As someone who deals with generic descriptions on an almost hourly basis, I am usually fairly cynical of them. You see that a band who have elected to use the term “cinematic indie” and you know that that is just wishful thinking and they are probably going to sound like the tracks that Oasis never pursued beyond demo recordings. So I see the term Celtic Soul/Country Swing and I’m thinking if this lives up to the expectation of such a combination I will eat my hat!
Musicians have always taken inspiration from wherever they travel or visit, perhaps it’s the life on the road that gives flight to those elusive words and chords that rattle around in the head of your travelling musician but behind many a classic song is a tale about a town, city or street. Travelling to a new country, especially one with its own musical identity, can quickly obliterate that spell of writer’s block and bring about a new episode of song writing. Garrick Rawlings had the kind of upbringing that meant he saw a large chunk of his native America.
It’s reassuring to find Arthur Rivers exactly where I left him last time, kicking off the album with the previously encountered single You’re the Ocean Waves, You’re the Sea. And although this gentle and wonderfully wonky folk creation gives you a hint at the soft textures and delicate treatments that make up the rest of the album, this is more a vague signpost rather than a road map. It would, of course, be perfectly lovely to follow such pre-designated folk paths pretty much knowing where you are going but instead the album wanders any number of rootsy routes and world music byways. As a famous man once said, it is better to travel well than to arrive and Beyond Sunsets and Rainbows is definitely about the journey. Armed with a vague sense of direction and a sense of musical adventure you head off wide eyed into his music.
Lead You Home takes us past cosmic country bars, You & Me is haunted with the mournful sound of gothic Mariachi, We Remain The Same wanders the bayou’s and backwaters of the Deep South to blend a gospel spiritual with a work gang chant and Heal Your Pain is a suitable soothing infectious pop-folk song. One of the most telling lines on the album is when Arthur sings “Let’s start a fire” and where many would follow that up with some rabble rousing rhetoric, he merely suggests that the “Dance around it remembering the past.” This is an album of intimate reflection, soul-searching and personal nostalgia something that comes as a welcome change of pace in a world where big seems to be regarded as better.
The clever pay off here is that many people mixing up folk, country, sweeping string sections, banjos and the like often produce some sort of nu-country or dream state folk music, something that seems to lose its rigidity and sense of direction, but not Arthur Rivers. For all the soft edges to the music, its gentle textures and subtle musical weaves it is inherent with melody and memorability. The basic structures are rigid and accessible, it is just that he is so adept at knowing just what needs to go into the song to make it work that you end up with a set of songs that do everything they need with the minimum of fuss.
Rather than resort to studio tricks, over-playing, solo’s and similar showboating, instead the lyrics remain the focal point offering emotion, remembrance, love and connection, and rather than merely trying to get feet tapping along is designed to to do nothing less than get the very soul dancing.
After 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.
Even when delivering such a poignant song as this, one that points to the cracks in the American Dream, the dark underbelly, the false promises and societal failings, there is something wonderfully smooth, soothing almost, about the overall nature of the song. That takes some doing, making such a heavy concept sound like a lullaby. But that is why his music stands out from the pack I guess.
Slow burning its way from a gentle country ballad to a restrained, acoustic driven rock song and finally to an anthemic crescendo, musically the song covers a lot of ground which seems to match the wide-ranging and powerful lyrical imagery. Gary Douglas knows how to hold your attention, that’s for sure, not only through the sonic journey you follow him on but through the compelling subject matter. Music is often escapist, designed to take you away from the harsh realities of life, but its great to come across an artist who isn’t afraid to talk about those subjects. He may not have the answers but he reassures you that you are not alone and sometimes that is all you need.
Pitching the vocal perfection of The Civil Wars onto often hard rocking back beats, The Mutineers, capture the heart of what Americana music is, in that they sound like the sweet and sour pulse of that country’s musical heart. A bold statement? Perhaps but between Hard Sell’s low-slung dirty rock drives, Couldn’t Get Over You’s nod to 50’s rock and roll and After Thoughts gothic country vibes they seem to have it covered.
Add to this a touch of Cave-esque apocalyptic blues on I’ve Got The Bottle and the gentle folk ballad of Hourglass to wrap things up and you really have the perfect journey through the honest under belly of American music. And like the music, the narratives they weave and the stories they tell come right out of the Beat writers book of grim reality, epic poems about the losers, the lost and the lonely.
Music might be great at offering distractions from the real world but it is also great at holding a mirror up to it, and this Threshold is a wonderfully cracked and dirt streaked mirror that reflects the realities of life in the dark and forgotten corners of the American dream. Honesty is the best policy, they say, and it is the grim truths and sad realities that thread their way through the songs that make this such a great record.
There is an old adage (are there no young adages and if not should we fear for the future of adages? ) which says that you can tell a lot about a person by the company that they keep. The same is true of bands and anyone rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul McClure and The Local Heroes, Matthew Edwards and The Unfortunates or who invites members of Danny and The Champions of The World to guest on their album, are people that, even before I have heard a note, I know that I am going to get along with.
And as Always opens up the album, I am vindicated by Drew Morrison, his band and his music. A bit like the aforementioned Champ’s, there is something inherently soulful at the heart of the songs, more than just Morrison’s plaintive and worldly vocals but something sensitive and soothing whilst, ironically, often juggling the weight of the world. Or at least the weight of one man’s world. Intimate and emotive, Electric Notes Wild paints personal portraits, tells small stories that just happen to be universally relatable, is direct but gentle, romantic but restrained.
In typically British fashion it keep things manageable, people like Springsteen may have painted broad sonic Americana brush strokes to describe the nature of his own country, Morrison does the same for his through quite conversations, wistfulness and reflection. Musically the cloth is cut perfectly, the songs built of wonderful textures and interplay, it’s what you get when you put so many deft players behind such a delicate songwriter.
Let Me Break Your Heart Tonight is such a gorgeous song, its understatement and its sentiment reflecting everything I love about this album and Sad Music seems to exist somewhere near where the M1 crosses the Mason Dixon line. Like We Used To underlines the wonderful nostalgia that beats at the heart of the record and Islands describes the feeling of isolation that threads its way through many of the songs.
Less is indeed more and even though there is plenty going on musically on this album, the playing and arrangements are so finely woven, so carefully placed, that it never intrudes on the songs but instead subtly serves them. You can be assured that if a certain note, beat or word is on this album then it is the perfect one for the job, that it conveys just the right emotion or resonance. Quality control is something Drew Morrison and The Darkwood excel at and Electric Notes Wild is the perfect example of that.
There is a quote that comes with the press release of Grandview Station’s eponymous album noting that it has been described as “like finding an album in the basement from 1979 that was lost and never released.” To be honest, as a sound bite, that takes a lot of beating in its accuracy and succinctness. Rock music may be having a tough time trying to work out where its future lies, but sometimes it forgets that it is also okay to look to the past, to tip its hat, in this case most probably a dusty and battered stetson, to past glories too.
There is a big difference between plagiarism and torch bearing, between wholesale plunder and weaving gentle sonic tributes through your music and here we are definitely in the realms of wholly original music being made that just happens to walk with a certain familiarity. The songs are fresh and groove laden, they just happen to also leave you with a slightly nostalgic after taste. I think they call that the best of both worlds.
Country vibes, blues structures and rock muscle all blend effortlessly into music that fits on a time line anywhere between late sixties cosmic country outlaws to modern southern rockers, along the way taking in 70’s rock access, 80’s anthemics, 90’s directness and 21st century reinvention. A fine line between rock traditions and moving the ball forward. And even when they aren’t moving the ball forward, they sound like they are having a great time, and you will too. Isn’t that the whole point of rock music?
Crashing By Design feels like a long lost, mid-paced power ballad, a term which even as I write it seems to under sell how deft and dexterous this song actually is. Fall From Grace’s sultry sax intro heralds a subtle and supple mix of late night musical textures and rock vigour and Hate To Love You is that end of festival, fists in the air, sunset swan song. But Grandview Station really come into their own when they go for broke. Acid Rain is a frenzy of psychedelia and Dixie grooves, Where I’m Not Wanted goes on a crazy ride between Austin and Los Angeles, harvesting the raw blues of the former and the skyscrapping musical attitudes of the latter and It Won’t Be Me puts the album to bed with a wonderful dynamic mix of guitar excess and perfectly poised interludes and sounding oddly like James Taylor discovering hard rock….at last.
Music should always be forward thinking, but not at the expense of forgetting where it comes from and Grandview Station know exactly the path that got them to where they are today. Thankfully they are more than happy to use that as the perfect vehicle to drive into a bright future.
Bakersfield,CA always sat at a sonic crossroads. That scenes reaction to the slick, string lead, over-produced Nashville country sound of the time saw them embrace a sound based around the surf guitar tone and honky-tonk bar driven twang, a sound which would later influence the both pure country players, the West Coast psychedelic roots acts and even some of the British Invasion bands. Speedbuggy USA take that same rock and roll energy and those country textures and pay tribute to that legendary sound.
Kick Out The Twang is, for the most part, a full on, energetic meeting of those musical minds, it rocks like a bad ass (note the American spelling, just this once) is filled with wonderful washes of pedal guitar and grooves around accompanied by banjos and that trademark guitar twang. Throw in a bag of memorable riffs and sing-along choruses aplenty and you have the perfect blend of old and new. Even though there is a move amongst recent indie bands to re-appropriate country and folk music to create a modern hybrid, Speedbuggy USA sound so authentic that you would be hard pushed to sit them in any one particular decade from the last seven.
Long Gone is typical of their more hillbilly sound but they are just as likely to deliver some low slung rock and roll such as Rodeo Star and when they do they put you in mind of the likes of George Satellites, which is more than fine by me. Unchain My Heart sees them break out the soulful moves which along with the ballad-esque sounds of Shaky Town proves that they are just as good at tugging heartstrings as they are starting the party. They boogie, they rock, they soothe and they sway and they do each equally as well. This is country music for people who don’t realise that they like country music!
Americana is a strange term for what is essentially the roots rock sound of the New World. It’s a bit like the term Chinese Food, in that it has no real meaning in the country of China itself, after all there they just call it …well, food. And so Americana only seems to have any real currency outside the country of its birth. But looking in from the outside that is essentially what Dan Israel excels at but to those around him it is just good old country-infused rock and roll which somehow sonically speaks of and to American lives.
It is difficult to explain exactly what Israel does without it sounding like he is just going over old ground. Maybe he is but when you can revisit the same sonic territory as the likes of Tom Petty, Steve Earle, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, The Jayhawks and the like and still make it sound like the first time you heard such music then he no justifications needed. None at all.
I guess the difference between getting this so right and just treading creative water is the quality of the songwriting and this is some exquisite work. Back To You is a cool country groove, Long Gone Dream is a brooding and bruising apocalyptic blues stomp and Your Free is a stadium ready heartland rock anthem. Familiar territory perhaps but a reminder of why there isn’t much you need to change about the genre when the songs are this damn good.
Although previously pursuing a solo path associated with a more restrained countrified sound, Pieces not only marks a big stride forward, sonically speaking, but reunites him with the incendiary roots rock of his earlier days as a member of The Whybirds. As Luke explains, “ My first two records where made whilst The Whybirds were still active, and so I felt it was important for them to be sonically separate from the band.” With his formative band no longer a going concern and perhaps inspired by the fresh start of a relocation to New York, he comes out all guns…not to mention guitars…blazing.
Based around a core of rock driven songs with a few acoustic numbers just to not break all continuity with the sound of the last two albums, Pieces transcends the expected generic restraints, no matter how many words like post- or alt- you put in front of country, folk or roots labels and heads straight into Neil Young or Tom Petty’s territory of heartland rock. The Mf Blues is a suitable sweary and ragged bar room stomp, Requiem is a brooding dystopian rock workout and Batten Down The Hatches would give The Boss, that’s Mr Springsteen to you, a run for his money.
The deft and more delicate acoustic pieces such as Charing Cross and Ghosts offer some wonderful breathing space, just enough of a pause that the album doesn’t become too full on, though with Luke’s clever use of melody and dynamics even in his most stadium and (Gaslight) anthemic moments, the songs remain engaging rather than merely powerful. The title track being a good example of this, a clever blend of loud sing-along choruses and gentle verses and a sonic journey that builds in intensity and infectiousness as it travels to its final destination.
So it’s both a fresh start and a return to the past, music inspired by largely American icons finding its way back home, an album that can be big, blustering and full of bravado, whilst also able to be smooth and soothing. To be honest I can’t think of much he has missed out. Good work sir.
Given their cow-punk credentials, their brilliant collision of roots sounds from both sides of the Atlantic, their gypsy blues bar band busk swagger, it is fairly unexpected that the opening and titular song on their second e.p. Float Your Boat, is a tribute to Desmond Dekker. Actually that isn’t quite fair as Float Your Boat, as the name might suggest, is more about not worrying what is currently cool or musically in fashion but just listening to the music which does as the song title suggests, just like the things you like. A point that they make over a typically quirky blend of wonky folk, rock muscle and bluesy grooves.
They continue to explore some interesting concepts, narratives and inner thoughts to do with who we are and who we think we are. Putting on A Show is an exploration of identity, a soul-searching examination of the ever changing nature of who we are, a song exploring permanence and change, expression and perception. It’s a fairly reserved number considering the musical resources they have at their disposal, but that understanding of restraint means that the doleful violin and distant chime of piano are all the more powerful.
Similarly reflective is Violent and Sad, a melancholic and timeless paean to children growing up in hard environments and I Met A Wolf rounds things off brilliantly, back to their more countrified ways. But as always this isn’t just a pastiche of music made thousands of miles away, culturally unconnected and un-lived but instead drips with their trademark musical machinations. I hate the term British-Americana and this final track just hits the point home. This isn’t a group of people tipping their hat to music from another country, if they are it is only the slightest of nods. This is a sound that is much more than mere nostalgia or reverence, this is the sum of every band that lead to the formation of TMTMS, every late night spent listening to records, every conversation about music, every gig attended, every cool riff they have ever heard, every stage they have walked upon…it is the sum total of the people who made it.
Music isn’t about what we would like to be, it is who we are and this latest e.p. isn’t merely about the music that floats their boat, it is the wind in its sails, their direction of travel and their final destination all rolled into one.
Regular perusers of this site will know that we are not so hot on covers of songs. They rarely bring anything new to the table and if they try to there is a certain arrogance in thinking that you can take established songs and make them better. Apart from Kirsty McColl’s majestic reworking of Billy Bragg’s iconic A New England, and only then in the extended 12” format ….remember them kids…and the breath of new life that Jeff Buckley gave to Hallelujah, few covers have come close to justifying their existence. The Olsten Brothers Band may just have snuck onto that shortlist.
If the RHCP original was uncharacteristically brooding and intense in place of their usual hi-jinx, art-punk for high school jocks, TOBB takes things even further. Coming at things from a bleak, washed out country vibe this rendering is a blasted, dystopian version of the genre, a gothic cowboy anthem for an apocalyptic America.
Remember when Johnny Cash released his American Recordings and album that took on not only expected outlaw country selections but the likes of Nick Lowe and Glen Danzig too…this version of Otherside fits right into that mentality. Dark, spacious, majestic and ultimately eerily terrifying. How great is that?
Along The Road follows in some classic musical footsteps. The blend of smooth country tones, deft and dexterous blues licks and just the gentlest of rock muscle to push everything along and bands like The Eagles and CSN spring to mind. Throw in subject matter that circles timeless rather than contemporary issues and music which tips its hat reverentially to the past as much as it dances to the tune of its own age, conjuring the likes of The Band or CCR, and you have the perfect package.
I may have over played the references somewhat and I don’t want to give the impression that this is some pastiche of times long gone, for Along The Road is anything but that, it is just as confident in where it is going as to where it comes from. Along The Road She Comes is a gorgeous alt-country groove employing staccato dynamics, swelling Hammonds and a wonderful optimism and The River is a swirling, shimming slice of escapist southern blues.
It’s a great collection of songs, delivering a lot of familiar sounds but proving that those genres have glorious futures ahead of them. As does Dirk Schwenk.
Anyone who opens their album with a Spaghetti Western theme medley is not only laying out a pretty clear statement of intent (if the band name and album cover hadn’t already done that) but is playing right into my musical comfort zone. From there they proceed to punk up Tex-Mex, give country music a rock and roll kick up the butt, mix garage rock with cowboy cool and take blues on a sultry ride south of the border accompanied by the good, the bad and the seriously groovy.
Rather than find new places for country music to explore, The Mezcaltones instead reunite it with old musical friends, wander back through roots routes mixing and matching the sounds of the south and beyond. The resonant riffs of songs like Short Change Hero seem to blend our Hollywood views of the old west with 50’s rock and roll, Howlin’ at the Moon plays with big blues-rock dynamics and I Know My Rider is pure southern alt-rock.
It’s a great, escapist, white knuckle ride, a sound track to a vision of America which never existed. But like a wise man once said, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend…and then write it an amazing sound track!
Marianne Nowottny does a very interesting thing on Wagon Wheel and walks a fine artistic line between the familiar and the fresh as she takes a sort of established, country template and subjects it to a touch of avant gardening. It’s a bit like looking at something from a distance and understanding its overall shape and nature but then being surprised on closer inspection as to what it is actually made of. For Wagon Wheel sounds like a long lost, old-time music hall country tune but it is built from as many strange sonic pieces as it is expected sounds.
Steel guitars soothe and soar, banjos pluck hypnotically but the constant kick drum echoes contemporary dance beats, there is musical detail provided by unexpected electronica and the way the snare comes and goes as it walks its wonderfully wonky path creates another unexpectedly new element. There is more than a hint of this being a country record made by someone who doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the genre, someone exploring its ideas but doing so from a distance. In fact, musically it sounds to me like Violent Femmes had they thrown more country sounds into their mix…well, sort of. The great thing about this track is that it is hard to find useful handles and labels to describe it, and that is always a good thing.
All of this makes a lot more sense when you realise that Nowottny is a musical magpie, someone able to flit through genres taking what she loves as the ingredients for her music, which has included everything from jazz, blues, pop, avant-rock—and even classical Chinese and Indian music. It is obvious, therefore, that the established rules are only there as a guideline of what to avoid, to help her to swerve away from the mainstream pack and head off to paint her own musical landscapes.
It’s music that seems to be one thing but upon closer inspection is something else entirely, music that reveals more and more upon every play as you try to work out how she has forged all of these odd musical approaches and strange modus operandi into something that, from a distance at least, sounds so familiar. I guess that’s how subversiveness works best. Very clever indeed.
Having supported St. Paul & The Broken Bones at the O2 Forum in London and other UK dates in early 2017, Vancouver based blues/Americana duo The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer returned in September playing their own shows to coincide with the UK release of current album ‘Apocalipstick’.
This was followed in early 2018 by a new, non-album single entitled ‘Hard On Things’, a classy, retro slab of R&B, blues, soul and rock.
The band’s appearance at The Louisiana will be their third visit to Bristol and signals the start of the fourth annual River Town Festival in the city. Other shows will include sets by stars including Graham Nash, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Josh Rouse.
In many ways the idea of masculinity and the male role in modern society is undergoing a lot of examination and reevaluation. As women edge closer in the direction of equality, though I am by know means saying that they are anything like close yet, what it means to be a man today is something which a lot of people are thinking about. The archaic and stereotypical roles that have been the accepted norms for millennia are blurring and crossing into each other and just as women are having to redefine what it is they can be in todays society, so are men. And this is the theme that lies at the heart of The Limits of Men.
This is Nicholas Merz’s debut album, though he has released six with Seattle’s Darto, but it is an album that has been slowly forming in his mind all the while, since his teens. As the son of country band players he admits that he has had an odd relationship with the genre, both put off by the image and the attitudes of many to be found in its orbit but secretly drawn to it sonically. And whilst you wouldn’t call this a country record in the strictest sense, there is an undeniably countryfied heart beating at its core.
But this is tempered by many other factors, a starkness and introspection, a dark folkiness and a delivery that owes as much to Nick Cave as it does to the more expected man in black, Johnny Cash. Bulled Rose is a raw, heartfelt examination of men being born into traditional physical roles, all pent up energy and violins that seem to saw through the track at right angles and Neon Figures is a hypnotic, off kilter, waltz. The Great American Tale is an examination of the racial devisions still found at the sharp end of American life, a song that seems to be built of claustrophobia and gathering storm clouds as much as it is beat and chords whilst Fashion deals with other forms of division and cultural expectations.
If ever there was a time when music and musicians should join the political, social and cultural conversation it is now. In the past movements such as folk music, hip-hop, punk and grunge have risen out of the dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement of certain sectors of society yet as the world seems heading down a dark route once again it seems only to have given us conformity and obedience via TV music contests and reality shows. Thankfully Nicholas Merz gives us much to mull over whilst listening to his often dark, deft and dulcet tunes.
Cowboy Junkies will release All That Reckoning, the band’s first new recording since The Wilderness (2012) on July 13, 2018 via Proper Records.
Whether commenting on the fragile state of the world or on personal relationships, this new collection of songs encourages the listener to take notice. It also may be the most powerful album Cowboy Junkies have yet recorded.
Their now classic album, The Trinity Session celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. On its release in 1988, it was like a whisper that cut through the noise and Cowboy Junkies proved that there was an audience waiting for something quiet, beautiful and reflective, selling more than a million copies. For over 30 years, Cowboy Junkies have remained true to their unique vision, creating a critically acclaimed body of work that has endeared them to an audience unwavering in its loyalty.
In addition to The Trinity Session, albums like Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993), Lay It Down (1996) and more recently, Open (2001), and At the End of Paths Taken (2007) chronicle a creative journey reflecting the independent road the band has elected to travel.
Cowboy Junkies will make a very welcome return to the UK for live dates in November as follows:
Nov 9 Glasgow, Mitchell Theatre
Nov 10 Manchester, RNCM
Nov 11 London, The Bridge
I’ve been listening to this album on and off for the last week trying to formulate a way of starting off this review but never really feeling like I have enough information to give a review befitting what occurs within the 10+ tracks of this collection of songs from Swindon’s ‘grown-up Country’ specialists, so I find myself returning to the album to try and kick my ears into instructing my hands what to write.
And it’s proving difficult.
I think maybe the best place to start is with the warning; don’t get comfortable. This is not a generic album by any means and is happy to make you tap your feet and slap your thighs as it is in giving you a dizzying moment of “well where the hell are we going now!?”.
I’ve made no secret in previous reviews that I like opening tracks and this album’s opener starts in moody, Sergio Leone territory, a land of squawking buzzards overhead, dusty plains, creaking salon doors and a lone church bell ringing, it’s quite cinematic, it’s dramatic and you settle down for a dip into country music but no, this isn’t that kind of a show cowboy, after 35-40 secs we’re replacing that atmosphere with a bouncy opening track called ‘Let It Go’ which almost acts as a piece of advice because if you had any preconceptions about what to expect from this band, forget it, let it go because what you can expect – other than well written songs and more than a nod to the macabre – is the unexpected.
Tread carefully because this path isn’t familiar to most.
The music runs a deftly course between the dark ‘deal-with-the-Devil’ country music through the blues of the whiskey joints of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana where ghosts sit on the shoulders of wandering strangers, into rock and maybe even a little indie-rock. It wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and the songs are songs of regret, often loneliness but definitely of experience the running order of the songs at times feels like they are going through certain emotions from loss (in Let it Go, Thrown Away, Water) to acceptance (Born to Walk Alone) to resolve (in Pheonix, I Curse Your Name and the demented but crowd roaring Black Sheep Apprentice) and they are all delivered with a voice sounding closer to Geddy Lee of Rush than the storytelling voice of Johnny Cash. Another leftfield twist.
I would have liked to have heard more growl on the bass at times and a few of the songs could have been shaved here and there but one man’s snack is another man’s feast and this is a big album, an album that gives you a lot of bang for your buck and doesn’t skimp on what’s included, which seems to be the band’s heart, blood, sweat, tears and balls!
After hearing what the band can do I’ll be catching them live very soon, there seems to be energy in spades on offer here that can only be best experienced live, so give the album a listen and catch a gig or two.
Trent Miller is a great example of why the various tribal demarcations found in music, its generic barriers, its tribal affinities, its journalistic pigeon-holing and listener driven expectations, are all attitudes that thankfully are receding into the past. For whilst it is easy to hear the references to outlaw and fringe country heroes of the past, the ghost of Townes Van Zandt particularly floats between his notes and guides his pen, this is no country by numbers, no revisionist exercise or past pastiche. It may beat with a country heart but the classical sweeps and brooding cellos, the chiming, jangling psych-pop guitars and the brooding tones nail Time Between Us’s myriad colours to the mast just as readily as the more expected lilting rootsy sound and the inherent melancholy.
Days in Winter is an upbeat, Americana-infused gem, but one that seems to lend itself as much to the pen of Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello as it does to the traditional country sound and After The Great Betrayal (he does know how to chose a good title) shimmers with gentle post-punk vibes. At the other extreme the dark and dulcet tones of Motel Rooms of Ocean Blue (see, I told you) and stark minimalism Bonfires of Navarino Road (ditto) provide the more expected late night, introspective vibes, but still blending as much Old World restraint as it does New World tradition.
How Soon is Never is a brilliantly smooth roots meets chamber pop ballad, the sort of thing that Bryan Ferry would have scored a big hit with back in the day had his solo career veered away from the lounge bar schmooze and headed down a dustier heartworn highway. There is much speculation of what British-Americana is, ignoring the fact that Trent is actually from the vicinity of Turin anyway, but this seems too restrictive a term for what he does here, where weaves of folk, new-wave, chamber pop, retro-rock and even gothic undertones form the warp to the countrified and rootsy weft. Like all of the best music Time Between Us and the man behind it defies easy categorisation and that is the way I want him to stay.
The title may suggest some sort of raggle-taggle, clattering country infused bluegrass, but Billy Roberts and his musical posse are in much slicker territory that it might first suggest. Well, I say slicker, all things are relative, and he has always come from a rough and tumble, bar band sort of place rather than the over-produced rhinestone Music City sound anyway. All I’m saying is The Grand Ole Opry this is not. Though there is a lot of the American South going on here, made all the more ironic considering the bands actual geographic base of operations, but anyone coming at this track, and indeed any of their music, without such prior knowledge would certainly place them south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Hillbilly Blues sounds like Tom Petty and Steve Earle driving along the I-40 singing Rainmakers’ songs, okay that is a bit simplistic but it has the same drive and accessibility, the same groove and grind, the same mix of utter commerciality and hidden gem status, and those horns just add something brilliantly quintessentially of that continent, something drawn from the blues-jazz hinterland of the American dream. But unlike the American dream, this is not a song of aspiration and hope, but a wonderfully self-deprecating take on the trials and tribulations of trying to pay the bills as a guitar-slinger. But then again country music has always been great at lamenting its own demise, but the charm here is that the song is never maudlin or melancholic, more about standing defiant in the face of the storm.
And the result is probably the most immediate and infectious song to come out of the man’s creative clutches so far and considering the standards he has already set, that is high praise indeed. As always stalwart Rough Riders Alex Quinn and Rory Racione do a sterling job, the former laying down some wailing guitar lines and slinky solos whilst the man at the back powers the song across the line with some tasteful and well tailored, driving beats. Maybe it takes an outsider to really cut through the musical complacency and well-guarded traditions of the country rock sound…listen to Hillbilly Blues and you realise that there is no maybe about it.
I remember Joshua Ketchmark’s last single, 17, very well. Firstly because it was the last review I wrote before shutting things down for Christmas. Secondly because it dripped with a real Neil Young vibe. But mainly because it was a cracker of a song, one that understood its place on the singer-songwriter timeline whilst helping to take that style forward into the bright new future. Her Voice in My Head grooves on a more countrified feel, but one invested with a slice of rock muscle sailing it closer to an early Ryan Adams feel. How does this guy keep referencing all my favourite artists but still sound like his own man?
Her Voice In My Head is the perfect follow up to 17, and it proves that Ketchmark really has the acoustic rock, singer-songwriter thing sorted. After all, anyone can sing, anyone can write songs, but the term is more than the sum of its parts. In the case of Joshua Ketchmark much, much more than the sum of its parts.
As someone who has visited the country mainly through its music and media, She Can Flow sounds like nothing less than America’s beating heart. And to be fair it is probably an America that never existed outside its road movies, TV adverts, beat legacy, literature and other rose tinted nostalgia, but in my mind it is what America should sound like. There is something in the songs musical soul which makes it quintessentially of that place but when and where is something that is harder to but your finger on.
It mixes lilting country rhythms, folky deliveries, a ragged bluesy beat, a funky, soulful groove and even after fitting all of those traits together manages to retain an immediacy and infectiousness that is normally only found in classic pop writing. It draws a line between 60’s coffee shops and modern country-pop crossovers, timeless porch jam sessions and 70’s Austin cosmic cowboy gigs, European folk and New World acoustic blues. In fact there isn’t much in the discerning musical world that it doesn’t touch upon and if there are genres that it doesn’t concern itself with, then you shouldn’t worry about them either.
The wonderfully named Two Man Travelling Medicine Show wander some long forgotten music byways. You find them exploring dusty paths that result in some archaic and awesome blends of punked up bluegrass, sideways Americana and European gypsy folk to create a new form of world music. It is the sound of a culture which never existed but if it had would have been found at the point where the Mason-Dixon Line runs along the M4 Corridor. Just about where Memphis and Membury Services touch.
This time out they seem to also take in a strange alt-ragtime musical hall jazz to compliment their already eclectic weaves of raw and raucous rootsy rhythms, frantic folk frolics and blustery and buoyant blues. Hey, I’d forgotten just how much fun alliteration was. A Snake’s a Snake is a rant about honesty and ethics and like all great songs has a chorus that you will have down pat by the time it comes around for the second go. Throw into that some groovesome beats, layers of strange musical detail and detailed musical strangeness…banjo, accordion, fiddle and any number of wheezing and wonky sound textures adding musical hues and sonic cries, and you have the perfect party tune of the decade. Not this decade obviously, probably more like the 1890’s before Simon Cowell, electronic instruments and Hoagy Carmichael came along and ruined everything.
Dancing with the Beast, the new album from Gretchen Peters, puts female characters at the fore, from teenage girls to old women. And intentionally so. With the 2017 Women’s March and the #MeToo Movement as bookends to her writing time, Peters knew that a feminist perspective would be the critical core of the record.
She admits, “You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to ‘Independence Day’ and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and center.” Though Peters doesn’t consider herself a political writer, she is politically minded and, therefore, knew she had to address the 2016 election and all that has happened since… but in her own way.
There’s a bittersweet beauty to the passing of time — the changes it brings are just as often heartbreaking as they are heartwarming. The inevitable tension that arises from that sway is Gretchen Peters’ most trusted muse. With melody supporting that melancholy, the songs on the new album combine to lift the effort over the high artistic bar set by her last outing, 2015’s award-winning Blackbirds.
If good things come to he who waits then this first full album from Black Sheep Apprentice is proof that the longer you wait the ..err..gooder those things are. Richard Skidmore has guided his musical vehicle through many line-up changes and all the usual highs and lows of band life to a point where the dark stars that seem to hang in the sky above him finally aligned and Born To Walk alone became a reality. It may have taken a while but it has certainly been worth the wait.
Over the year’s Black Sheep Apprentice has evolved from a punked up country band, a sort of blend of The Clash and the Cash…Johnny that is, to a more nuanced vision of gothic Americana, Morricone-esque high drama, and low slung country-blues. Even at a time where alt-country is all over the US zeitgeist and its British-Americana sister sound is flavour of the month on this side of the pond, Born To Walk Alone might be built of recognisable generic strands but the way it is put together still creates a very original take on things.
Even within the countrified confines of their chosen path there is wonderful variation here. Water is a soulful gospel piece enhanced by the resonant rasp of Pete Cousin’s guest vocals whilst Phoenix tips it’s hat to the more driven country rock’n’roll sound that the band were conceived in. The title track with its smoother edges and orchestral sweeps has more than a touch of Neil Diamond about it, if he had eschewed the slick stadium path to play biker bars and truck stops in East Texas and the band’s titular song might be renamed Psychosis and Insanity : The Musical!
Fans of country will love the album’s traditional heart, rock fans the muscle, punks the rawness and more mainstream pop pickers the accessibility and infectiousness. It is raw yet soulful, textured yet direct, cinematic yet punchy…in fact it is hard to think of a music consumer who won’t get a kick out of this album.
Country music has a habit of taking itself a bit seriously, all those over-earnest, brooding acoustic guitar slingers singing of unrequited love, darker times and driving off into the sunset. And that’s fine, there is obviously a market for such a style. Rock music is often troubled with testosterone fuelled cliche, though which is less easy to defend. Blues often gets a bad name from stadium level guys in suits and shades removing every ounce of passion and pain from the genre in the name of money and fame…ironically the total opposite of the place from which blues speaks.
So if you cut all of those rotten cores out of the aforementioned generic apples and gather all the good bits that remain, you pretty much have the basic ingredients that Neil Gregory Johnson fashions his music from and Extended Play Catalogue Vol 1 is a lesson to anyone working in roots music today in vibrant and honest songwriting.
Kicking off with the joyous Three Days on The Wagon, the perfect blend of exactly the genre splicing I have just described, the song proves to be a great calling card for what is to follow. This opening salvo blends country swagger, blues sass and rock muscle, it grooves and grinds, bounces and boogies and the wailing train whistle harmonica is the perfect icing on the cake. From there we move through the move countrified, line-dancable beats of I Want To Drink a Beer With You, a celebration to wasting time in good company. Pure blues is served up with Loving and Leaving, a timeless piece that could fit into a set list any time from the late sixties onwards and Well Kept is slow country blues that fits effortlessly into both camps.
This is an album that could only have been made by someone who isn’t that beholdened to one genre or another, someone broad minded enough to realise that its all just music. It draws lines between the Austin blues bars of today and the cosmic cowboy scene of the early 70’s, between the Southern Rock of yesteryear and the modern alt-country of today, between Chicago blues bars and the freewheelin’ scene of his North Western home. It is rootless and out of time, it references rather than rehashes, tips its hat rather than plagiarises and although much is surely familiar, it is better described as truly original music forged from classic sounds.
More than anything else Extended Play Catalogue Vol 1 is a collection of songs for the everyday and the working man, the realities of life and its loves, loss and longing but also its beauty and celebration. It may come from a personal place but every word and sentiment found here is totally relatable to the listening public at large. This maybe the sound track to Johnson’s life, but in many ways it is the sound track to all our lives. Never has an ordinary life had a score so glorious.
Listen to and buy the album HERE
This first outing in a planned trilogy of albums under the arching title of the “Texas Series” is a masterfully understated slice of rootsy, country acoustica or as the artist himself refers to it Freestyle folk. The songs found within has a wonderfully DIY quality, in part due to the sparse nature of the music, which in turn creates a finish akin to a gentle jam session or a well delivered busk. And just to qualify that statement, that is in no way a comment on production, more on the deft editing and spatial awareness of the song writing in the first place.
And if your impression of Texas music is defined by Southern Rock’s face melting guitar work or campfire cowboy songs, remember that this is the state where the conservative country set united with the liberal hippies in the 70’s to embrace the cosmic country scene as the likes of Nelson, Sahm and Jennings grew their hair and dropped out. There are moments when Texas Paintbrush feels like the musical progeny of those times, a sort of blend of Bob Dylan and outlaw country or reminiscent of Townes Van Zante’s alt-country groove. Though of course that was years before we needed such terms to pigeon-hole things.
I Don’t Want to Go Home throws some deft and delicate electric guitar motifs around whilst Canyon Hymn would be just as at home in a back room folk club in rural Oxfordshire on the other side of the Atlantic. Where The Wind Blows is a funky little number that seems to lilt along like the tumble weeds it evokes and Misty is a suitably soulful ballad.
Texas Paintbrush is one of those albums where the music seems at most to evoke rather than force ideas, where it is used to create fragile bubbles around emotions and atmospheres, rather than feel the need to fill in all the gaps. And as the first part of a triptych of counter-culture inspired, alternative roots music, I can’t wait to see what the next instalment brings.