost souls’ on Down In The Valley and this is not a fate these twins will ever suffer as their talent will always point them in a clear direction. There is a torch song, noir feel to the duet with The Cactus Blossoms on the atmospheric Call To You, while the song Blue Tonight has a more folky vibe to the arrangement. 

Playing Hearts has a fine up-tempo beat and the title track sums it all up with the classic hook, ‘Gonna Hustle, Gimme That Shake; Thought We Had It Made’. Perhaps a sideways look at the career difficulties of any artist trying to forge a meaningful career in the shark infested waters of the music business these days. An excellent release and welcome back, Ladies…! 

Astra Kelly Chasing The Light Rockaway

This interesting artist is a Chicago native who now lives in in San Diego and has quite a number of releases to her name. Her career that has seen her work hard to rise above the crowded marketplace where the competition is always fierce. Her talents extend to Radio DJ, local concert promoter, recording studio manager, vocal coach and voice-over artist. Go girl…!!

On the opening track, Prelude, she sings ‘head, heart, soul; let the light be the fire’. This sums up Astra’s philosophy in believing that living in the moment is what we can best aspire towards. The following track, Old Shoes, speaks of leaving down your burdens and moving on to better things. It may be centred around a relationship but can equally be likened to a spiritual awakening. Equally, the title track, Chasing The Light, is affirmation that the journey is going to be worth all the effort. 

Astra co-produced the project with Jeffrey Berkley who also plays banjo and guitars across the eleven tracks included here. All Along speaks of leaving and taking a journey - only to realise that ‘you find out when you get there; you had what you were seeking all along’. Again, a message of inner strength being ample as our guiding light. 

The Less I Have (Freedom) speaks of living life as simply as possible, feeling light. All That Matters is a relationship song that questions the need to hide feelings and the wish for real honesty. Pedal steel from Doug Pettibone on this track adds to the atmosphere and augments the tight band arrangement.

The production is very clean throughout with plenty of space between the notes. Astra sings in a very clear, confident and soulful voice with her spoken-word piece, Watching Wasps, an interesting break to the flow of the music where she addresses the need to unlock our mental chains and step into the light. 

The country sound of Twisted is perfectly delivered with banjo and violin (Melissa Barrison) to the fore, while the acoustic groove of Stone Cold delivers a happy, upbeat sound. Crumble has a soulful sound with Jeff Berkley front and centre on electric guitar & banjo – ‘change is always comin’ back for more.’ 

Closing track, The Road, is a powerful ending that displays Astra’s ability to front this excellent studio band and a strong statement that here is an artist worthy of your attention. A fine release.  

Eilidh Patterson Sunshine Self Release

A commercial, contemporary Folk sound that is full of catchy melodies and songs that engage the listener. The studio musicians play with great sensitivity and talent in delivering these songs and Sandy Jones features on a number of instruments together with the family bluegrass band Cup O’Joe (The Agnew siblings, Reuben, Tabitha & Benjamin) and Ruth Trimble. Co-produced with Sandy Jones at the Foundry Music Lab in Motherwell, Eilidh shows a real talent for capturing a hook and melody to match her beautiful vocals and engaging words.

It has been a number of years since her last release but Eilidh has not gone away and her talents certainly shine brightly across the 12 tracks included here. In the days of singles and radio charts, the title track would have featured as a prime example of how to deliver a hit. Sunshine bounces with a happy, pop sound and an optimism about living life. Similar tracks to this are True Love Is Returned, A Good Day and the joyful slice of memory that is My Mother Loved Elvis.

However, there is also the other side of life and reflective songs like I’ve Got Lines and Do I Really Know You? hint at a disappointment with relationships that becomes manifest on the sweetly sad song, Losing You… There is a glimpse of what Eilidh could veer towards in the future with the bluesy groove of Slow Down, advice to start smelling the roses a little more and the beautiful delivery on The Way You Say My Name shows that real love and commitment is still out there, even if it’s capture is as elusive as ever... The closing song, When I Don’t Feel Like Singing Anymore is a call for reassurance and support when doubt arises and it stands as a ray of hope for a brighter tomorrow. This is a very strong comeback statement and one that merits your attention

Josephine Johnson The Spark Self Release

This is the second release from a singer songwriter who has worked hard at forging a career in the competitively overcrowded artistic space that is the female solo market. Josephine released Let It All Out back in 2014 and on this follow up she has enlisted co-producers John Vanderslice (Samantha Crain, the Mountain Goats, Grandaddy, Strand Of Oaks, Spoon) and Robert Shelton, who also engineered, across the eight tracks featured. The project was recorded at Vanderslice’s analogue studio in San Francisco and mastered in Boston. It is the culmination of two years work in driving the campaign, via KickStarter, towards a happy ending.

The overall sound is underpinned by warm keyboard sounds from Shelton on piano and organ and Carly Bond contributes on guitar, slide and clarinet to great effect. The rhythm section of Doug Stuart and Jason Slota drive the tempo with a confidence, whether on the slow groove of the title track or the up-tempo closer, Light It Up.

Long Way Home is a gentle acoustic arrangement that highlights Josephine’s smoky vocal delivery while Come Down displays a slow burn soulful sound. Tuesday Evening and Carry On also focus on a tight band sound and the vocal colour added by Josephine builds an atmosphere that delivers a consistency across this interesting release.

Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin How Many Chances Self Release

Released in 2017, this project is not the first time that the combined talents of Kristi and Fats have aligned to make sweet music. In 2010 they released the excellent I Wonder As I Wander and they quickly followed this up in 2011 with You're Still Around

So, this makes it a very fine hat-trick with the engaging vocals of Kristi mixing seamlessly with the superb musicianship of multi-instrumentalist Fats. He plays a dizzying array of instruments on the 12 tracks included here. Wait for it – steel guitar, mandolin, organ, button accordion, bass, harmonica, violin, clarinet, viola, acoustic guitar and electric guitar...!

Of course, it helps that they are also husband and wife and the close bond shared is evident in the way that they deliver songs that have a sweet balance and a feeling of wide-open spaces about them. The bright melody and excellent harmonies of Beautiful World is a prime example, but we also have the treat of the title track with its lonesome harmonica and acoustic sound, balanced against the slow, reflective vocal and sensitive arrangements of So Far As I Can Tell and closing track, Far Away Places

The easy cool of Fly Tomorrow is a smooth groove and the next track, Gin, is a salutary look at domestic dystopia, compulsion and disillusionment. This duo makes soulful music that comes from the creative heart of what they define as Pulp Country. Wonderfully atmospheric and highly addictive.

 

Reviews by Eilis Boland

Mules & Men Thinking Sideways Self Release 

An exciting debut album from a new Irish band who are turning the bluegrass genre on its head.

Firmly rooted in bluegrass, Mules & Men are doing to the genre what The Pogues did to folk music - and they call it Acid Celtgrass!

Luke Coffey, who wrote the majority of the songs, shows that he has a good ear for constructing a melody as well as being one of the best young banjo players in the country at the moment. 

Wonder/Wander is a gentle paced ballad of yearning for a lost love where Luke’s vocals are superbly complemented by Lily Sheehan’s harmonies, all beautifully enveloped in Luke’s inventive banjo lines - definitely the strongest song on the album.

Mark Corry shows that he is not just a pretty mullet wearing bass player by contributing three original songs, all of which tend towards the manic, but are very funny too. Procrastination Blues aptly kicks off the collection at a searing pace as it describes an alcohol fuelled encounter with the devil. Donegal recounts a hilarious trip to that county that didn’t end well (I hear that Ardara may have been the end destination). ‘Pope John Paul upon the wall’ and ‘a red haired girl with a bad tattoo’ should give you an idea of the session that ensued.

Accomplished guitar player Lily Sheehan gets to shine on her own song Meet Me, a gentle love song which showcases her delicate vocals and is complemented superbly by guest violin player Camille Champarnaud.

Ballybough Breakdown is a banjo-driven mid paced instrumental where Luke gets to show that he can bend those strings with the best of them.

John Denby on mandolin is the band’s secret weapon - he lurks in the background playing solid rhythm and then every so often he gets an opportunity to unleash some killer licks. He’s credited in the sleeve notes with ‘vocals’ also, but rumour has it that no one has actually ever heard him sing ...

Luke also contributes several good mid-paced songs written in a traditional country style.

The album’s attractive artwork hints at the band’s punk sensibility - it’s a curious mash up of medieval meets 21st century, for which Mark Corry is responsible.

I can’t wait to see this band develop and build on their undoubted talents. Hopefully next time they will use a producer (this recording is self-produced) who will help them iron out a few issues like vocal projection. We’ll be hearing more from Mules & Men.

Caroline Wickberg  I’m Not Mad  Self Release 

Swedish sound engineer Caroline Wickberg comes out from behind the mixing console to deliver an accomplished EP of lush folk pop compositions.

The themes are the age-old ones of relationships - either heartbreak or desire - but the songs are as much about creating a soundscape to convey those emotions as they are about the lyrics.

December opens the collection with hypnotic percussion, then heavy bass drum is added in, then a catchy guitar riff - all serving as an ever building backdrop allowing Caroline’s sweet and ethereal vocals to send a sensual message to an illicit love.

On the title track I’m Not Mad, a tale of the insomnia and catatonia of despair following a break up, layers of echoing vocals are used over the mainly acoustic strings, while Caroline reassures us  that she’s ok.

Wedding Crasher is another great slow burner, building from acoustic guitar, adding violins, then cello and the ever prominent upright bass to evoke the darkness of a potentially dangerous brooding relationship.

Not surprisingly Caroline has successfully co-produced and also played guitars and synths. Special mention must go to drummer Max Sjoberg.

The several references to summer & winter and light & dark lead me to wonder if Swedes are as obsessed with the weather as we Irish are?!

Anyway, the five songs on here add up to a healthy 22 minutes and are we.

Dave Richardson Carry Me Along Branch & Thorn 

A charming folk album that will definitely be in my end of year ‘best of’ list.

Dave Richardson opens his third album with a tribute to a dead giant squid. Seriously. Bear with me here. On first listen I assumed Squid was a tongue-in-cheek song, but subsequent listens convinced me that I was wrong. The song was inspired by seeing this rare specimen in the Smithsonian and Dave responded by writing what is actually a touching ballad speculating on the life of this unfortunate mollusc. The gorgeous Waiting For The Sunlight describes the simple pleasure of getting up early and tiptoeing out to see/feel/enjoy the dawn - it would almost convince this inveterate night owl to get up very early (just once!). Liv Baxter lends her beautiful vocals to this and several other songs here. More simple pleasures are celebrated in Front Porch Time - a beautiful evocation of retreating from the stresses of a busy day to relax with loved ones at the dimming of the day.

Most of the album is recorded with acoustic instruments- Dave on acoustic guitar, Ariel Bernstein on ‘barely there’ percussion, and Mali Obomsawin on upright bass and vocals.

Fellow New Englander Jefferson Hamer (Anais Mitchell, The Murphy Beds), who is quite familiar in this part of the world, guests as a backing vocalist on several tracks and also plays electric guitar on another original song Goodbye Baltimore, which is the rockiest track on the album. Traveling So Far movingly recounts the story, from a daughter’s perspective, of a road trip to her estranged father’s funeral and all the feelings that this drags up - Emily Mure’s backing vocals are perfect here. Another stand out track is Rise And Play (The Fox) - another simple arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, glockenspiel and other subtle percussion allows Dave’s strong voice to convey the fox’s night time antics delightfully. There are also covers of three traditional ballads from the Child Ballad collection, including a version of Polly’s Ghost (aka Pretty Polly).

Co-produced with Dan Cardinal (Josh Ritter, Darlingside) Dave Richardson has indeed created a must-have album.

Mike O’Donovan  No Time Like The Present  Self Release 

Limerick man Mike O’Donovan waited 65 years to get lots of living under his belt before he got around to recording his first collection of excellent original songs. Calling in many of his local musician friends, some well known on the national scene, he turned to his friend Dave Keary to help him produce this accomplished collection.

Various musical styles are used in the recording, reflecting Mike’s many influences over the years.

It Was On A Night Like This uses accordion and trumpet to evoke a mariachi feel in this nostalgic love song, while See You Once Again recalls the roots rock of The Band.

Keyboard genius James Delaney lends his magic touch to the latter and several other tracks. There’s a long tradition of brass bands in Limerick, and this is continued here with lots of brass contributions from saxophonist Michael Buckley and others. Trombone player Alistair White adds to the jazz inflections of The Dancer, and Gemma Sugrue’s backing vocals lend this and many other songs a relaxed laid back vibe.

Refreshingly, Mike hasn’t fallen into the (unintended) trap of singing in a fake American drawl - the vocals are pure Limericana!

The Billy Shinbone Show  Self Titled Tiny Dog 

Former member of Flipron, Jesse Budd releases a smasher of a debut solo album as his alter ego The Billy Shinbone Show.

In a scintillating smorgasbord of styles it’s impossible to categorise exactly what this recording sounds like, but Billy successfully melds influences from skiffle, rockabilly, punk, country, blues, rock and psychedelic pop. He plays practically all of the instruments here, sings all the songs and  co-produced with James Wilkes and Charlotte Worthy-Jarvis in his native Somerset.

If You Think You’ll Get Away With It, You’re Wrong, in what might be a first, finds clawhammer banjo trading licks with sitar in a delightful tirade against a haughty opponent, all sealed with the kiss of a howling harmonica. Rockabilly guitar and lots of bendy electric guitar chords duel with banjo in Temptation’s Got The Good Stuff. Day Of The Dangerous finds accordion, sitar, electric guitar and handclaps vying for attention in a psychedelic maze - and what the song is actually  about has defeated me so far! Billy’s vocals over a simple jazz guitar accompaniment tells the story of a nightmarish dream of hospitals and death in A Bunch Of Flowers, but he cleverly lifts the mood with the introduction of the chimes of a toy xylophone. Billy’s black sense of humour pervades the whole album, not least on the closer Thanks But No Thanks, Baby where a former lover is rejected with tongue-in-cheek bitterness - “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wash my own dishes and polish my own brown shoes”.

The appropriately chaotic and psychedelic cover art completes the unforgettable experience that is the Billy ShinBone Show- go experience it for yourself (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).

 

 

 

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

JP Harris Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing Free Dirt

After two albums on Bull Hunt’s supportive Cow Island label, JP Harris released his new album on Free Dirt and has also changed his approach to making these records to some degree. This time out he brought in Morgan Jahnig to produce and they decided to pretty much assemble these new songs in the studio. The musicians had heard the voice and guitar demos but from that point on they brought to each song what they felt it need. The steel guitar underpins the regret of When I Quit Drinking wherein the protagonist has given up drinking but found that his clear head brings back memories that are maybe too revealing and hence he considers heading back for the oblivion of the bottle again. There are two things that this track emphasises and they are the quality of Harris’ matured lyric writing and the strength of emotion in his voice. He is indeed a fine singer on these traditionally minded but new sounding songs

There is a slightly more acoustic approach to some of these songs and they gain from these different settings. The omnipresent lure of drink is again the subject of I Drink Alone, where he wishes to hide the habit away from judgmental eyes - his own included. Miss Jeanne-Marie is a tale of regret about a lost relationship. The closing song Jimmy’s Dead And Gone, a train song, is first cousin to Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia On A Fast Train. It closes the album on a fast tracked musical high. Elsewhere Lady In The Spotlight has reminded some the Lonesome Highway team of Gordon Lightfoot. What men can all too often bring or remove from a relationship is the subject of the title track as it considers how men can cause pain by just being a man. A sentiment that he expresses with some conviction.

On the album Harris is joined by some very accomplished players including Leroy Powell on steel, Mark Sloan’s effective keyboards and Chance McCoy on guitar, fiddle and vocals. The Watson Twins add harmony vocals and Kristina Murray sings a duet on Runaway, a song about being the eternal drifter. So, all in all a top-notch album from a man who appears (on the cover) like you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night, but in truth would be great company on a dark night. Or in fact any night when he makes music this good. Undoubtably an album that is contender for the year’s ‘best of’ list.

Jimmy Rankin Moving East Songdog/True North

The seventh album from the easily likeable Rankin. Simply put, this Canadian singer/songwriter is a must for anyone who enjoyed Springsteen’s Seeger Session. This full-blooded high-octane folk music is given the kind of production that is both stirring and strident. It reflects the nature of life in Nova Scotia and Canada’s East Cost maritime community. Rankin lived in Nashville where he honed his songwriting skills before relocating back to Nova Scotia. There he recorded and mixed the album with producer Joel Plaskett at the helm. There is heart and salted soul at the core to these blue collar tales of working men and women. 

Rankin was a member of the Rankin Family - a band well known in Canada and elsewhere. The sleeve lists eleven plus players who brought this album to live. All bring their spirit and heart to these songs. Mostly written by Rankin solo but with one co-written by Patricia Conway and one with Steven McDougall. The final non-original is a traditional set of reels under the overall title of Dirt ’n’ Potatoes. This is life affirming, blood stirring music that draws form a musical tradition that goes back a long time but here in Rankin’s hands is given a vibrancy that is largely irresistible. Something akin to the aforementioned Seegar Sessions or the Pogues at their rowdy best. It is the sort of music and album that would, more than likely, find an audience on this shore as it would back in Canada. Moving East is simply moving.

Garrick Rawlings Self-Titled Peloponnese

Formally a hard rock guitarist, who during his travels met and became the road manager for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This instilled in him an interest in songwriting and solo performance (often opening for Elliott). Another person he met at this time was Rick Shea, who was also a part of Dave Alvin’s band. This has resulted in Shea bringing his talents to this album and co-producing with Rawlings in drummer Shawn Nourse’s studio in Los Angeles. Both Rawlings and Shea play a variety of stringed instruments throughout including mandolin, Spanish guitar and pedal steel.  

The songs are, in the main, written by Rawlings except for two covers which are indicative of his influences and overall direction. They are the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter written Grateful Dead recorded Friend Of The Devil and Townes van Zandt’s Pancho & Lefty. Both are given credible readings that fit easily in the overall style of the album. I Want To Run Away opens the album in an upbeat musical style even if the song talks of running away to find a better feeling and day! There is something of a border feel to Notengo Palabras - sung in Spanish. Then there are some story songs of some of dark travellers, such as the central figures in Lights Of Marfa. It features some sweet pedal steel and a harmony vocal from Jaimi Lyn Shuey. Lost In Time is about finding a somewhat worse for wear cello in a pawn shop. Jaimi Lyn Shuey again joins him on the vocals.  The slow ballad of ‘whatever gets you though the night’ Whiskey, Cryin’, Pain … is perhaps the best of their dual vocals. Rawling’s own vocal has a little of the age and rough edges it needs to make the songs believable.

This is one of those albums that is not trying to reinvent anything new, instead it consolidates a tradition of the troubadour who during his travels has had a chance to see many of the aspects that life has to offer. The interplay between Rawlings and Shea is seamless and portrays two men at ease with themselves and this music. I suspect any fan of Rick Shea’s work will also enjoy this and will be equally rewarded by Rawlings songwriting.

Tom Van Stockum Trebuchet Self Release

This newest of songs from Van Stockum shows him developing his skill as a writer and singer as well as offering a sound that builds on his debut self-titled EP by bringing together many of the same players that featured on that release. This is a full sounding album that includes a myriad of influences that stretch in many different directions. That ranges from the brass bolstered Strayed Out, the Hammond infused 60s influenced Want It As Bad As Me to the more roots-styled Cracks And Folds or the acoustic Autumn Rose which features backing vocals form Liz Hanley. The final track, the appropriately named, Going Time has some twangy guitar over a solid up-tempo and uplifting beat. A fully realised album that producer Alex P. Weinquest lets flow to whatever placed that the song requires.

That makes for an engaging album overall but not one that will appeal to those looking something that fits their concept of Americana as less expansive and more easily digested. This is the kind of album that has some layers in the recording that are revealed on repeated listening. However, it is Van Stockum’s voice that is the lynchpin that the album is focused on. The writing takes on a level of self-realisation and retrospection about the condition of relationships that are either a cause for regret or revelation. Whichever direction Van Stockum takes you on you can fell happy that you’re along for the ride. Tom Van Stockum has made this album a little difficult in one aspect and that is the use of what appears to be hieroglyphics on the front and back over. While it adds to the intrigue may not be the most effective communication of the contents. But it is the music that counts and this does that.  

The Pine Hearts Carousal Self Release

This band is fronted by the songwriter Joey Capoccia. It appears to be a three-piece acoustic bluegrass based band with some additional members on board for the album including pedal steel guitarist Leo Grassl adding an extra sonic dimension to this Nashville recorded album. The band are from Olympia in Washington State and have a couple of previous releases under their belts before this album. On the recording the six piece also feature banjo, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and guitar. The overall feel is of a forward thinking bluegrass band rather any form of newgrass. They also have a penchant for traditional country and cover George Jones’ The Window Up Above as well as two other non-originals Good Luck By The Sea song written by Scott Nolan and a public domain instrumental President Garfield’s Hornpipe. The latter shows that the band have the chops to impress in this field. The remaining songs are written by Capoccia 

All are well realised and take on some important topics such as the self-explanatory opener Living With Depression. Elsewhere the perennial theme of forlorn love is central to Crying For Another or the considered solace of the lovelorn in The Pedal Steel Let Me Down Easy. All of which mark this as a band with strengths as players and well as having, in Capoccia, a decent songwriter who is developing his craft. The band’s bassist Charles R Humphrey 111 produced the album alongside its engineer and mixer Charles Chamberlin. This is an album that should please any open-minded bluegrass fan as well as the casual listener who appreciates some well played and delivered songs that are, at their best, readily memorable.

Bob Collum and The Welfare Mothers Pay, Pack And Carry Harbour Song

Making the reverse musical journey to the usual route, Bob Collum came from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the London’s Thames Estuary to deliver his power-pop inspired country rock. So, what do you get? Well 10 memorable slices of Collum’s take on the blending of the two genres. The name of the man behind the desk should be familiar to some sleeve readers from the late 70s. It is none other than the Vibrators bassist and producer Pat Collier. He also played with the Boyfriends who were a poppier combo overall. So, he has a pretty good track record (ha) for this. The songs are written by Collum, either solo or with writing partners. The covers include a welcomed take on Mike Heron’s (of the Incredible String Band) Log Cabin Home In The Sky that is a standout. He also takes on Mike Nesmith’s Different Drum, which holds its own against other versions, without outdoing some of them (there are some 20 or so versions out there!).

There are some other interested parties involved including guests Martin Belmont on guitar and Peter Holsapple on guitar, keyboards and vocals. Also prominent in the mix and giving the songs their country flavours are Mags Leyton on violin and vocals as well as Allan Kelly on steel guitar. The later features heavily on the opening Across A Crowded Room. The violin is central to Scarecrow. Tin Can Telephone is a song co-written with Martin Belmont and Rambow - making me wonder if it is Philip Rambow of the late, lamented Winkies fame? An up-tempo song with Belmont’s trademark twang over a solid up-tempo beat and a memorable chorus. It is a song that helps defines the sound that Collum seems to be aiming for, where the two elements fit together comfortably. So if you want to single out a representative track to listen to this may be the one. Otherwise the whole album is well worth packing and carrying home for some more listening. It also comes in a neat Saul Bass inspired cover.

John David & The Jerks I Love You Means I’m Lucky sonaBLAST!

On their Facebook page it says that this Minneapolis band are akin to a fusion of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and The Jayhawks. So old school Americana then! Of course, you can pinpoint these elements in the songs but that doesn’t mean that were looking at a mere copyist. For their third album David and the band pulls these overall influences, and there are others, into a cohesive album that veers more towards the rockier end of things but there are moments like the reflective Swedish Dream that is more ambient and atmospheric with distant vocals, acoustic guitar and random sound. I’ll Die Of Grief rocks harder and again the vocals are mixed into the overall sound making it difficult to decipher the words, though perhaps the title is a pretty good clue to the overall direction. As is I Only Want Your Love which has pedal steel and a driving beat that makes it hit the spot.

David and his guitarist Jerrick Jenson and the engineer Zachary Hollander produced the album which has a layered muscular sound. Less so is Must We Break which features the steel guitar and David’s vocal and guitar. After such full-on tracks like the brass bolstered Every Little Road gives the listener a moment to hear David in a more stripped-down context and one that shows his high register voice off as an important part of the overall sound. Friend Like You closes the album in a high-speed indie rock throw down mood. Maybe this album isn’t for everyone but it is the sound of a band and singer pulling tighter to create their own take on any number of strands that they want to knit into something they can call their own.

Malcolm Holcombe Come Hell Or High Water Proper

What can be said of Malcolm Holcombe that hasn’t already been said. He is either an expressive, earthy singer or dismissed as an also ran. A man whose voice grates on some listeners. I favour the former thinking. Over the last few albums he has found a group of players who are supportive of Holcombe’s talent. This include producers Marco Giovino and Jared Tayler as well as his two harmony and backing vocalist Greg Brown and Iris Dement. The latter is a perfect contrast vocally to Holcombe. It is a pairing that works. Both producers are also players and are the nucleus of these sessions. A couple of players join in on guitar and accordion. It is however Tyler’s Dobro which seems most suited to the occasion when it appears.

The songs are chronicles of people on the fringes of society. The Vietnam vet living in isolation in Left Alone or the opening verse of Legal Tender sets out a scene that encompasses an certain lifestyle “my cousin’s in and out of jail, more times than I can count, bad habits run in the family, Marshall still grows pot.” Merry Christmas alludes to a time that was anything but merry. Another 13 songs in this latest instalment that has seen around 10 albums by Holcombe since 2006 up to this release. That’s quite a productive output for an artist who is not exactly a household name - he is no Seasick Steve. Malcolm Holcombe is no one else other than Malcolm Holcombe but what helps Come Hell Or High Water stand out from his recent work is perhaps the contribution of Brown and Dement. The counter balance they provide to his vocals add an extra layer of attraction. On the cover under the disc is a graphic entitled “Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing” which, even if only 6 are visible, make for interesting reading and perhaps show another of Malcolm Holcombe’s influences.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

 

Kayla Ray Yesterday and Me Self Release

Less than half a minute into Rockport, the opening track on Yesterday and Me, and Kayla Ray’s husky drawl and edgy tale of looming despair and heartache had me hooked. The combination of her distinctive and very country vocal and the unfolding tale stopped me in my tracks, getting my full attention. It’s the first of twelve, often compelling stories, the album contains, each one tumbling effortlessly into the next, by an artist that is as brutal in her candidness as she is gifted in her song writing. The stories don’t deliver many happy endings and encompass all the elements that contribute to a great country album, with hurtin’, cheatin’, lovin’, leavin’ and drinkin’ always close to the surface. However, the album’s tales of disarray read like a personal diary and stand head and shoulders above the majority of formula written albums that masquerade as country recordings these days.

The previously noted Rockfort is a hard-hitting story of a woman’s intended liberation and escapism only to degenerate into drug addiction and suicide. The alcohol fuelled Hell of a Day to Drink All Night is a hell raising and somewhat tongue in cheek up tempo journey and the Keith Whitley written Once A Week Cheaters is a dreamy duet that pays homage to Dolly and Porter, with Ray and Colton Hawkins sharing vocals. Pills tackles the thorny subject of anti-depressants in a no holds barred manner but not without a slice of humour, the type of song that Elizabeth Cook was writing in her early career. Fair Warning addresses domestic abuse, Camel Blues laments doomed love ("it takes two hard working fools to build a wall, it takes two fools in love to make it fall’’) and title track Yesterday and Me is reflective, stained with regret and broken dreams of unfulfilled expectations.

Ray was born and reared in Waco, Texas and took full advantage of the musical opportunities offered to her at a young age, which included performing with Jimmy Gimble’s family band The Gimbles and eventually acting as tour manager for Jason Eady. Her debut recording Love and Liquor from 2014 highlighted her distinctive and very country vocals and suggested an artist with the potential to write clever sassy lyrics to match. That album was produced by Jason Eady, who obviously recognised her potential when she worked for him.  This time around Jason Eady is joined by Pat Manske (Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Tom Russell, Wayne Hancock) as co-producers and the pairing is inspired. Avoiding the temptation to over produce – the ruination of so many country albums in recent times - they achieve the perfect balance between Ray’s vocals and the stellar contributions of some crack musicians. The players are Joshua Barnard on guitar, Cody Braun on fiddle, Dick Gimble on upright bass, Ray Rodriguez on drums, Bukka Allen on piano, Jason Clyde Cartier on electric bass and Geoff Queen on steel guitar and dobros, whose contribution is particularly central to the overall quality of many of the tracks.

Kayla Ray possesses the ability to articulate true life stories of pain, loss and waste, with a dynamic similar to that of Brandi Clark and Kacy Musgraves but with far more edge and delightful guiltlessness, avoiding any degree of sugar coating on her parables. She’s unlikely to grace the stage at The Grand Ole Opry and country music radio stations will no doubt run a mile from the album - two factors that suggest a great traditional country album from a hell raising and fearless young lady that’s not going to be shackled. Thank God for that! A contender for album of the year for me.

Pat Reedy and The Longtime Goners That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More) Muddy Roots

There’s a somewhat charming innocence to Pat Reedy, as if he’s been taken by surprise by the critical acclaim for his recently released and second album, the wonderfully titled That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More). It’s not too long since Reedy was toiling on building sites to make ends meet, writing and performing in the little spare time available to him. Prior to his days on construction sites, Reedy paid his dues as a busker in New Orleans, learning his trade and eventually hooking up with some other New Orleans street musicians to form the first incarnation of his backing band, The Longtime Goners. Trips to Nashville followed, where his performances began to raise a few eyebrows, gaining him a reputation as an old school, no frills artist, delivering genuine country music without any extraneous bells and whistles. Reedy has managed to translate his live shows seamlessly on to this album, thanks to the excellent production by Richard Bailey, who creates the perfect mix between instrumentation and Reedy’s alluring monotone vocals.

Bloodshot Heart gets things underway, with enough hooks and twang to draw you in on first listen,followed by Lucky I’m Alive which includes some sweet pedal steel by Leo Grassl. A reality check on Music City is included compliments of Nashville Tennessee At 3AM, (“Everyone’s an outlaw until the cocaine wears off, the only thing that’s cheap in these bars is talk’’). Some marvellous fiddle playing introduces the classic country sound of Wedding Ring and the rip roaring You Don’t Have To Tell Me Again is laced with clever witticisms and killer guitars and pedal steel (“you say I like living dangerous, you must take me for some kind of fool, there’s arithmetic that runs my life that you don’t learn in school’’). That track could very well be a precursor for the title song and album highlight That’s All There Is etc, a leaving song as his woman packs her bags for another man. 

It’s difficult to exclude a mention of any track on the album such is the quality and Conversation With Jesus also deserves noteOut of the Hayes Carll school of songwriting it refers to an imaginary conversation with the Lord after escaping injury in a drunken car crash where Reedy is given sound advice. ("Lay off whiskey and remember this one thing, Holy-rollin’ preaching just ain’t worth a damn, What matters most in life is how you treat your fellow man"). Funny Thing About A Hammer laments the endless toil of the working man and the album is bookended by a lively train song Coal Train Blues.

I really can’t overstate how much I’m continuing to savour this album and finding it’s melodies unshakable. Let’s hope it gets the exposure it so richly deserves and that Reedy follows in Joshua Hedley and JP Harris’ footsteps in being recognised as one of the premier ‘country’ artist performing in Nashville this year. A must buy for lovers of ‘real’ country music.

Cliff Westfall Baby You Win Self Release

From time to time judging a book by its cover is not such a bad idea. Without doubt this was the case with New York based artist Cliff Westfall’s knockout album Baby You Win. The striking album cover design is very much in the ‘pulp fiction’ expression and a fitting metaphor for the music contained within.  It was designed by New York artist and musician Billy Woodward, whose previous employers include Rolling Stone, Sun Studio and National Geographic. Very much a retro sleeve made for twelve inch vinyl, it’s front cover is striking and the rear cover notes the six tracks on both side one and side two. Westfall also hired some New York big guns to feature on the album, including Scott Metzger (Shooter Jennings, Nicole Atkins, Stanton Moore) on guitar, Dan Lead (Kevin Morby, Norah Jones) on pedal steel and Jeremy Chatzky (Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Laura Cantrell) on bass. Recording took place at Trout Recording in Brooklyn, produced by Bryce Goggin and Graham Norwood, who manage to achieve the perfect balance between vocals and instruments.  

Most impressively the musical content more than matches the packaging with an equally retro country sound that instantly recalls early Dwight Yoakam on the opener It Hurt Her To Hurt Me and does not contain a weak moment over the course of the eleven tracks that follow. Till The Right One Comes Along is unadulterated classic country, tingling piano and plenty of twang keeping pace with Westfall’s elongated vocals. The Man I Used To Be and A Live If You Must slip back a gear or two, the former a tale of regret and remorse, the latter – with honeyed backing vocals from Barbara Endes - visiting denial and unacceptance.  Hanging On, written by Ira Allen and Buddy Mize, and a hit for The Gosdin Brothers in 1967, is the one cover on the album, a slick delivery sympathetic to the original. The Odds Were Good closes the album in style, chunky guitar working alongside Westfall’s tale of visiting an Oklahoma dive bar.

Baby You Win is classic West Coast country via New York and satisfyingly a further indication that real country music is alive and healthy outside Austin and East Nashville. A majestic recording that hopefully will not be ignored. You really need to get your hands on this one!

Jon Byrd Dirty Ol’ River Longleaf Pine

The title of Jon Byrd’s debut solo album, recorded back in 2007, was Byrd’s Auto Parts, following a career of performing as a sideman previous to its release. The Tee-shirt available for purchase with the album had the slogan "Byrd’s Auto Parts: We Don’t Rock Ever," printed on the front. The catch phrase just about sums up the Alabama born musician to a tee (pardon the pun). Byrd is pure country with a distinctive semi spoken vocal style and clever songs that inevitably are accompanied by pedal steel guitar. Equally impressive live, Byrd currently performs a weekly residency at Bridie's Bar in Nashville where he delivers two hour sets, generally alongside Paul Niehaus on pedal steel.

Dirty Ol’ River offers ten tracks with a common thread, clever well-constructed songs, delivered by Byrd’s gnarly deep vocal with some sweet, sad pedal steel always close by. The pedal steel on the album is courtesy of Eddie Lange, a ‘go to’ player in Nashville for many years. The opener I Get Lostis the album’s tour de force, but there lots to savour before the closing song, a cover of Steve Young’s Many Rivers. The toe tapping You Taught Me How and the tongue in cheek If Texas Is So Great all work well, as does the Willie Nelson sounding Silent Night. Well-chosen covers include Tammy Wynette/Billy Sherrill’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own and Giving The Devil His Due, written by Davis Raines. All in all, a clutter free bunch of songs by an artists who appears uncompromising and remarkably comfortable in his own skin. Lovers of Tom Russell will certainly warm to Dirty Ol’ River and understandably so. 

Currently residing in Nashville, Byrd recorded the album locally at TJ Tunes under the guidance of Thomm Jutz whose previous employers included Nancy Griffith, Todd Snider, Jason Ringenberg and Otis Gibbs.  An album well worth checking out - you won’t be disappointed.

James Houlahan The Wheel Still In Spin Gumbo Luvah 

An album that had me scratching my head on first listen but unravelled and revealed itself after a few more spins. Difficult to define genre wise, it skits between folk, experimental indie and mainstream across its twelve tracks. Houlahan’s website bio describes his music as ‘eclectic Americana’, creating another sub-genre which does not really inform or prepare the listener’s expectations.  A meeting of minds between Jim White and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) possibly best describes the album, which includes two stunning tracks in the achingly beautiful All I’ve Got and the almost gothic Stuck In Between, alongside the empirical Spirit/Music and a cover of Joe Ely’s Indian Cowboy. Echoes of Neil Young present themselves in the closing track California.

This is the fourth album from Houlahan, a founding member of Boston bands The Dogs On Television and The Jody Grind. His music has been used in both TV commercials and in films. His composition Going Home (For Thanksgiving) featured in film Little Pink earlier this year alongside contributions from David Crosby.

Like the aforementioned Jim White and Conor Oberst, it’s unlikely the wheel will ever stop spinning for Houlahan, landing him in one particular musical genre. No harm either, as his eccentricities and musical detours are exactly what makes this album most appealing. 

Kerry Fearon Honky Tonk Girl Self Release

There’s certainly no questioning Kerry Fearon’s work ethic, enthusiasm and energy. Together with holding down a career as a teacher and hosting a radio show on Downtown Radio, she also presents her own tv show on the Keep It Country channel every Friday. What does she do in her spare time, you might ask? Well, in the limited downtime she’s had this year, the South Armagh young lady has recorded a covers album of ‘close to her heart’ standard country classic songs, some from yesteryear and some from more recent times.

Recent years have also been traumatic for Fearon with the loss of her father, a well-known local singer, in 2013 having been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease the previous year. Turning tragedy into positivity, and having been too shy to sing in public, she vowed to honour her father’s legacy by deciding in her own words ‘not to waste her own voice anymore’. She recorded a few tracks herself which were eventually uploaded to Soundcloud by a friend and got some very positive feedback.

Those reactions resulted in Fearon having the confidence to release a couple of singles before embarking on recording Honky Tonk Girl. What particularly impresses me about the album is Fearon’s reluctance to go down the country crossover route – which may have been an obvious choice – instead she has selected classic country songs that are dear to her. It may be an exercise in ‘testing the waters’ prior to considering penning her own material for future recordings, but on the evidence of her vocals – and indeed the musicianship – she has passed her entrance exam with flying colours. Jessi Coulter’s Storms Never Last opens the album in fine style and classics such as Loretta Lynn’s Honky Tonk Girl, Maybelle Carter’s Juke Box Blues and a particularly impressive delivery of Gram Parson’s Luxury Liner all work. Also included are two Ashley Munroe co-writes, I’m Good At Leavin’ and If The Devil Don’t Want Me.

The album was recorded and produced by (former bass player with Van Morrison) Clive Culberston at his own No Sweat Studio in Coleraine, Co. Derry.

Fearon will, without doubt, continue her ascendancy in the music industry in Ireland or abroad. Whether her career path travels the roads of presenter or performer, or a combination of both remains to be seen. She most certainly has the vocal ability, personality and drive and if those talents crossover into song writing, watch this space. 

The Weight Band World Gone Mad Self Release

Former members of The Band, Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante performed  at Levon Helm’s Woodstock New York Barn in 2013, joining original Band member Garth Hudson to perform "Songs of The Band." Following the success and positive feedback to that event, Weider decided to recruit others to form The Weight Band, a vehicle to continue the tradition and legacy of a group many consider to be one of the most influential forefathers of what some decades later would become known as Americana.

Five years on and after touring and performing classic Band material, Weider and his colleagues have taken a giant step forward in recording their debut album, which includes eight self-penned songs among the eleven tracks that feature on the album. Indeed, the final track is a live and rousing version of Remedy, originally recorded for The Band’s 1993 Jerico album, which was co-written by Jim Weider. The aptly titled World Gone Mad kicks the album off in fine style, Weider’s slick mandolin playing and a harmony driven chorus setting the template for what is to follow. Big Legged Sadie would sit comfortably on Levon Helm’s 2007 Dirt Farmer album. Wish You Were Here Tonight, a beautifully constructed ballad, slows things down temporarily before You’re Never Too Old (To Rock ‘N’ Roll) and Every Step Of The Way raise the tempo once more.

Joining Weider in The Weight Band to create a supergroup of sorts are a bunch of highly regarded and seasoned musicians, a number who have connections or have performed with Levon Helm, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Al Green. Michael Bram plays drums and vocals, Brian Mitchell keyboards and vocals, Matt Zeiner also keyboards and vocals and Albert Rogers bass and vocals. 

As expected the album follows a similar landscape to the original Band material with shared vocals, multi instrumentation and timeless material. World Gone Mad establishes The Weight Band as much more than merely a tribute or cover band but an essential ingredient in keeping the gospel according to The Band alive and kicking

Mark Wayne Glasmire Can’t Be Denied Traceway

Pennsylvania born Glasmire had been a closet musician since the age of ten, finally plucking up the courage to perform in public by an insistent college girlfriend who encouraged him to play at a coffeehouse at Kutztown State University. Having completed college he performed semi-professionally, playing in New York by night, while working on construction sites by day.

To fulfil his ambitions as a career musician Glasmire pitched his tent in Nashville, before moving to Dallas and eventually settling in Arlington, Texas, where he currently resides. His song writing has been acknowledged with awards in The B.W. Stephenson Competition in Dallas, The Dallas Songwriters Association International Songwriting Competition and The GINA/LAWIM Songwriting Competition in Los Angeles and most notably the Grand Prize in the Country Song section of the 2010 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest. 

By his own admission one of the challenges his musical career has faced from the outset has been to establish himself in a particular genre and capture the appropriate listenership. ‘When I spent time in New York, people told me I should be in Nashville. When I moved to Nashville, they told me I should be in California. Now I live in Texas!’. Pre- Americana, his style would have been described as ‘country rock’, closer in texture to The Eagles than Gram Parsons, but his writing style also brings to mind Guy Clark at times, an artist that Glasmire had the pleasure of supporting. Other notable performers that he also supported include Jesse Winchester, Gordon Lightfoot, Tracy Chapman and Dierks Bentley.

Borderline – a common song title in recent times – Those Nights and the title track Can’t Be Deniedare the pick of the crop on what is Glasmire’s seventh studio album. Released on the Traceway Records label, the twelve-track album was co-produced by Glasmire with John Albani at his Sonic Eden Studios in Nashville.

Reviews by Stephen Rapid

 

Pushing Chain Sorrows Always Swim Kingswood 

When you see Bill Kirchen’s name in the credits you can pretty much be assured that it’s going to be a good album. That’s the case with Pushing Chain’s debut album. They are essentially Boyd Blomberg and Adam Moe, a guitar and fiddle duo who wrote the songs for the album in a classic country style and therefore wanted to put a team together who could help them deliver that vision. They have done that and done it well. Along with Kirchen they have got Mark Hillman to produce the songs and also gathered some of Austin’s finest to help out. This team includesdrummer Rick Richards and bassist David Carroll. Guitarist Redd Volkaert joins them for an instrumental track that closes the album. Hellman also provided the keyboards and the studio (Congress House) and the means to make this the fine album it is.

This album takes the duo’s folk orientated live sound to another level giving the material an added dimension for the recorded sound. The songs fit easily into the musical themes of traditional country,relationships,love and loss. Theyare graced by some sweet melodies and some memorable riffs. The majority of the songs are written by Blomberg and include Lucky You, Lucky Him, Hearts Ache When Heart’s Break, $10 Bill Between Teardrops, Once I Loved A Woman and the title track. Moe’s contributions are Truckstop Rose and Yesterday’s Coffee. All are assured songs that make for an album that works across the board. 

Pushing Chain are yet another musical combo that proves that you don’t need to turn to Nashville and its mainstream radio outlets to hear the kind of country music that means so much to anyone of a certain age and disposition. Bloomberg and Moe are also an assured vocal team adding strong harmonies behind whichever of them takes the lead or duo vocal. This and the masterful playing to be found on Sorrows Always Swim makes it a musical experience worth diving headlong into.

Jesse DanielSelf-Titled Die True

There is a back story here that has been well documented and one that informs the heart and soul of Daniel’s country music in the way that it was intended to draw form real life. Daniels had a background in punk and that has provided the delivery here with a similar edge and honesty. He grew up in the small town of Ben Lomand, California where his musical father gave impetus to his interest in music which saw him playing drums in the punk rock scene. This lifestyle however introduced him to substance abuse that ended in a downward spiral.

Once he got himself back on his feet he needed to express himself by writing songs. He bought a pawnshop guitar and formed a band to play his songs. He soon found himself immersing himself in the hardcore country music that he loved. A particular inspiration was fellow Californian Buck Owens and his hard work ethic. His songs are a roadmap to where he’s been to andwhere he’s heading. He produced the album with Henry Chadwick as well as writing the material solo or with Jodi Lyford. He also plays lead and acoustic guitars as well as drums and percussion.

The album, his debut, is full of great songs that are testament to that hard journey. Titles like Soft Spot (For The Hard Stuff), Coming Down Again or Killing Time ’Til Time Kills Me are a part of that. Others like SR-22 Blues and California Highway are about a different journey to a degree. I had to look up the former and it appears that a SR-22 is a licence that is required for truck drivers. In the end this is a rough and ready album, one that is all the better for having that edge and energy and certainly an album that I have played and enjoyed a lot. Jesse Daniels is making music he can be justly proud of and in doing so has set himself on a new path that can only be good for everyone. 

Garrick Rawlings Self-Titled Peloponnese

There are two coverson this new album from Rawlings that are compass points to his music. The first is the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter/John Dawson songFriend Of The Devil and the second is Townes Van Zandt’s Poncho & Lefty. Between those two songs sits Rawlings own material that range between that easy 60’s feel country rock and some Texas singer/songwriter seriousness. Both versions are credible without replacing or replicating the originals in one's mind.

Another point of interest here is that the album is a co-production between Rawlings and the estimable Rick Shea. That seems very much in sync and Shea’s undoubted skills add much to the album. Recorded in Los Angeles that have brought in some seasoned players to help out, thesed included LA stalwarts Skip Edwards and Shawn Nourse,as well as a number of harmony singers including Jami Lyn Shuey as well as a couple of cello players for one track. 

Rawlings has an earthy warmth to his voice that is entirely suited to these songs. The voice, guitar and accordion version of Poncho & Lefty is stripped back and in keeping with the resigned mood of the song. Likewise, Friend Of The Devil fits right in and also soundlike a honest tribute to the Dead. Rawlings own songs are evocative tales of lost love like I Don’t Care What You Say or of the self descriptive Whiskey, Cryin’, Pain … All are graced with melody and the memorability of a new song that feels like one you are already well acquainted with. The arrangements move from acoustic to electric with ease and express the life that Rawlings has lived and the places and people he has loved.

Kate Campbell Damn Sure Blue Large River

Another songwriter who has gained a solid reputation for her work to date (17 albums and counting). Her latest album is a mix of originals and her version of some classic songs including the Louvin Brothers’ Great Atomic Power, Peter La Farge’s Ballad Of Ira Hayes, Eric Kaz’s somewhat lesser known Christ, It’s MightCold Outside and old time artist Stringbean’s (David Ackerman) version of Peace, Precious Peace. There’s also a version of Johnny Cash’s Forty Shades Of Green whichgiven that she gives tours inIrelandmakes perfect sense.

This album was produced by the renowned Will Kimbrough who brings his usual attention to detail to the music accompanied by a set of seasoned accompanistsincluding Bryan Owings, Kevin Gordon, Dave Jacques and Phil Madeira. All of which makes for a satisfying musical setting to bring thesesongs to fruition. The songs written by Campbell and her writing partners are welcome additions to her catalogue. The best includes When You Come Back Home, Change Should’ve Come By Now, Long Slow Train and the title track. These songs have a certain anger and attitude in the tradition of folk protest. This is delivered in a restrained manner, an Americana blend that requires a certain engagement that not everyone will have but one that rewards more than a casual listen.

It is often debatable how successful a cover can be for an overly familiar song but Campbell, to her credit, takes these non-original songs and bring something of herself to each that ensures they don’t become mere copies of the originals. Her voice is at its purest on Christ, It’s Might Cold Outside and evocative on the Cash composition. This may not bring a lot of new fans to Campbell’s music but will surely please those who have encountered her music in the past and will again in the future on the strength of this album.

Kat Danser Goin’ Gone Black Hen

A solid mix of blues and rockin’ roots music is at the heart of her fifth album. There’s also a touch of rockabilly here that makesfor an overall outing that convinces. Her producer Steve Dawson is back at the helm and pays guitar and pedal steel. Bass is provided by Jeremy Holmes and Gary Craig is the drummer. Add to that Jim Hoke on some telling harmonica and saxophone and Matt Combs on fiddle,adding somediversity to the mix,that broadens itsblues base out to something more Americana. These are solid and sustained performances all round with Danser’s expressive voice front and centre.

Dancer is also the writer of the majority of the songs and they sit easily alongside the covers of classic blues songs. Both, Chevrolet Car (Sam McGee) and Train I Ride (Mississippi Fred McDowell), relating to travel and traveling on and given solid workouts, especially the six-minute take on the latter with its atmospheric blend of sax and guitar. The playing throughout is pleasure and reminds of the close relationship that the blues has to most other elements of roots music.

The swampy feel is present on a number of the tracks though Danser can deliver a more stripped-down setting as she does on the evocative and enlightening My Town which is recollection of growing up and growing away. The album finishes on the appropriately titled Time For Me To Go. It ends anaccomplished album from Danseur and the ever-present Steve Dawson who seems to be involved with a great many roots production projects emerging from Canada,as well as being an artist in his own right. It is easy to see why he wanted to continue his association with an artist of Danser’s talent. The blues may not be for every listener but when it is as engaging and varied as this,it should at least garner some attention across the board.

Edward Davis Anderson Chasing Butterflies Black Dirt

A singer/songwriter who fits alongside his contemporaries with a loose Americana sound and set of sonic conversations. These are songs of observation and Southern orientation. Anderson recorded the album with producer Jimmy Nutt and a crew of local session players in the producer’s studio in Sheffield, Alabama. This gives the album a Southern soulful feel that is relaxed and resolutely in tune with its location both in terms of sound and story.

The album opens with Harmony and noting that all things are better in that state. Whereas The Ballad Of Lemuel Penn tells the true story of Penn,a school superintendent and decorated war veteran,who was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. This sad story of extreme prejudice is given a sombre reading that underscores the essential evil of the story. By way of contrast, The Best Part, is a love song. Crosses is a vivid description of how a life can end up as being defined “by a cross at the side of the road.” Dog Days observes the way a canine companion dreams of chasing rabbits oblivious to the more human problems that happen around him. Anderson’s songs look at the human condition and the humanity that he observes in various situations, largely from the perspective of a Southern mindset.

He has a vision and voice that encompasses anumber of musical options that all pull together to create a solid sound that works throughout the album. One that provokes some thoughtfulness in the diversity of the subject matter but retains a cohesive view that is Anderson’s. Chasing Butterflies is an easy album to like despite Anderson confronting his demons as described in the title track. “I cleaned up my act, I quit drinking and shooting smack” point to a more worthwhile life that in the telling of these tales can point you towardsa better future and some good music along the way.

Reviews by Paul McGee

Chris Thomas Bound To The Ocean Self Release

Debut release from a singer songwriter who lives in Devon, England. There is a very airy, California feel to these songs and the production by Barney Dine at Ocean Studios, UK is very bright and filled with catchy arrangements and melody lines. The musicians are excellent although the liner notes don’t seem to credit everyone who played on the project. I hear a banjo in the mix with no credits and the backing vocals, credited to Alex Hart seem too expansive for just a single voice. I guess that the programming of Barney Dine counts for a lot of the overall feel to the songs.

There is a Jack Johnston groove to both the opening and closing tracks, Whenever I Sing Georgia and Wake Up Smiling. The light Blues shuffle of Heart Is Broke, with a cool piano break (Martin Poole) and twin guitar line, is reminiscent of JJ Cale. The song arrangements and performance display a sense of effortless technique which is testament to just how enjoyable the listening experience is. 

There are a number of songs that celebrate the bond that love brings and Turning Stones, So Long, Travelling Away and If Not You, bear testament that love conquers all. There is a song for his daughter, Gwendolyn Rose and another that is an ode to a fisherman, Back Before The Storm. All told, a very pleasant release with some fine playing to brighten up your day.

Arkansas Dave Self Titled Self Release

This debut from Arkansas Dave is certainly not lacking in either confidence or talent. Coming out of the traps like a full-on rock experience, Bad At Being Good is an assault on the senses with full band attack and a horn section that really put the boot in. The second song, On My Way, is a tour de force of big brass blues and lays down a marker for the rest of the project.

Jamie Evans co-produces with Arkansas Dave and his versatility as a producer, writer, session player, multi-instrumentalist and musical director is very evident. Couple this with the talents of Arkansas Dave, also a multi-instrumentalist and you get an idea of the direction here. The presence of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers, adds great magic and muscle to the song arrangements. There have been a few different members over the years, but the quality of the Swampers never fades and having the talent of Will McFarlane on guitars, Clayton Ivey on keyboards and Bob Wray on bass, coupled with the superb horn arrangements of Jim Horn and Charles Rose, leads to the inevitable conclusion that employing real class always brings its own reward. The backing tracks were all recorded at Fame Studios and Arkansas Dave completed the vocals at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas.

Bad Water has a compelling groove and Chocolate Jesus channels a swampy laid-back, slow jazz groove, reminiscent of heady New Orleans bar room nights. The Wheel and Rest Of My Days shake things up a bit with a change of direction into more 60’s Rock based arrangements, that border on dreamy loose playing and subtle soul styling. Jubilee is a slow burn with Hammond B3 to the fore and great sweeping choral melody. It all makes for a dramatic listen, thirteen tracks to enjoy and not a dud among them.

Dan Israel You’re Free Self Release

This artist has been releasing albums since the 1990’s and he brings a sound that falls largely into the area of Roots-Rock. He states that formative influences included Bob Dylan and Tom Petty but there is little evidence of either across the eleven tracks here. 

The violin playing of Jillian Rae on Back To You and Make This Life Mine is a counterpoint to the guitar driven production and adds a different colour to what would be standard commercial radio friendly songs. The opening tracks, Gets You Through It and You’re Free, are good examples of this and the bright and breezy production is reminiscent of The Cars. With a big sound on most of the tunes, it is good that a few numbers such as Stay On The Run and the instrumental closer, Porch Storm, also leave breathing space for some contemplation. Feeling Better and If I Didn’t Have You are more personal songs and the liner notes speak of some challenges and issues faced, plus the fact that Israel has given up a day job after 21 years of juggling career with his urge to be a full-time musician.

Production is by Dan Israel, together with Rich Mattson and David J Russ; both of whom play in the studio band. This trio perform with a number of instruments; Dan Israel (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals), David J. Russ (drums, bass, piano, lap steel, keyboards, cello, percussion, backing vocals) and Rich Mattson (electric guitar, guitar solos, bass, piano). They are joined by quite a supporting line-up that includes Jillian Rae (violin), Paul Odegaard (trumpet) Dave Hill (drums), Randy Casey (slide guitar and baritone guitar), Mike Lane (bass), James Tyler O'Neill (keyboards, Fender Rhodes), Peter J. Sands (Hammond organ), Katie Gearty & Jenny Russ (backing vocals).  

Steve Hill The One Man Blues Rock Band No Label

Steve Hill certainly lives up to the title of this new release with an impressive concert performance. This one-man band plays Blues Rock with complete conviction on guitar, harmonica, drums, percussion and vocals. There are 14 tracks, taken mainly from his Solo Recordings volume 1, 2 & 3. Just to prove that he is not all studio techniques and overdubs, Steve Hill shows that he can do it all in the naked light of a live performance.

Juggling these various instruments in a feat of impressive dexterity, his performance is something to behold. He never drops a beat, whether embarking on a serious guitar solo, a bluesy harmonica riff or jumping between bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats or tambourine. There are out n’ out Blues Rock workouts (Rhythm All Over, Still Got It Bad, Dangerous) and slow burn tracks (Tough Luck, Out Of Phase, Nothing New). Hardly room for rest as we push on through with the next track. The stand out is a powerhouse delivery of musical technique on The Ballad Of Johnny Wabo and the set also includes a stirring cover of Voodoo Child. 

Steve Future 7 Cities Blue Future

Steve Future has been active since the early 1980’s and is based in Sweden. He delivers a Blues Rock sound and some previous albums, Four Cities, It Takes Time and The Nine Others, are combined here on an 18-track release. 

Recording took place at various locations; Abbey Road, London/Nashville/Stockholm/New Orleans/Berlin and the penthouse of Alicia Keys in New York, among them. The time period spans 2014 to 2018 and as a result, the results are a varied bag across so many locations and years. 

It doesn’t always work but there are some nice gems to be unearthed, like the acoustic groove of Black Water and the electric attack of Rat Poison, with fine harmonica parts by Steve and tasty organ by John Austin. There are any number of musicians across the tracks here but the overall guidance and direction of Steve Future is ever-present. The vocals can be a bit of an acquired taste but the closer, Blue Volvo (Berlin) rocks like a - well, fast car… as it drives the project towards the edge of a cliff…!

Jim Lauderdale Time Flies Yep Roc 

Shapeshifter…The chameleon of Country music is at it again. The hat on the cover artwork is somewhat appropriate, given the number of times this superbly talented artist has donned different hats and as many musical genres, when exploring influences from different strands of his colourful career. 

There are in the region of 30 releases from Jim Lauderdale that cover solo and collaborative work; with all kinds of country, from old time to bluegrass and honky-tonk to ballads. The interesting thing is that nobody has taken the opportunity to put together a greatest track compilation – now there would be a sure-fire winner and a great project to get involved with…

On this new release the songs visit a number of his favourite sources with the country blues of When I Held The Cards In My Hand, to the rockabilly of Wearing Out Your Cool, and the old time swing of Wild On Me Fast, to the honky tonk of Where The Cars Go By So Fast.

The title track finds a more reflective mood and If The World’s Still Here Tomorrow follows a similar vein. The fiddle playing of Lillie Mae Rische is featured on only one track, Where The Cars Go By So Fast, which is something of a shame and she provides stellar backing vocals throughout, along with husband Frank Rische. While You’re Hoping has a light jazz groove whereas Slow As Molasses could be a contender for inclusion on the soundtrack of a future Disney movie.

As always, the studio musicians are top drawer with some great players such as Kenny Vaughan, Chris Scruggs, Jay Weaver, Craig Smith, and Tommy Hannum, to name but a few… Of the eleven tracks, three are co-writes and the production by Lauderdale & Jay Weaver is very engaging; shining with a clear sound and lots of space between the playing.

The entire project is proof of just what a fine singer Jim Lauderdale is and this is his strongest release in a number of years. The benefits from an attractive package design, courtesy of Stephen Averill, with fine photo images by Ronnie Norton and Scott Simmontachi cannot be underestimated and add to the overall impressive look of this project. A real keeper. The man has reignited his mojo.

Justin Saladino Band Bros Self Release

This young musician releases his debut album and it is quite an impressive statement. Based in Montreal, Justin Saladino displays a maturity in both his playing technique and song-writing, with all songs written by him, including one co-write. Leading from the front on guitars and vocals this musician certainly knows his way around a melody and a well-placed solo.

The production on this project is courtesy of Connor Seidel and the studio band is comprised of Gabriel Forget on bass, A.J. Aboud on drums, Felix Blackburn on guitar, Remi Comier on trumpet & flugelhorn, David Osei-Afrifa on keyboards, Beatrice Keeler on vocals and Seidel on percussion.

The sound is a mix of soulful blues on tracks like A Fool I’ll Stay, Peace With You and All You Ever Need, and a roots sound on folk based songs like Third Week Of June, Mama Said and Put The Hammer Down. The funky groove of Honey and Only You are very easy on the ear and I can see them fitting perfectly into the style of song that Bonnie Raitt selects for her records. Recommended.

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!