Evening Machines – Gregory Alan Isakov (reviewed by T. Bebedor)

51V4ZQ3L0TL._SS500My knowledge of folk is limited, I find it hard to listen to the British working-class stories of toil, trouble and industry, but I admire and respect the roots of the genre. The instruments; acoustic and organic, the lyrics; heartfelt and honest and the genres popularity grows by the week.

What Colorado-based singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov has delivered here is poignant and interesting, it’s recognisable but immediately it feels an evolution from what folk, particularly in this country, is. I find there to be such a fine line between American Folk and Country music that the two often intertwine, which, if you’re a fan of either genre is great news because the songs on Evening Machines will keep you interested and engaged. But alongside the pedal steel, banjo and all manner of percussion sits keyboards, electronic drums and electric guitar.

Songs written against a backdrop of vast space and farming communities (Isakov shares his time as a musician with being a farmer). This is the type of music that evokes images of sitting on the front porch on a summer’s evening with your sweetheart alongside you, overlooking a lake as the sun sets and the stars emerge over the pine trees. Evening Machines is a perfect tonic to the hustle and bustle of modern life and presents an opportunity to stop and listen.

The songs are arranged thoughtfully and with care and slowly they creep into your mind. From the album’s opener ‘Berth’ (a song about immigration) through the wonderful ‘Dark, Dark, Dark’ to the personal closer ‘Wings In All Black’ the album manages to hold on to the listener and calmly guide you through a world of characters and layered music.

As I wrote before, my knowledge of folk is limited, but if this is where folk is heading I’ll buy a ticket and take my seat.


Gregory Alan Isakov is touring the UK from 4thto 9thDecember with shows in London, Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester.

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Finding Beauty in Chaos –  Beauty in Chaos ( reviewed by Dave Franklin)

837085Beauty in Chaos is a strange and intriguing prospect and like anything deserving of such a description is hard to easily pin down. Too fleeting to be a supergroup, more organic than merely a curated project, too original and forward thinking to be merely a rose-spectacled look at the past…it skips fleetingly past all those ideas, echoing all but committing to none. Personally it feels as if someone has snuck in to my house, rummaged through my vinyl collection to see what I like and brought a large selection of those bands and artists together to make an album just for me. They even put everything back in the right place afterwards.

At the heart of this exquisite album is guitarist and keyboardist Michael Ciravolo who managed to gather together an impressive roster of guest artists to appear as co-writers, performers and often both.  The result is an album rooted in Ciravolo’s textured creations and then flavoured by the artists he brings to teach song, thus creating new music that sounds like long forgotten favourites, songs echoing signature sounds whilst wandering new paths and new potential. And whilst the list of the great and good who feature here dictate that there is an obvious, ready made market, it has to be stressed that Finding Beauty in Chaos rings with as much originality as those artists did in the first place.

But you can’t ignore the appeal of the album to existing post-punks, goths and alt-rockers, just look at the bands that this connects with, The Mission, The Cure, King’s X, Gene Loves Jezebel, even Ministry and Cheap Trick plus many more. The overall sound tends to revel in cinematic soundscaping, lush textures and brooding sonics but often these are shot through with jagged sonics and raw, razor wire guitars. There are occasional meanders into more extreme territory such as Al Jourgensen giving 20th Century Boy an industrial make-over on the album’s only cover but more representative is the Wayne Hussey and Simon Gallup performance on Man of Faith or Evi Vine’s hushed vocals on the ethereal I Will Follow.

With so many combinations and shifting personnel, it is an album that delivers much, the perfect combination of the right amount of musical cohesiveness and enough room to let the individual musical personalities take centre stage. It would be easy to make such an album feel like a flash back to the past, instead Beauty in Chaos is a glimpse of a future that never was and for those tantalising dreams, I give my thanks.

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Rude Rebels  –  Neville and Sugary Staple (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

766248If  Two-Tone was the perfect storm of the imported Jamaican ska and reggae sounds and the punk spirit and wild energy that was fermenting in British inner cities in the late 70’s then Rude Rebels is nothing short of a continuation of that story. Far from being a nostalgic look back it is a glorious next instalment from people who helped define it and champion it in the first place.

As singer and toaster in The Specials, one of the leading lights of that sharp dressed musical revolution, Neville Staple footnote in the annals of music history is more than assured and here he is joined not only by his partner-in-crime Sugary Staple but also by Specials incendiary guitarist Roddy “Radiation” Byers. Together they journey through punked up anthems, dancehall ska, sweet rebel reggae, dub and bluebeat originals in a celebration of the sounds and styles that fused when the children of West Indian migrants to the UK grew up running around with disillusioned punks, soul boys and musical explorers.

With next year being the 40th Anniversary of The Specials and 2Tone Records, its release is perfect timing particularly because Rude Rebels pulses with all the creative energy and musical deftness that beat at the heart of the original movement. Rebel Down kicks things off with a brilliant blast of punk driven defiance, the ska licks complimented by Byers beloved rock’n’roll moves before heading off into smoother, more soulful territory. Boy (Dub Out) is quite expectedly based in dub heavy grooves and Original Rudegirl Sound reminds us that it wasn’t just the boys driving the new ska party. The Border follows more  reggae lines and Way of Life is a timeless infectious skanking celebration.

It would be easy for the people behind such a record to sit back on their laurels, to feel that their work has already been done and they could just coast through. No-one would say that they haven’t already made their contribution. But the fact that Rude Rebels contains all the energy, verve and passion of the original Two Tone scene explains why the genre and artists such as the Staples and Byers are still as relevant as ever.

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Crocodile Tears and The Velvet Cosh –  David J (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

188556Stock in the Bauhaus name is riding high at the moment. With one half of the band currently working as Poptone and David J undertaking an extensive world tour with Pete Murphy as we speak, it is certainly the perfect time to re-release J’s sophomore solo album, a record which he describes as “ a personal pastoral favourite” and one “that really set the tone for all my future solo endeavours.” And pastoral is indeed a great word to use even if it is hardly one that you would associate with either Bauhaus or Love and Rockets, the band that he would shortly form.

Crocodile Tears is certainly of its time, it sounds of its mid 80’s birthplace both in style and production but like any album which stays in the collective consciousness long enough to be labelled classic, iconic or influential, and this has been called all this and more, it has survived and transcended fad and fashion. Like black and white movies, favourite shirts and old photographs there is a hint of nostalgia to the songs found here from the point of the listener, how could there not be but also enough time has passed that a whole new generation can engage with it without the baggage that it carries. But  you only have to listen to how ahead of its time songs such as Light and Shade are to see why it has survived. I could name 5 modern alt-country bands who would kill to have that on their resume.

Songs wander from the classic singer songwriter such as the folky Justine to the smooth soulful lines of the title track, the Lilac Time-esque fey-pop jaunt of Too Clever By Half to the shimmering sixties vibes of Slip The Rope. It is a vast departure from his earlier, darker band days but to many people, myself included, it was destined for more spins around the house than the more challenging Bauhaus back catalogue. And for those who  found this an unexpected departure at the time, hindsight now tells us that a reunion with Daniel Ash in the form of Love and Rockets and all the glitz and glamour, punch and panache which that entailed was just around the corner.

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Scene and Heard – CCCXC : Light Sketch –  The Interplanetary Acoustic Team (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

The Interplanetary Acoustic Team - Cover.pngIf this were a competition I would already be awarding additional points for the band having such a cool and interesting name. But this is a music review and as such things can’t be so easily measured but I can award interesting words. Words like strange, beguiling, hypnotic, exploratory perhaps even challenging, all meant in their most positive of applications.

Light Sketch is a mesmerising and musically left-field piece that combines spoken word with glitchy electronica that at once sounds like early synth experiments combined with a spaced out beat poetry performance but also a futuristic reappraisal of electronic music combined with a zen meditation class. Where it fits into the musical canon and what it is really all about is a pointless discussion really, it is so unique, so offbeat that it probably means something different to everyone who encounters it. Sci-fi jazz? Deep Space Avant-Gardening? Computers teaching themselves to write music? That would explain all the 11 11 business!

To be honest I don’t know what’s going on really, you don’t have to, that’s the joy of it. I just know that I like it. Let’s just call it just another mystery of the universe that cleverer people than me will one day be able to explain. Probably using Quantum Physics. Or perhaps drugs.

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Sound The Alarm –  Ignacio Peña (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

The Same Replies was my first venture into the musical world of Ignacio Peña, a song which opened his latest album, Songs For The Fall of an Empire, via swathes of neo-classical vocals and ancient grandeur before getting down to alt-rock business. It introduced me to his wonderful brand of music, music which blends the keen lyrical poignancy and musical deftness that you normally associate with the more progressive wing of the rock fraternity with a musical directness which swerves the usual bombast and flamboyancy which comes as part of that package. Sound The Alarm takes an even more direct line, this time looking at the sources of world power and delivering its findings in a punchy, dynamic and deft rock statement.

Rock often gets a bad name for being dumb, cliched or overly theatrical. Peña makes music which comes through like a breath of fresh air, not holding back on the necessary grunt and grind of the genres core but also coming armed with that rarest of bonuses of actually having something to say. Whilst his peers are painting pre-pubescent images of cars and girls, of being tougher or richer or musically heavier than the next black clad dinosaur, this is rock music going down a smarter path. Songs For The Fall of an Empire is an exploration of the intricacies of the modern age; who holds the power, where does the money trail go, who is the real power behind the throne, who’s pulling who’s strings?

Sound The Alarm comes with a video which matches the music, slick images of London’s power players, names and places and more esoteric suggestions blended into the live performance, neatly capturing the energy and power of the music and the depth and fascination of the message at its heart. Okay rock music, you have had your kicks, time to grow up and get real and earn your keep. With Sound The Alarm and the album which spawned it, you are having the door kicked open for you, a door that leads to a new chapter of intelligent rock and roll, all you have to do is go in!

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The Belligerent North Star  –  White Robot (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

a1119491985_16After such a long time of writing music reviews you sort of get an inkling, a first impression before even listening to the music of an album as it falls out of the review pile and under the pen whether it is going to be merely another day at the office or it will end up as the latest addition to your own record collection. Okay, the name White Robot might sound a bit rock or dance but anyone calling their album The Belligerent North Star has my interest piqued immediately. I also like tasteful artwork, spacious music, genre-splicing, graceful harmonies, ambient vibes, female vocals and music which looks forward to new horizons rather than past glories.

In fact if I wrote a list of all the features that would make for the perfect album for me, this not only ticks them all but throws in a few that I hadn’t even thought of. Don’t you just love it when an album comes out of nowhere and knocks you to the floor with its strange beauty? To say that this is merely a folk album would be to grossly understate what’s going on here although restrained rootsy sounds, ambient folk and hushed country lilts certainly beat at its heart. Paranoid Rose is a perfect example of where they verve off from convention, a hazy, cosmic country piece but the strange drifting electronica sign-posts things to come.

And the strangeness fully arrives with James, a strange homage to James Earl Jones, or perhaps a band in joke, it doesn’t really matter, enigmatic is also on the list. Moving from haunted folk to alt-rock, it throws around some fleeting funky brass and then returns to the musical delicacy as if nothing has happened requiring the listener to suddenly ask “did I just imagine those strange interludes.” And that, perhaps more than anything explains the beautiful oddness that inherits the music. For the most part it is happy to follow dusty folk paths and gothic country routes but there is also a wonderful thread of musical lunacy that weaves its way through the otherwise gorgeous music. But it is these purposeful imperfections, these unique inclusions which give the music its own personality. Without them it is Lisa Hannigan, with them it is PJ Harvey making a folk album after a night on the red wine listening to her Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits albums back to back.

The Belligerent North Star has to be a contender for my favourite album to come my way this year, and made all the sweeter by the fact that it was totally unexpected. A gorgeous blend of beguiling beauty and odd quirks, of vocal grace and disarming charm, of understatement and unexpected outbursts. If this album were a woman I’d propose to her right here, right now.

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Sway –  Sarah Sharp (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

SarahSharp3.jpgThere are many reasons for making records that are purely covers. They range from thoughts of paying homage to the iconic songs that have featured heavily in your life to more cynical ideas of a mere cash-in. Sarah Sharp is very much in the former camp on that axis. The art of course is to be able to bring just enough that is new to the songs but still retain the qualities that made the songs iconic in the first place and again that is exactly what she gets so right on this 6 track release.

The most obvious thing that she brings is a voice that can only be described as breathtaking, that perfect blend of timeless cool jazz vibes and a crystalline contemporary feel, a voice that at once matches the material perfectly but also feels like it opens an interesting new chapter too. Oh What A Beautiful Morning is deft and delicate and You Were Always on My Mind is rendered into a gorgeous late night ballad.

The only song I didn’t recognise immediately was Your Girlfriend Hate’s Me and a little delving reveals that it is in fact an original co-written with Hannah Johnson who as a member of UK country-swing aficionados The Toy Hearts, my own scuffed suede Chelsea boots have grooved around to live on more than one occasion. It is indeed a small world.

I’m not always the biggest fan of covers, standards, pre-owned…call them what you will, songs but here Sarah Sharp gets it all just right and the songs are treated in such a way that they justify this new outing with ease. Her voice alone would be enough to clinch the deal but add in the deft new arrangements which adds groove where there was balladry, ambience where there was swagger, hushed tones where there was bravado and every switch and change in between and you have the perfect tribute blended with the perfect calling card for her own, not insignificant talents.

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Surface Tension (A Tincture For Integrating Shadow) –  Matthew De Ver (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

mdvA strange title for a strange album. And I mean that in the nicest possible of ways. Strange is good, strange is interesting, strange is the opposite of safe, strange is unpredictable. Strange is often great and there are certainly many great aspects to this album. The first great thing is its approach towards genres…Matthew De Ver isn’t really concerned with such limitations and here he wanders between the ambient and the funky, the spacious and the groovesome, the beat driven and the transient, often within the space of one song.

What is also great about it is the analogous nature of the lyrics, which on the surface seem to be of a man setting himself against the challenges of the natural world, of climbing mountains, of taking on the elements, of being lost in the snow. Listen deeper and you find the real story and understand that these physical battles are metaphors for the loves, longings and losses of his own life.

The Climb is a funky opening salvo but largely the album is happier to deliver cooler and more considered sonics with Blood on The Snow being an intimate spoken word one on one conversation with the listener and Battle Alone a slow jazz infused trip-hop groove. Between these extremes songs such as Secret Keeper come on like Mercury Rev’s angelic soundscapes playing a dance card and Up To The Air is a looping and beguiling, alt-pop ballad.

It’s an album that reveals its greatness slowly, that rewards the listeners regular return, peels back its textures and layers through constant re-examination. If you are looking for a quick musical fix, this isn’t really the place but if you wan’t to make a new musical friend, and the best albums do come to feel like friends, this is certainly the start of a new beautiful musical relationship. How great is that?

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Unknown Sin (Stormy Daniels) The Owl-Eyes (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

owl eyes 4-04.jpgI Could Careless was a great low-slung rocker of a song but for me this is the more interesting of The Owl-Eyes output to have crossed my path. This time out the riffs are slinkier, the groove more sultry, swaggering and confident, the whole thing slightly more spacious which somehow makes the component parts that much more effective, more powerful, in the same way that you need plenty of room to effectively swing a hammer I guess.

And again our man Ethan Teel has a point to make. Whilst most people working in the same rock oeuvre are happy to self-aggrandise, to brag about their life, to focus on the irrelevant trappings of the world around us, vacuous and serving only their own ego, Teel would rather comment on society, talk politics with a small p and Unknown Sin and its obvious references point is a perfectly times, perfectly delivered rock song for the moment.

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