Forget, “you had me at hello, “ this latest musical jaunt from TTMTMS had me at the cover illustration, one seemingly taken from an Edward Lear publication. Not that it says much about the music itself but it does tell me something about the way they think and the things they find amusing. Truth be told, they had me before that. They had me at Tightropin’ that most English of romps through the most American of sounds. And that is really the essence of the band, the ability to liberally plunder the best bits of state-side roots history, porch band culture and cowboy campfire jams but then drive a spike through the centre that is shaped like English folk tradition and quirky humour. Many can folk but few frolic so wonderfully and so brilliantly revelling in this country’s quintessential qualities.
Monkfish make music as a soundtrack for a time and place that never really existed. It is one part The Old South, one part David Lynch soundtrack and one part dystopian future. A blend of what was, what is and what might be. And if the physical time and place that they cloak themselves in is a dark and mercurial one it is only because it mirrors the sonic landscapes that they build, more than the sum of its parts perhaps but some of those parts clearly falling into alt-country, rock and folk genres. But as always it is how you blend those familiar sounds together and more importantly what mortar you use as to hold it all together that makes you stand apart from the pack.
I think it’s fair to say, without the risk of sounding sexist, that the album currently playing on my stereo is one written by a female and largely intended for a female audience. It’s true that within most arenas of creativity, be it books, films, television shows or music that if you can capture the female audience, you’ve got a hit. We all remember the fuss surrounding the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ books, and ‘The Greatest Showman’, a film released quite recently, panned by critics but audiences loved it.
As we approach the end of the year, releases for 2019 start coming thick and fast, the Christmas songs slowly get tucked up tightly into their boxes for forced hibernation until next winter and thoughts of spring and the new year come along. At the start of February American duo Mandolin Orange release their sixth album and if you like harmonised vocals, thoughtful lyrics, fantastic musicianship and things a bit country, look no further, Mandolin Orange may well be your next favourite band.
It’s pretty clear from the ‘man and his guitar’ front cover that this is a song centred around the sound of a six string and the male voice, but it’s no Bob Dylan or James Taylor, this is Americana with a dash of bluegrass and gospel to go along with it.
The idea of a travelling musician is one of romance and adventure, of endless experiences from visiting new towns, meeting new people, writing new songs and then moving on for the next instalment of adventure.
Columbia Records will release the ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ soundtrack album on 14th December, featuring the songs and stories from Tony Award winner Bruce Springsteen’s historic 236-show run at Jujamcyn’s Walter Kerr Theatre. Consisting of the complete audio from the upcoming ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ Netflix release, the soundtrack album will be available on 4 LPs or 2 CDs as well as a digital download and on streaming services.
No video for this one, just a slice of emotive and minimal Americana from one of the best bands on the UK roots circuit. Case Hardin have been slowly building a strong following through energetic and heart-felt live shows and some finely crafted songs.
This mellow moment comes from the album PM, but you can pick any album and find the same array of great songs and deft playing and catch them live and you are in for even more of a treat.
The Krickets make music at a point where the Old World mets the New, where European folk meets country music, where Americana meets ethereality, where heaven bound harmonies join with traditional sounds and where delicacy meets drive. They work with familiar forms for sure but as always it “ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” And boy, the way that they do it is mesmerising. They call their deft musical blend “swamp-folk” and whilst it does sometimes run along the sultry and primal lines that such a name infers, it feels slightly self-self-deprecating for such rich and glorious music. Their previous release, Spanish Moss Sirens may have been closer to such a label but RedBird is built of more delicate and intricate stuff and the result is a rather elegant Americana sound.
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.
Much has been written of the music lore of the Mississippi Delta. Less so The Thames Delta, an equally mercurial and mythical place and one that seems to have a strange ability to draw itinerant musicians from all over the old world and the new to its colder, murky environs. Musicians such as Bob Collum, who hails from Tulsa but who has called the Essex hinterland home for many years now. It is to be expected I guess. Take a age old global port add the influx of cultural music that goes with such industry, not to mention a thriving folk circuit and a home grown pub scene which re-invented American rock and blues for the pre-punk UK market and the seeds for a sort of global Americana musical garden were not only sown but have been constantly well watered.
On an increasingly packed shelf of roots music stands an artist who is quietly going about his business, blending and blurring the lines between country, folk and blues and playing shows all over the place, and picking up friends and followers as he goes.
If you’re a follower of Mark Harrison, or keep an eye on roots music in general, I won’t be telling you anything new here, you’ve already had the scoop and it’s I who is the late comer, but for those who stumble upon the cd cover and think “that looks interesting” or have heard his music on Radio 2 or perhaps wandered past an acoustic stage at a festival and heard a song or two by him, read on…
The Panoramic View is Mark’s sixth album and is a wonderful dip into nostalgia, these songs could have been written sixty years ago but the great success is how these songs also feel and sound contemporary. The opening track title, ‘One Small Suitcase’, sums up the feeling of the album in three words, these are songs to accompany a railroad trip, sat on an old wooden crate, passing the fields of Idaho, watching the miles and hours drift by with nothing but the stories and imagery that Harrison effortlessly seems to conjure.
Harrison encourages the listener to go on the journey, pack that small suitcase, get on board that train and visit the father surrounded by children, the heart broken man wronged by his woman, the legendary railroad worker and the man living on a farm scratching a living and trying to avoid temptation and passing on his words of wisdom to the upcoming generation. I guess this is a metaphor for what Harrison is trying to do, a blues man at heart, he is repeating and retelling the music of the blues, so it can hopefully find a home among the pop tunes and short-lived celebrity acts. But if you’re hoping for screaming guitar solos, look elsewhere because this is subtle story telling that clings on by it’s nails long after the song has finished.
There are acoustic songs like ‘House Full of Children’, ‘Ragged’ and ‘John The Chinaman’ but there is a growly earthy centre that is found in the superb ‘Hooker’s Song’. Obviously none of this can be done alone, Harrison surrounds himself with some fine musicians, bringing the different tones to life with ease. One thing that particularly stood out was the brass work of Paul Tkachenko, hearing a tuba being played on any record puts me in mind of the silver bands of Northern England, yet hearing it here, on an album so obviously American-inspired allows these stories to feel more relevant to me somehow.
So, like I said earlier, if you have heard Mark Harrison before, I’m probably telling you nothing new here, the songs are good, the music is good and this is what you’ve come to expect from a musician writing and delivering this level of music, but if this is your first visit, you’re in for a treat.
Although it seems that summer may have only just disappeared and we have all the Autumnal delights to get through yet, plans are already being made for the Christmas holiday season. Katie Garibaldi may be the first Christmas song to land on the review pile but I think it is going to take some beating. As part of her Home Sweet Christmas album Safe and Warm mixes her already well established roots credentials with more devotional gospel vibes the result is the perfect match of seasonal and timeless.
Whilst many will be releasing songs which are either dry and formulaic or silly and sentimental, Garibaldi mixes the right about of delicacy and grace with clever sonic choices and deft composition. The layered harmonies are exquisite, the space in the song allows her own soft but effective main vocal to have room to soar, with the instrumentation only framing and embroidering the song rather than driving it any more than is necessary.
A seasonal song that you can play all year round? Absolutely!
Frank Sinatra once said “it’s not the song it’s the singer” and if singers are your thing you should definitely listen to the growly voice of North Carolina native Malcolm Holcombe.
With a voice like a canoe being dragged across the pavement his earthy, world-weary words turn these country songs into fables and brings a wisdom that only comes with age. He’s surrounded himself with some very good musicians and a female vocalist in Iris DeMent who brings a softer, light voice to act as the Ying to his Yang and compliments his gruff voice perfectly.
What I’m learning about American roots music is, like blues and folk, it isn’t simply a reflection of its surroundings, but also acts as a lesson of its landscape, it’s people and it’s history and you can feel this history and legacy drip from the music here.
The songs are more like stories set to music with Holcombe addressing the listener like a small town preacher addressing his flock, this isn’t music about quarterbacks on prom night or even Stetson-wearing cowboys, this is the dark nights under the stars, pine forests on the trail and fur-trappers battling the elements.
If you like your country music performed by a frontier troubadour with grit in his voice and fire in the belly, this is for you.
The first thing that jumps out from Kat Danser’s new album is how familiar it feels, you’re in the company of someone that knows exactly what they are doing, this isn’t to say there is nothing new here or it feels tired, (there is certainly a knowledge and love for this style of music that sits proudly on top of blues, country, skiffle and rock n roll) but you immediately feel in safe hands.
It’s a ten-track journey through America’s musical heritage with a feeling that you’re either sitting in the back of the tour bus or travelling on a rickety train that eats up the miles while the songs – like the stations – come and go.
It’s no surprise that Kat lives and breathes this style of music, the authenticity in which the songs are presented reflects her knowledge of the genre/s (she has a PhD in Ethnomusicology so to say she knows her stuff would be an understatement). But does knowledge equate to a good record? In this case yes, her vocals lie somewhere between the jazz rasp of Diane Krall and 80’s singer Tanita Tikaram, this isn’t the poppy country voice of Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift, Kat’s voice has a bass-y, bluesy quality that spring her descriptive, story-teller lyrics into life.
The album plays out like a guided tour of America’s southern states, Kansas and Memphis are mentioned in track names and there is a definite vibe of travel throughout the album. She dips into the sweaty, smoky blues with ease and it’s clear she is trying to recreate the sound and feel of the Delta blues players like Robert Johnson and Skip James but the problem with trying to authentically recreate the feel and sound of a music that is so ingrained into a certain part of the world as it’s people, history and geography is that in keeping that sound if can become limiting in what can be achieved. One step either side from the recognisable sound and you wander off into another genre. One way around this, and what is done so well here, is to bring in very good musicians that can subtly smudgethe rule book and breath new life into the tracks.
A special mention should go to harmonica and sax player Jim Hoke who not only plays some well-fitting harmonica but also some deftly placed sax, it adds a new character to the usual suspects of a blues band.
This album has been spinning around my cd player for a few days and it doesn’t show any sign of being ejected any time soon, so if you want to listen to some grown-up, educated blues and country music that will make your foot move and possibly make you think about a trip to America’s deep south then you could do much worse than giving this a try.
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.
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.
The art of pinning down a band in just a few generic descriptions or a handy soundbite is the stock-in-trade of the music reviewer but I have to admit that it will take a better man than me to concisely pin down Big Merino. It isn’t that the album Suburban Wildlife is rudderless or eclectic, it is anything but, the songs hang wonderfully together, always feel the product of the same band and part of the same album. It’s just that so many styles and genres, past echos and future portents fall under their gaze under across this 10 track selection that they cover a lot of ground. There are not to many modern bands given to such stylistic rampaging across the genres and you have to look back at bands such as 10CC for a comparable approach regarding their musical scope.
How Can You Be So Sure is a bluesy gospel work-out, Turn This Boat Around heads into sun-kissed reggae climes and Black Water rocks like a good ’un. When they kick back they fall effortlessly into accessible Americana and smooth, well rounded folk and when they want to make an impression anthem ready blues and rock salvos are their go to modus operandi.
It’s probably a cliche bordering on college journalism to say things like, there is something for everyone or that they cover all the musical bases but until I find a way of tying down their mercurial and exploratory approach then I’m afraid you will have to put up with such phrases.
Shoes combines everything I love about music. It’s all very well for perky pop princesses and production line indie kids with complicated hair to pose and preen, throw around instantly forgettable day-glo tunes and play the commercial game, but I think that they are missing a trick, missing the whole point of making music. Music has its finest moments when it is being dark and sexy, has something to say and someone to seduce, when it shines a light on the seedier and more complicated things in life and Shoes does all that and more.
A slinky, jazz-infused, bluesy-Americana sound beats at the core, violins deliver some ethereal, almost classical lines, pianos shimmer and chime and a saxophone, scientifically proven to be the most sexy, sassy and sultry instrument ever envisaged, oozes through the gaps. And if that wasn’t enough there is real lyrical depth here, flitting across scenes and scenarios, posing questions, seeking salvation, freely mixing the profane and the profound in the same sort of way that Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen would paint literary pictures. Only less weird that the former and less up tight than the latter.
It covers a lot of ground that’s for sure, 4 minutes of this and you will feel like you have lived, loved, longed for and lost enough for a life time.
What generic pigeon-hole you drop David Arn’s latest release into really depends upon which texture of the music you hear first. Pick up on the guitar work and you might think you are heading into countrified territory, the hazy harmony vocals suggest dream-pop soundscapes, the groove some sort of ambient electronica, the delivery a sort of soulful rock and the vocals, piano and exquisite riffing gives an alternative blues vibe. But then again, this is 2018, we are beyond such labels surely?
So, Someday The Record Might Show is a strange and wonderful blend of genres, which is great, that’s how music evolves, without such artists we would be stuck in the past, and I’ve been there, it wasn’t all that – believe me.
There is an art to making music which seems to buzz with contemporary vibes yet echos with the sounds of the past but that is exactly the mix that David Arn manages to bring to this song. In an era where pop music, because this is pop, albeit heavily infused with the hall marks of Americana, as much as it is folk or acoustic rock or blues or anything else, seems to ever more be seeking to re-invent the tools that it uses to make its sound, here is something different.
Because not only is it music forged from traditional sounds, musical snap shots and sound bites which we all have in our existing record collections, those sonic building blocks are fashioned into something new, forward-thinking, fresh and exploratory. It’s basic elements might be totally familiar yet this is as fun and funky as anything else you will find doing the rounds today.
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.
Molly Kruse has that classic Americana sound, it is hard to pin down musically in anything other than a general sense but geographically it is the cultural pulse of that great nation. Tilt your head one way and it is a classic soul number, the other and you catch a lilting country vibe, step back a bit and it is an uptown pop-jazz number from the classiest of clubs, move nearer and it is a cool, modern R&B piece.
As someone who hasn’t travelled as much of the world as I would like, who explores a lot of the world through it’s music and everything that it evokes, Molly Kruse sounds like nothing less than America’s beating heart. And to be fair it is probably an America that never existed outside it’s road movies, TV adverts, beat legacy, literature and other rose tinted nostalgia, but in my mind it is what America should sound like. Away from the celebrity spotlight of what we laughingly call the music industry, disposable pop with it’s bland shopping mall beat and faceless landfill indie – all complicated hair and scenester regulations – Ms. Kruse offers us something real, something authentic, something that you won’t look at in ten years time and wonder “what was I thinking!” Molly Kruse is not only the real deal, she is the real deal made over for the modern audience. Perfect.
Anyone with half a good ear would place Flood County fair and square in the country oeuvre, but genres are tricky things to get to grips with. Either they are so vague as to be next to useless, or, and yes metallers I am looking at you, they are so precise and convoluted as to only neatly relate to one or two bands. Country music definitely falls into the former category. So this is country, but it is what gets threaded through We’ll Be Fine that we need to talk about, the deft musicality which personalise it, the clever sonic choices which make it stand apart from the rest of the rhinestoned, pick-up truckin’ line dancing lesser mortals.
For whilst it is an album which has a country core and even elements that will find favour with the Music City purists, this is an album, and indeed a band, who don’t follow the rules, at least not to the letter, and therefore don’t fall for the cliches. By and large theirs is a soothing and soulful take on the genre, restrained and delicate and the gently sweeping violins and lilting banjo’s touch on pastoral bluegrass and bucolic folk as much as they do the traditional country music building blocks.
Songs like Most of The Time, The Road and the title track itself provide confident country grooves but they are balanced by the restraint of The Old Famous Smile and the delicate waltz of World Come Undone. It swings when it choses, it struts when it feels like it but most of all it is a deft and well crafted collection of songs, songs which would rather underplay their musical hand in favour of a softening soulfulness and a wonderful delicacy. Less is indeed more. Much more!
Some of the most interesting music comes out of nowhere, bowls you over, is gracious enough to help you back on your feet and then races off in random directions whilst you are still flicking the dust off of your jeans. The RPM Orchestra is just such a band. Its difficult to describe what they do easily, again another tick against their name, imagine a silent movie score mixed with Balkan folk or lo-fi klezmer film scores crashing into experimental post-punk doing a spot of avant gardening or cutting edge, minimalist classical music performing a piece based around a marching band tuning up. Then through in old-time jazz and Americana undertones. I don’t know, it’s sheer madness, but you know what they say about the fine line between insanity and genius!
But it is good madness, amusing madness, challenging and exploratory madness, like Syd Barrett becoming the conductor of The London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is pointless trying to convey anything specific about what they do, beyond those strange analogies I have struggled with so far. Best you just dip your toes into their strange and exotic waters. You will either love it or hate it, but I bet if you are someone who reads this site regularly, who has a broad musical mind, who understands that music is art and vice versa, then it is more than likely to be the former.
Even if you’ve never heard of Martin Harley before, the words “feat. Jerry Douglas” tagged on to the title of track 2 should set expectations as high as they come before you’ve even broken the seal on the cd packet. I mean, if the great Jerry Douglas is picking up the phone to this guy, there must be something seriously worthwhile going on here, right?
Static In The Wires has been out for nearly a year now, and was launched on the back of a UK tour last Spring. But the good news if you missed that is that there is another UK tour about to get under way, starting in Cambridge on February 19th, stopping off at Bristol on February 28th, and finishing in London on March 10th.
The album itself kicks straight into high gear with the first track being a recipe straight out of the Little Feat / New Orleans cookbook. The aforementioned track two, “Feat Don’t Fail Me” provides not only the title of the upcoming tour, but also a perfect example of the delights and goodies that everyone who still thinks blues is nothing more than three chords crying into stale beer is missing out on!
The rest of the album lives well up to the standards set early on, mixing poignant Americana with folk roots and easy blues, delivered easily and gently by consummate musicians and deft production.
From start to finish, this is a thoroughly listenable album, with engaging songs and equally engaging personality – and that sort of engagement doesn’t come along very often. I am reminded of Kelly Joe Phelps and Tom Waits at several points along the way, and the album stands up well to the comparison.
Tour dates are below – do yourself a huge favour and start the new year off with a musical gift that you will not regret!
Mon 19 Cambridge Cambridge Junction
Tue 20 Norwich Norwich Arts Centre
Wed 21 Derby Guildhall Theatre
Thu 22 Liverpool Liverpool Philharmonic, Music Room
Fri 23 Bury The Met, Derby Hall
Sat 24 Newcastle upon Tyne Cluny 2
Mon 26 Edinburgh Traverse Theatre
Tue 27 Shrewsbury Henry Tudor House
Wed 28 Bristol The Lantern, Colston Hall
Thu 1 Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
Fri 2 Stamford, Lincs. Stamford Arts Centre
Sat 3 Lewes The Con Club
Tue 6 New Milton, Hants. Forest Arts Centre
Wed 7 Falmouth The Poly
Thu 8 Exeter Exeter Phoenix
Fri 9 Street Strode Theatre
Sat 10 London Union Chapel
Just as music should only really fall into two categories, good and bad, so band names also have a similar binary existence. There are some great band names, ones that tell you all you need to know before you have even heard the first note, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Dr Feelgood. Similarly their has been some atrocious ones…Spandau Ballet, Yes, 4 Non Blondes and the ridiculous Does It Offend You Yeah? which is barely even an actual sentence. Faeland sites firmly in the former category, in fact for the music contained within this debut album it is pretty much perfect.
Such a name conjures images of luscious and gentle folk music, music that wanders through the genres traditional themes of love and longing, myth and magic, the existential and the earthly. This Bristolian duo is heir to the likes of Nick Drake and Anne Briggs but theirs is not an exclusively English idyl and the New World sonic threads which also run through the album also evoke people like Joni Mitchell and more modern acts from Bon Iver to the harmonious haze of Sweden’s First Aid Kit.
The simple but effective Prayer Song is a wonderful slice of cosmic Americana, Train wanders down some dusty country tracks and the titular offering is the most wonderful slice of lilting Old World folk. There are nods to the past in The Chantress and To The Green and the wonderfully accessible pop-roots swirl of We’re Just A Love Song shows the way forward as well.
Sometimes keeping it simple makes things more powerful and although the core duo of Rebecca Nelson and Jacob Morrison have surrounded themselves with an impressive cast of musicians, they haven’t lost the art of understatement. As the other players thread majestic harp and emotive clarinet, wandering violin, dark cello washes and much more besides through the songs, each is given space to flourish, explore and gently colour the songs without dominating or showboating.
This is an album of subtleties and understatement, of deftly and lightly woven musical threads and whilst it tips its hat very openly to European folk traditions it is also worldly and often otherworldly. It is probably a bit premature to start compiling top albums of 2018, but ask me again in 12 months time and if this is not way up the list then it will have been an unimaginably spectacular year for music.
Solo albums aren’t always a sign that cracks are beginning to show in the ranks of an established band, more often they are just a way of finding an outlet for music which doesn’t fit into the existing musical journey. The fact that Jeff Crandall invited fellow members of Swallows to help create his solo album whilst they were simultaneously recording the band’s third album across town shows just how harmonious a process it can often be. And if Swallows is a mercurial blend of rootsy Americana, slightly psyched out rock, blasted blues and frenetic folk, the odd thing about this solo album is that whilst Crandall’s building blocks are similar in nature, what he builds with them as J. Briozo is a whole different affair.
It covers a lot of ground, wandering as it does between the breezy pop-blues of The Big Parade, the gentle cosmic beauty of Beautiful Mess, the retro, west coast psychedelia of Sun Sun True, the wide-screen cinematics of Blue and some lovely minimalism with Santa Cruz. It is eclectic for sure, same as the band who spawned this majestic record but where as Swallows tend to be writ larger across their chosen musical landscapes, in this mode the result is more often than not a more considered, understated and subtle affair. They know how to rock out for sure, just check out Spinning Out for some glorious college rock grooves but its finest moments are found in the intricacy and parred down moments, the smaller details and the gentler musical brush strokes of the moody yet reflective opener Blind or the lilting acoustica of Rain Song.
Many of these songs could have been fitted into the Swallows set, but I’m glad that Crandall had the foresight to consider them a separate entity. By doing so under a new moniker, he retained the ability to call all the shots, even whilst working with his regular sonic work mates, and in doing so the songs come with no pre-existing baggage or feel the need to conform to the Swallows template. The result is not only the realisation of an alternative musical vision but an album which stands firmly on its own two feet. It is the strange and thoughtful cousin of Swallows but is destined to have a really interesting journey in its own right.
Groove is more than the sum of its parts and Go Down is the perfect lesson in this fact. Yes, there is enough pop and sass in the bass line, enough swing in the beat and more than enough space between allowing these to pervade and mix perfectly without stepping on each others toes, but it is more than that too. It is the sultry flow, the understated guitars, the southern breeze that flits through (even smarter considering that the band are from Washington DC) and just something that hangs in the air between the notes, beats and lyrics.
Okay, its Americana, in this case a blend of folk and blues, gospel undertones and a suppleness and subtly, eloquence and elegance which only comes together this effortlessly when assembled by those with that country’s blood in its veins and dirt on its boots.
The charm here is Eli Lev’s ability to write concise, memorable rolling riffs, his skill at knowing how to thread the bare minimum together to great effect and create a sound built on sparse beats, spare yet pulsing bass lines and killer vocal deliveries. He also appears to write songs which, without intentionally aiming for the commercial market, are often as addictive, groovesome and rug cuttingly contagious as anything deliberately trying to play that game. Lev just does it at half the speed with a quarter of the beats and a fraction of the notes and still comes out a clear winner.
Never judge a book by a cover and never judge a song by its title. I tentatively pressed play on this expecting a cover of the famous Rogers and Hammerstein number, one that in my country at least is firmly entrenched in football (sorry, soccer) culture. Thankfully what greeted me was a slick and sassy country rock groover, relax, its all going to be okay.
Taken from the album Somebody, Somewhere, Tim Cheesebrow offers a lesson in how these things should be done, a neat blend of alt-country jauntiness, upbeat bluesy rock, squalling slide guitars and sumptuous, gospel inspired backing vocals. In many parts of the world this would be tagged as Americana music, but I guess in his Minneapolis home patch it is probably just termed…well, music. Great music at that.The song’s dynamic is buoyant and filled with the right blend of loose attitude and on the button precision, it takes a confident writer to weave together music which feels so relaxed in its delivery and yet still have everything landing just perfectly.
The more I try to dissect the song, the more I fall in love with its construction, but that isn’t what music is designed for. Forget the soothing and fine-tuned purr coming from under the hood, let’s just open this baby up and see how fast it will go….and then go and hunt down the album!
This album is a product of one of the most noble, useful, and shamefully necessary programmes in place in the USA related to the support of military veterans. Songwriting With Soldiers is a non-profit programme that brings professional songwriters together with wounded vets and active service personnel. The results have been life-changing, even life-saving, for the participants.
The results compiled on this album are also compelling and insightful, but not necessarily easy to listen to. Where some styles of war/protest/aftermath songs describe in the abstract, or are crafted to be accessible and familiar to non-military audiences – think Eric Bogle’s style in, for example, The Green Fields Of France or The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda – the profoundly personal nature of all of the stories here mean that these songs will neither welcome the listener in comfortably nor wash over him as background muzak.
Rather, a little time, attention and investment is required to focus on each of the stories. Be warned; this is not likely to be a comfortable experience.
Whether you consider it to be a rewarding and worthwhile experience will depend largely on your tendency to empathise or to sympathise with, or to get angry about, the plight of the people who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.
The structures and formats of all the songs are essentially simple – given that the songwriters are not professional or experienced, this is no surprise – and so we are in the realms of old-school folk protest song formats throughout. This is not a criticism by any means! Simplicity has always served talented songwriters well, and that simplicity makes these stories accessible – and in the case of highlights like “Bullet Holes In The Sky”, the lack of stylistic distraction makes the song all the more powerful.
This is an important album, as much for the process of its creation as for the potential impact of the content on the listener. If only the power brokers at the root cause of all of these stories – and the tens of thousands of stories like them – would take the time to listen.
Rifles and Rosary beads is out on Proper Records, January 26th