There are so many classic hallmarks and cleverly nostalgic moments to be found on Two that it is hard not to think that you have not been listening to John Lindsay’s album for decades. You can’t help but think that these songs exist on a well worn vinyl pressing, call a battered card sleeve home and both alphabetically and generically have the likes of John Martyn and Van Morrison for neighbours in a well-loved music collection.
You can see why none other than Joan Armatrading took a shine to this young artist when she saw him busking. It’s easy to hear the ghost-echoes of classic singer-songwriters and 60’s folk revival icons between the notes and words. It’s isn’t hard to become captivated by such a straight forward yet beguiling slice of timeless acoustica.
Cliches are fun right? All that glitters isn’t gold. And they all lived happily ever after. Read between the lines. Fun but not always that useful. Alexander Poe knows, however, that there is at least one cliche that stands up to scrutiny. Less is More. Unplugged is the sound of him putting the phrase to the test as he takes The Hate Club‘s songs of emotional turmoil and disenfranchisement and strips them down to the bone. Excuse the cliche.
For every few hundred singer-songwriters who thinks its enough to buy a wide-brimmed hat, grow a week’s stubble, slip into some black jeans with professionally distressed knees and rattle off a few James Bay inspired ballads, you come across people like Chris McEvoy who are really exploring what the format has to offer. The very term singer-songwriter might be a much maligned label these days but Be Still My Heart reminds us of classic writers such as John Martyn or Roy Harper who wove warm and sophisticated musical strands into exquisite albums.
Some music is bombastic and out going, full of vim and vigour, getting the message across by being up close and personal. And that’s fine, it gets the job done, after a fashion, but the cliched adage of less is more is still being repeated for a very good reason. Cliches are cliches because they are true and Written By Me is an artist who proves that you can sometimes do a lot more, make a lot more of an impact, by carefully cutting your sonic cloth. And that is what is so great about School Days, the fact that it builds its gentle musical platforms and sonic peaks not by powering through or laying the music on thick and fast, but by choosing just the right few notes, the right pauses and more importantly, the right spaces, to make the most impact.
It’s a song which is created just as much by the breath between the lyrics, the silence between notes, by single plaintive piano notes, by the atmosphere and anticipation created by music fading into nothingness, of restraint and understatement as by what is actually being played. It is a pop ballad more than anything but one that breaks through generic boundaries on all sides to wander and revel in the sounds of other musical styles.
On the one hand it is an unobtrusive song, one which can sit in the background late at night or maybe just as a mood enhancer but once you begin to immerse yourself into just how wonderfully emotive and heartfelt it is you will realise that you have uncovered a real gem. It may not sparkle as brightly and obviously as some you may have seen but you will find yourself gazing into the myriad of subtle, shifting colours at its heart for years to come.
Musical saviours tend to be flagged up almost incessantly by…well, people like me, music hacks looking for something to hang a review on. Million to one shots that seem to come along on an almost daily basis if you believe what we say. Okay, so I’m not saying that Shane Guerrette is here to revolutionise music or usher in some sort of new wave of sonic rebellion but he certainly goes a long way towards mending certain rifts and offers the pop punter the option of having songs that are both melodic and addictive but which set their sights on benchmarks which sit way above most pop fads and zeitgeist fashions.
Nomadic Soul is either the sound of soulful, acoustic blues looking for a younger and hipper commercial outlet or pop music realising that you don’t have to play dumb. It drips with just enough rock driven muscle, blues vibes and funky bass grooves to appeal to those who have always walked the outsider trackways but it is so infectious and groove filled that it could easily take the place of most things in the charts and in doing so, make a refreshing change.
Think about it, the dance floor party pack just want something to throw their allowance at and shake their bits to, the groove is king and this has that in spades. The more discerning listener can comfort themselves in the safe knowledge that this passes muster, is a blues-rock contender and so will be more than okay with it. The coolest thing about it is that both, normally mutually exclusive parties, are right, even whilst they eye each other with suspicion.
Being the awfully nice chap that he is, Phil Cooper is giving a song away, free, gratis, for nothing.
Given the theme of the song he feels that it seems wrong to ask people to pay for the song, so he’s giving it away.Here….
Also, if you doodled in his doodle pad at gigs, you can check out the gigdoodle page on his website where he’s put up some of his favourites.
There is something wonderfully simple, brilliantly emotive and even timeless in the message being broadcast by Luke Spehar on The Farmer. It feels like a modern parable, which is understandable given Spehar’s quest to explore his faith through his music. But unlike many of his peers the message is one that isn’t just applicable to those of one faith or another or those of no religious convictions. It is a story of honest toil, of being satisfied with your lot and of living a good life, which you could argue, is not only an ethic which lies at the heart of Christianity but which is the key to merely being a decent human being.
Musically it also follows some simple and supple lines, dexterous fingerpicked acoustic and a captivating voice, and just the minimal of additional sonic detail and you have a perfectly formed slice of acoustica. Both musically and lyrically The Farmer reminds us that sometimes the simplest way is the most effective, that if the song is well crafted and the words captivating there is nothing else you need to add in to the mix. Whether you are drawn to this song because of what it has to say or because of its sonic elegance, or perhaps both, The Farmer works on every level.
They say first impressions are the most important so any album whose opening blasts remind me of a slightly whimsical Waterboys, a folky take on Squeeze, or a more coherent John Martyn has to be applauded in catching my interest from the get go. The brassy stomp of 24/7 is a great way to intrigue and entice and by following it with the very delicate and restrained It’s Come to This you immediately get an idea of the sonic scope and lyrical imagination of Mike’s repertoire.
But it isn’t just a case of mixing up the dynamic or the volume, as the album progresses it wanders through a number of styles and genres too. Everything’s Going My Way is a cool, up tempo, up town, jazz-soul groove, It’s a Given is a chiming and shimmering beautiful slice of folk and The Gardener of Aleppo is a raw and skittering Appalachian rootsy blues piece.
The art of writing across so many styles is to not to sound too scattered and disjointed and Mike’s ability to skirt around many different genres yet make them fit together into a cohesive piece of work is joy to behold and speaks not only to his ability to travel the musical landscape playing by his own rules, but perhaps tells us just how pointless generic labels are in the first place.
Throw in plenty of gently humorous turns of phrase, poeticism and personal insights, not to mention some beautifully poignant moments, world thoughts, literary references and even, quite unexpectedly, Andre The Giant and you have a wonderful collection of deft and dexterous acoustica. What more can you ask for?
Anyone who shows up in the review pile with a CV that includes Throwing Muses and Belly, as Fred Abong does, is going to get a free pass to the front of the queue. After all, why would any sane journo’ want to be writing about some mumbling bedroom rapper or vacuous pop wannabe when they can be revelling in new music by someone who literally helped define the art-punk, alt-rock landscape? Why indeed?
Homeless is a collection of six songs delivered as wonderfully ragged acoustica, infused with edge and emotion and sitting at the end of a line that runs through the likes of Buffalo Tom, Elliott Smith, Iron and Wine and understandably sharing both spiritual and sonic space with Kristin Hersh.
Opening salvo Plum is raw and hypnotic, a blend of dexterous picking and a world weary vocal style and Rattler wanders dynamically between a confident troubadour busk and lulling and emotive lows. But it isn’t all edge and alternative acoustic pathways, Hi Avalon takes those same rough ingredients and mixes them into a sweet serenade, wonderfully honest, brilliantly intimate, proving that it isn’t how much you put into a song but how truly the sentiment comes from the heart. Any one of these songs carries more integrity than your average wide brimmed hat sporting, chart bound folk-popster could muster up in 5 full albums.
Sometimes it is the simplest things which are the most powerful. Why over complicate, over polish or over think things when all you need to do is record what comes from within, the real you? A lesson that many of those chasing fame fail to learn. What good is the platform that fleeting, mainstream success affords when you have nothing to say? So many rhetorical questions?
We first came across this track as part of last year’s album Pratfalls and Curtain Calls, Bob Pepek’s masterful collection of songs which explored the world around him via a string of deft musical songwriting and accessible tunes. He wandered everything from heartland rock highs to more subtle and supple balladic lows and this track certainly falls into the latter category. It is a wonderfully understated piece, vulnerable and confessional in nature, slickly executed and emotionally resonant.
Now with a video as part of the package, the song seems even more powerful in its underplayed and reserved way. To back up the frank and forthcoming message in the lyrics, the honest self-refections and “please take me as I am” request, the video is equally as stripped back and direct. The man just bearing his soul via his voice and guitar, as unadorned and open as the song it is a vehicle for. Sometimes the simple things are the most powerful, honest is the best policy, and less is more. Other cliches are available upon request but rest assured there is nothing cliched about this song.
Even from the perspective of a music reviewer, I can see that there is a shift in the intent and message driving an increasingly more visible sector of new music. People feel more and more that they should speak out about the dark clouds which seem to be gathering around us at the moment. But whilst most take to loading their songs with rhetoric and political poignancy, with counter punch and often outright rabble rousing, Peter Unger takes a different route. His path is one of comforting, offering people a shoulder to cry on, someone to lead on, support and a crutch to help get through difficult times.
As always his music comes from a very obvious, religious position but as always he gets his message across in the gentlest of ways, he may be advocating the acknowledgement of a higher power but is music is both totally human and wonderfully humane. Songs such as You Are Not Alone speak for themselves, but the imagery is that which any of us can relate to and the drive behind it avuncular rather than preaching. Blood on Our Hands takes a more judgemental tack but he is saying nothing that those in the more secular world aren’t also proposing and River is a lilting country song which takes a more direct approach to the message.
His music is the usual deft blend of lilting folk and country accessibility and whilst it is obviously a vehicle for the message that he holds dear, it is also music which can be appreciated in its own right as his dexterous picking and resonant vocals combine into subtle and supple tunes. And if the lyrical content offers up something that you find appealing, then so much the better.
Although essentially just another guy with an acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter these days, Mat Caron seems miles removed from the usual gap year, troubadour with the designer-distressed, skinny black jeans giving us the benefit of his world experience garnered in the six months since he moved out of home. Mat’s voice alone creates an air of world weariness, of experience and a life lived, dulcet tones delivering semi-spoken, bitter-sweet nuggets of wisdom, personal world views and edgy narratives.
Add to that simple, direct, rhythmic and often hypnotically repetitive guitar work and he creates something wonderfully at odds with the current musical zeitgeist, instead feeling more like an off shoot of nineties, American college rock, the sort of thing that would sit comfortably alongside the likes of an acoustic Sebadoh or a chilled out Bob Mould.
Audience Song exists somewhere between Leonard Cohen and John Martyn, a blend of the hushed and the hazy, the sonorous and the subdued, and Long Wind is a more frantic, melodic drive, an introspective wander through thoughts and opinions, a confessional, therapists chair outpouring, lyrically poignant and mesmerising. And between these two sonic points he describes his musical world. Transference (Still Moon) has a downbeat Portishead trippiness rooted to its core and A Learning Curve reveals his resonant vocals to be the indie successor to Johnny Cash.
But more than anything it is the language he uses that sets him apart from the modern pack, the fact that he doesn’t shy away from delving into the depths of modern society, contemporary life…his life… and talking about its dark underbelly. If you have had enough of the perky pop and the shallow nature of modern artists, if you are looking for a darker take on the human condition, something both personal and self-examining yet universally relevant and more than anything else brilliantly honest, then Mat should be your next port of call.
We have probably all got accustomed to the current wave of singer-songwriters who revel in fashion fixations and dreams of celebrity, production line pop pose and style over substance, as the accepted norm. But that’s what makes Ben McNeil a breath of fresh air and as Flying High kicks the album off you get to hear an echo of the drive and passion that made the post-punk New Wave and deft New Pop which followed so vibrant and edgy. That in itself would be reason enough to take this album to heart but throughout the following collection of songs McNeil wanders the back roads of acoustic pop, exploring roads less travelled, roads with the most interesting views, roads which those on the fast track to fame and fortune couldn’t even find on the map.
I’m not saying that this album couldn’t result in glittering accolades, I’m just saying its nice to see him not just playing the obvious card. Always employs the understatement of a David Gray classic and the following track No One goes a step further and runs right up against Damien Rice’s spacious workplace. Everything To Me combines the fine pop ingredients that Crowded House took to their heart and rock is even on the menu with the bigger stadium sounds of Prove To Me.
It wanders wonderfully between its acoustica, pop-rock and singer-songwriter boundaries, straying far enough to keep things interesting but not too far that it falls into inconsistency. Ben McNeil knows his own heart and the path he wants to follow, but then look at the references I have pulled out of the albums musical weave, all successful and all revered by the masses, but on their own terms. And that is a path Ben could easily find himself heading down.
Going into any review is an interesting prospect and a swathe of questions raise their heads as the music starts. What will I find within, how will the music effect me, how will I convey what I feel about to the reader and more importantly, how much can I sell this for on Discogs after I’ve finished writing? Ignore that last one, just joking…no-one sends in physical form any more! Damn this modern age! But all that aside you go into a Phil Cooper album review knowing that there is a bit of a safety net, one born of a fine musical track record, some fantastic live shows and a back catalogue of quality songs which gets right inside my wheelhouse.
And Thoughts and Observations is a perfect title for the album, and indeed what Phil does in general, as his songs are generally socially aware, personal but relatable, the musings, thoughts and experiences of a guy living a life just like the rest of us, only with more of a penchant for hats than most. But hats are cool.
I have been lucky enough to see Phil play many times and although it has generally been as a solo player, what a studio album allows him to do is dress the songs slightly, and I mean slightly as he is astute enough to understand that his songs are the type that stand very much on their own two feet. That the solo version is the beating heart of the recorded version and heart is important. Road Songs is a perfect example of this, a gentle beat, strings hovering around the periphery, subtle harmonies and the song front and centre. A sonic frame and nothing more. That’s how its done, wannabe troubadours take note, if you need more gimmickry than substance to make the song presentable to the audience, bin the bugger! Fear Factory sees things rock up, get brassy and throw a heavy groove for a Van-tastic delivery, Looking Through The Blindfold is a shimmering slice of soulful and soul-searching acoustica and Shake it up struts with a folky-R&B swagger.
Thoughts and Observations is the sound of a bunch of great songs being put on a pedestal, it is also everything you expect from Phil Cooper, subtle and supple songs that sit equidistant between cult favourites and easy commerciality. If this album had come out in the year 2000 nobody would have even heard of David Gray!
Find out all about Phil Cooper, watch videos, buy albums etc HERE
As I said when Runaway Blues hit the review desk at the start of the year, Portman’s music might sound like more of the same, a deft blend of pop and rock, blues and groove, but spend a bit of time to absorb what is actually going on here and you realise that his music is much cleverer than you might first have given in credit for. And now you have thirteen tracks to prove it. And if that previous release showed us the rock guitarist in him, which does indeed inform most of the album, there are a few tracks which really underline the scope of Portman as a composer and player beyond what we might have been expecting.
Songs such as Acetylene a gentle slice of acoustica, embellished with beat and some wonderful sonic details around the edge but as good a bit of mid-paced pop-rock balladry as you could wish to hear and The Architect (It’s All About Love) and Fine both finely wrought, piano drive pieces which traverse even more wonderfully understated waters.
These more considered songs are balanced against some bigger sounds. Make It Okay is a brooding blend of tribal beats, primal electronica and widescreen musical drama and Over and Over (Hey Oh Hey Oh)runs on a reggae groove, all sunshine melody and infectious vibrancy and the opening salvo and title track is a solid slab of rock.
There is a mercurial blend of music on this album but there is a consistency too and that, of course, is the art of it. Wander too far out and across too many genres and the album might sound disjointed and unfocused, stay too near one core sound and you risk being predictable, boring even. So how do present an album which showcases all of your thoughts and musical ideas, offers a varied sound palette but also hangs together neatly and with a core sonic consistency. Well, I’m damned if I know but one thing is for sure, Jarel Portman certainly does and Supersonic is the perfect proof.
Rev. Peter Unger makes music which crosses a lot of borders, metaphorically speaking. Musically it sits in a wonderful singer-songwriter vibe, honest and clean-limbed sounding as if it could have been written any time between the mid sixties and the present day. But it is music which is about more than mere coffee shop troubadour antics or acoustic balladry, though it ticks those boxes with ease. As you may expect from Peter’s titular prefix he has something to say bigger than mere tunesmithing, and You Are Not Alone feels like a parable, a series of scenarios regarding the lost and lonely looking for help and friendship.
And as I always say about Peter’s music, the song doesn’t just appeal to those of a certain faith or indeed of any faith, the messages are so universal, so relatable that whether the helping hand in question is from a higher power or just a concerned friend, the message of friendship and love is what matters. Yes, this comes from a faith based place, considering the writers background but it is also very much about the human condition and who amongst us can say that they have never needed a hand up from time to time. This song could be merely a reminder that life is a team effort or it could be about something bigger than human understanding, it just depends on where you stand on such things. But no matter which end of the spectrum you find yourself at, it still has something important to say.
Faith is a very personal concept, music however is universal and it is the most natural thing in the world to use music as a way of celebrating your faith, expressing your adoration and adherence and spreading the word which you hold dear. It is safe to say that it is one of the main the reasons music even survived and evolved through the ages, most early music being devotional in nature and sacred in purpose. And whilst religious terms may put some listeners off, after all we don’t all see the world the same way, In You, carries a very universal and relatable message. Belief. Not just in a higher power but in yourself, the people around you, belief that you can get through the worst times, belief that things will get better.
Geni was inspired to write it after reading a note from someone that she knew, someone. who had become so overwhelmed by the pressures of life that they saw suicide as the only way out. She says that she prayed asking God for the right words to counsel him with and the song just began to take form .She knew then that the song was the direction he needed.
And musically too, In You is totally accessible in a wider musical context. It may adhere to the gospel genre in its lyrical delivery but musically it reminds us that genres move on and grow and this falls as much into the realm of balladic pop as it does the traditional and iconic sound of the gospel genre.
It is a soft and subtle song, one that sits easy on the ears yet has a message that can’t be ignored, but neither does it ever feel as if it is preaching. It is based on love, sentiment, faith and emotion, and is celebratory without being too obvious about it. And whilst Geni is blessed with a wonderfully sweet and resonant voice it is an inherent sensitivity and passion which shines through the song more than anything.
Music can be something frivolous, something throw away, a thing to be experienced and then forgotten. Of course it can – art for art’s sake and all that. But you could make a great argument for music to have a more important function than that, that it can offer something deeper, more insightful, more, well, worthy. Daman Sage makes that very argument just by making his music and it is a best encapsulated in a brilliant quote from the man himself, “I sing for the lost souls, the hopeless, the castaways, the misunderstood, the sad, the angry. Because I am them and they are me. That’s why I sing.”
This is music which explores the human condition, its highs and lows, the loves, losses and longings of life, the successes, the failures and everything in between. Musically it comes on like a wall of dark, acoustic driven rock, revealing and poignant and although it takes as its subject the darker strands of the this mortal coil, it is melancholic rather than miserable, a discussion about life rather than wallowing in self pity.
Memories is a great song, and it fits right into the upsurge of artists making music which wishes to explore social comment again, a reaction perhaps to both the vacuous nature of the music industry and the gathering clouds which seem to be looming on the horizon. There is strength in understanding each other, in offering a shoulder to cry on, in being there for each other and for all its shade and intensity, songs like this remind us that we are not alone.
Anything that instantly evokes Damien Rice’s brilliant use of spacial awareness and atmosphere as an instrument is going to find favour with this music scribe. Here is the same space between the notes, the same anticipation bridging the sentences that he also painted into his music so effectively. But it isn’t enough to just follow someone else’s lead and what Eyal Erlich brings to the table is a passionate, lo-fi acoustic vibe blended with a DIY folk attitude. This is music boiled down to bare emotions, where every extraneous layer has been removed and between the most minimal and often wonderfully wayward chord patterns, deftly picked string work and the often fragile always impassioned yet driven vocal there is an intensity and devotion that would be lost if he had resorted to a more complex set up. Less is more, as they say.
Late night musings and restless early hours fitful thoughts, and examinations of the stuff of life’s rich and sometimes painful pageant weave their way through the collective narrative, one that is both universally familiar to us all yet totally personal to its creator. These are the familiar everyman tales of unrequited love, loss and life in general, the stories behind the scars and bruises, metaphorical and otherwise, that we can all relate to. These are the emotional underdog’s song, the songs of those who have lived a life of ups and downs, and the underdogs song is always more interesting than the winners.
The real charm of this collection of songs is the directness and simplicity, it doesn’t bow to the fickle finger of fashion, instead following its own rules, and for me that is always the more interesting path to take, maverick, outsider and interesting and for those who have forgotten the role of mavericks in music, I have a two word gentle reminder. Bob Dylan. I’m not saying that this collection of songs are particularly reminiscent of his Bobness, but I am saying that just occasionally people with unconventional styles and less traditional approaches can still find a way to the top. In fact it is exactly what keeps the musical gene pool populated.
It Don’t Seem Right is built on an emotive blues groove, Mourning Love touches on pop melodics and commercial accessibility and Rain blends mournful, almost operatic vibes with Neil Young’s falsetto reaches and it is here that his true originality shines through. Not in any way deriding the songs that surround it but every act needs an angle, a hook to sell the music on, and Rain is central to this.
Some music is all about high drama, polished production and big, brash statements. This is not that kind of music. This is emotion turned into song, the music you would hear if your soul itself could hold a tune. It’s always good to remind yourself that it’s all about the gift, not just the package it comes in.
I’m always going to be a sucker for a song which mixes medieval philosophical principles with jaunty contemporary music, I can’t be the only one, I like my academia but I like it groovy. And that is just what Matt Saxton delivers with Occam’s Razor, a kooky little acoustic-pop number which delves into the idea of mid-life crisis and does so by way of some name dropping. But this is name dropping with a difference. No Z list celebrity references or glitterati glamourising, here the clever and the cool are the likes of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre as well as the titular Occam.
It’s a lilting little number which shuffles and grooves its way through an acoustic pop-rock landscape, but is essentially about delivering the message rather than any outlandish musical adventures. That said the song is dressed with some lovely musical detail and motifs, electric guitars meander about in the middle distance and the beat keeps things bouncy and buoyant. With a full album following along very soon, Matt Saxton is certainly an artist to keep an eye on, not just for the clever references and pseudo academia that beats at its heart. At a time when music is struggling to rise above a certain lowest common denominator, it is nice to find someone who thinks about outside the box.
Philip Broussard channels a lot of classic singer-songwriter vibes. Whilst it is easy to draw comparison with current board-treading artists such as Shawn Mendes and John Mayer, the most interesting parallels are found as the echoes of Cat Stevens at his most chilled or John Martyn on a particularly focus moment. The music is humble, humbling and heartwarming, woven from deep and honest emotion and delivered in such as way that whilst the guitar work is obviously more than competent it is the impact of the words, the lyrical message which stands proud.
It is very easy to work in such musical territory and get things very wrong, to over sell the message, err on the side of the syrupy sentiment, the mawkish or the melancholic. Broussard is too smart for that, or maybe just too honest, overt earnestness is avoided and songs like Best Friend come across as a heartfelt message, one based in real emotions rather than over thought, sales based sentiment. Drowning is a wonderful blend of darker thoughts and some adept and deft guitar work and In My Chords ends the e.p. on a wonderfully upbeat and loved up moment.
In a world filled with the bombast and obvious commerciality of the all too often shallow music industry, Broussard reminds us that there are other ways of operating. Better a song which touches people through its honesty and warmth than the throw away, day-glo, production line pop that the mainstream seems hung up on. Most people stumble across such songs only now and again, Broussard has delivered a release where all four songs tick just such boxes.
From the punningly clever title and the vibes emanating from the cover, it is obvious that this is no mere return to the rock based journeys that formed last years Growing Wild. And as I said at the time, even that was a new take on the instrumental rock guitar format, exploring some wonderful musical tangents and meanderings into jazz, blues and funk along the way. This time around Slang takes that musically inquiring mind and deft creativity and visits warmer and more chilled climes and delivers his own unique take on acoustic driven world music.
And the world in question here is one of the eternal beach, of Island life, Carnival, or at least its chilled out after party, and of drinking wine under the Iberian sun. He weaves classical Spanish sounds, Calypso grooves and latin cool together, subtle and supple acoustica cradled in just enough musical accompaniment to act as a cradle around the guitar but never get in the way of the central instrument.
The music is highly evocative, Sunset Siesta paints the sun going down over the Sierra Morena, Pub Street captures all of the hustle and bustle of a busy bar and the to and fro of tourists and socialisers in a vibrant blend of steel drums and flamenco-esque guitarwork and Fading Slowly is lilting, latin and lovely.
If most music relies on the lyrics to get the message across, Slang shows us another way. This really is music paining pictures, setting scenes and describing scenarios, using just a song title and after that using only the music presented here, a series of small films appear, snapshots of journeys have yet to take or wonderful aids to revisit those you have already experienced. As always Slang is a master painter, it is just that his brushes are guitars, his colours are notes and his easel is the listeners imagination. How cool is that?
Listening to an album in a language that you are not fluent in (I’m English, most of us barely have a handle on our own language let alone those of our neighbours) is a bit like watching a subtitled film. For just as then you have the translation running along the bottom of the screen, a good songwriter can use music in the same way. I may not be able to exactly translate the meaning behind the song but the music translates it into emotions, feelings, highs and lows, energy, passion and melancholia as directed. And whereas language is limited by the number of words available, music can be used in far wider variety of ways and so when it comes to communicating with the heart, and indeed the soul, music is a much more eloquent form. And Alessio Bondi is master of that language.
Sfrado is a collection of songs exploring the artists life, both as a child growing up in Sicily and as an adult discovering the romances and relationships of his adult life. Musically it also covers a lot of ground too, wandering from funky brass driven boogies such as Vucciria to the lilting latin folk-pop of Di Cu Si to the more traditional Mediterranean guitar sounds of Wild Rosalia and the wonderfully named Un Pisci Rinta A To Panza, A Fish In Your Belly!
Sfardo is a heady blend of the personal and the universal, of local sounds and global sonic adventures, of childhood innocence and more worldly concerns. But more than that it is a beautiful album and if the music alone is enough to make me appreciate its breath-taking and heart-breaking appeal, those who are fluent with his Sicilian words and sun-kissed tales are in for a real treat.
There seems to be a fad in the last few years for people attach such importance to the passing of the great and good of the rock and roll generation that we forget to highlight some of the amazing artists coming through to fill their shoes. I get that the era of the rock star has passed and a music career is built on very different tenets now, but the oft used phrase of “we won’t see their likes again” is one that really grates, we will see it, we are seeing it..it is all around us if only we look.
Obviously I shouldn’t try to sum up a musician on the strength of just one single, but I will go out on a limb and say that when the inevitable happens and Neil Young heads for that great subsidised farming co-operative in the sky, his fans will be able to find solace in Joshua Ketchmark and songs like 17.
Built of the same raw emotion, simple but far from simplistic song lines, haunting vocals, though pitched in a more accessible place, 17 is a fantastic piece of acoustica, an outpouring of the soul and a song which tips its hat to the classic singer-songwriter whilst helping to write the next chapter of their history. You can’t ask for more than that really!
One of the beautiful aspects of music, and there are many, is that not only are songs a great way of marking a significant event, a notation in the book of life of saying something about the world as we travel through it, the song itself is also a point in time. Whilst the message being carried doesn’t change, the song itself speaks from a specific moment of creation, a period of time, of the places and the people who created that version of the song.
Indian Summer Blues is a song of mourning, of moving forward and having to carry an emotional burden and about coming to terms with the slings and arrows that life throws at us all, a song for a cousin lost to cancer and the husband who now has to deal with its aftermath.
It is one of those bitter sweet comments on life, a gentle soft rock meets sensitive pop musical package, it reminds us of the transitory nature of this life and how it affects those who have to cope with the passing of loved one. It is both a personal eulogy and a universal statement, a very specific picture but also a broadly relatable sentiment. Greg Schotthaeur’s vocals are that perfect blend of sweetness and confidence avoiding the fey and the melancholic which is often a misstep that it is all too easy to make when working in such territory.
And as I pointed out in my opening statement, the song itself is just one point in time in the songs journey also as highlighted by the acoustic version with vocals this time by Jon Statham. Here the song is stripped down to vocals and an acoustic guitar and this lighter touch takes the song into even more emotive territory as the lilting and dextrously picked guitar is drawn to the fore because of the musical space it is afforded. For me this is the perfect version, the simplicity makes the delivery more powerful, space is a much underrated creative tool.
It is therefore interesting to hear the original demo, sung by the author himself, which seems to combine elements of both its sibling versions and a wonderfully retro feel, like a long lost psychedelic pop song from the sixties.
And of course songs are flexible and can be adapted to redirect their sentiment to mark other significant passings and with only a minor edit to accommodate a change in gender, Lewis Papier, took the acoustic version and used it to mark the passing of Miami Marlins’ pitcher Jose Fernandez who was lost in a tragic boating accident two years ago.
Songs can tell stories but they are also stories in their own right, they evolve and adapt just as people do to the challenges and changes of life.
Aliens walk among us. It is known.
For the most part, they keep their heads down, hiding in plain sight, disguised as ordinary citizens, never drawing attention to themselves, never giving the indigenous human population cause to be concerned, going about their daily lives much as we go about ours.
But occasionally, some of the more reckless among their numbers can’t help themselves. They break ranks and start to show off the extraordinary, utterly inhuman talents of which these advanced beings are capable. Which is all very well and good as long as they do it in the privacy of their own pods, lairs, dens, or whatever other enclosed spaces serve as their homes.
The problems really start when these reckless youths, these ridiculously talented pan-dimensional travellers from beyond the limits of our universe, go into recording studios, and record themselves, resulting in albums that are , among other things, flagrant demonstrations of the limitations of human endeavour!
That’s when the whole balance of human-alien coexistence is put at risk, when the human race can no longer bury its head in the sands of deliberate ignorance, when we must confront the reality that, yes, Carl Sagan and Arthur C Clarke were right: Aliens Walk Among Us.
Mind you, when the results of these demonstrations of alien capability are as magnificent, as extraordinary, and as thoroughly delightful as the new album from Tommy Emmanuel (so talented, so gifted that even his fellow aliens are jealous!), it’s hard to do anything other than sit and gaze in wonder at the stars, making utterly futile attempts to imagine the kind of universe where such feats of musical brilliance are possible.
An extraordinary thing happens when truly gifted musicians get together. As magnificent as the individual components might be, where the musicians are as humble as they are brilliant, where each one regards the others as their inspiration, the results are far greater than the sum of the parts.
This album is a collection of duets, some with singers, some instrumentals with other musicians, mostly covers, along with a small number of original tracks.
Featuring collaborations with Jason Isbel, Mark Knopfler, Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, among others, many styles are on display, from straighforward country to boogie blues, to one of the most deft and beautiful versions of a Django Reinhart classic that I have ever heard, this album is quite simply a Must-Have in any collection.
This is not just for the guitar aficionado, as some recordings by impresarios can be. This is so much more than a demonstration of what the guitar can technically do in the right (non-human, obvs) hands. This is a celebration of the art of music, the joy of music, the sheer beauty-for-the-sake-of-it that music can be.
There are one or two slight dips in the overall level; Amanda Shires features on violin and vocals on a version of Madonna’s Borderline, and I’m not sure that it’s really up to the standard of the rest of the album.
But shortly after that, Jerry Douglas (if the Tommy Emmanuel being doesn’t convince you of the existence of aliens, surely not even the most determinedly myopic of you can argue that Jerry Douglas is human???) pops up on a rendition of Purple Haze that, on its own, makes up for any earlier lapses on the album.
Previously, some scientists have claimed that the human race is safe because these pan-dimensional beings know that they cannot co-exist in the same place at the same time without creating rifts in the fabric of the universe, and so they remain solitary, avoiding each other for the sake of reality itself.
It turns out that this theory is rubbish. Aliens walk among us. Together. This album is proof!
And now that we know this, there will be no apocalypse, no Armageddon. The worst that will happen is that eBay will be flooded with guitars, previously owned by actual humans, causing the second hand guitar market to crash. But that’s such a small price to pay for this gem of an album.
Released January 19th via Players Club / Mascot Label Group
You can say what you like about Mr King but you can’t deny that he has a pretty solid work rate. It seems that barely a season goes by without at least one album popping into the review pile. Whilst many of his albums have seen him head into that battered and brusied electric rock ’n’ roll territory that he seems to effortlessly ooze, this album returns him to the acoustic playground that he explored so wonderfully on The Collection. Acoustic does just what it says on the tin, for the most part, one voice, a couple of layered acoustic guitars, minimal beats and the odd foray into a slightly embellished sound.
But if that sounds a tad underwhelming or that you have heard enough of such deliveries to last a life time, you haven’t factored in the sheer ragged glory of Nelson King’s songs. This is no fey, gap-year, indie-folk singer in wide brimmed hat aiming for the artistry of Simon and Garfunkel and only reaching the gimmickry of Bon Ivor, this is a man who has paid his rock and roll dues so many times over, read, absorbed and even added a few footnotes to the rule book, that he doesn’t even have to plug in to make rootsy rock and roll statements, statements which feel like long lost classics from a golden age. This is rock and roll in the raw, stripped to its very soul, often vulnerable, always emotive.
If songs like You Blow Me Away and House on Fire are concessions to a fuller band sound, both of which could have easily graced a Stones set any time from the early seventies onwards, it is the lilting country-folk vibes of I’ll Fall For You and Face The Sun which are more representative of the overall feel of the album, the later in particular feeling like Keef and Ronnie jamming out in the dressing room in a cloud of nicotine and whiskey vapour.
It is always easy to see where Nelson King comes from, imagine a blusier Johnny Thunders growing up in England and learning to play by listening to Dylan and Neil Young, Creedence and The Band, but they are references worn openly and honestly and of course with music this fundamentally pure, unpretentious and invigorating what would be the point of trying to re-invent it. Better to just add more timeless gems to the canon and that is exactly what Nelson King has done here.
A preview from the next album Shine
As we found out when listening to the wonderfully cinematic Anywhere, Everywhere, The Singer and The Songwriter revel in escape, freedom, travel and more importantly sharing that journey together. They are themes which run openly through their latest e.p. Direction, painting pictures of heading off into the unknown, of exploration and the desire to see what is just over the horizon. And whilst the cinematic, widescreen Americana of that single is also present on opening track Wild Heart, the space afforded by a mini album shows that they love to travel across genres just as much as they do across state lines.
Give Love is a lovely lilting and soulful gospel groove and Worried No More is an old school country rock strut but it is the last two songs on the e.p. which reveal a less categorisable side to the band. Show Me The Mountain is a strange, primal ritual, built on beats and ancient voices calling from beyond time and things round off with Apparent Brightness which seems to be a collection of celestial voices sent down from a higher plane and made to serve time in a quirky folk-pop band. And why not?
It is a surprising and wonderfully gathering of songs and whilst you always feel that their hearts are out there on the open road, even when they are physically elsewhere, the fact that they channel those ideas through such a wide range of styles and genres, even inventing a few new ones on the way, just shows that this is a band whose approach to music is as broad minded as is their love of exploring the world around them. If only their were more people like them, the world would be a friendlier and more understanding, not to mention musically diverse, sort of place.
Richard Thompson is an institution in British music, and unusually, that institution spans a number of genres; folk blues, and rock. He is a guitarist’s guitarist, and has been a pillar of the British music scene for decades.
He is spoken of with wonder and awe, his name oft whispered with reverence and a little fear, save the guitar gods detect any hint of blasphemy and wreak revenge most foul on the blasphemer!
And yet, and yet… I have on many occasions had a bit of an issue with Thompson. With some notable exceptions – Waltzing’s For Dreamers from the 1988 album Amnesia foremost among them – his vocal delivery, both in terms of articulation and melody, often seems to my ears to be a little too spiky, a fraction too angular, a soupcon too edgy for my tastes and sensibilities.
Don’t get me wrong, his songwriting has always been exceptional and entirely beyond criticism! And when he takes on a folk standard, he makes it his own and demands that the listener hears it afresh, making even the most overused standards seem somehow current and relevant – true artistry for any folk singer!
And yet, and yet… I often find myself warming more to some of the covers of his songs than to the originals themselves. And there have been many, many covers. Apart from Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, there can be few artists with more recorded covers in the past 40 years.
And then there’s The Dimming Of The Day. The original recording featured Linda Thompson on the lead vocals, with Richard providing harmonies. It’s a truly seminal, blissfully magnificent recording. The purity and soul of Linda Thompson’s voice is a perfect match for what is surely the benchmark in beautiful ethereal folk ballads.
It’s been covered by everyone who’s anyone over the years – versions by Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss stand out (as does the recording by Dave Gilmour, although for entirely different reasons – not recommended listening for fans of either Thompson or Gilmour).
But Richard Thompson’s own solo recordings of that song? Erm…. nah! not for me, thanks.
So when his new Acoustic Rarities album dropped on my desk, featuring a mix of tracks written by Thompson, and either previously unreleased, or originally recorded on earlier albums by Thompson, Fairport Convention or with Linda Thompson, or recorded by other artists, I was excited and apprehensive in equal measure.
I’m happy to report that on balance, I find this collection a great deal more pleasing than I was expecting to. Track after track reminds me why it’s impossible not to come back to Thompson’s writing again and again. The intimacy of an acoustic collection, without the clamour of a full band, engages and sustains interest and appreciation throughout. He is a simply magnificent guitarist, one of the very few that occupy the highest pedestals in world music, and who, similarly to the likes of Martin Simpson, wraps his arrangements into the very fabric of the songs to bring them to life in ways of which the rest of us mere mortal guitarists can only dream.
Thompson is touring at the moment with a solo show. If you see it, don’t let him leave the stage without playing They Tore The Hippodrome Down. It is, for me, the standout track of this collection. Which is saying something, given the company it keeps here.
In the end, I’m not sure whether Thompson is mellowing slightly in his advancing years, or whether I am in mine. Either way, I am delighted that he and I can find common, slightly smoother, less abrasive ground on this excellent album.
Acoustic rarities was released by Beeswing Records on October 6th